My first day at (Mountain) School

From the Environmental Learning Center dining hall kitchenette where we were all awaiting the arrival of the 5th graders from Burlington-Edison School district, Mia began yelling “the bus is coming over the dam!” Like firefighters hearing the alarm, we all sprang from our seats and started walking quickly down the trail to meet the Allen Elementary School students.

It had already been a hectic morning as we expected the bus around 9:45 only to learn they weren’t arriving until 10:45. This provided me the opportunity to see our amazing Mountain School instructors adapt the day’s schedule like it was natural and easy. They quickly had to figure out how to cover all the programming with one less hour of time together. The interdependence of this team is so amazing and I got the feeling they can finish each other’s sentences by simply looking at the expression on one another’s faces. It was a true treat to see such a highly functional team of seasoned professionals doing what they love: inspiring youth to become environmental stewards for life.

Once the bus door cracked open, Kari—one of our Senior Mountain School instructors and a bundle of joy and energy from top to bottom—leapt up the steps to officially welcome students to Mountain School. The kids came tumbling off the bus, and their enthusiasm was overflowing!

We broke into five groups, each having about 10-12 kids with 2 adults. Naturally each group was named after a local animal or plant—another way to teach about the North Cascades ecosystem. With each group taking the name of a local animal, all one had to do was mimic the animal sound to bring the group back together when we went too far adrift. Thus, our fearless leader, Talia, was often the lead “howler” for our group, the Purple Wolves!

The day was forecasted to be 50 degrees and relatively dry, thank goodness. I love kids but I am often absolutely clueless on how to rally them to become quiet or stay focused! This is one of the many areas where our instructors shine like a full moon on a dark night. I grew up with teachers saying “Hey, everyone pay attention” or “Be quiet and listen.” What do we do at Mountain School? When someone says “waterfall” we say “shush.” I love it, and now, everytime I see a waterfall, it becomes an even more meditative moment as I say “shush” in my mind.

Before we even got to the woods for our naturalist activity after lunch, a group of students had discovered a bird’s nest on the ground next to the office. Talia, naturally, turned this into a teaching moment. “Why is the nest on the ground?” she asked. The kids weren’t sure but they came up with many realistic ideas (it fell from the tree or the roof). “What type of bird’s nest is this? Do you think it had eggs?” “J” jumped up right away (he was jumping all day with his hand high in the air). “No, birds lay their eggs in the Spring.” Apparently these kids were already schooled on their bird biology.

Once we were out on Sourdough Creek trail, the naturalist emerged in everyone. Watching each student become enthralled by whatever caught their attention along the trail was true wonderment. I loved how they would continually yell out “Hey, look at this!” The curiosity and desire to understand was evident—life skills that will support these kids through many journeys ahead.

The theme of today’s journey was mushrooms, which are abundant in just about every nook and cranny literally up (in trees) and down (in leaves) along the trail this time of year. I heard an abundance of “ooh, it’s slimy, cool, wow, is it safe” from the students. The kids discovered mushrooms in a way they may have never before.

We dispersed in the woods like pups gingerly setting out from mama wolf—far enough away to be on our own but close enough to hear the howl. B.—who shared that she is a “maker”—was carrying her collection of maple leaves to serve as an umbrella if needed. With a journal in hand, she quickly got down on the ground to begin drawing her discovery. The assignment was to draw the mushroom and then finish the sentences:

I notice…
I wonder…
It reminds me of…

So many mushrooms, so many discoveries, so much sharing in just the 45 minutes we spent wandering the woods. I’m reminded how time spent focused on a particular task can yield an abundance of wonder and joy, especially when you take the time to notice and reflect.

The biggest mushroom discovery of the day was Talia revealing the secret hiding place of a cauliflower mushroom. Cowabunga, it was HUGE! She had recently discovered this gem and shared how she had cut off a piece of the mushroom to make soup. Whoa, I love cauliflower and I love mushrooms, but a cauliflower mushroom? How quick was I to learn that this specimen can be a noodle substitute and makes an awesome soup.

Our day ended with all of us gathering at the shelter to reflect on what we discovered, experienced and appreciated about the day. Out of the corner of my left eye I noticed B. was sitting away from the group, near a tree. Thinking something might be amiss I approached her and asked if everything was okay. She said “Isn’t it beautiful here? Look out at the woods, there’s so much to see.” Silly me to think something was wrong. She reminded me about the power of presence and “taking it all in.”

On the way back to the parking lot, I had the chance to connect with the teacher Mrs. M., and discovered that her son, who recently graduated from college, was a Mountain School alum. She had chaperoned his class many years ago, and now was back with her own class. Mountain School is 31 years old and I am privileged to meet the generations that have gone before and can still share about the profound impact this program had on lives from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.

I left the Learning Center feeling hopeful that these local elementary students will continue their path of awareness and discovery. They will build upon their understanding of the need to be an active environmental steward for this area and wherever life takes them in the years to come.

Meanwhile, I’ll draw upon this experience to remind myself to “shush” when the noise of the world makes me feel a bit less hope-filled and do what I can each day to make the future brighter for the generations to come.

Thank you North Cascades Institute Instructors and students for my first day at Mountain School!

Catherine Endicott began working with North Cascades Institute as a Donor Relations Manager in April 2020 just as the coronavirus shut down all in-person programs. She has been eagerly awaiting this opportunity to experience our longest running program, Mountain School, and was thrilled to visit in October 2021.



  1. Doug Endicott

    Wow Cathy you had me right back there when we visited in 2019. I hope some day to get the grandkids out there for the experience.

  2. Dana Armstrong

    Great story–I bet they did love it up there–glad you had a rare dry day this month! I am still fond of the blindfolded “learn your tree and then find it unblindfolded” exercise my family did at Family Retreats. Learning about edible plants was another one of my favorite exercises. Learning about mushrooms would def. be great–a misunderstood piece of wildlife (like spiders and bats).

  3. Karen L Bayman

    Hi Catherine – What a fantastic first time with Mountain School. I’ve heard from many kiddos at my work, just how excited they are to get to go to Mountain School. I homeschooled my own two kids from 3rd and 5th grade through 10th. They never got to go to Mountain School, but I tried to make sure we spent a lot of time learning so much about our part of the country, the animals, fish, trees, plants, fungi, etc. They both love the outdoors, hiking, camping, etc. Ecosystems was one of our favorite subjects. Our field trips were the best.
    I look forward to talking with you next week. : )

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