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Late North Cascades chef led passionate, adventurous life

Charles Claassen passed away unexpectedly July 27

Charles Claassen poses for a photo with his hand on top of a giant tub of mac and cheese.
Charles Claassen poses for a photo with a giant tub of mac and cheese. Claassen was a fan of inventive cooking, a passion that helped shape the cuisine served at the Environmental Learning Center. He died July 27 in a paddleboarding accident at the age of 52. (Photo courtesy of North Cascades Institute)
By Simone Higashi News Intern

Food entrepreneur, lifelong adventurer, beloved friend and father — all words used to describe Charles Claassen, the chef who pioneered the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center’s (ELC) dining experience. 

Claassen died in a paddleboarding accident July 27 at the age of 52, leaving behind what friends and associates described as a legacy of kindness and passion.  

Claassen was hired as the ELC’s first executive chef and food service manager in 2005, when the campus opened. The ELC is an extension of the North Cascades Institute (NCI) located adjacent to Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. The center is a residential campus and home to environment-focused educational programs for all ages.

Charles Claassen adds garnishes to his dishes at the Environmental Learning Center dining hall.
Charles Claassen prepares dishes at the Environmental Learning Center dining hall. Claassen helped to grow the North Cascade Institute’s Foodshed Initiative, a commitment to local and organically grown foods. (Photo courtesy of North Cascades Institute)

“He really impressed me by focusing not just on being a cook, which was a big enough job, but on the role of food and a dining hall in being a kind of a center part of the community and bringing people together,” said Saul Weisberg, former executive director and founder at the NCI. 

As the ELC took off, Claassen worked to develop unique menus, fill the kitchen with necessary supplies, create relationships with local farmers and cook many of the meals. He did it all, friends and co-workers said.  

Claassen’s passion for locally sourced food was shared by many at the ELC, and contributed greatly to the Foodshed Initiative, the center’s commitment to local organic food.  

While visitors and staff spent the day outdoors hiking and learning about the environment, the daily meals became a core part of the center’s offerings. Claassen transformed a dining hall into a community hub. Even after he left the institute in 2009, the dining hall maintained its reputation as one of the ELC’s main attractions.  

Along with his passion for food, Claassen was an adventure seeker and nature lover.  

Charles Claassen on top of stone pillars at the beginning of his journey along the Pacific Crest Trail at the Canadian border, left, and at the end at the Mexican border with his walking sticks in the air.
Charles Claassen at the beginning of his journey along the Pacific Crest Trail at the Canadian border, left, and at the end at the Mexican border. Claassen was known for his outdoor adventures. (Photo courtesy of North Cascades Institute)

“[Whether it was] going off and climbing mountains on the weekends, or getting breakfast done and then running up Pyramid Peak and coming back to make dinner,” Weisberg said, “it was just a really fun, amazing time [with Claassen].”  

Claassen’s adventuring came in many forms; from motorcycle trips and international travel to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  

After leaving the NCI in 2009, Claassen bought the Book Fare Cafe, the former cafe above Village Books in Bellingham. There, he put his passion for cooking to work once more, making creative and unique dishes for bookstore visitors.  

“I remember one time he did Spam sliders,” said Chuck Robinson, former owner and co-founder of Village Books. “Which people kind of wrinkled their nose at, but if they tasted them, they were fantastic.” 

Claassen returned to the ELC last summer, filling the role he helped create 17 years before. There, he helped to rebuild its food service after the closures of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“He just seemed so grounded and so happy to be back,” Weisberg said. “He told me, ‘It feels like I’m kind of completing a circle here.’” 

Above his love for the outdoors and food, Claassen leaves a trail of kindness in his wake. His friends agree he was a mentor to many people he worked with and gave those around him genuine respect and support. 

“Charles seemed to help people to feel confident in following their own passion,” said Jodi Broughton, NCI’s development and marketing director.  

Friends and family of Claassen attended his celebration of life Tuesday, Aug. 8 at Rockport State Park. Weisberg said visitors could hear helicopters overhead, tending to the nearby Sourdough Fire. The wildfire has shut down all operations at the ELC until at least Aug 21.  

A GoFundMe page is raising funds for Claassen’s two daughters and to help pay for memorial expenses.  

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