A week in the woods

fir cone
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 first post in a series about spending the summer in the North Cascades National Park.

pyramid b&w
pyramid colorTwo perspectives of a snowless Pyramid Peak on summer-like spring days

When it came time to plan my sabbatical from the National Parks Conservation Association, where I edit National Parks magazine, I decided to spend a few of those precious 6 weeks at North Cascades Institute. A coworker of mine in Seattle had taken a few classes at the Institute and highly recommended it, so I reached out to the staff and asked if I could teach a few classes in photography and writing, and take a few classes as well. And when I wasn’t doing one or the other, I’d just hike, bike, read, write, take photos, and think really deep thoughts. The folks at North Cascades Institute were immediately on board. So I flew from DC to Seattle on June 8, and the adventure began.

I’ve spent my first few days hiking around the campus, shadowing some of the field instructors, and taking a sketching class at Padilla Bay. Here, then, are a few of my first impressions.
Fifth-graders ask a lot of questions, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with the most recent sentence uttered by their instructor. But fifth-graders also know a lot more about biology than I remember ever packing inside my brain: Consumers, producers, decomposers, invertebrates, biotic, abiotic—SAT words are being thrown in every direction, and these kids are only 11 years old.
Taking a pencil in hand and trying to draw something that remotely resembles a flower is a humbling exercise. The temptation is to draw the idea of a flower that you have in your head; the key is to simply draw what you see, not what you expect to see. Taking the time to really look at that leaf, that stem, that bud—that’s the real gift, regardless of what ends up on the page. And here’s a bonus discovery free of charge: Learning to becoming an artist is 10% instruction and 90% just getting out and doing it, making mistakes, accepting them, and picking up that pencil again and again in spite of those mistakes. Thanks to Libby Mills and all the other participants for finding something valuable in my efforts and for letting me see the world through their sketchbooks, too.

fir cones sketchesA page from the author’s sketchbook

A little bit of snow can make hiking quite difficult. After about three hours of solo hiking on Sourdough Mountain, I noticed those white patches getting bigger and bigger, but the path always showed up, eventually. Until it didn’t. Once the route had been entirely swallowed by a field of snow, I decided it was best to turn around. But the trail behind me had vanished, too. Uh oh. The terrain was quite steep at this point, so I started hiking up and down the side of the mountain in zig-zag patterns, scratching and clawing, holding onto roots and trees and rocks and hoping the trail would show itself again. It was early afternoon, and I was surrounded by water, so I was never in danger, but I could already envision the headlines: “National Parks magazine editor lost in national park! Rescue crews sent in to find him! Man eventually found only 100 feet from main trail!” After about 15 minutes of struggling, I stumbled back on the trail, very relieved that the story would never be printed.
And one final realization, for now: It appears as though some conniving parents are signing up to chaperone their children at Mountain School so they can play “hooky” from their real lives. Which is a very clever thing to do. I’ve got four more weeks to play hooky myself, and I’m looking forward to the next series of discoveries….

ferns(top L-R) A Sword Fern frond and the bark of a Douglas Fir tree. (bottom L-R) A type of moss, Yarrow, and “Old Man’s Beard” lichen.
Leading photo: The end of a Douglas Fir cone. All images by the author



  1. Chris Kiser

    An entertaining writer, artistic photographer, and inquisitive drawer — We are glad to have you with us in the North Cascades Scott! Thanks for sharing your first impressions.

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