Wild Adventures on wild lakes

North Cascades Wild has the power to transform lives.
As a trip leader, North Cascades Wild is equally transformative for me as it is for the students that we reach. Never before have I witnessed a group build such a close family bond in such a short amount of time. The faces and behavior of the students I met on the first day were not the same as the students I hugged good-bye. We all became more confident, more alive and much more aware of ourselves as humans. Together we faced challenges and fears, ventured through unknown lands in search of knowing more about those places, supported each other, and learned from each other. Each sequential adventure we had brought us closer together.
The transformations are only getting started. North Cascades Wild started its busy season with two trips June 24th – July 1st.  Sixteen high school students from Washington embarked on eight-day backpacking and canoeing trips in North Cascades National Park Complex, one group on Diablo Lake and the other on Ross Lake. Aimed at providing first-time transformational experiences in the North Cascades, North Cascade Institute, in partnership with North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, provides opportunities for high school students to explore the wilderness, gain awareness in natural and cultural history practice leadership, communication, and outdoor skills, support the natural world through environmental stewardship projects, and garner a greater appreciation for their natural surroundings and themselves.

North Cascades Wild Trip 2 on Diablo Lake enjoy a day of paddling together! Photo by Sarah Bernstein.

Each season of North Cascades Wild is special, but this year is particularly special because North Cascades Institute is piloting two new features. Four 8-day trips will now run on Ross Lake and Diablo Lake in an effort to increase the number of students reached. Additionally, many of the trips will be accompanied by a North Cascades Wild Trip Leader Apprentice. The Trip Leader Apprentice program is designed to support young leaders in the Institute’s Pathway for Youth by providing a stepping stone from a prior youth program experience to the deeper responsibilities of being part of a trip’s leadership team.
I was one of the four trip leaders on Ross Lake for this first session, and the eight students on my trip, along with my other three co-leaders, had a whirlwind of a week! After a quick visit to North Cascades National Park’s Wilderness Information Center and Newhalem Visitor Center, students spent a day at North Cascade Institute’s Environmental Learning Center. Then it was on! After learning how to canoe at Ross Lake Resort, students paddled their way to McMillan Campground on Ross Lake. For most students, this was their first time canoeing – first time on a boat, first time in the water and, for some, a chance to face their fears. Along our way, we saw the only pair of loons left on Ross Lake, providing for us a balletic display of courtship. The was the first of countless nature moments that continued to unveil themselves on Ross Lake. At McMillan, students learned how to set up tents, cook food in the backcountry and, in a nutshell, live outside. Living outside allowed us to see a hummingbird visit our campsite, watch deer crossing our paths, hear the creaking of the trees, and immerse ourselves in the smells of the natural world.

During our stay at McMillan, Mike Brondi, North Cascade National Park’s Youth and Volunteer Coordinator, lead us in stewardship projects to improve the general health and appearance of McMillan campsite. Students eagerly raked campsites, cleared fire pits, cleansed and washed the compost toilet, removed intrusive branches from trails, covered social trails and, following a lesson from Mike about the importance of maintaining a natural balance by examining the impact of invasive species, removed heaps of invasive Reed Canary grass from the shore of Ross Lake. Fulfilled by the knowledge that we made a difference, our group set out on an exploration in search of a historic cabin. Using a compass, students followed a bearing in the reported direction of the cabin. Even though the cabin never came into sight, we were entranced by the beauty of our surroundings. Beds of moss and lichen created a perfect cushion for our sore feet, epiparasitic candysticks stood erectly as if we were transported into the childhood game Candyland, and beard lichen made perfect fake mustaches. Our sense of curiosity and exploration unfolded during this trip and continued in the days to come.

A student journals quietly amidst the big tree stumps exposed by the drawdown of Ross Lake. Photo by Christine Lynch.

The following day, we packed up and moved camp across the lake to Big Beaver Campground. Even the swarms of mosquitoes did not distract us from cleaning up Big Beaver camp as well! After some well-deserved free time and daring ourselves to sit in the cold cold water of Ross Lake, we were treated to a special Ranger program by Park Ranger AJ Fedoruk on the cultural history of Ross Lake and the building of Ross Dam. It was also on this night that I asked the students how they felt their experience on Ross Lake has changed them. Some said they felt more free to be themselves and free from the social challenges at home, others said they became more in tune with their surroundings and were looking forward to exploring nature back at home; others saw themselves becomung more confident and able to come out of their shells; and one said his dream was becoming true to be outside just like he had once seen in a National Geographic magazine!
We woke up the following day to continue our sense of adventure, a paddle up Ross Lake in search of Devil’s Creek Canyon. Using their new found skills in communication, leadership, map, and compass, the students found their way to Devil’s Creek. Greeted by the majestic presence of a bald eagle, we silently paddled up Devil’s Creek. The quelling of voices gave way to the screech of the passing bald eagle, the musicality of canoe paddles swishing in the water, and the roar of a close-by waterfall. It was from this experience that a student said she felt like she was one with nature, and not intruding upon it. It is from statements like this one that to me prove North Cascades Wild has the power to transform students’ perceptions of themselves and their surroundings. The day continued after this powerful experience in Devil’s Creek with a lunch break on the shores of Ross Lake and a return trip filled with a surprise water battle. Refreshed and proud of our achievements, we finally made our way back to camp.

All is quiet as we paddle our canoes into the cold and peaceful canyon of Devils Creek. Photo by Mollie Behn.

From Day 1 until now, we had known Ross Lake by boat, but that was about to change. We bid goodbye to our canoes, to be collected by Cascade Climate Challenge students, and strapped on our backpacks for a full day of backpacking. Like canoeing, only one student had had previous experience backpacking. Still trying to adapt to the weights of the packs, we were also adapting to seeing nature from a new perspective. We crossed waterfalls, checked out plants, and observed the landscape change around us not from an expansive view, but up close and personal. After lunch, we hiked silently, alone in nature. This was a time for us to once again be more in tune with nature, with ourselves, and to reflect again on our experiences so far. We became further in attuned to our surrounding as a male Blue Grouse startled us and put on a lavish mating display. Still gleaming from the silent hike and Blue Grouse experience, we excitedly and tiredly found ourselves finally at Green Point Campground.

The male blue grouse spotted as we hiked from Big Beaver to Green Point. What a display! Photo by Christine Lynch.

The opportunities for reflection, the nature moments, the tight group bond, and the challenges and adventures the students had during our trip prepared them for one of the most influential days of North Cascades Wild: the Mule Trip. The Mule Trip was an opportunity for our students to share with individuals who support North Cascades Institute and North Cascades Wild their experiences and their stories. One by one, students stood proudly in front of a group of adults and heartfully shared their stories as to why they chose to participate in North Cascades Wild, how they felt they had been transformed, and why this experience has been so special to them. For many it was the opportunity to feel part of a cohesive team and build close friendships; for others it was the chance to be in nature and feel free to explore and bring out their inner child, to feel more confident and free, to realize a life long dream of backpacking and being in nature, or to face fears and overcome them. There was not a dry eye on the boat.

NC Wild students from Trip on Ross Lake on board the NPS Mule! Photo by Mollie Behn.
The pieces of our community rope tied around all our wrists. Photo by Christine Lynch.

The Mule Trip and a closing ceremony brought the trip an end. Yet our trip carries on in our hearts. The twelve of us, brought together by a community rope tied together representing our hopes and desires for our group, left forever tied together. Tied to our wrists are pieces of this community rope, to remind us of the community we built, the laughs and adventures we had, and the transformations each and every one of us will carry with us throughout our lives.
Leading photo of North Cascades Wild Trip 1 group backpacking along on Ross Lake! Courtesy of Christine Lynch.


  1. Jack McLeod

    Congratulations on being a part of transformative moments in these students’ lives. What further good will come from this… Your essay captured the trip well.

  2. Tanya Anderson

    Awesome essay! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Amy Brown

    What a beautifully written piece about an amazing and transformative trip! Thanks for writing, Mollie. I’m so glad I was there to witness the Mule trip and the students’ stories!

  4. Kevin Farrell

    Kudos to the staff of NCI and the National Park Service for putting on this amazing program! My daughter, Caoilinn, is currently on the 12-day trip and I know she will come home a changed individual! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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