Learning to care

  • By Debra Smith / Herald Writer
  • Friday, July 22, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The way to get people to care about the environment is to let them experience it.

That’s the philosophy behind a new $11 million campus in the North Cascades that will offer seminars, retreats and outdoor programs to the public.

The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center opened in July. Built on the shores of Diablo Lake off Highway 20, the center includes lodging for 46, a dining hall, a research library, classrooms and two labs.

Nothing quite like this exists in the Northwest. Here, individuals and groups can attend retreats focused on natural and cultural history, science and the arts taught by experts.

Some of the center’s varied offerings are seminars on bats, sketching, fly fishing and sustainable building; family getaways; and a writing retreat featuring Northwest writers.

The center resembles a posh summer retreat with buildings composed of exposed wood beams and floors, cathedral ceilings, stone pillars and tall banks of windows – everything scrubbed clean and smelling of Simple Green. There’s an outdoor amphitheater and shelters.

Be warned: This is not a place to rent for a company get-together or family reunion.

It’s not a romantic get-away from the look of the twin beds in the dormitory-style lodges.

And don’t expect room service or maids to clean up after you – chipping in is part of the experience.

This is a place to learn.

And while the organizers welcome anyone – including families and corporate groups – education is their central mission.

Organizers hope the center will be a gateway to the wilderness and a chance for people to make a connection with the outdoors, even if they’ve never stepped foot in an REI, much less the woods.

“There are many people who think they might like the outdoors but need someone to show them,” said Jeff Muse, director of the center. “Not everybody is a backpacker or an REI customer. Some people need a little help and mentorship, and that’s what we do.

“We let the mountains do the talking.”

And, oh, what mountains.

The center sits at the base of Sourdough Mountain next to Diablo Lake, tinged emerald from glacial sediment, near the 684,000-acre North Cascades National Park. A network of hundreds of miles of trails begins a few steps from any door. A dock with canoes is nearby. Bears have been known to shamble onto the campus.

While the campus buildings are an architectural treat, the real beauty here is in the solitude and the feeling of timelessness. It’s easy to sit down on one of the benches, quietly take in the view and reflect on the mountains that shoved upward and jostled for their spots over eons, the glaciers that ground through rock to form this place.

The center is run by the North Cascades Institute, a nonprofit environmental education group based in Sedro-Woolley.

The institute’s goal is “conservation through education” and it has a tradition of offering field-based classes around the Northwest for adults and school children since the mid-1980s.

It’s never had a home base like this to hold classes and retreats – until now.

There was a time when the institute’s executive director, Saul Weisberg, didn’t see the value of something like the center.

He is a former backcountry ranger, lured to the Northwest from Ohio by the “snow-covered mountains, deep rivers, big trees, big river valleys – the wildness of it all.” He spent time manning fire lookouts and educating climbers on minimum impact techniques. He feared a place like the center would take away from the wilderness experience he treasured.

Over time, Weisberg and others at the institute came to the conclusion it was important to reach people who couldn’t or wouldn’t spend a night in the woods: the disabled, small children, the elderly or those unfamiliar with the outdoors.

“For adults the basics – bed, shower and food – are really important. I didn’t think so 10 years ago but now we’re all getting a little older,” he said. “If you’re spending your time trying to stay warm and dry and fed, you’re not spending much time learning.”

He wants everyday people to become aware of the environment, to see that home is broader than their workplace, house or school.

“It includes a whole, incredible natural backyard,” he said.

The institute will continue to offer field-based classes and the popular programs for public school children.

Nearly a dozen graduate students studying environmental education in conjunction with Western Washington University live at the center and work on some of the programs. Instructors of seminars and classes are mainly guest experts in their particular fields.

Times and the length of seminars vary but most begin on a Friday evening and run through the weekend. The majority cost between $195 and $345. A few cost considerably more. Tuition for the writing retreat begins at $495. The price includes meals and lodging.

It took 14 years of planning and the cooperation of National Park Service and Seattle City Light for the center to happen.

Seattle City Light paid for the site preparation, design and most of the costs to build the center as part of a mitigation agreement for operating three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River.

A combination of grants, private donations and fees from the programs will pay for running the center.

“If a kid takes one of our Mountain School programs, comes home and writes a letter to the editor about an environmental issue, I don’t care what side of the argument they’re on,” Weisberg said. “I would consider that a success because they care enough to become engaged in an issue.”

Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com.

Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

Molly Hashimoto’s watercolor class paints landscapes on the shores of Diablo Lake.

Jeff Muse, director of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, walks through the woods up the Sourdough Creek Trail just north of the center.

Edie Norton of Bellingham paints an image of the buildings and trees of the main campus during a weekend painting seminar.

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