Saturday, January 23, 2010

An Adventurous Weekend in the North Cascades

Last weekend, most of the IslandWood grads drove up to the North Cascades Institute (NCI) to spend three days with the grads from their program along with the apprentices of the Wilderness Awareness School (WAS). It was the first trip in a three part exchange series between the environmental education schools that aims to foster the sharing of ideas and facilitate making connections with others in our field. From the trip preparations, I knew I'd be meeting new people and seeing a different program, but I could not begin to foresee the great adventures I'd go on or the incredible experiences I'd have with new friends.

The IslandWood grads all carpooled across Puget Sound on the ferry then cruised up I-5 to the North Cascades Highway 20 where we drove east a couple hours along the Skagit river, which just so happens to be where bald eagles like to spend their time in January because of the heavy salmon runs. We saw so many eagles during our drive that we lost count! Their majestic figures perched on branches next to the rushing water and their wings spread wide soaring over us as we craned our necks to catch final glimpses of them through the sun roof. Finally we drove over Diablo Dam, onto NCI's road and into their campus. The sites that greeted us were breathtaking. Snowy white peaks peered at us over conifer-covered foothills, contrasting sharply with the uncharacteristic bright blue sky.
That afternoon we explored our new surroundings, met the students from NCI and WAS, learned about NCI's climate change summer leadership program, and played a few raucous rounds of environmental education-themed trivia, with team challenges like making up the best campfire song, matching famous environmentalists with their quotes, and putting all the mountains in the Pacific Northwest in order from north to south. It was a great way to get to know the people from NCI and WAS and break the ice for the rest of the weekend.

The next morning, I awoke to Sarah (my IslandWood cabinmate and NCI roommate) saying, "It snowed last night" as she peeked out the blinds of our room. Excited, I leapt out of my bed and opened the shades only to find out that in her quick glance she had mistaken the white bark of a few fallen birch trees for snow. Although slightly disappointing, it was a humorous way to start the day. We had breakfast, then did more activities to learn about NCI's environmental education program, including a hike around some of their forest trails and a walk to Diablo Dam to learn more about its history and uses (it produces 25% of Seattle's power!). Although we didn't get to see NCI's program in action with kids since they only teach in the Fall and Spring, it sounds very similar to IslandWood's. 5th graders come overnight for a few days and learn about the natural environment through experiential, inquiry-based activities, except the whole program is based in the Cascades so deals a lot with mountain ecosystems, glaciers, and the dam.

Sarah and I on Diablo Dam                     The ravine below the dam
In the afternoon, we got to choose from a few hikes led by NCI grads. I chose one up to Pyramid Lake, which was supposed to have quite the altitude climb but be of medium length. Boy were we wrong!
We ended up climbing 1,500 ft. in 3 miles for a 6-mile roundtrip, which was somewhat higher and farther than predicted, but the big surprise was that it took almost double the amount of time we had thought it would because there was snow covering more than half the trail that had been packed down into ice! This made for a slippery, yet thrilling hike, especially on the way back down.
The whole trip was definitely worth it, though, because the forests were beautiful and at the top was Pyramid Lake, thoroughly frozen over with views of Pyramid Peak right behind it. After resting up from our tricky hike and "skating" all over the ice, a few of us decided that we wanted to explore further, so we climbed a rock slide that led up one side of the lake. It was steep and covered in snow, so we had to do most of it on our hands and knees, but I loved every second of it! It had been far too long since I had gotten to explore new terrain in such an intrepid way. When we reached the top, we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the lake and Pyramid Peak spreading out like a royal flush before our eyes.

After just barely making it back to the trailhead before the last streaks of daylight faded, we returned to NCI for dinner and a campfire with everyone else. Campfires are one of my favorite things in the world (going hand-in-hand with roasted marshmallows and stargazing) and we all had a wonderful time sharing our favorite stories, songs, and skits from IslandWood, NCI, and WAS. We sang and laughed long into the night, and one-by-one, people drifted back to their lodges until only four of us were left: Sarah, Gerolf (a German guy from WAS), Erin (an NCI grad), and myself. We put out the last few pulsing embers of the fire, then wandered campus for awhile, pausing every once in awhile to appreciate the blanket of stars that was being revealed by the parting clouds. We hung out with the WAS apprentices for awhile in their lodge and walked with them down to the lake shore, but then decided to strike out on our own to walk along the road to Diablo Dam. The way was mostly pitch black, but instead of being nervous, I trusted in my nighttime abilities. I've been leading plenty of night hikes with kids at IslandWood this year without any source of light and my night vision has improved drastically. It did feel slightly disconcerting at first to be walking at night along a route that I hadn't memorized by heart like the trails of IslandWood, but although I felt blind, I trusted in my senses and soon I felt right at home in the darkness. When we got to the dam, we gazed down the steep wall and listened to our shouts echo through the ravine far below. Then we hung out for a long time and just talked. About a lot. About life. Then we walked back, picking out constellations in the sky above us, and hilariously skipping for a spell to warm up. We even saw a gloriously orange shooting star streak over our heads! Sarah and I crawled into our beds around 2am, exhausted but sublimely content from the evening spent out in the night with new friends.

(I didn't bring my camera so credit for this photo of the dam goes to photographer: 'seawallrunner')
Our alarm rang bright and early the next morning because it was Kelly's birthday, and at NCI, there's a tradition of jumping into the lake on your birthday. Even if it's the middle of January. Even if it's freezing. A bunch of us had agreed to do it with her, but when our alarm went off at 7:30, Sarah and I groggily agreed that after only 5.5 hours of sleep, our warm beds were more appealing than a freezing lake so we reset our alarm for later and attempted to return to dreamland. Our third roommate, Minna, however, rolled out of bed and convinced us to go, so we pulled on our sweatpants and fleeces and ran down through chilly drizzle to the rocky shore with a small troop of IslandWood grads and WAS instructors.
There was no reason to delay, so we stripped down to our underwear and ran in, shrieking bloody murder as we submerged our heads in water that was so cold we couldn't breathe. We ran back out as quickly as we had run in, still yelling obscenities at the cold, but with huge grins on our faces as we toweled off and pulled our clothes back on. Mountain lake jumping is something else that's right near the top of my list of favorite things to do, but I hadn't done it in years, mostly because I've spent the majority of the past four years in Ohio where mountain lakes are as prevalent as Egyptian pyramids (read: non-existent), so being back in the beautiful Cascade mountains and starting my day by bolting into a freezing mountain lake was exhilarating and a refreshing renewal of who I am now that I'm back in the Pacific Northwest. Not to mention, the most startling and invigorating way to wake up ever.

Awhile later, we cleaned out our rooms, packed up our cars, and waved goodbye to our new NCI and WAS friends, but the weekend didn't end there. A few of us made a detour into Rockport State Park, home of some of the biggest old growth in the Skagit Valley. The sun shown down in misty streaks into the mossy eden and many of the trees were wider than I am tall. We took a lovely hike through the ancient forest and marveled at what those trees must have witnessed in their lifetime.

Then we piled back into the cars and drove back towards Seattle, making a pit-stop at an authentic Mexican food trailer where we ate spicy chicken tacos and the cook asked me for my number. Once in Seattle we celebrated Kelly's birthday at a German pub for awhile before heading back on the ferry to Bainbridge where we collapsed from exhaustion.

The weekend was an incredible mountain retreat into which I poured heaps of physical and social energy. It was an extraordinary feeling to be exploring the magnificence of my own Pacific Northwest backyard while seizing every possible moment and a reminder to do it more often.

1 comment:

  1. It was an adventurous and thrilled activity and the trip was fantastic. These environmental programs should be held more often to make the awareness in kids about the environment.