Cascades Climate Challenge Leaders: Coming to a community near you

group canoeing
Sixteen high school students hailing from Oregon and Washington arrived in the North Cascades on June 26th to begin an unforgettable adventure. These young leaders came to participate in the third year of Cascades Climate Challenge, one of North Cascades Institute’s youth programs. The youth started off by splitting into two groups to go on 12-day backpacking and canoeing trips on and around Ross Lake. For many, this was the longest time away from home, the first time paddling a canoe, and the most physically challenging experience they have had.
group on bridge

CCC2 stands on a bridge over rushing Lightning Creek


CCC1 canoers “raft up” in the mouth of Devil’s Creek

Students learned many new skills each day, in addition to lessons about climate change, invasive species, presenting and naturalizing. Everyone took turns cooking meals, cleaning up following Leave No Trace guidelines, building fires, and leading the group. Spending so much time in North Cascades National Park (NCNP) provided a great opportunity for hands-on service work, and a chance for the students to give back to the park they were learning and living in. Mike Brondi, volunteer coordinator for NCNP, met up with both groups to teach them about invasive reed canary grass, which the students pulled in order to promote native grass growth. They also planted native seeds to restore the banks of Dry Creek and cleared the trail between Hozomeen and Willow Lakes.

students in bear box

Members of CCC1 manage to fit six people in a bear box

doing dishes

Students took turns cleaning up after each meal

Each group’s 12-day trip included waking up at 5am one morning to climb up Desolation Peak, gaining breathtaking views of snow and glacier-capped mountains, at the expense of one thousand vertical feet per mile. Youth who had been strangers on the first day supported each other like family, encouraging one another to the top of the mountain. This was just one of innumerable moments of awe and inspiration on the trips: listening to eerie loon calls at Hozomeen Lake, paddling silently to the mouth of Devil’s Creek, or holding 20,000 year old pieces of wood flattened by glaciers, preserved in clay next to the Skagit River.

canoes below desolation

Canoes float below Desolation Peak, about to paddle their hikers to the Desolation trailhead

group on desolation

CCC2 poses in triumph, with Jack Mountain and Ross Lake as a backdrop

After the two smaller groups completed their “backcountry” trips, they reunited at the Learning Center for the luxuries of “front country” camping, and ten days of focusing more intently on the science of climate change and its impacts on the North Cascades. Students met with specialists like NCNP geologist, Jon Riedel, to learn how climate change is affecting the park’s glaciers, Gina DiCiccio, NCNP climate change intern, and Katie Fleming from the Cool School Challenge. Their lessons allowed students to explore a variety of ecosystems, including Baker Lake, Baker River, Thunder Knob, Rainy Lake and Diablo Dam powerhouse.

By the end of the trip, students were experts at tent construction

rainy lake

Students hiked the still-snowy trail to breathtaking Rainy Lake for lessons about glacial landforms
After some rainy nights camping at Newhalem campground, resulting in the overnight formation of tent lakes, the group returned to the Learning Center for their culminating project: putting together an hour-long presentation and lessons on their experience, what they learned and how the students will be applying their new knowledge when they return home. The students shared this with the Kinship Conservation Fellows, a group of eighteen international leaders who are actively working to integrate a practice of conservation and environmental awareness into business. The students in turn got to learn about some of the kinds of jobs they could pursue to help preserve the environment they are so passionate about.


A student snorkels in Ross Lake, looking for small red-sided shiner fish

Twenty-two days after these sixteen students first came to the Cascades, they had to find a way to say goodbye to both a place and a community that had become a home and a family. As instructors, we hope that the students left with as much inspiration and confidence as they gave us. Getting to teach, lead, and mentor such exceptional young adults is a privilege. Spending three full weeks 24/7 watching these youth grow individually and as a group is a process that, while exhausting, is simultaneously one of the most rewarding experiences an educator can have. These bright-eyed and enthusiastic youth remind me of myself at a younger age, which gives me hope that they will continue becoming leaders that will not settle for “business as usual” and a planet that cannot support the systems and amazing organisms we cherish. NCNP maintenance foreman Gerry Cook shared the following words with the members of Cascades Climate Challenge, which they have all taken to heart: “I cannot change the world, but I can change the world around me. And if we change the world around us, we will change the world.”
group shot

Photos courtesy of Hannah Cameron and CCC instructors Tasha Lexin, Megan McGinty, Dave Strich, Aneka Singlaub and Kate Rinder.


  1. Deb McNamara

    I loved this post, Kate! So beautiful… And so inspiring! I wish I could have been on this trip!! Love, Deb

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