The still night sky is broken only by the straightforward path of a distant satellite as a class quietly finds the constellations from their homework assignment. Another class studies the mythology of ravens before heading out to see the magnificent black birds in their natural habitat. Several months down the road, yet another class will be strapping on snowshoes and going in search of wild hares. These might sound like the kinds of experiences many of us haven't had since saying goodbye to the bunk beds and canoeing expeditions of childhood summer camp, but at the North Cascades Institute in Sedro Woolley, it's all in a day's work.
"Not a lot of environmental education takes place in this country," says Jeff Muse, community relations and marketing coordinator for the North Cascades Institute. "We're hoping to change that."
The institute, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in March, offers year-round classes, seminars, conferences and retreats on the geography, culture and ecology of the North Cascades region (which is bounded by Puget Sound to the west and the Columbia Basin to the east) for people of all ages.
"We get all kinds of folks," says Muse. "We get kids with their parents up through senior citizens. The one thing that most of the people who come here have in common is that there's a strong interest in natural history. We welcome anyone who's interested, and our goal is to get people outdoors so they can experience nature in an intimate way."
While most of the courses take place over the four-month period from June through September, there are at least a few classes in the winter months, and even quite a few offerings as late in the season as October or as early as April. "Connecting people, nature and community through education" has been the institute's guiding principle since being founded in 1986 by its current Executive Director Saul Weisberg and a handful of like-minded friends (teachers, climbers, rangers and biologists) who were all interested in long-term environmental education.
"What we've found is that so many adventurers -- climbers, mountain bikers, kayakers -- are ecologically illiterate," says Muse. "It's like, 'You can climb a mountain, but can you identify a flower along the way?' Our focus this year is to get people to slow down and to take the time to learn what is in front of them."
With that in mind, this year's course offerings are as varied and intriguing as the tumult of color in an alpine wildflower meadow. Muse, who is also one of the institute's instructors, leads backpacking tours that combine literature and natural history. One year the expedition read Jack Kerouac while hiking to the lookout tower on Desolation Peak where Kerouac lived for a short time; this year the trip covers the Pacific Crest Trail accompanied by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Terry Tempest Williams. "What we do with a class like that is take the place, the geographical features and the natural history of the area, and then connect it to the larger world of cultural history and literature," he explains.
Not all classes stay strictly within those confines: next week is a class that has its foundations closer to home. "Selkirk Mountain Caribou" involves two moderate-to-strenuous day hikes in the Salmo-Priest wilderness, and the chance to learn about these rare ungulates by radio-tracking collared animals and spending time in their habitat. Other classes still available through the rest of August, September and October include courses on the riparian zone (where river and bank meet), Native American art and landscape, night sky watching, railroad history, keeping a naturalist's creative journal, salmon and their relationship to rivers, beading, mushroom ecology and the art of writing the natural history essay.
The institute is growing to meet the needs of its students, and this summer marks the first season of the school's new graduate program.
"We offer a master's degree in environmental education. It's an interdisciplinary approach where students are getting an environmental education, but also some strong natural science and the opportunity to help build curricula and partnerships at the same time." The institute is also in the planning stages of its Environmental Learning Center, to be located at Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park. The world-class center will include aquatic and terrestrial labs, an amphitheater, overnight accommodations, a boathouse, a dining hall, classrooms, a science library and an extensive trail system.
"It's a way to keep the chain of natural history visible and relevant in people's lives," he says. "It's not just something you learn at camp in the fourth grade."
The North Cascades Institute's 2001-2002
season is currently underway. For a complete list
of their courses, visit the Web site at www.ncascades.org or call (360) 856-5700.