North Cascades National Park and its surrounding wilderness are truly one of the great treasures of the Pacific Northwest. While it’s not one of the most-visited national parks in the country, or even the state, this alpine wilderness area holds a special place in the hearts of climbers, backpackers, and school children from around the area who learned in the North Cascades Institutes “Mountain School.”
If there’s one person who can illustrate the tumultuous history of the initial incorporation of the park, the inception of its caretaker, North Cascades Institute, and the ongoing efforts to educate and share the pristine wilderness with all, it would be John C. Miles.
The former dean of Western Washington University’s College of Environmental Studies, Miles was a founding board member during the Institute’s early years in the 1980s, and watched it grow to educate hundreds of thousands of local elementary and middle school students with Mountain School, as well as countless adults eager for outdoor experiences.
In his new book, Teaching in the Rain: The Story of North Cascades Institute, Miles explores in rich detail a story that starts with a group of scrappy young park rangers and continues on today as NCI rebounds from pandemic and wildfire closures.
Teaching in the Rain can be found at Village Books in Bellingham, and many online book retailers.
The following is an excerpt from Miles’ conversation with MBE, edited for clarity and space.
Mount Baker Experience: MBE has been covering the North Cascades region since our inception, but you have us beat in your expertise and connection to the North Cascades area, and the National Park specifically. How did North Cascades Institute start?
John C. Miles: Back in the early 1980s, there were some backcountry rangers who worked for the National Park Service. They were also biologists and they loved to teach. They decided they’d try to figure out a way to create an organization that would allow them to advocate for the North Cascades, teach about nature and give them an opportunity to work in the outdoors.
The model they wanted to build – originally called the Shuksan Institute – would be what they called a field school. Classes would be taught in the field so that participants could understand exactly what they were doing and what they were encountering directly.
These guys proposed this idea to the National Park Service, but – in their first approach – the NPS rebuffed them.
In 1985, a new superintendent by the name of John Reynolds came to North Cascades National Park. John was not cut of the same bureaucratic cloth that his predecessor had been, and he thought a field school was an interesting idea. This idea was advocated not only by these backcountry rangers, but also by Bill Lester, the supervisor of these backcountry rangers. Bill said, “These guys know what they’re doing, they’re really good at what they do, this is a great idea.”
It just so happened that John Reynolds had been instructed by the regional director of NPS to get more things going in the North Cascades, and one of the ideas [NPS] mentioned was to start implement something similar to the Yosemite Institute and the Teton Science School. John immediately thought NCI could work, so he invited Saul Weisberg, Tom Fleischner and Bill Lester to a meeting, and the NPS embraced the idea.
How did you personally get involved with North Cascades Institute, and how did you become its unofficial historian?
In 1986, I was the dean of the College of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University. John Reynolds, the superintendent of North Cascades National Park, called me one morning and said, “We’re thinking of creating this organization and wondered if you’d like to come to a meeting. We want to pull together a board.”
I had first come to Bellingham in 1968. I was a climber. I started climbing in New Hampshire and then in Oregon and so when I got to Bellingham, it was like I had died and gone to heaven because there were all these mountains all around. So I had been climbing all over the North Cascades for years and was a great enthusiast and student of the place.
I had also written a book about Mt. Baker, Koma Kulshan: The History of Mt. Baker, so I was very excited about anything devoted to the North Cascades.
At the end of that first meeting, I walked out of there as the Chairman of the Founding Board of North Cascades Institute, which I held for the next eight years. So I was right on the ground floor and very involved in the creation of the Institute as the board chair.
What were those early days of the Institute like? How would you compare it back then to how it operates today?
North Cascades National Park is a wilderness park. It was created that way. It’s not as accessible to the average American tourist as, to some degree Olympic, but especially Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, places like that. So visitation has always been low, and compared to other parks it’s still low. But in those days, it was really low.
The North Cascades Highway was the only access point for most visitors, there was no visitor center yet and most visitors just passed through in their vehicles.
The Institute offered a model that would engage more people in the park than were being engaged. Hopefully, NCI would reach out to the millions of people that lived in the greater Puget Sound region and bring them to the park – which, of course, it has done. It’s brought in over 150,000 kids along to Mountain School over the years.
How did the idea of a “Mountain School” come about? What made NCI want to specifically engage local school children?
The Mountain School program started in the early 1990s, and I was board chair until 1994. As the book describes in more detail, some of the board members, especially Brian Scheuch, were strong advocates for reaching out to the youth.
The original model was to conduct field seminars for adults. So Brian and others thought that we really ought to expand the field education to reach young people. The first real youth program started when NPS provided a camping area at Newhalem campground. Eventually, with the help of the Washington National Parks Foundation, they built a little shelter. But for the first number of years, Mountain School operated out of a tent, which was quite a challenge given the intense moisture they had to deal with. Thus the title of my book, Teaching in the Rain.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I thought it would be sad if the story wasn’t told, because those things tend to just disappear into the mists of time. I love to write, I’ve written a number of books and I knew the North Cascades as well as anybody because of my intimate involvement with the organizations.
Another reason was to have it as a resource for the Institute to use in its recruiting and orienting of its staff, and for fundraising and outreach. When you go out to ask people for support, it’s really good if you can say, “We’ve been going for 37 years, this is our story, in incredible detail.”
So people will know they’re supporting something that has a solid record and isn’t going away tomorrow.
Plus, it was a great trip down memory lane for me. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with them.
What is it about being outside that is so conducive to learning, especially for children?
It involves the whole person.
It’s not just book learning – which is important, of course – but it’s immersing the entire person in the subject.
For instance, the Institute would take a youth program and hike them up the railroad grade on the south side of Mt. Baker, overlooking the Eastern Glacier. That glacier has been receding dramatically for the last century or more and it’s receding even faster with global climate change.
The students hike up, sit on that moraine, look out over the glacier, and a North Cascades National Park geologist can explain to them exactly what’s happening. They not only get the information from an expert, but they could see the whole story. They hiked up and made the effort to get there, so they were totally immersed in the place. You don’t go away from that with any misunderstanding of what you were focusing on.
I think one of the fundamental principals of learning is if you can relate what you’re learning to yourself, it sticks with you more than if it’s an abstraction. That’s what I call experiential learning; it’s a really important form of learning.
What was something new you learned in writing Teaching in the Rain?
I think the story I learned over the years, both in researching for the book and in being there, was the power of partnerships. The reason the North Cascades Institute has been as successful as it has is because Executive Director Saul Weisberg and his staff have been masters of creating partnerships.
It’s a small organization, it always has been. But it’s had partnerships with Seattle City Light, North Cascades National Park, the Park Service, the Forest Service, WWU, Village Books, you name it. Hundreds of partners have participated in creating this program, let alone the people who donate. I think the power of partnerships is a big part of this story.
What do you want people to come away with after reading Teaching in the Rain?
When I was in Bellingham doing public events for the book, a question that came up often was, “What is the case for hope in this world where we’re facing so many difficulties, particularly the myriad difficulties associated with climate change?”
What I hope readers take away from Teaching in the Rain is hope that people in a small community can band together and do good. NCI is a small group of people, but they were able to spread the word, to reach out to 150,000 young people over 35 years and educate them on what’s happening with our environment.
I hope people will realize this is the kind of thing we need to do: create more of these institutions, put our support into this effort. If there’s going to be a future, it’s the young people who are going to be living in it. So I think of this book as one way that we can do something to at least reach out and start to make a future that could be better than we think it might be, given the current circumstances.
You’ve worked in the environmental science world for decades, have you noticed a shift in the way people see and discuss the environments they live in?
There are two things I see happening at the same time. Number one is that awareness and understanding of the nature of climate change is growing astronomically.
For years and years when we were trying to promote this kind of learning about geophysical forces in the environment, it was an uphill battle. We couldn’t imagine we would get the kind of global coverage that is currently happening.
Number two is a counter-trend; the problem seems so huge. But I wouldn’t call it apathy. It’s more fear.
I think there’s a lot of fear in the statements of younger people who are organizing to tackle this environmental problem, because they see it as their future. It’s energizing when you get pushed into a situation that frightens you and you feel, “Maybe I can do something about it, I have to do something about it, it’s my future.”
What else can we learn about NCI through this book?
If there’s a star of this story, it’s Saul Weisberg. He was the executive director for 35 years – that’s a long time to be a founding director. He kept the organization focused on its mission, even as that mission evolved over the years. He was a real inspiration in terms of the way he interacted with staff and partners, so he gets a lot of the credit for the success of NCI. Not to deny all the help he certainly had, but he was the glue that kept it together.
But now, NCI has been hit with a whole series of problems. There was the Sourdough Mountain fire, there was a pandemic before that, and there are always problems with the highway. So they’re trying to adapt to these new realities of the challenges they face.
The Institute will have to go in some new directions. The Environmental Learning Center may change.
The North Cascades is a natural area that’s always feeding the lower Puget Sound basin. So what happens up here has all kinds of implications for what happens in the lowlands. Everybody’s in the watershed, so I think we’ll be seeing more connections in people’s minds made between the North Cascades and the lowlands.