Reflections on North Cascades Wild

By CJ Goulding

Who are you?
What makes you unique?
What have you learned about the effects of stewardship?
What has your experience on this trip taught you about leadership?
What do you plan to do with it when you return home?

These are a few of the Mule Questions which, as leaders this summer, we used to spark self-reflection in our students during North Cascades Wild. The students spend a considerable amount of time thinking about their experience and the things they have learned, making them been better equipped to handle not only the short presentation they make to visitors and donors on a small barge operated by the National Park Service, called the NPS Mule, but to handle the world to which they return.

As I reflect and think on my own experiences of this summer in the North Cascades, I too hope to take some time and reflect on what I have learned. I want to share it so people out there can better understand the impact of North Cascades Wild and so that I, myself, will never forget.

My name is Courtney Andrew James Goulding Jr., born and raised in a Jamaican household on the East side of the country in Teaneck, New Jersey. I grew up in a place where “the outdoors” was simply an area with no roof above your head, the space that existed right outside your front door. I did not have the opportunity, the cultural background, nor the means to go out and explore these wild places. So in quite a few ways, this summer I was walking in the same shoes that these North Cascade Wild students walked, being exposed for the first time to the wilderness, the backcountry, and places like Ross Lake and Mt. Baker.

North Cascades Wild students canoeing down Ross Lake

I left home for Huntsville, Alabama at Oakwood University and the University of Alabama in Huntsville to study engineering and mathematics. After my sophomore year, I had to take a year off due to financial and emotional strain. But it was during that year that I received the initial opportunity which eventually led me to the North Cascades. I was introduced to the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and the National Park Service (NPS) through a one-week spring break academy in Grand Teton National Park. It introduced me to both the park system and the wonders of the natural world. There I met people who were interested in who I was as a person, invested in my success, and who were genuinely inclined to support me. All these things were surprising to me, as I had never seen anything like it before.
The inaugural class of the SCA/NPS Academy 2011 in the Grand Tetons

That week in the Tetons led to me working in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 2011, which was a season full of new challenges, new wonders, and meeting new people. I continued on and stayed involved in the NPS/SCA Academy this spring as a peer mentor to the new class of Academy students.

Through these activities, I began to define some possible career opportunities. But more importantly, I began to understand exactly what I, as an individual, am passionate about. And at the foundation of it all, I was granted this chance because of people. Good people, people who cared, people who pushed me, and people who were genuine.

National Park Ranger Mike Brondi giving a natural history talk, with a North Cascades journal in the foreground

This summer, I was given a ‘diamond in the rough’—I was given the chance at a life-changing summer within the opportunity to change the lives of others. I accepted the position of North Cascades Wild Crew Leader Apprentice precisely because of those people who supported and influenced me over a year ago. I wanted to give back, to invest in people, to positively influence and be a role model for high school students here in the North Cascades because of programs like the National Park Service Academy and people who had previously invested in me.

The dictionary defines stewardship as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” This summer, we taught students how to be stewards of the natural world that the national parks help to preserve. We taught them the importance of ethics like Leave No Trace, and we embarked on several projects where they were able to work at maintaining and improving the areas we camped in and backpacked through.

Together we scrubbed pit toilets, lopped overhanging branches, constructed trail turnpikes, and built tent pads. These projects had a profound effect on the students, who were being charged with the responsibility of taking care of something. Through this, they were seeing the positive impact their work had on the area.

North Cascades Wild students constructing a turnpike on the trail between Deer Lick and Nightmare camps

However, I learned about, and was profoundly affected by, stewardship applied in a slightly different vein. In the eight or twelve days I spent out in North Cascades National Park with the students, I learned how important a good role model and a firm example can be for a teenager. I was entrusted in part with the care of teengagers who came from a menagerie of different ethnicities, households, and life situations. Yet they were all people, and all in situations similar to my past. I strived to do for them the same things that other people had done for me before. I tried my best to care, to give advice, to support, to see them for who they were, to laud their accomplishments and encourage them over their obstacles and times when they thought they had failed. It was in this realm that I truly learned stewardship this summer. The bond that got formed from someone genuinely caring and investing in them over eight or twelve short days served as a clear reminder to me that people are in need of just that. A caring, concerned, genuine individual. This summer I was introduced to the stewardship of people.

The guys of North Cascades Wild trip 1 on the first day of their trip on Ross Lake

In that very same definition of stewardship lies the path that I have taken to becoming a better leader. Sharing responsibility for a group of 8 or more students in the backcountry for over a week demands careful and responsible management. I have been the type of person who usually does things by themself simply because I feel it is easier that way. But this summer I learned not only how to lead by example and get things done on my own, but how to incite growth and learning in others. I also received the unexpected benefit of seeing people you have taught accomplish something, or just be proud of the things that they can now achieve. I learned that it is not a talented and skilled person who makes a good leader, but someone who can elevate the members of their team to higher levels. As John Quincy Adams stated, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” This summer I was introduced to true leadership.

Now, in this summary of the summer, I have not forgotten or left out the beauty and majesty of the North Cascades. I have been utterly awed and amazed by some of the places I have been this summer, from Hozomeen Lake to the shoulders of Mt. Baker, from canoes on the emerald Ross to the pearly snow at the top of Desolation Peak.

Hozomeen Lake

I have fully experienced what John Muir meant when he said, “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” I have had an infinite inner curiosity awakened to the natural world, and definitely plan on continuing my exploration in that area. And I plan to bring all of these experiences home, back to the communities I came from where these wonders were just out of our reach. Bringing people outdoors and introducing them to the worlds that exist outside of our cities and inside themselves has become a new personal area of focus for me.
This summer spent in the North Cascades will remain with me wherever I go in life. I have learned an immense amount from the graduate students and staff here at North Cascades Institute, the students I have led, and this place. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity and the friends I made during this summer. I am now a better steward of the world, the people around me, and a better leader. I will continue to explore, grow, and challenge myself by pushing boundaries and limits, and I challenge you to do the same!

Leading photo: North Cascades Wild 2012 student with t-shirt onboard the NPS Mule. All photos by Mollie Behn and Christine Lynch.


  1. Amy Brown

    “This summer I was introduced to the stewardship of people.” Beautifully written and inspiring, CJ! Thanks so much for writing this and for being such an amazing member of our North Cascades Institute team.

  2. Kevin Farrell

    CJ (and the rest of the NCI Staff and NW Wild Leaders):
    Thank you so much for being true role models and an inspiration to my NC Wild participating daughter, Caoilinn Farrell. She talks about her experience constantly and reflects very positively on the interactions she had with all of you! We both look forward to seeing you all at the Youth Leadership Conference in November -where she will be a participant and I will be a presenter, representing the amazing Washington Conservation Corps Program. See you then.
    Kevin Farrell

  3. Christine

    CJ- This brought goosebumps to my arms!
    It was so great to have you as part of the team this summer, thanks for sharing your experience in such an eloquent way.
    Can’t wait to see what you get up to next

  4. Kassandra Barnedt

    CJ your are awesome! I really enjoyed your blog! It’s great to see how much NCWild can change lives of everyone involved from students to staff!

  5. Jay A. Satz

    I have been lucky enough to share this journey from the beginning with you CJ and it is great to hear from you about the impact of your experience and your commitment to pay it forward!

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