From the Learning Center to Bellingham: A Grad's Transition Back to the 'Real World'

I knew that when I moved to North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center to begin the residency portion of my Masters in Environmental Education degree, it was going to be an amazing year. I have always wanted to live on a lake in the mountains, so this part of the program was a big draw for me. Unsurprisingly, the year flew by and, before I knew it, summer was drawing to a close and it was time to return to Bellingham for the last two quarters at Western Washington University. But before returning to that more “civilized” and academic sphere, I decided to both symbolically and physically transition away from my amazing year living in the midst of the North Cascades by backpacking from Ross Lake to Bellingham with another grad student and several North Cascades Institute staff.

Map of our route, heading west from Ross Lake to Hannegan Pass Trailhead

We only had four and a half days to make this trek, so we had to cut a few corners:  we took a boat from Ross Lake dam up to Little Beaver Creek, and were then picked up from the Hannegan Pass Trailhead.  If we had been purists, we would have hiked the entire route. However, that would have taken a bit more time than we had. Our roughly forty-five mile, 7500′ gain route, camping at Perry Creek, Tapto Lakes, Copper Creek, and Egg Lake, still gave us long, but breathtakingly beautiful days.

Tapto Lakes, above Whatcom Pass
Icy early morning snow made leaving Tapto Lakes a bit of an adventure.

Typical of any good backpacking trip, we were treated to horrendous biting black flies and many miles of tremendously overgrown trails. We considered them “good” if the brush hitting us in the face was thimble and salmon berry, rather than stinging nettle and blackberry.  Thankfully, at the end of the day, there was always an amazing reward for our trail battles.

Egg Lake at dusk

All summer I had been anticipating the fast-approaching end of my residency on Diablo Lake with apprehension. Although I was ready for a break after working hard all summer, I still was not quite ready to say goodbye to the mountains and become a Bellingham resident again. However, going on this trip allowed me to make the mental and physical transition away from a place and a powerful experience. It could be in part that the flies, a few blisters, and having slept in a tent for 29 nights over the summer made me actually ready to spend some time in “civilization” by the end of this trip. A part of me actually wanted a break from nature, I never thought that would happen. But this trip also gave me time to reflect on the amazing experience I had just had, and what the ensuing six months would be like.

North Cascades Institute staffer Kevin Biggs and I enjoy the views above Egg Lake

Once all of Cohort 10 had returned from our summer breaks, several of us went on another “transition trip,” along with our professor, John Miles, and North Cascades Institute’s graduate program coordinator, Tanya Anderson. We went over to the east side of the Cascades, camping along the Chewuch River, and hiking to the top of Tiffany Mountain. This was the perfect trip, as it allowed us time to debrief and reminisce about our residency experience as a group. Additionally, we had visited Tiffany Mountain almost exactly a year before for our Fall Grad Naturalist Retreat, but had only managed to hike about a mile up the trail, a pitfall when you have twenty naturalists trying to hike somewhere. This time we were more focused on getting to the top, which offered spectacular views of the North Cascades.

View from Tiffany Mountain

Now, having been in Bellingham for a month, I am gradually settling into the patterns of city life and being a student at Western again. I undeniably miss living in the heart of a National Park, waking up to a neighborhood of dense forest and a family of black bears. That said, Bellingham does have its perks, such as the Farmer’s Market. And the family of deer that like to hang out in my yard is a good reminder that nature can be found anywhere. Additionally, having the rest of my C10 family with me in Bellingham makes it feel like home.

Part of C10 atop Tiffany Mountain

All photos courtesy of the author.

Leave a Comment