A Snowy Exchange with Environmental Educators

“We need someone to plan the second portion of our three part Instructor Exchange with the graduate students and teaching apprentices from IslandWood and Wilderness Awareness School immediately after winter break.”

 Um, okay.

In less than two months, three novice event planners would host a group of 60 environmental educators at their secluded home in the mountains. What now? Dreams and plans, of course!
This meeting of the minds happened January 14th – 16th at the Environmental Learning Center tucked up in the splendor of the North Cascades National Park. We are lucky to have a landscape here along Diablo Lake that is quite beautiful and unique – our own special place we call home and love to share with others. This was the driving undercurrent behind what we hoped our weekend would be together.

Some friends from IslandWood and Wilderness Awareness School exchange exclamations during a breakout session. Photo by Jess Newley.

In our emails with one another, the Instructor Exchange Team found out that snow was the main thing everyone was looking forward to. This created an immediate problem for us. We hadn’t had snow for many weeks and the campus was a very un-winter-like brown and green. Luckily, Earl (the local weather deity we worship to ensure nice weather) decided to bless us with a dream come true the day before the exchange – SNOW! Participants were cautious and hosts were worried, but all made it safe and sound to their mountainous retreat. To greet our participants, we invited our resident raven Elvis and, as usual, he got greedy and snacked on an unsuspecting victim’s bag of chips! He hung out all day, keeping us company and leaving beautiful tracks in the freshly fallen snow.

A hike in the freshly fallen snow was just what our friends were asking for! Photo by Jess Newley.

And Elvis wasn’t the only one leaving tracks. The next day, we headed out on a few hikes to explore our place and simply be in nature. The air was clear, the snow was fresh, and the mountains were visible in their entirety against a blue sky! Hikers found weasel and squirrel tracks galore, and a few pine marten tracks. One of our Wilderness Awareness School friends, Mink, even had a cougar encounter! She tells it so well, and I will certainly not do it justice here, but the gist of it is this: As she was walking around looking at tracks, both human and non-human, a cougar bounded across the trail right in front of her! That night, a group of us went out and Mink showed us the tracks and exactly where she had been standing. I can only imagine what an experience like that would feel like, but I’m absolutely certain it is an experience Mink will carry with her for a very long time.

The fun did not stop after hours, either. During both nights of the exchange, the lounges were filled with the laughter of good-natured people. That unstructured time was just what we needed to get to know each other and ourselves better.

Event coordinators Kiira and Ashley serving up ice cream after dinner in the dining hall.  Photo by Jess Newley.

Our last day began with a guest appearance by the Skagit District Interpreter for the North Cascades National Park, Andrew Pringle. He talked about partnerships and the mutual benefit they can bring not just to organizations, but to people as well. Sadly, our time with both Islandwood and Wilderness Awareness School educators did have to come to an end. The snow had been coming down all night and was just getting heavier, so we hurried to get people back down valley (although I heard more than one person wish that the highway would close for a few days). We stopped on the way down valley for a brief eagle watching and interpretation excursion on the Skagit River as our last-ditch effort to keep our new friends here. After many hugs and wishes for a safe drive, we said goodbye to the people we had grown so close to in just three short days.
As one of the event planners, I was astounded at how well everything turned out. Everyone had a great time, the wow factor of nature showed up at just the right moments, and we were able to bond with our fellow environmental educators on a level that far surpassed anything I had expected. I cannot wait to head over to Duvall, Washington, to see what Wilderness Awareness School has in store for us in their own special place on this earth.
Leading photo of educators from Wilderness Awareness School and IslandWood as they get ready to start their day in a winter wonderland. Photo by Jess Newley.

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