In Memoriam Charles Claassen

North Cascades Institute is heartbroken to share the news that Chef Charles Claassen passed away last Thursday. This has been sudden and shocking to all of us in his extended circle of family, friends, coworkers and professional partners in the world of food and farming. Charles was on a personal paddleboarding trip on the Skagit River between Newhalem and Marblemount Thursday afternoon with his fiancé when he had an accident and did not survive it. 

Charles was a widely-loved member of the North Cascades Institute family. He was a hard-working and very talented chef who was instrumental in helping to open the Environmental Learning Center in 2005. He was the main motivator behind our Foodshed Initiative, focusing on local and organic food for the meals we serve, and using food choices as an educational tool for everyone who visits our dining hall.

Charles exemplified the early spirit of the Environmental Learning Center’s opening when we all were just trying to figure things out. He was the most amazing addition to the team, figuring out our food menus, setting up suppliers, purchasing all the dining wares and kitchen equipment, cooking delicious meals mostly by himself—Charles did it all! And he and his family were such a grounding influence, his two little daughters and his wife brought the family vibes and we all benefited from it.”

—Saul Weisberg, Institute founder and former Executive Director   

Charles and his family were such an integral part of the beginning of the Environmental Learning Center. With his cooking skills, he knew what to do with all the fresh local produce and food. And his family—the two girls and his wife—they added an informality and kind of hominess to the community that was just wonderful.

—David Hall, Environmental Learning Center architect

Charles left North Cascades Institute in 2009 and, among other things, opened the Book Fare Cafe in Village Books in Bellingham and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. He loved to travel and had great stories about exploring different countries by motorcycle, on foot and through his tastebuds.

After almost twenty years of raising his family in Bellingham, Charles returned to the Institute last summer in the role of Chef and Food Service Manager. Again providing timely leadership and a tireless work ethic, he played an important role in reopening the Environmental Learning Center after disruptions and closures caused by the Coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the food service team.

His return to the kitchen for a second tenure raised all of our spirits and we’re so grateful to have had these past 12 months with him in our community once again. 

We were so fortunate that Charles returned to the Institute when we were reopening the Learning Center post-Covid. Charles came in and saved the day by helping us to rebuild during a time of extreme staff shortages and other challenges related to the ripple effects of the pandemic. His presence provided a sense of warmth, experience, and kindness. He was such a gifted chef who not only fed our bellies with delicious food but helped us fulfill our mission. He used food to bring people together in community and to connect us all to one another and to this very special place.”

—Bec Detrich, Institute Executive Director   

Charles was an incredible and visionary chef, a leader and a mentor, a hardy adventurer, and a friend and inspiration to so many. We are missing him intensely and sending our deepest sympathy to his fiancé, family and friends.

We invite you to share your favorite memories of Charles in the comments below and share your photos by emailing them to

August 10, 2023 Cascadia Daily article: “Late North Cascades chef led passionate, adventurous life”


Shared Photos

Shared by Rob Branham
Charles at the beginning and end of his Pacific Crest Trail trek in 2018. (Source: Facebook)
Charles provided music for a staff gathering in the early days of the Environmental Learning Center. (Source: NCI archive)



  1. Robert Branham

    What a fitting tribute to an amazing man. Thanks for recognizing him in this special way. He indeed touched so many lives and planted the seeds of goodness, kindness and compassion wherever he went…..character qualities he learned from his amazing family. Chuck you will be missed my friend.

  2. Calvin

    I finally met Charles a month ago when I came up to the ELC to help for a wedding. I had heard stories about Charles for years, and knew immediately he is the real deal. Passionate, earnest, caring, and brimming with life. In our brief time working together I knew I had a new friend. I learned of his passing while floating the Skagit River which felt significant. We miss you already, Charles.

  3. Rory Crowley

    Charles and I had not crossed paths in years but we spent the summer of 2005 together with his young family living in the former graduate cabins as the ELC opened. Unfortunately, that next meeting did not happen. I’ll listen to some of the music he brought into my life and mourn.

  4. Kim Nelson

    I feel so fortunate to have worked with Charles over the past year. He left a huge impression on me and I only wish I had gotten the chance to interact with him more. My heart goes out to Mary and his family. Sending lots of love to the NCI community and to all those who knew him.

  5. Jim Rhodes

    To me he will always be “Chuck” the deeply emotional young man I met in college. He was a gifted artists and musician even then. I saw him a few times over the last 30 odd years and admire many of his qualities and the spirit in which he embraced his life.

    VTL my brother

  6. Kate Bedient

    This news takes my breath away. My heart breaks for all who are and have been close to Charles. I am thinking of each of you in this time of grief. I was so fortunate to know Charles and call him a friend and know he will be dearly missed.

  7. Krissy

    The Book Fare Cafe was a favorite visit every time I would come back to Bellingham. The Chuckanut 50 K overlapped with Charles time as the owner and as an amazing human and lover of adventure, he insisted on supporting the race in the best way he knew how. He made gallons and gallons of soup that we served at the finish line of the Chuckanut 50 K for many years. Charles insisted on supplying and delivering the soup at no charge and loved the fact that my mom who Sever it, often received credit for making it. Such a generous soul, and one of the phone calls I loved having because we talked about so much more than the event.

    I love reading about his contributions to the north cascades institute, and feel the space in our community by his passing.

    Much love to all that got to know him and him in any capacity

  8. Anna Hutcheson

    I can still picture the first time I met Charles as he stood behind the counter of BookFare Cafe.
    Talking with him because I desperately needed a job, I handed him my resume and while he did glance at it, mostly we just talked about food. How fun it is, how to bring passion into dishes.
    He threw me a lifeline with that job.

    The way his eyes lit up and his smile was always infectious. His easy going demeanor was always welcomed and swapping stories with him was just awesome.

    He was a good spirit.

    I am sending love and support to all that knew him best.

  9. Carolyn Gastellum

    Charles with a twinkle in his eyes was smart as anything, creative, and he was so completely kind and genuine. I was fortunate to know him a little bit during his first years at the ELC. He, Christina, Olivia, and Frankie added large quantities of joy to the place. “Family and friends” expanded through Charles. As he connected with staff, school groups, and others who came to the ELC he influenced more lives than he ever knew in all the best ways. I’m grateful to have known him.

  10. Gloria

    I had the privilege of growing up with and being friends with Chuck but unfortunately had not seen him since our high school graduation. Reading all of these wonderful testimonies about Charles makes my heart so happy for the life that he lived and those dearest to him. To hear of how thoughtful, kind, and generous he was doesn’t surprise me. He has always been a great guy!

  11. Deb neighbors Vaughn

    I have known Charles and his awesome family since he was very young in Unionville mo. What a tragic loss. Thoughts and prayers to all his family and friends

  12. Tanya Anderson

    I am crushed to hear this news about Chef Charles. I was lucky enough to meet him and be fed by him when I first worked at North Cascades Institute. He cooked with love and added a sprinkle of wonder to his meals. He was adventurous, kind, creative, and talented, and he made The Learning Center feel like home, no matter how long or short you had been there. I remember the night his family hosted an outdoor movie night (I believe they used sheets for the screen) with huge bowls of popcorn. I don’t recall the movies, but I remember how I felt embraced by Charles and the NCI community. He was a generous soul who will be dearly missed.

  13. Mel Paytes

    My heart is heavy… Charles my Buddy. Thank you for changing my life. That big beautiful smile.. your radiant laugh.. your keen eye.. Your talent and Light you shined wherever you went. Thank you for liberating me and showing me Life is Better when you are JUST YOURSELF.

  14. Greg Duenow

    Chuck was a hell of a friend and roommate in college. Best Dungeon Master ever. Great musician, whether on drums or guitar. Always smiling.

    We all miss you sir. Thanks for being a friend.

    If anyone doesn’t have the link to his music, you can hear it here.

  15. Evan A Krogh

    So heartbroken to process that Charles is gone too soon. I met Chuck (and Christina and the girls) in 2008 while attending the NCI for a month-long Wilderness EMT course offered by Remote Medical International. Out of 40+ other people around, I found a kindred connection with the chef (ha!, go figure), we shared a passion for so much of the same music and arts as well as adventures out in the wild. He invited me into their home, I pulled out guitars and amps of out my truck, and we jammed, galvanizing a friendship in the unique way bandmates have. Staying in touch here and there over the years abut always sending strong words of encouragement and embracing the big questions of life together. A true brother on the path, a kindess and depth unparalleled, a generous and unforgettable guy. The world could use a lot more Chuck’s. Sending all my love to the the family and those closest.

  16. Meghann Wolvert

    Wow, it is so sad to read this news. I loved living next door to the Claassen’s during my residency at NCI. We were always well fed, well entertained, and welcomed into a sense of community.

  17. Lyle Anderson

    I remember eating at NCI and was awestruck at the food that was offered. Fast forward and we ate at the bookfare cafe and while talking to Charles found that he was the chef at NCI. His was the go-to place for delicious vegan food. We ate lunch there every week for years until he moved on. Always a pleasure to see him and never got tired of listening to his wonderful baritone voice.

  18. Monica Woelfel

    I recently visited NCI for the first time. I was amazed at how good the food was and told the chef (Charles) so. He and I got talking and it struck me how passionate he was about good food, locally sourced, and about the natural world. Such a sad loss for all who crossed his path. On the other hand, he clearly lived a vibrant life and was loved by many.

  19. Hayley Gehman

    This is such heartbreaking news. Working at Book Fare was one of the happiest chapters in my life. Charles taught me so much about how to make delicious food with simple, local ingredients, and he was always warm, generous, and kind. Book Fare was the heart of a beautiful community because of the love and energy that Charles poured into it. I’m so grateful for the time I got to spend learning from him, and my heart is with his family, community, and everyone who is feeling the tragic loss of such an amazing person.

  20. Libby Mills

    Charles, I am so sad to hear we have seen each other for the last time. You were so drawn to adventure and the people who love it too. In that I was shocked to hear the news, but not that you were out with nature, the Skagit River, in all its beauty and its power. Your family and many friends and fans grieve your passing.
    You were excelling in the kitchen up at NCI once again, as good or better than ever. You made a many course excelllent Spring Dinner that reminded us of what we’d been missing in you for many years. I asked you to make a simple breakfast for the early birders and you said you were making the full meal (which you excelled at), nothing less. It was so good to be with you that weekend and the many ways your meals brought people together and wowed us with the power of well cared for and prepared food to nurture people and the good we can do.
    You are so deeply missed by so many, especially your closest family and friends. My heart goes out to your dear ones with deepest sympathy. the kitchens you have used to create your magic, will long miss you.

  21. Renee

    It is both wonderful and bittersweet to read all of these heartwarming tributes and stories about the legend I knew as Chuck. I’m glad he touched so many lives and lived his own to the fullest. Remember the good times, hug a friend, cook a meal.

  22. Maren Van Nostrand

    Christina, Olivia, Frankie, family and community, Byron, Julia, and I are deeply saddened by this sudden loss and have been thinking about you every day. Byron and I felt so very honored to have been a part of Charles’ life this year when he so valiantly served such a large group at the Spring dinner (March 25th). When he took time out to talk to us, he was beaming with pride and confidence! I will carry that with me, along with the many sweet and everlasting memories from the early days of parenting our free-range-forest-kids together (when the Learning Center was also in its early days), like exploring the shore by canoe and foot, sharing meals and long conversations, and birthday meet-ups and desserts. These precious memories will live on! Love and hugs, Maren

  23. Molly Hashimoto

    I taught many classes at the Learning Center in its early years and had the privilege of meeting Charles, Christina, Olivia and Frankie. Charles’s warmth and his marvelous cooking– and his family– had much to do with the welcoming environment that I and my students enjoyed. I am so sad about the loss. I will miss him and his adventurous spirit.

  24. Jodi Broughton

    I have only known Charles since he return to the Learning Center in 2022. His enthusiasm for the work of NCI, the role of food in fostering community, and his overall energy and big smile was infectious. At his memorial service last week, I was struck by a common thread among many people giving tribute: Charles helped people believe in themselves, see that they could indeed accomplish the “thing” — whether cooking, climbing, playing music, adventuring, learning, or loving — with their own strength. He helped people find the freedom that he so embraced in life. His light will be missed.

  25. Paula Berg

    I’m so sorry for this terrible loss. I had met Charles several times through NCI events, and was fortunate enough to get to know him better over some friendly board games not too long ago. He was truly joyful to be around, and naturally made you feel like a friend. I was looking forward to hanging out with him the next time I visited the Learning Center. I remember hearing how excited everyone was to have Charles back on NCI’s campus last year, and once I got to know him better, I understood the enthusiasm. I know he was a treasured friend and colleague to you all, and will be deeply missed. I’m sorry for your loss.

  26. Nancy Hart

    How saddened I am to hear of the passing of this radiant, kind soul. I remember first meeting Charles at the ELC where my compliment on the delicious dinner he served lead to some wonderful conversations over several years about locally sourced and lovingly prepared good food. When Charles moved on to Book Fare, I was delighted find the same warm greetings, delicious food, encouraging conversations, and twinkling eyes that brought so much joy before. You are missed my friend!

  27. Genevieve Cole

    So sorry to hear this news. My daughter went to the institute in 6th grade with Methow Valley Elementary and her main comment upon return was how good the food was. May he rest in peace.

  28. anonymouse

    This was my family member, I never met him that I remember in person, but I always knew him as chuck and all I knew about him was that he was really kind and loved adventuring anywhere and everywhere and I think it is so nice to know there are so many other people who also cared about him.

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