Thank you, North Cascades Institute. Sincerely, a loving intern

A group of Base Camp participants, Carla (a fellow summer naturalist), and I piled into a North Cascades Institute vehicle one morning in August. We were in search of amphibians at the famed “Ag Ponds” near Newhalem. Carla knew where we were going…kind of…with directions from a graduate student tucked into her brain—“A gravel road on the right with a signed gate, about a mile or so East of the Visitor Center.” As we happily drove on the chilly morning over to Newhalem, it really hadn’t crossed my mind that we could run into anything but a great day. I trusted in Carla (as I always do) that the directions she had would be clear.
Aha! A gravel pull off, about a mile from the Visitor Center, on the right! We pulled in, unloaded the bus of people and our fancy, giant water nets, and began walking down the trail. “A 10-minute walk to some gravel pits,” she said. I was at the back of the group and was focusing on a “piggyback” plant with another participant. I heard Carla call my name so I stood up…and saw that ahead of us was a gun range. Targets lined the edge of a clear-cut far in front of us, speckled with bullet holes. My stomach dropped to my feet as I quickly scanned the area for people. (I think it is safe to say that this shooting range is quickly on its way to becoming ancient—it’s overrun with tall tanzy and young alders and thankfully, no recent sign of humans.)

We reluctantly carried on, only to find a dirt heap ending the trail. Flustered, we hiked back the way we had come and drove to the Visitor Center. There we used a phone to talk with some Learning Center staff, and finally had more detailed directions.

catching amphibiansCarla, helping a Base Camp participant look for amphibians in the Ag Pond. Photo by Base Camp participants

This time everything went perfectly! Our delighted participants literally ran the “10 minute walk” to discover the Aggregate Ponds, a spot in Newhalem used by Seattle City Light for breaking down rock into gravel and conveniently, an excellent place for amphibians to live. We spent the little time we had left before lunch netting tadpoles, pollywogs, and even a few fully developed frogs! The two children present were squealing with excitement at the discovery of the creatures in their nets. We were all able to wade, play, discover, and exhale.
After the stress of the morning, the ease of watching tadpoles wiggle in Tupperware containers was unparalleled. As we packed up to leave, one of the participants told us an ancient Chinese saying. Though I can’t remember the exact wording, she said something to the effect of “If you eat a sugarcane from the top down, the bottom will always be sweeter.” Our day had begun rough, maybe even a little sour. But eventually we came to a sweet ending.

amphibians in bucketTadpoles in a clear plastic container. Photo by Base Camp participants
amphibian in handHolding a frog! Photo by Base Camp participants

This spectacular moment of knowing I was wrong has tied in so clearly to my entire internship with North Cascades Institute. It is not to say that I initially began in a bad place—from the moment I arrived here, I have been blessed with warmth, trust, gratitude, and the ability to explore my reach as an educator. But this place was new, and it took me a while to learn the ropes. I can remember my first night doing dishes in the kitchen, helplessly wandering around in pursuit of the homes of the hot and freshly washed pans and silverware (Thank you, Chef Matt for your patience), and my first time taking things from the Mountain School room without checking them out (Thank you, Chris Kiser, for promptly following me in and kindly correcting my mistakes).
I have had my fair share of “whoops” moments here, from pulling freshly planted Red flowering currant from the parking lot on my first week (Sorry again, Jeff Anderson) to not knowing answers to participants’ questions on naturalist hikes, and finally, to my latest disaster of ill preparedness at the Ag Ponds. I believe the lesson I have learned most as an intern is that you should mess up, and that is absolutely okay. I have fumbled a bit in life, and as an undergraduate student, there is an obvious stress in thinking of the “what next.”

giant rockLooking uphill, just west of the hairpin turn on Highway 20/The North Cascades Highway. Photo by Hannah Thomas
baby yogaThe author, teaching a parent and child yoga class that focuses on animal forms. Photo by Kim Hall

My plans for the future have been tossed into so many different directions since working for North Cascades Institute (because I have found out I enjoy too many things), which I love and appreciate. I am in a natural place of unrest, and my time here has taught me that unrest and unknowing are allowed. I welcome them heartily. Life, professional and otherwise, shows its true colors when you can accept mistakes and change them. I feel that by working here, my skills as an educator have been reaffirmed and celebrated, and my faults have been accepted and dealt with accordingly.
I have no shame in my sour moments because as that Base Camp participant said, life, like sugar cane, should be sweeter as time continues. I am anxious for even sweeter moments than the sugar I found working at North Cascades Institute. Thank you, to everyone who has helped me grow tremendously in my time at the Learning Center.

Leading photo: Hannah, like the Mountain Goats, can’t stay at the base of rocks and mountains for long… Here, she’s climbing near the hairpin turn on Highway 20/The North Cascades Highway. Photo by Sam Werle

Hannah Thomas is an undergraduate student in Environmental Education at Western Washington University, spending her summer at the Environmental Learning Center as an on-campus intern. She likes to dance any and everywhere, rock climb until her arms fall off, and share the natural world with anyone who will listen.


  1. Aneka

    Love this Hannah! I am so thrilled you had a successful summer.

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