Why I Love North Cascades Institute (and you should too!)

This blog post was written by Institute Senior Program Instructor Hannah Black about her powerful experiences teaching local students about the environment around them and their places in it. If you are as inspired by her testimonial as we are, we hope you'll consider making a gift to our Give Big for Youth campaign!

After being inspired by the mission and vision of the Youth Leadership Adventures program, I joined North Cascades Institute’s seasonal staff in June of 2021. I’ve continued here and grown in my role because of the people—the vibrant community that the Institute creates.

In a recent conversation with my coworkers, I described the scope and impact of the Institute as a series of concentric circles: The region – our participants – our staff – and the individual.  

At its broadest circle, the Institute exists in a particular region. The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is situated in the second-most biodiverse National Park in the United States. Our programs take place from Puget Sound tidepools to the high Cascade crest to the dry Ponderosa pine eastside of the mountains. Staff and students at the Learning Center fill our bellies with food locally sourced from within our regional “foodshed.” We are all touched by the same raindrops in Spring and snowflakes in Winter.

North Cascades Institute participants—the second circle—are as varied as the ecosystems of this region. They are artists, recreators, school children, community scientists, lifelong learners, first time visitors to North Cascades National Park, teenagers, local farmworkers, teachers, business people, and much more. While the place and people who make Northwest Washington special are incredibly diverse, we share common narratives and connections to our home. Having shared experiences in nature helps us find those common threads. For example:

Sitting on the shores of Ross Lake several days into a backcountry canoe trip on a Youth Leadership Adventures trip, my group of high schoolers delved into a deep conversation about the impact of climate change on our own lives. Over the previous 48 hours, a thick smoke had descended from nearby wildfires, obscuring even the near shore just one mile away. As I introduced the topic of climate change, I asked our group about their personal experience with extreme events. Each one of us had a story to share about where we were during the June heat wave or in times of choking wildfire smoke. When our discussion turned to climate change right here in the North Cascades, it was eerie being unable to see Nohokomeen Glacier—which is melting, due in part to climate change—thanks to another climate change-fueled phenomenon. The collective sensory intensity of our lesson’s context drew urgency to our later discussions about climate change, and more importantly, climate action and solutions. 

Canoe-camping on Ross Lake with Youth Leadership Adventures participants, Summer 2021.

This spring, 5th graders in Mountain School are connecting to lessons on hydrology and watersheds in new ways as they grapple with the impacts of the November flooding on their families and communities—a story I know all too well having watched my neighbors’ properties get submerged beneath the brown, muddy waters of the Skagit River. 

While sharing disaster narratives is not the same as the magic of peering at a lichen through a microscope for the first time, Institute programs are providing students with a shared context to discuss and enhance their connection to the region and to each other

Another way to find common ground and strengthen community is to foster an inclusive atmosphere and provide for equitable experiences.  

Guiding a Mountain School group through trails around campus, Fall 2021.

At the end of a rainy day at Mountain School this past fall, a shy student approached me as we were wrapping up with a reflection activity.  They told me, “I love it here!”  When I asked them why, they responded that the people at North Cascades Institute are “so respectful and kind.” That day we had interacted with nature gently, taking care to pick only a few mushrooms for our investigation of fungi while observing many others in place. We were intentional about introducing ourselves with our pronouns and welcomed students to do the same. This student was floored that we had used their and their friends’ appropriate pronouns throughout our time together. 

This is just one tiny example of how the Institute is creating a welcoming space for ALL to enjoy the outdoors.

One of the tighter circles is the third one: our staff.  Each Friday, the Mountain School team and other Learning Center staff gather for a teaching and learning session—one hour devoted to learning something new from a peer or community member. We’ve forayed for fungi with Evan, rolled sushi with Chef Dan and connected literature with practice with Bec, among other impactful lessons. 

Hannah and the Mountain School team, kicking off the Spring 2022 season.

As I prepare to teach a session on cottonwood bud salve-making, I reflect on my personal journey learning this craft from past coworkers and the role that knowledge sharing has in strengthening a community. I feel immense gratitude for the skills of my peers and for a workplace that encourages us to share our knowledge and expertise so that we may better serve the broader community. 

Please consider making a contribution during GiveBIGYour gift touches each layer of these concentric circles, including the center: YOU!  You and your connection to the North Cascades are at the heart of what we do. 


  1. Jodi Broughton

    Thank you so much, Hannah, for sharing your wonderful perspective and thank you for being here!

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