Hope is a barge of people on Ross Lake

Twelve mismatched teenagers have just come off of their hardest life challenge — climbing Desolation Peak. Author Jack Kerouac made this summit in the North Cascade Range famous. He named and led the “beat generarion” and was described as one “at the bottom of his personality, looking up.” These teens have reached into themselves while carrying 60-pound packs. They have been scholars of the fragile ecosystem. Through struggle, study and writing they are forming a voice to meet the global warming challenge. And we were their first audience.

You wouldn’t know it by just looking at them. You would have to listen. We picked up 12 high school students and their two leaders at Lightening Creek, two hours by barge down the lake. They welcomed us as we pulled into a quickly disappearing beach. The reservoir has been known to raise three feet in a day due to sudden melt-off and rains. Their concern was the ultimate melt-off caused by climate change.
Seattle City Light’s Ross Dam and the 25-mile stretch of water, mountains and glaciers behind it, are the setting North Cascade Institute’s Cascade Climate Challenge. This 4-year-old program prepares youth for the future by providing them scientific skills, leadership training and the presentation coaching needed to communicate the challenges of climate change. They are the spokespeople charged with “speaking from the heart” about an event whose existence some still question. Listening to them describe the week in which they awakened from their somnambulant adolescence inspired all who were present in the small audience.

This isn’t a resume building, quasi-senior-project-feel-gooder. These students have been hooked on the wild and are preparing to meet the challenges that global warming presents. After picking the group up, we consulted with the leader of the day to decide where our lunch meeting would convene. A mini-fjord up the lake, where the infilling of a creek drainage had made a navigable waterway, was the decided location. On board were North Cascades Institute donors, alumni and supporters sitting at the picnic table, gawking and talking. Some were former Cascades Climate Challenge graduates, now working in the park before they head off to college. One was a state government air quality manager; others National Park Service mentors whose lives have been devoted to preservation and education. The audience was all ears.

Each student’s personal rendition of their experience made for a compelling story. Take, for instance, the young wrestler who gave up his special competition to be a Cascades Climate Challenge participant and ended up being the hero of two students who got ill on the day of the climb. He carried their packs so they could continue. A young man recently emigrated from Ethiopia told of his childhood experiences listening to fairy tales and how that connected with his new passion for the wild. In English, his second language, he made a complex analogy about unity. Two students talked about the contrast of their life of video games and junk food prior to the “Challenge” and how they could never have imagined themselves as they now were. One girl talked about how the fusion of the group came from different personalities who she never would have imagined relating to. Another young man confessed to the difficulty of convincing his father that there is climate change.
As the short speeches came to an end, the inspiration was palpable.
The Cascades Climate Challenge is a well-choreographed plan to instigate leadership. The wilderness had stripped these young people of social grouping mechanisms that separate and isolate; it made one ponder the usefulness of sending world leaders into the wild together. The training gave them purpose; the experience gave them heart. The plan is working.
Each year, these students continue to gather for different reasons: to present at environmental or youth leadership conferences, job coaching/mentoring and to present the global warming projects that they are tasked to do. Each gathering is carefully planned to increase their capacity as change agents. As they were mentored so shall they mentor. Hefting a 60 pound pack may seem easy in the long run.

Hope is contagious on a Ross Lake barge; it is embodied in a group of young people. Like a novel written by a fire lookout, the seeds of these speeches hold enormous potential. The Cascade Climate Challenge is ” On the Road” and Jack, I think you would approve.\
— By Susan Towner, Bellingham


  1. Thom

    Very very special – the mountains and wild places can teach so much to us all – inspiring to read how lives are being transformed.

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