The three-day mountain camp strives to give school children a visceral connection to the Northwest wilderness.

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“Students leave the mountains with a new view of wilderness and civilization . . . When it all works, when the mix of people and place and subject click together just right, it is magic and we all know it.” — Saul Weisberg, naturalist, Mountain School creator, and founder of North Cascades Institute, in “Impressions of the North Cascades,” 1996.

 

DO NOT LET the sly grin fool you. Nika Meyers is not joking around.

Anniversary picnic

What: North Cascades Institute, Seattle City Light and the National Park Service are hosting a free picnic and open house to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and the 25th anniversary of Mountain School.

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Aug. 23.

Where: Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park.

Highlights: A barbecue picnic with local farms, Diablo Lake boat tours, campus sustainability tours, canoe trips, naturalist hikes, family-friendly activities and live music.

Out here amid the firs and ferns and tiny birds and devil’s club above Diablo Lake, she makes certain things clear to her young charges. Today’s lesson on getting in touch with the earth? It’s not some cute metaphor. It is exactly that: On your knees, boys and girls. Right down there with the spiders and rotting leaves and — Holy Crap! Is that a centipede?

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This is how it’s done at Mountain School: One pair of happy, grubby, fifth-grade paws at a time. Multiply by 2,800 kids from 53 schools this year alone, stir, and enjoy.

The concept behind the school, run by nonprofit North Cascades Institute, sounds simple: In a three-day mountain camp experience, imbue in school children a visceral connection with this special place — the thumping, mountainous heart of Northwest wilderness. Make its magic real to them at a micro level, in the hope that some of them will feel the pull to return as powerfully as a salmon headed home to spawn. Slip into their consciousness rudimentary skills of a naturalist — the ability to observe and make the same personal connections to other wild lands.

Oh: Also do this without boring the amped-up, digitally dependent kids out of their skulls.

Meyers, 26, is all in.

“You guys are an awesome group,” she tells the assembled kids, known during their three-day visit as the “mountain goats,” as they descend from a 3.5-mile hike on a warm day in May. “We all made it safely up the trail to the waterfall. We all stayed together!”

Squatting in a trailside shelter made of Western red cedar, she carefully watches for any student not paying attention, quickly pulling him or her back in with a question or comment. She pulls from her backpack a clipboard and draws out a set of vertically oriented letters: “FBIS.” The kids pull journals from their own packs and await explanation.

“The FBIS are the secret agents of the forest,” Meyers says, adopting the dramatic tone of a storyteller. The “F” stands for fungus, she explains; “B” is for bacteria; “I” is for invertebrates and “S” for scavengers. Together, the FBIS break down material on the forest floor, reprocessing it back into nature as compost and nutrients.

The kids write it down and seem to get it; now they must show it. Split into smaller groups, they’re asked to comb the nearby forest floor, finding a natural product in various stages of this life/death cycle, then present it to the rest of the group. They do so enthusiastically, later gathering up materials to be “borrowed” from the forest for examination under a microscope at the nearby NCI Environmental Learning Center, an impressive campus in the woods along the shore of Diablo Lake.

Fifth-graders from The Gardner School of Arts and Sciences in Vancouver, Wash., glide in their canoe after paddling together on Diablo Lake. Pyramid Peak is in the background.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Fifth-graders from The Gardner School of Arts and Sciences in Vancouver, Wash., glide in their canoe after paddling together on Diablo Lake. Pyramid Peak is in the background. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Even near the end of a long day — the second of three for this group from Bellingham’s Alderwood Elementary — peeks into the microscope produce squeals of delight, fifth-grader style.

“Look at this,” one of the girls shouts, staring into the microscope at a tiny forest-floor object that suddenly looks IMAX impressive. “It’s just disgusting!”

Higher praise rarely offered.

Later, over handmade pizzas in the dining room, the stories fly about creepy crawlies and stupendous trees and that amazing waterfall. Lifetime friendships are hatched. Some kids who never stand out in a classroom stand tall in the woods.

This is how it’s done at Mountain School. Has been, in fact, for 25 years as a program that sprouted in leaky Army surplus tents at Newhalem Campground matures into a national model for wilderness education on public lands.

Chalk it all up to accidental brilliance.

THE SILVER ANNIVERSARY of the Mountain School is one of a series of landmarks for NCI. The campus that hosts Mountain School turns 10 years old this summer; NCI itself hits its 30th anniversary next year. A celebration of the anniversaries will take place Aug. 23 at Diablo Lake.

The same person-to-nature focus that distinguishes Mountain School is found in all of NCI’s programs, which include high school leadership outings and numerous family and adult seminars covering everything from bird-watching to fresh-air poetry. How has the institute, launched by a climbing ranger and tree-hugger friends, kept that sharp focus?

Jones explains how a glacier compacts snow with his class from Alderwood Elementary in Bellingham. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Jones explains how a glacier compacts snow with his class from Alderwood Elementary in Bellingham. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

By sticking to proven, simple themes, dear to the hearts of the originators. What’s remarkable about Mountain School is not just that it regularly succeeds in placing the North Cascades ecosystem — 2 million acres of largely unseen, protected lands in one of the grandest stretches of wilderness remaining in the Lower 48 states — permanently in the hearts of students. Or that 26,000 kids, and counting, have received the message. It’s how little the message has changed since Day One.

“It’s all about planting seeds,” says Saul Weisberg, 61, who conceived of and founded the institute three decades ago, and remains its executive director.

The notion came together during many nights spent under the stars — and in the winds, and rains — in the backcountry of the North Cascades, where he worked as a climbing ranger in the late 1970s. It sounds almost like a cliché, but Weisberg and a friend, Tom Fleischner, conjured the notion of NCI sitting around campfires (cue crickets and coyote howls).

“At the time, the environmental world was all about litigation,” Weisberg says. “You had the timber wars, the spotted owl. Everything was about litigation. We thought, ‘Nobody’s trying education!’ ”

They asked themselves: Where does public education fit into conservation, and how does it influence long-term efforts to preserve wild places? Specifically, how do you get people to know the North Cascades, beyond zipping through them in a Volvo? Get intimate with them? Know more? Care more? The answer lives today in the North Cascades Institute, which Weisberg concedes, “We originally thought might be a good gig for a couple summers.”

While hiking in the forest, naturalist Brandon Jones places his hand on the ground as his class piles on top to simulate how a glacier is formed from layers of snow.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
While hiking in the forest, naturalist Brandon Jones places his hand on the ground as his class piles on top to simulate how a glacier is formed from layers of snow. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Thirty years later, its Mountain School still represents what Weisberg espoused from the beginning: A chance for Northwest kids to get out in nature — many of them spending nights away from home for the first time — and go home with mountain air embedded in their hearts. While the group’s unofficial mission has always been to “save the world,” it’s official task is to put people and nature together and stand back in awe watching what happens. It can’t happen without the dirty hands.

“Landscapes are made up of details,” Weisberg wrote in 1996, explaining NCI’s philosophy. “Veins on a maple leaf, yellow and black scales on the wing of an anise swallowtail, striations on a piece of greenschist. Details show us where the magic hides.”

HIDE, IT DOES, especially in North Cascades National Park, surrounded by some 7 million Washingtonians, very few of whom ever venture far enough from a roadway to experience it first hand. That challenge drives NCI, which makes a living on pleasant surprises for those who do.

In keeping with that theme, the physical heart of the institute’s programs, the Environmental Learning Center, isn’t visible from any highway. Visitors park along Diablo Lake and follow a path to the campus, which hosts up to 80 students at a time.

When the learning center opened 10 years ago, it cemented a unique relationship between the unlikely partners that now operate it: the National Park Service, Seattle City Light and NCI. City Light, in fact, paid much of the learning center’s $12 million construction cost, from a pool of mitigation money from licensing its three upper-Skagit hydroelectric dams.

But that unconventional mix is somehow fitting, given the longstanding relationship up here between human activity and wilderness. Visitors to Mountain School will suffer no illusions about NCI’s stance on people being natural interlopers in wild places.

Two fifth-grade students take in the view from Diablo Dam to the Skagit River ravine 387 feet below as they walk the dam, located in the North Cascades National Park. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Two fifth-grade students take in the view from Diablo Dam to the Skagit River ravine 387 feet below as they walk the dam, located in the North Cascades National Park. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

The first thing students do after unpacking their bags at the learning center is take a stroll over to the top of massive Diablo Dam, where a shaky-kneed glance over the side is all it takes to be impressed by the immensity of the canyon in which they stand — and the similar scale of what man has wrought here.

“We want to teach them about their role as human animals; how they affect ecosystems,” says Chris Kiser, the Mountain School’s program coordinator.

Some of that ethic can be traced to the group’s roots: Among the early cheerleaders of NCI were members of the North Cascades Conservation Council, the prime pushers for establishment of North Cascades National Park in 1968. These were not fringe, lawsuit-happy environmentalists. They were old-school, Northwest greenies who supported the Harvey Manning/Mountaineers notion that wild, public lands are best saved by getting people into them — preferably by a means no more complicated than a Vibram sole, mind you. The idea was to build multigenerational constituencies to protect them.

With the fifth-grade boys in the back, classmates from left, Kareena Singh and Jessica Arellano learn to trust each other as they hike down a trail with their eyes closed. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
With the fifth-grade boys in the back, classmates from left, Kareena Singh and Jessica Arellano learn to trust each other as they hike down a trail with their eyes closed. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

That legacy has, in many ways, been passed to NCI, where it shines brightly from its Diablo Lake treed cathedral. School children are reminded, at every turn, that this land is their land. (Grasping this longstanding American notion often is transformational to students who are recent immigrants, moving some to tears, staffers say.) Mountain School instructors want the students’ short wilderness stay to be an appetite-whetting introduction, not a once-and-done crash course in surviving three days without 4G LTE.

Students hike the miles of forest trails around the center, venture onto the lake in a massive canoe, play games, spend time in the lab and fraternize around a campfire. They’re taught how the micro-systems they’ve studied fit into the bigger world that surrounds them — and how their actions affect it.

It’s tougher than it used to be to get them to abide by the no-electronics rule. But Weisberg says most people don’t realize how attuned to nature kids still are.

“I think they’re hard-wired for it,” he says. Digital society is only decades old; kids in the dirt has been around forever.

Fifth-grader Oswaldo Jimenez spends a required 10 minutes alone and silent away from everyone in his trail group so he can concentrate on the sounds of nature around him in North Cascades National Park. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Fifth-grader Oswaldo Jimenez spends a required 10 minutes alone and silent away from everyone in his trail group so he can concentrate on the sounds of nature around him in North Cascades National Park. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

WILL IT ALWAYS be so? NCI officials hope so. Weisberg and other staffers see the institute’s role becoming even more important as the North Cascades ecosystem is altered by climate change. Wild mountain lands could become increasingly valuable as what conservationists call “living arks” to preserve valuable plant and animal species.

The group also believes its programs have made a difference in conservation efforts elsewhere: Kids who grow up with a Mountain School experience already have moved on to key jobs in public and private life.

This is also by design. From its first days, NCI has maintained a reciprocal relationship with Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment. Many of its programs are taught by grad students in a unique, 20-month Wilderness Education master’s degree program that includes classroom instruction and field work — such as yearlong teaching residencies at Diablo.

The grad students depart with “all the skills I didn’t have when I started the institution,” Weisberg says with a laugh. “If you want to change the world, you have to be prepared.”

Some of his students have gone on to form their own conservation nonprofit organizations, which are increasing in numbers nationally. But for most, teaching kids at dirt level in Mountain School is the most-transformational experience.

“I came to the North Cascades and just felt this amazing sense of place,” says Meyers, an instructor for about four months who was lured here from Vermont by her own recent, life-changing trek up the Pacific Crest Trail.

Her biggest reward is seeing kids, many of them urban students, vow to return to the mountains — with families in tow. Those who don’t think their parents will be into it still might have a connection they can act on as adults, she says: “Down the road, we hope they will remember.”

A.J. Lear, a teacher at Alderwood Elementary, has little doubt. His district is the only one in the state that has set aside money to ensure every fifth-grader will get a Mountain School stay. That has turned an event that was an annual fundraising burden into a highly anticipated rite of passage — “the next step to independence before they move on to middle school,” Lear says.

At Mountain School’s conclusion, that step typically is taken symbolically, under the early twilight stars, around a campfire circle. After a recap of their stay, each student holds a sprig from a branch of Western red cedar. One by one, the children are invited to make an “unselfish wish to the world,” then drop their sprig into the campfire to send the sentiment skyward to the universe.

The wishes this night are varied:

“That this park will still be here for many generations to come.”

“That everyone gets respected equally.”

“That nobody will ever have to suffer because of another’s careless behavior.”

“That more people could have these kinds of experiences.”

Wishful thinking? Yes, the campfire host concedes. Sort of like the wishful thinking not far from here, 30 years ago, that made this whole thing happen.

Up here, he notes, “Wishes have been said out loud for a very long time.”