An Unforgettable Mountain School Adventure

The first week of the 2017 spring Mountain School season will be one not forgotten here at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. After experiencing an unusually high amount of snowfall at the ELC this winter, many of us were eagerly anticipating signs of spring (and sunshine), hopeful that the last lingering patches of snow would be gone before our students’ arrival. However, winter was not quite ready to concede to spring. On March 6, the first day of Mountain School, we awoke to a winter storm warning in the North Cascades. While it certainly wasn’t the spring weather we had hoped for, it provided a rare opportunity to play and learn in the snow with our first group of students, the 5th grade class from Mt. Vernon’s Madison Elementary School.

Driving to the ELC for the first day of Mountain School. Photo by Angela Burlile

By midweek, the snow had subsided and we said goodbye to Madison Elementary and welcomed the AP Environmental Studies class from Mill Creek’s Henry M. Jackson High School. These high school students were here to participate in our Aquatic Investigations field-based science curriculum. Working in small groups, students designed their own study investigating the interactions between physical, chemical and biological components of the local watershed. Through site observations, groups developed a scientific question which they then answered using various data collection methods such as water chemistry testing, benthic macroinvertebrate samples and examination of physical stream characteristics. They then presented their findings in a symposium-style discussion with their peers and teachers.

Henry M. Jackson student, Taylor Gerould, searching for benthic macroinvertebrates in a partially frozen Diablo Lake. Photo by Angela Burlile

Henry M. Jackson student, Alina Ribeiro, taking a dissolved oxygen reading at Deer Creek near the ELC. Photo by Angela Burlile

What was meant to be a three day experience became a slightly longer visit. Although the snow had subsided earlier in the week, heavy rain followed and the combination pushed the avalanche forecast to high. Early Friday morning, instructors and staff awoke to an email sent by Kristofer Gilje, Operations Director at the ELC.

“There is a very large avalanche at mp 122.6, Brown’s Creek.  There is another smaller one on the dam road.  WSDOT is aware of our situation and will give us more information when it gets light.”

The avalanche covering Highway 20 in the Skagit gorge. Measured at over 40 feet tall and 200 feet long. Photo courtesy of WSDOT

Report from KING 5 NEWS

Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions are an accepted and regular part of life here in the North Cascades. With established procedures and risk management training for situations such as this, instructors and staff were able to quickly shift gears and prepare for our guests extended stay. Knowing that WSDOT would not be able to inspect the avalanche for at least three days when conditions were safer, a weekend agenda was created to keep students active and engaged.

Activities such as art, Planet Earth movie nights, yoga, meditation, scavenger hunts, microscope labs and mini-olympic tournaments were facilitated by naturalists and M.Ed. graduate students.

The Mini-Olympics schedule created some fun and competitive games for students to participate in. Photo by Kay Gallagher

A combination of patience, skill, and delicate movement was needed for the Pretzel Face Race. Using only their facial muscles, students had to move the pretzel placed on their forehead, into their mouth without dropping it. Photo by Kay Gallagher

One of the activities most enjoyed by students was the taxidermy workshop, led by graduate student and natural history assistant, Nick Engelfried. Offered each day, students were taught the methods and technique employed by taxidermists to preserve an animal and were then able to put that knowledge to practice on one of the many biological specimens in our natural history classroom.

“It was great to see the students get so engaged in this opportunity. I think they learned a lot about bird anatomy and how to preserve specimens for scientific study. Some of the students were so committed to finishing their projects, they came back three days in a row to work on them.” – Nick Engelfried

Students examine the various bird species found in our biological specimen fridge. Photo by Joshua Porter

Graduate student, Nick Engelfried, assisting Henry M. Jackson students in their taxidermy technique. Photo by Joshua Porter

Students working to complete their various bird specimens. Photo by Joshua Porter

On Monday, day four of our avalanche adventure, WSDOT was able to inspect the road and deemed it safe enough to begin clearing. After only a few hours, a crew had cleared one lane of Highway 20, allowing ELC staff and guests to leave.

WSDOT working to clear the avalanche at mile 122 of Highway 20. Photos courtesy of WSDOT

A thoughtful thank you card from the students of Henry M. Jackson to NCI staff and instructors. Photo by Will George

“NCI was a 100% positive experience. I learned a lot from all of the naturalists and grad students about the North Cascades. Before the avalanche it was already a very memorable trip but the staff went above and beyond once we were stuck. The activities that they planned for us were both educational and really fun. I really enjoyed being able to spend time in such a beautiful place with such great people. I hope I’m able to come back soon!” – Taylor Gerould, Henry M Jackson student

The obligatory final group shot after a successful Mountain School session! Photo by Will George

Report from KING 5 NEWS

Although the situation was not one that anyone would like to find themselves in, the students from Henry M. Jackson maintained high spirits throughout. While we hope it is one they never find themselves in again, it will surely be an experience that neither they or we here at NCI will ever forget.

KING 5 News – Mill Creek Students Stuck in North Cascades after Snow Slide

Skagit Valley Herald – Avalanche blocks Highway 20

Everett Herald – Learning doesn’t stop for students stranded by snowslide

Skagit Valley Herald – Crews clear lane of Highway 20 of avalanche debris

Everett Herald – Stranded Jackson High students on the way home

KING 5 News – Students return after getting stuck in North Cascades


  1. Saul Weisberg

    Great story and a great adventure for the students and their teachers. I appreciate the quick turnaround by NCI staff and graduate students from “it’s the weekend” to “we’ve got work to do!” Creative, safe and educational outcomes for all.

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