The Gift of Mountain School

[Mountain School has officially ended for the spring season! On Friday afternoon, Institute staff and instructors waved a bittersweet goodbye to 5th graders from Mountain View Elementary, raising their arms and voices in celebration for another great spring spent with youth in the outdoors. By way of offering a parting perspective and ode to this spring’s Mountain School experience, Kristin Smith, a two-time Mountain School student and passionate participant in the 2011 Youth Leadership Conference, recounts her most recent learning adventure in the shadow of the Cascade mountains. ]
The soft light of morning greets me as I emerge from Fir Lodge, a perfect match for the brisk mountain air. I tug my navy beanie more securely about my ears and turn my eyes upward – an instinctive urge well known to any mountain dweller and sprung from years of gazing at high peaks. Dawn is painting the lofty heights of Colonial and Pyramid peaks, setting their somber flanks aflame with pale rose light. I pause to savor the moment, craning my neck to more clearly see the peaks striated with snow. These mountains have a majesty all their own; something in the way the forested hills at their feet fall in a haze of vibrant green towards the turquoise waters of Diablo Lake, while high above snowfields evoke the vestige of an echo of the ancient glaciers that once covered this valley; something running in the cold young water of Sourdough Creek as it leaps eagerly towards the valley floor. There is no place on earth like this one, and I know it will always hold a special place in my heart.

View of Colonial and Pyramid Peaks from the Environmental Learning Center campus.

This is the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. This, for a precious three days, is home. This is the gift of Mountain School – the reason we’ve come. And the day has only just begun.

The previous afternoon my group had hiked up to Sourdough Falls with our diurnal instructor, Colby, no longer seven strangers but still not completely comfortable in each other’s presence. Not long before the falls we paused to gaze out at the view – down valley all the way to Diablo Dam, with snowy peaks on either side and a lake between. The clouds above held a landscape of their own; a lexicon of grays written  in puffs of water droplets. A series of stone steps ascended swiftly to the falls, the cascade itself hidden around a curve in the trail. Once there we gratefully dropped our packs, scrambling onto the grey boulders strewn about the bank and relishing in the cool spray as it permeated the air around us. The roar of the falls and of the whitewater creek canceled each other out, pervading the whole scene with one ubiquitous sound. A tiny bird flew down, skimming the rapids, and Colby shared its name: an American Dipper. As it dove past us once more I found myself wondering how it kept from being caught and pulled down by the fierce current, admiring the skill of such a small, plain-looking bird. Not as noble of visage as the eagle or as piercing of voice as the red-tailed hawk, yet he dared what they cannot and lived to tell the tale.

Squalicum High School students gather for a photo along Sourdough Creek with their diurnal Instructor, graduate student Colby Mitchell. The author sits in the center.

Back in the morning light our group is slowly assembling, trickling out of their rooms like the sputtering stream  of a rusty faucet. Still drowsy, we make our way down to breakfast. While we ruminate over oatmeal and pancakes the forest brightens around us. Northwesters all, we know how lucky we are to be blessed with sunshine for the second day in a row. Conversation is minimal for the first few minutes; we are too hungry, and the food is too good, to indulge in idle colloquy.
After breakfast comes planning; the planning of today’s scientific investigation. We finally decide on a research question based on the population of different macro invertebrate species due to pH, sun, and shade, and head purposefully out on the trails with our gear. Our first stop is Deer Creek. The banks are thick with moss, as are the tree trunks, and the overwhelming impression is one of verdant greenness. Coltsfoot crowds the sides of the trail as the bright pink and white blooms of bleeding hearts nod next to moss-covered deadfalls. We exclaim over each new macro invertebrate scraped from the bottom of a rock, comparing the size and beauty of our catches like bragging fishermen. My group proudly flaunts our “no mortalities” record; the specimens of the other group did not fare so well.

Sourdough Creek Falls above Diablo Lake was the afternoon’s destination for Squalicum students.

The day wears slowly on towards evening. We straggle back to the Environmental Learning Center to lounge beside the lake as we discuss our findings. Soon enough comes our hour of free time; then dinner, our last among the peaks. After dinner we forego the noisy crowd of fifth graders for our own solitary campfire in the Deer Creek shelter. The smores  intended for our mouths are soon stuck to hands and occasionally faces as the intermittent marshmallow flares up like a torch. At last we follow the hindmost sparks back to the lodges and our beds.
The next day emerges as gloriously sunny as the preceding two; a bittersweet gift, since we will leave not long after lunch. We revel in these last moments of Mountain School, watching Sourdough Creek slalom into Diablo Lake. Cynthia and Tia are engaged in a competition they have dubbed “The Stupid Game:” to see who can hold their hand in the frigid water the longest. Colby sets the limit at five minutes to avoid tissue damage. I watch the rapids rushing over the stony streambed, camera put away for now and thinking about nothing but the moment and the mountains.

The creeks are running full of spring’s snowmelt.

I am still staring at those same summits as we drive away, cheek pressed to the cool window glass as I strive for one more glimpse of Colonial, Pyramid, Ruby. As they disappear around a bend in the road I see them again, vividly, in my mind, already calling me back to their rugged splendor. Silently I make a promise to the mountains and the brilliant turquoise lake and the vast azure sky above: I will be back.
All photos courtesy of the author.


  1. Colby

    This is beautiful, Kristin. Thank you for sharing your story with all of us.

  2. Aunt Lisa and Uncle Mike

    Amazing story Kristin! You are a beautiful, intelligent young lady and we are so proud of you!!

  3. Grandma and Grandpa

    Wonderful story. /we are very proud of you. Hope to read more articles from you. Love, Grandma and Grandpa.

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