Get out and play: Center offers fun in the wilderness

Published on Thu, Aug 26, 2010 by By Tara Nelson

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Deep in the heart of the North Cascades mountain range, on a lonely stretch of highway between Sedro-Woolley and Eastern Washington’s Methow Valley, lies an unexpected gem.

Tucked away into a pocket of forest near Lake Diablo, often itself called the “emerald jewel of the Cascades” for its brilliant green-hued glacial runoff, is the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, a place where children learn and adults get hands-on training in the 684,000-acre wilderness playground known as the North Cacades National Park.

Don’t let the name fool you. While the center provides a variety of outdoor educational programs, it’s an excellent way for grown-ups to have fun in the woods and explore a variety of outdoor activities  – no equipment or prior experience necessary.

The center, completed in 2005 as part of a mitigation agreement by Seattle City Light for its use of the Skagit River for hydroelectric projects, offers outdoor interpretive excursions led by staff naturalists. The idea, however, originated in 1986 by Saul Weisberg, then a North Cascades park ranger, along with his college buddies as a side project. With a $39,000 budget, they offered multi-day trips around the Cascades and group camping trips, often forgoing a salary to keep the operation going.

Weisberg said it was a way to try to protect the place they loved and also forge inroads between urban environmentalists and their more rural counterparts who made their living from natural resources. 

“We love this place and saw the potential for it to get torn apart because there wasn’t a place for people to get good information,” he said. “The dialogue back then was always us versus them and it was always angry.

“We thought if we could get more people exposed to nature, the conversation might become more informed and more civil. Our goal was conversation and also to help save this place we love.

“We like to joke we’re a faith-based organization, in that we have faith that the more people experience something the more they’re going to care about it and the more they’re going to want to know.”

Today, the non-profit manages a $2.5 million program and 16-building complex at Lake Diablo that features a library, dorm-style bedrooms and classrooms that feature workshops on everything from photography to geology to butterflies and art.
Although the center was first designed to offer youth programs, Weisberg said they have added more adult seminars, retreats and other programs in the past few years. Some of those classes – including the Sourdough Speaker Series offered twice a year – are geared toward older audiences.

Last season’s series included a presentation by noted Northwest landscape photographer Lee Mann with an overnight stay in their comfy guest rooms, breakfast and a guided canoe trip across Lake Diablo.

Other guest speakers included a food and beer pairing with local brew legends Will and Mari Kemper, who started two Sierra Madre brewpubs in Monterrey, Mexico, and a Turkey’s first brewpub “Taps,” before settling in Bellingham and opening Chuckanut Brewery & Kitchen. The series is named after the nearby Sourdough Mountain, where beat poet Gary Snyder served as a fire lookout.

Each Sourdough engagement begins Saturday around sunset with wine and hors d’oeuvres on the deck of their lakeside dining hall, one of the only buildings refurbished when the North Cascades Institute built the complex on the existing foundation of the former Lake Diablo Resort. (Doing so allowed crews to minimize the impact to the area and help achieve their LEED-silver certified ranking and keep consistent with their goal of remaining invisible from State Route 20.)

“That was the goal to use the existing resort site plan instead of breaking new land and destroying more habitat in this wilderness,” Weisberg said.

Another popular series “Searching for Kerouac in the North Cascades” revolves around Sourdough Mountain, near Desolation Peak, where author Jack Kerouac (On The Road, Darhma Bums) served as a fire lookout.

Guests also enjoy an informal gourmet dinner using local and organic foods whenever possible. Sometimes, in the winter, when there aren’t a lot of options available, that simply means not using products from Mexico, Brazil or Israel, Weisberg said.

Although comfortable and modern in its design, the campus is designed to encourage guests to be outdoors whenever possible. Realizing that it rains more often than not in Pacific Northwest, architects with Henry Klien group in Mount Vernon included overlapping eves made from a mix of recycled fly ash and concrete to allow guests to walk throughout the complex without getting wet.

“They really got the issue of sustainability before it was even a buzz word,” Weisberg said. “We used simple materials and simple systems because sustainability also involves longetivity. Although at the time, we had a hard time finding subcontractors who were certified.”

Site placement was selected with the sun’s heat in mind, capturing southern exposure in the winter and shading from the intense northern exposure in the summer. As a result, no air conditioning is needed.

Many adult programs are so popular that it is recommended guests book months in advance, especially for summer guided getaways and for Diablo Downtime, a retreat filled with canoe trips, guided hikes and yoga. Some programs can be expensive but the institute does offer financial aid.

For details on how to apply or for a complete listing of programs, visit