Instructors celebrate the first day of our 30th year of Mountain School.

2020 Highlights: Prevailing in a Challenging Year

The year 2020 began with a wave of excitement at North Cascades Institute. We were celebrating 30 years of Mountain School, our iconic residential environmental education program for thousands of 5th graders in our region. At the Mt. Baker Ski Area, we were engaging middle school students to learn about snow science, watersheds and climate change. We hosted wilderness medicine training at the Environmental Learning Center, planned backcountry Youth Leadership Adventures trips, and created a robust slate of classes and excursions for adults and families. We were staffed up and ready to act on our belief that shared experiences in nature strengthen our communities.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, making gathering in person and proceeding with our normal programs impossible, we were stopped in our tracks. The Learning Center and Sedro-Woolley office were shut down and staff abruptly sent home to work. Like all of you, we were shocked, dismayed and scared. But resiliency and creativity are in our DNA, so we adapted to face these new challenges head-on.

How could we work toward our mission of inspiring environmental stewardship through transformative learning experiences in nature in this new world? How could we support our communities with schools closed and people stuck at home? How could we help families connect with nature in their yards and neighborhood parks? How could we keep our staff employed and engaged? We rolled up our sleeves and got to work …


  • PARTNERING in the Whatcom Coalition for Environmental Education to provide in-person academic support and outdoor learning for local students
  • DEVELOPING new educational video series that will educate people worldwide for years to come about the North Cascades ecosystem and human presence
  • OFFERING a hybrid model of Youth Leadership Adventures for local teens and creating a podcast about student perspectives on climate change
  • ENGAGING thousands of park visitors at outdoor pop-up shops and improving our online store (whose sales help fund our school and youth programs) 
  • FACILITATING online learning opportunities on topics such as birds, volcanoes and fire ecology, and other virtual ways for people to engage with nature wherever they live


What we were able to accomplish in 2020—in unpredictable and ever-changing circumstances—embodies the entrepreneurial energy that created North Cascades Institute in 1986. We didn’t surrender to the fear of the pandemic. Instead, we focused on our mission and values. We listened to our communities’ needs and adapted our programs to meet new challenges. We took risks and learned from our failures and our successes. And we found the courage to move forward thanks to resiliency and creativity from our staff, our board’s leadership and our generous donors and funders. Here are a few highlights from a challenging year:


Mountain School

Mountain School is our 30-year-old residential education program in the heart of North Cascades National Park. Only 13% of area 5th graders came to the Environmental Learning Center before the pandemic struck and schools closed. Our instructors turned to several different initiatives, including new “Mountain School at Home” content, and further work on the Curriculum Redesign.

The new curriculum is more student-centered and focuses on Next Generation Science Standards, climate literacy and indigenous presence in this place. Through this redesign, we intend to increase the relevancy of the content by centering identity-affirming, social-emotional learning, ushering in a new era of teaching for social justice.

Our instructors created more than 20 new educational activities and videos and shared them online with teachers, parents and students, including topics like Owl Adaptations, Watersheds,  Glaciers, Nature Art and “Walking with Wonder.”

Mountain School at Home is just plain AWESOME! Thank you so much to all of your staff for making this great resource for us and our kids!

                                       — Harriet Rowley Elementary teacher


Snow School

Mt. Baker Snow School brings Whatcom and Skagit County middle school students to the headwaters of their home watersheds to learn how water connects us all. Our goal is to support local teachers with a relevant, place-based environmental science curriculum. In spite of snow day cancellations and ending the season early due to the pandemic, we served 416 students from 11 different schools (73% of students we anticipated for 2020), including Concrete School District students for the first time.

Snow School allows me to bring my students outside to a landscape which many of them would never experience otherwise. For some students, it is their first significant ‘wild’ outdoor experience. This opportunity has potential for profoundly influencing a student’s education and life. It could be the key that opens their eyes to their connection with the natural world, even if only in a small way.

—Mount Baker Junior High science teacher


Youth Leadership Adventures

Youth Leadership Adventures inspires a lifelong conservation ethic in the next generation of leaders. In 2020, Institute staff came up with a modified version of YLA, recruiting small cohorts of local students and providing them with a combination of self-guided, at-home activities, social media prompts and a culminating in-person adventure day of sea kayaking. They also created a podcast that gave student participants an opportunity to reflect on their feelings surrounding climate change, a challenge that in many ways defines this generation of youth.

If you hope for a better future, you have to imagine it, then start taking steps to do it.

—2020 YLA student


Whatcom Coalition for Environmental Education’s Connections

A new in-person outdoor program, Connections gave young people furthest from opportunity in Blaine, Mount Baker, and Bellingham school districts a chance to gather with their peers and learn about the natural world from some of the region’s leading environmental educators. This program was designed to augment virtual learning and provide students with enriching time outdoors. Students were selected by their teachers as those who had qualified for academic support in the previous school year, who were eligible for the federal Free or Reduced Lunch program, had limited access to the outdoors at home, or who had low attendance during remote schooling in the Spring.

Way to go today! I took a poll yesterday asking my class how everyone was coping—half of the class said they’d been better. The poll’s results were much more positive today and I know in part it’s because they’re back together again to learn (at Connections). I could see it through the camera that they looked much more engaged. Thank you for pulling this off.

—6th grade teacher


Diobsud Conservation Easement

North Cascades Institute placed a portion of our 9-acre property near Marblemount—the ecologically-rich riparian zone where Diobsud Creek meets the Skagit River—into a conservation easement held by the Skagit Land Trust. We purchased the property in 2014 to provide housing for staff. The Diobsud Creek watershed is important for wildlife including salmon, wintering bald eagles and the return of wolves to Western Washington. The land along the creek and river shoreline will remain undeveloped forever. Watch the video here.

When the Skagit Land Trust does a conservation easement such as the one at the Confluence property, that partnership is forever. North Cascades Institute really got how this is a commitment now and for generations to come. So much so the Institute created a $25,000 fund to support future stewardship work on this easement. We are so lucky here in Skagit County to have partners such as North Cascades Institute that have a far-reaching vision for caring for these lands.

—Michael Kirshenbaum, Skagit Land Trust Conservation Director


Online Learning

With in-person programs cancelled, we quickly learned new technology in order to host eight virtual educational programs, including The People of the Sacred River, Watercolor Mountains in Monochrome, Living with Volcanoes and The Ethical Photographer. We also partnered with Village Books for online author readings.

We also created 30 new videos to facilitate remote learning, reaching thousands of people from around the country with presentations on phenology, cooking classes, poetry readings, the Upper Skagit Hydropower Project and local cultural history. Watch these videos at

The Institute’s online programs have really been a wonderful way for us to stay connected and get some outdoor inspiration!

—Seattle family

At the Environmental Learning Center

The pandemic closed the Environmental Learning Center to in-person programs two weeks into Spring Mountain School in March 2020. Thousands of hours spent planning, budgeting and training were thrown out the window, and we were forced to cancel Mountain School, Forest School, Base Camp, Family Getaways, Learning Center classes, and Conferences and Retreats through the summer—our busiest time of the year.

The kitchen staff preserved foods that would otherwise perish when the Learning Center closed

With campus closed and the help of a PPP loan, our kitchen and facility staff dove into maintenance work, including deep cleaning in buildings, interior and exterior painting of the Dining Hall, staining of big beams and the Lily Shelter, Maple House and Library exterior painting, and other backlogged maintenance projects. Other staff worked on foodshed and garden activities, creating Mountain School at Home lessons, more work on the Mountain School curriculum update, Spanish translations of educational materials, Environmental Learning Center accessibility projects and more!

The closure was an opportune time for big projects like interior and exterior painting, and refinishing the dining hall floors

Eventually, we were able to adapt Learning Center safety protocols, (such as changing our buffet and Dining Hall set up to take-out meals) so we could re-open on a limited basis to house Seattle City Light researchers, host wilderness medical trainings and offer Base Camp Learning & Lodging in the fall.

Food services were adapted to safely provide take-out meals to campus visitors

Coronavirus Pandemic Impacts

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we cancelled most in-person programs at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in order to protect the health and safety of our staff and participants. This resulted in loss of anticipated revenue and the need for extensive staff furloughs and reductions in hours. While the pandemic had a dramatic impact on our budget, we ended the year much stronger than we initially expected due to careful management of our expenses, receiving a grant from the Small Business Administration forgiving part of the Institute’s Payroll Protection Program loan, and the incredible generosity of our individual and foundation donors.

At a Glance

  • In 2020, the Institute earned $1.2 million less in tuition and contracts than budgeted, although much of that loss was offset by the reduction in expenses, including staffing.   
  • All staff experienced furloughs and/or reduced hours for a significant portion of the year.
  • The Institute was also able to recoup some losses through a $326,000 Small Business Administration grant that forgave part of NCI’s Payroll Protection Program loan.
  • We are particularly grateful that many foundations changed “program” grants into “general operating” grants so we had maximum flexibility to respond to the pandemic. Many of our individual donors gave above and beyond to help us as well.


  1. SuJ'n Chon

    Thank you for this great summary of all the ways NCI adapted through the pandemic!

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