Joining the pack

end of mountain school
I’ve spent two weeks at North Cascades Institute now, and I’m starting to feel like a member of the pack. But it took a while. I was thrown into a group house with five other people, many of whom had worked at the Learning Center for years. All of them had serious schooling and experience as naturalists—they could identify just about every plant in view with very little effort, whereas I would have lost a competition with just about every fifth-grade student that had passed through the 3-day Mountain School curriculum. So I kept quiet more than most, feeling my way into things. But being at North Cascades Institute is like being at camp: It doesn’t take long to get to know people. You eat meals together, you take arts and crafts classes, you go for hikes with strangers, you paddle a canoe, and you learn some new skills. And, yes, you even debate the merits of Rice Krispie treats, and discuss whether or not raisins belong in cookies.
June 14th was the final day of Mountain School, meaning the parade of fifth-grade students was coming to an end, and, as was the tradition, the Learning Center staff recognized the event with a small celebration. After some shenanigans, we ended up in an open field. Someone suggested we gather in a circle for an activity called “Rocks, Sticks, and Leaves,” then she led off by describing what rocked about Mountain School, what will stick with her, and what she’ll leave with. Most everyone reflected on the people they’ve met, the things they’ve learned, and they ways they’ve become better teachers. These people clearly think of each other as far more than coworkers, and it’s nice to be invited to complete their circle.

Trust_walkBlindfolded Mountain School instructors follow our Group Rentals coordinator down the trail during a game. Photo by Scott Kirkwood

That weekend, the Institute staff and a grad student or two invite me to “The East Side” across the mountain pass, to the Okanogan National Forest. After everyone has mountain biked and rock climbed for several hours, three of us decide to make the 2-mile hike up to Goat Peak Tower to watch the sunset. Kimmy forges ahead and I lag at the back of the group, until Dylan is slowed by his desire to take photos, and I catapult ahead of him. We all meet at the top, take a few snapshots, and hike back in the waning light.

goat peak lookout
top of goat peak(above two photos) Watching the sunset from Goat Peak Lookout. Photos by Scott Kirkwood

The next day, a group of us head out on a more vigorous mountain bike route, and though I ride my bike through the streets of DC and the winding bike paths of Maryland nearly every day, it’s no help—once again I’m trailing behind—but at least I’m in the pack. That’s all that matters.
Back at the Learning Center on Monday night, Kevin (aka Biggs), persuades 20 staff, grads, and interns to paddle the Salish Dancer (a 36 ft canoe that fits upwards of 18 paddlers) to the center of Diablo Lake, where we will all add one piece of clothing to a mesh bag, sink it to the bottom of the lake, and magically imbue our socks, shirts, shorts, and yes, even underwear, with the power of the water and the mountains and the glaciers. It’s crazy. So, of course, we all do it. We laugh as our errant strokes lead paddles to clash with one another, we smile as Biggs yells at us for that very same reason, and we sing silly songs about how you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd. Then we stand on the shore, we wring out our clothes, and we walk back home with smiles on our faces. One more ridiculous ritual that seems to bring the folks at North Cascades Institute just a little bit closer.

kevinKevin sits on the bow of the Salish Dancer and holds up the bag of clothing before sending it down into the depths of Diablo Lake. Attached to the bag is a weight and a 300 meter line. Photo by Kristina Garcia
 Leading photo: Scott (on left), lounging in Buster Brown Field with some of the Institute School staff and grads who work with the Mountain School program. Photo by Ryan Weisberg

Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks Magazine, a quarterly publication produced by the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. This is his second post in a series about spending the summer in the North Cascades National Park.

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