Hidden high in the North Cascades National Park, southeast of Bellingham, you’ll find that the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center offers the best base camp for families and individuals who want the ultimate outdoors experience. The Environmental Learning Center provides direct access to nature, resources to learn about your surroundings, comfortable accommodations and incredible locally-sourced, fresh food.
As a Boy Scout, we called this approach Cadillac Camping. Today, the trend has grown to be known as Glamping – (aka, luxury camping). But this place is different. Go to Experience & LEARN! For a tour watch the NCI Environmental Learning Center Slideshow.
“The Learning Center is a hub of discovery for all ages in one of the wildest, most biologically diverse landscapes in North America. Here you can explore cascading streams and pristine peaks, wildflower meadows and old-growth forests, and a rich Northwest history that includes more than 8,000 years of Native American culture. Better still, you can join a community – expert teachers, intriguing new friends – dedicated to the idea that learning together inspires stewardship.” The Institute was ahead of the times when it built this facility, which extends its mission of connecting nature, people and community.
My daughter Violet (age 6) and I headed up for a long July weekend (never long enough) to join others for a Family Getaway Weekend. We arrived on Friday for a quick check in and were provided with a schedule of events to choose from that spanned from Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. Three days of fun were on our horizon, with complete strangers as our companions for the journey.
I have been to the ELC several times since it opened on the first day in 2005; I have been there for an intimate wedding; I have been there for a writers workshop; I have been there- but I know that I have so much more to see, learn and share.
After we checked in, we headed down through the amphitheater to the dining hall. We sat down with plates full of fresh goodness from the Skagit Valley. The produce and meat is grown on the farms we drove past en route on Highway 20. The bread, cheese and other elements of what we’d eat over the next 3 days were also sourced from down valley. Even better- the chefs and dishwashers (actual people) make it all appear and disappear for you so you can focus on having the time of your life during your stay.
The schedule of events provided for the Family Getaway was comprehensive, with variety for kids and adults to each enjoy the experience at hand. I put on my professional “conference going hat”- picking and choosing which “sessions” would be of the most interest and value for me and mini-me.
There were group events to get us going before we’d launch into our selected sessions.
1:30 – 2:30 Orientation and Icebreaker games: in the Amphitheatre
2:30 – 4:00 Neighborhood Walks
4:00 – 5:00 Family Time – which also coincided with Activity Sign up time!
I read aloud for Violet the first session to choose from at 5:00 pm, “*Fairy Houses with Brooke. Meet in the Lily Shelter”. Followed quickly by, “Are you kidding me, Violet, they put this together just for you!” While we have experience looking for Fairy Houses in the wilderness on our own- she had never attended a class taught by staff of the Institute, “This is very special,” I explained. “I’ll read the description, Violet. Fairy Houses: What makes the North Cascades such a great place for fairies? Where might they settle down and raise their little ones? Learn the basics of fairy home construction with Brooke! All ages welcome to be dropped off!”
The sessions with an asterisk meant that you can leave your kids there with the staff while you do something for yourself while your kids get to make some new friends. When I pitched the dropped off aspect to Violet, she quickly chose the option of being there without the dad. Win-Win! We worked on eating our lunch as we reviewed the rest of the calendar ahead and plotted our course for the learning to come. Next up, ORIENTATION in the Amphitheatre.
The group gathered and we all introduced ourselves, with the staff leading the way. As these budding Environmental Educators introduced themselves, it was evident the national draw that this place has for the cream of the crop. Our instructors hailed from Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Vermont and distant places around our great state of Washington. They helped break the ice by telling “ONE COOL FACT” about themselves. I could see what they were doing! We were next.
We had seen these strangers around the campus as we were getting our bearings and settling in, now we were about to share this place and ourselves for three days. As we introduced ourselves and shared our cool fact, we learned the geographic reach and points of interest of our new found friends. There were two families traveling together from Spain’s Canary Islands; two Grandparents scoping the place out for their annual family trip (with 25 kids & grand kids when they come back); a family of four from Florida, both parents Entomologists; college buddies who brought their families up from Seattle and San Francisco to get away; and more, each with their own story to share.
The icebreakers were fun and helped the shy shed their shells, a bit. We were paired up with our Neighborhood Walk tour guide and our new neighbors. Our first stop was back up the stairs to get a perspective on just where we were. Brooke, a marine science educator from Iowa, was our guide for the first leg of our trip. I love maps and this one is one of the best- it looks as if it’s 3-D when you’re standing in front of it, staring at the tops of peaks and down into the carved river valleys.
It was pretty evident that Violet has been outside before once we started our walk around the neighborhood. Once on the trail, Brooke was relegated to second in command as far as the guide went. “Come on! Follow me,” Violet would shout as we strolled up the trail soaking in the serenity with our new camp buddies. We were all intrigued with the moss and lichen. Reaching down to touch it, feeling the difference between the two and sharing what we knew about each and exposing what we didn’t know- to help guide our learning in the extensive library on campus.
The Wild Ginger Library is open 24 hours. After our tour, we went to the library and looked up the lichen we’d seen in the best resource for NW plant identification: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The authors, Pojar and MacKinnon, had identified and cataloged the lichen that we’d been admiring and we proceeded to learn the types we saw were called Lettuce Lung and Pimpled Kidney.
On our Neighborhood Walk, we were led to the base of Sourdough Creek. The flow of the glacial melt created complimentary sounds to accompany the wind rushing through the branches in the forest canopy. We followed the babbling brook down to the outflow into Diablo Lake, where we kicked off our shoes and dipped our toes in the frigid, turquoise water.
Next up, 6:00 pm – Coffee Time on the Porch & Fairy Houses – for me and The V, respectfully. I enjoyed sitting on the deck of the Dining Hall, listening to Oliver give us some of the cool stats of the place. He talked about the dams that JD Ross planned and built way back in the 1920’s. He spoke about the unique relationship that The Institute has with Seattle City Light and the National Forest Service. Oliver outlined the coolest stats in summary- 308 glaciers (with a glacier’s minimum acreage to cover 25 acres in order to qualify); #2 National Park for biodiversity; and other tidbits of historical knowledge that had been passed down through the written word or oral tradition during his stay here.
While I was busy listening to Oliver and the sidetracked conversations the group wandered through, Violet was busy building houses for fairies. I arrived to find her completely engaged in the design and build of her own Fairy House- she had found an appropriate location at the base of a cedar and the raw materials necessary to complete the task. Her new found friends were also on hand to help her meet her pressing deadline and she in turn joined them to help them complete their tiny houses.
We made our way to dinner and joined another family, the ones from Florida, to break bread and toast the day, “To the start of a great adventure.” We asked and answered the second round of icebreaker questions for one another as the kids hung out at the table, simply happy to be around other kids who like being OUT THERE.
With a packed agenda, we cleaned our tables and made our way up to the group presentation with Naturalists Max and Brooke- How to Bear It. The dynamic duo did a fantastic job of engaging kids and parents in learning about the resident bears. The interactive demo included volunteers from the audience acting out the seasons of the bear and the manners through which they approach survival.
This is nature’s classroom, a place to experience and enjoy, but best of all ask questions. We were all engaged with the instructors and each other to make the most of our time in this place.
We passed on the evening hike (8-10 pm) to Ladder Creek Falls, so we could get our rest for a packed agenda the following day. We retired to one of the LEED Silver certified, European-style lodges and enjoyed the company of others for bed-time stories in the communal lounge. The lodges provide “guest rooms and shared gender-specific bathrooms with private showers…offering private, double, triple and quad occupancy rooms.” NCI.
I awoke early to the sound of the pouring rain bouncing off the roofs, as it made its way to the gutters that channeled it down into various rain gardenesque capture points. While I enjoy the sound of the rain, the imminent morning activity was soon approaching- Big Canoe with Sam and Max. But first, breakfast! The eggs were not rubbery and the potatoes were not reheated out of a big plastic bag- we were livin’ large. This was not like any ‘conference’ I’d ever been to for ‘work’.
Geared up and ready to go, we joined others that were brave enough to embrace the elements and go get in a BIG CANOE! We gathered in the same circle, now smaller than we’d had the previous night- during our icebreaker routines. This time, we were learning how to dance with our paddles and work in unison. Commands called out and we’d respond appropriately. GO TEAM! We were ready.
With Sam at the stern (the back) and Max in the bow (the front) we headed out for adventure- and some learning along the way. Max explained how the glacial flour from the meltwater creates the brilliant color of the water. He told tall tales of long-lost gold mines that are now buried beneath the man-made lake.
We returned to our room and Violet hit the showers to warm her soggy body. She threw open the door as she returned and exclaimed, “Daddy, I really like this place. Can we come back next weekend?” We had just started our Family Getaway Experience and she was hooked. “Com’ere,” I quipped and gave her a big hug and iterated, “I’m glad to hear you like this place as much as I thought you would. And, yes, we’ll be back. Next year.”
Next up was lunch and we joined others to share our individual and collective stories with our new friends. We were fortunate to have lunch with Sam, from Massachusetts, who earlier shared that her dad is a race car driver (and that she has driven race cars, too). Sam offered to allow me to go on the Diablo East Stewardship Stroll with Emily while she put an imaginary asterisk next to the sessions that she’d be hosting- Kids in the Kitchen and Nature Up Close: Exploring the World Through Microscopes. Violet became Sam and the staff’s protege for the day, while I was able to explore the place and the people with our own guide and friends.
Joining me on the walk, was my new friend Gerry- the Grandpa from Snohomish who was on recon for the rest of his family’s future trip (all 25!). We followed Emily into the woods and learned fun stuff along the we way. She introduced us to Indian-Pipe Monotropa uniflora (pictured below) that lacks chlorophyll and instead obtains nutrition from coniferous tree roots.
“In Straits Salish and Nlaka’pamux languages, the name for Indian-Pipe means “wolf’s urine’; it is associated with wolves and is said to grow wherever a wolf urinates…it is an indicator for wood mushrooms in the coming season.” Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
The trail climbed up the slope and crossed washed out creeks. We reached our destination- meeting up on the trail with the kids who were out with the Youth Leadership Adventures Program. The Thunder 10, they introduced themselves as, and each answered a question they had posed to themselves. Their answers were deeply personal and each exposed themselves to the vulnerabilities that they were out to conquer.
The group had only been together for a couple of days, but the bonds of the team were strong. Their enthusiasm for the work and journey ahead was signaled by the support they showed for one another. Glenn and I engaged them in questions after their presentations and got a deeper glimpse into the psyche of these worldly kids, who intently chose to come to have this experience.
We had to say goodbye and head back to our families. As we did, Glenn remarked, “Those kids have no idea of what they are experiencing out there and how valuable these lessons are going to be to them in the future.” I agreed. It was amazing. We were moved.
After our jaunt, I reconnected with Violet. Not surprised that she didn’t really “miss me” as she was plenty busy with new friends and activities. We hurried on to the next activity: *Forest Sneak. While it was one of those “OK to drop off kids at activity” sessions, I chose to join the group.
The instructors outlined a fun game to play (aka HIDE & SEEK) and the kids ran off and sought out the best place to blend into the surrounding landscape.
On the surface, little kids were being told to scatter throughout the woods and hope that somebody would find them. The reality was that these kids were becoming comfortable alone in the surroundings of the natural world. To see a small girl cover her eyes and count to 20 without screaming for her parents was refreshing. I can only imagine what she saw when she lifted her hand from her face and began the search for her friends. I imagine she saw the world in a new light.
We all reconvened in the Dining Hall and sat down with our friends to share our evening meal. After dinner, we gathered around at the Lily Shelter for the evening program of Campfire, Skits, Songs and S’mores. The entertainment was excellent- Brooke playing guitar and the staff and audience singing classic camp songs. They even had their own variation of WILD THING! Parents putting on staff-directed skits to get the kids rolling in laughter when the big punch-line was delivered! Oh yea, and S’mores!!
Sunday morning offered many options to choose from: Big Canoe, Junior Ranger Exploration, Microhike and then a shared Closing Reflections and Slideshow. We chose the Junior Ranger Exploration with Ranger Emily, with the incentive that we’d graduate and be awarded our Jr. Ranger badges at the Closing Reflection- View our collective photos for the slideshow on Flicker.
We ended, as we began, EATING! Lunch was a busy time of saying goodbye to our new friends, exchanging contact information and preparing for our re-entry back into the real world below. It was time to leave this special place.
Now is the time to plan to return (or go for your first time). All you need to know can be found at The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.
For more ideas about fun things to do throughout Bellingham visit our home page.