Winter 2014

The Center

By Scott Kirkwood

Five weeks in the North Cascades with a sketchbook, a camera and a journal.

It was like showing up for summer camp a week late.

Everyone else already knows when breakfast is served, how to get to the dining hall, where the dirty dishes go, and where the leftover cookies are hidden. And I’m standing all alone with a brown plastic tray in my hand looking utterly lost. What’s worse, everyone else has already made half a dozen life-long friends, and I’m the new kid. At 44.

The feeling didn’t last too long, but I struggled in my first week at the North Cascades Institute, surrounded by staff and visitors well-versed in the routines. Well known throughout Seattle and the surrounding area, NCI’s Environmental Learning Center offers arts and science classes to adults and a three-day Mountain School course for young students that mixes equal parts sleepover, science curriculum, and sing-along. Years ago, one of my co-workers in NPCA’s Seattle office had taken several classes on the stunning modern campus of “the Center,” as it’s often called, and suggested a magazine article, but we’d never gotten around to it. So when my six-week sabbatical came up (a perk offered to every NPCA employee at the seven-year mark), it seemed the perfect place to rest, recuperate, reassess my career, and record it all with a camera and a sketchpad. I offered to teach several classes in writing and photography while taking a few classes myself. Katie, the program manager for the Center, was on board from the start.

I decided to forgo a car for the first few weeks, not only to save NPCA a few bucks but so that I could really get a sense of the place and spend time with the people there—something that’s too easy to avoid when a rental car is at your disposal in the midst of 680,000 acres of mountains and glaciers and old-growth forest. That meant starting most days with a beautiful and strenuous 30-minute hike up a trail that connected the sleepy “company town” of Diablo to the Center. Usually I made the journey with a few of my roommates, all of whom worked at the Center: Aneka, a former grad student at Western Washington University, who now leads several of the days-long expeditions for young teens; Kate, a former grad student who often works at the Center in the summer; Justin, an instructor who spends most of the year with students in Yosemite but prefers to spend his summers in the Cascades, away from the crowds; Guy, an Israeli studying at Arizona’s Prescott College, who was interning for the summer; and Guy’s fiancée Kristina, a former counselor for troubled teens, who was volunteering at the Center during his stint.

It took me a while to warm up to my new roommates and the other dozen staff and grad students I’d get to know over the course of my stay. Nearly all of them had serious schooling and experience as naturalists—they could identify almost every plant in view with very little effort, whereas I would have lost a competition with just about every fifth-grade student on campus. So I kept quiet more than most, feeling my way into things, until one evening, I came back from a hike to the sounds of laughter in the backyard. Time to overcome my shyness and join in.

Guy and Kristina were teaching an activity called “acro-yoga,” a cross between yoga and gymnastics. This hybrid requires two people: one acts as the base (like your dad propping you on his feet to play “airplane” when you were a kid), and the second person teeters above, pulling off gymnastics-like moves. It was all pretty easy for the “instructors”—Guy is athletic, and Kristina might tip the scales at 90 pounds after a Thanksgiving feast—but a little more challenging for the newbies, especially when the “flyer” is a 200-pound guy with the agility of a moose. Gravity was the clear winner that day, but laughter came in a close second: Few things bring people together like trying ridiculous things and failing miserably. I felt a little more bonded with my roommates by the time the sun went down.

Mountain School

My first arts class wouldn’t begin for a couple of weeks, so Katie invited me to join the staff and grad students leading the fifth-graders during their three days at Mountain School, one of the Center’s signature programs. I grabbed my camera and offered to provide photos for the Center’s blog and publications, and of course, for the article I’d write for this magazine.

From the start, I marveled at the ways the grad students and staff were able to capture the children’s attention with nothing but a forest. Each of them had clever tricks to keep the kids focused, and tiny lessons wrapped up in play. Andrea yelled out, “Magnetic toes!” and 10 children quickly formed a circle with their sneakers touching the student on either side; we closed our eyes as she hid a stick in several clever spots within the circle, to help us sharpen our observation skills. Ranger Dylan taught us all how to distinguish a carnivore from an herbivore with a simple rhyme: “Eyes in the front, likes to hunt. Eyes to the side, likes to hide.” And Kevin led his group of students in an “Each one teach one” session, where each child learns several key aspects of a plant and then teaches the rest of us, one by one.

One discovery: Fifth-graders ask a lot of questions, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with the most recent sentence uttered by their instructor. But these fifth-graders also learned a lot more in 48 hours than I remember ever packing inside my brain: Consumers, producers, decomposers, invertebrates, biotic, abiotic—SAT words are being thrown in every direction, and these kids are only 11.

In no time, the little ones were looking up to the staff as if they were the coolest kids they’ll ever meet. Pretty soon, I felt like a member of the high-school yearbook staff, my sole purpose to write and photograph the experiences of the football players and the cheerleaders—only these folks would be the first to tell you they’re much more like the nerdy members of the Science Club. Somehow science got cool. Imagine that.

Hillary led her group on a “silent hike,” a perennial favorite. We each hiked on our own, departing in intervals of one to two minutes, so we could enjoy our time alone in the woods. Hillary placed a dozen colorful laminated cards on the ground, each with a simple instruction: “Close your eyes and breathe in the smells.” “Do a little dance.” “Hug the nearest tree.” (For the record, yes, I did that dance and I hugged that tree—I’m a rule follower.) Solitude was something that I’d always appreciated about my national park visits, but it was clearly an experience most of the children had never encountered, and one they all enjoyed.

Nice To Meet You

The North Cascades are not an easy place to know.

More than 95 percent of the park complex has been designated Wilderness with a capital “W.” It is the wildest place in the Lower 48 and perhaps the closest thing to pristine that you will ever find: There is only one major road through it, there are no schmancy lodges, there are no paved paths, and you can’t pedal your bike on any of its hundreds of trails. Some people consider it heaven. But all of that untamed land renders most of the park’s towering peaks nearly impossible to climb, impossible to experience—impossible even to see.

You don’t explore the park as you would Yellowstone or Glacier or Yosemite, from the comfort of your car, on a short day hike. You don’t hop off a shuttle bus, wander for hours, then board another shuttle bus five miles away like you might at Acadia or Zion, because there are no shuttle buses at all. You poke and prod the Cascades. You tickle the edges. You work for every inch you get. And you’re never really satisfied.

Almost every time I told anyone that I was going on a hike recommended by one of their friends, I was greeted with the response, “Oh, I’ve never done that one—it’s on my list.” These people live here, remember, and they hike constantly. It’s not because they’re lazy or take the park for granted. It’s because the region contains nearly 400 miles of trails, because those trails are hard to get to, and because only a few months out of the year can you reasonably expect to reach a peak without encountering 20 feet of snow. All this reminds me that as much as we may think these special places are simply “green” amusement parks created for us, they are actually wild places that we experience on their terms, not ours.

People here don’t look at park boundaries the way vacationers do, thinking “Where can I go to see the national park?” There is no line that says, “This part is beautiful; you may now take a picture.” It’s ALL beautiful. (And it’s nearly impossible to capture in one photograph.) So like the other residents of the area—the ones with paws and claws—local residents don’t seem to care which federal agency administers the land. You go where you want to go to do what you want to do, whether that’s biking, rock climbing, mountaineering, or paddling a canoe. Everyone here knows where to get the proper permits for certain activities and everyone knows which ones are forbidden, and that’s about all that matters.

Lost & Found

After a few days of Mountain School, I was ready to do some exploring on my own, so I told a few folks that I was going to hike Sourdough Mountain, which my guidebook described as “a mile straight up and 5.5 miles on the ground—a priceless panorama of craggy, spiraling, glacier-hugging, cloud-piercing, with unbelievably breathtaking peaks as the payoff.” The hike was rigorous as advertised, but the trees that conveniently blocked the heat of the mid-day sun also blocked my view of the mountains on every side. So I focused my camera on the details and textures of leaves, moss, tree bark, and sponges. Given the dramatic slopes and the fact that I was in no rush, I took plenty of breaks to eat some fruit and catch my breath. After roughly two-and-a-half hours of climbing, the trees were thinning out and the snow was piling up, so I figured I was approaching the top. I made my way through one big patch of snow with little trouble, then found a second one to be a little more challenging, but I always found my way back to the trail pretty quickly.

Until I didn’t. At one point the snow just seemed to go on and on, and in places the terrain was quite steep, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I made one last-gasp attempt to find the route ahead of me. It was nowhere to be found. So I turned around to get back on the path—but it wasn’t there anymore. Uh oh. I started hiking up a bit, then down a bit, in a zig-zag pattern that I hoped would bring me back to the path, but soon I had no idea if I was above the trail or below it. Every time I thought, “There’s an opening that must be the trail,” I was wrong. Just a gap between the trees that left me a little more lost and a little more tired. And then it started getting harder and harder to hike, the trees and brush blocking my way. The steeper it got, the more desperately I clung to smaller trees and branches, no doubt violating some sort of Park Service policy about leaving no trace. I fell a couple times, slipping down the side of the mountain 10 or 20 feet at a time, and I got a little worried. Until I realized I was surrounded by melting snow and it was only 2:00 in the afternoon on a warm June day. I was in no danger. Still, I imagined people wondering, “Where’s Scott?” around dinner time. A team of rescuers would be sent to look for me at sunset. And then the embarrassment of everyone learning what had happened. I could see the headlines: “National Parks Magazine Editor Lost in National Park! On Well-Marked Trail!” While my imagination was running away with me, my feet were getting me back on track, literally. After about 15 minutes of mild panic, I stumbled onto the path, walked back to Diablo, and collapsed on the couch with a humbling story to share with my roommates. By the end of my stay, I’d heard most of the snow had melted, but there were too many other trails left to explore; I never did make it to the top of Sourdough Mountain.

Drawing Conclusions

Ever since I was a child, I’ve admired people who can portray what they see with a pencil and a piece of paper. I never advanced past the child-like house and family and clouds and quarter-sun shining from the top corner of the page. Every so often I’d take a drawing class or get about 50 pages into the classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, fill a few pages in a new sketchbook, only to abandon it in the back of a closet. So I was excited to enroll in two art classes during my sabbatical—a sketching class at Padilla Bay (90 minutes west of the park) taught by Libby Mills, a talented artist and a well-known birding expert, and a class at the Center called “The Artful Map” by Jocelyn Curry, which combined drawing, watercolor, and calligraphy.

I’d expected a diverse mix of students, like those I’d encountered in art and photography classes in Washington, D.C., but at 9 a.m. both of the two-day classes began with a parade of a dozen women in their 50s and 60s, all with graying hair that was a little unkempt, a few extra pounds, and dressed in layers—a group of happy, aging hippies with watercolors tucked under their arms. I loved them all immediately, and I hope to be as happy as they are when I reach their age.

Subscribe to

National Parks

You can read this and other stories about history, nature, culture, art, conservation, travel, science and more in National Parks magazine. Your tax-deductible membership donation of $25 or more entitles…

See more ›

Both instructors had a warm, supportive approach that my classmates and I enjoyed. Libby incorporated simple techniques like contour drawing (following the edge of an object with your eyes and letting the pen mirror that motion without even looking at the paper), drawing the negative space created by a chair’s legs rather than the legs themselves, and quick “gesture drawings” which attempt to get at the essence of the subject (a bird in flight) rather than portray it perfectly, literally. All of these techniques are designed to free up an artist and help focus attention on the subject rather than the final product. I quickly realized that drawing is roughly 10 percent instruction and 90 percent just doing it, that the biggest obstacle to just doing it is a fear that it won’t turn out well, and that the more I accept I won’t do it well, the better I get.

The Artful Map class required us to dream up a subject that would incorporate several skills into one completed project. Jocelyn provided basic lessons in calligraphy and watercolors and shared some popular books full of maps for inspiration. Other students crafted maps that showed where they’d lived over the years, where they’d honeymooned, where they’d hiked, and the landscape of the Center itself, but I focused on my home of Washington, D.C., opting for a casual feel with simple icons denoting sports like kayaking and golf, along with some wise-cracking comments that reveal my personality. The water-color work was scary, especially since we were given only one piece of paper, but I embraced the mistakes, and ultimately they gave the piece character. Most of us envied the work of our fellow students, but everyone seemed happy with their finished product, because regardless of the quality of the calligraphy or the accuracy of the flora and fauna portrayed, it told our story—stories we shared with one another at the end of the day. Stories we can share with our friends and family when we return home and post our work on the refrigerator for everyone to see.

The Rituals

Whether gathering for meals, starting a campfire, beginning a science lesson, or saying goodbye, the instructors and the students incorporated rituals into nearly every experience—some big, some small, some meaningful, some quite silly. And those rituals had a way of reminding us to stop and take time to breathe in every experience. It’s not something most of us do in our office buildings, in our cubicles, or even at home with our families or our friends.

On the last day of Mountain School, the parade of fifth-graders came to an end, and, as was the tradition, the Center staff recognized the event with a small celebration. They kidnapped the grad students who lead most of the programs, used old-fashioned fire extinguishers to douse them with water, blindfolded them, and guided them on a “trust walk” through the woods to an open field. Someone suggested an activity called “Rocks, Sticks, and Leaves,” then led off by describing what rocked about Mountain School, what will stick with her, and what she’ll leave with. Most everyone reflected on the people they’d met, the things they’d learned, and the ways they’d become better teachers. It was clear that these people consider one another far more than co-workers, and it was nice to be invited to complete their circle.

A few weeks later, Kevin (aka “Biggs”) persuaded 20 staff, grads, and me to paddle “the big canoe” to the center of Diablo Lake, where we would each add one piece of clothing to a mesh bag, sink it to the bottom of the lake, and magically imbue our socks, shirts, shorts, and yes, underwear with the power of the water and the mountains and the glaciers. It’s crazy. So, of course, we all do it. We laugh as our errant strokes lead paddles to clash, we smile as Biggs yells at us for that reason, and we sing silly camp songs advising the listener against roller skating in a buffalo herd. We chant while the bag is lowered 300 feet into the lake, and we chant while it is brought back to the surface. Then we stand on the shore and we wring out our clothes and we walk back home with smiles on our faces, one more ridiculous ritual that brings the tribe just a little bit closer.

Long Goodbyes

Everyone was determined to make my last day special. Hike to a lookout tower? Drive to the East Side? I opted for the simple option, right in our backyard—a late-night canoe ride on Diablo Lake. Five of us set out in a big canoe, and what seemed like an hour turned into three. We explored the gorge, finally turning around near Ross Dam to make our way back, when we noticed the water had turned to glass. We stopped paddling, lay on our backs, stared up at the sky, and watched the stars come out one by one. We talked about everything and nothing at all. If you had to get a tattoo, what would it be, and where? What’s your favorite national park? Is Facebook evil or perfect? The sort of questions you discuss at a sleepover, with your best friends, until you simply can’t keep your eyes open one minute longer.

And once again, I realized that being at the Center is just like being at camp: It’s living together, sleeping together, waking up together, eating together, wearing clothes for a little longer than you should, skipping showers, sleeping under the stars, painting and drawing things that you would never show to someone else if they weren’t sitting right next to you painting their own humble piece of art. It’s going on long hikes where you end up talking a lot more than you otherwise would. It’s helping someone bandage a knee. It’s feeling so tired that you can’t move another inch, only you have to. It’s helping someone else achieve something, but more important, it’s asking for help when you need it and having no choice but to accept. It’s being away from home, or welcoming someone into your own home. It’s eating new food that isn’t of your choosing. It’s learning a lot of new things—about plants and animals and rocks, and yourself. It’s being a little terrified on those first few days, and by the end, not wanting to leave. And eventually you realize it’s not so much the rocks and the trees and the animals and the stars, it’s the people who were standing next to you when you saw all those things for the first time. Because you will never remember the names of all the species you encountered, but there are plenty of names that you won’t soon forget.

About the author

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 issue

National Parks, our award-winning quarterly magazine, is an exclusive benefit of membership in the National Parks Conservation Association.

More from this issue

Divine Providence

Read more from NPCA