The North Cascades inspire dreamers. Count among them a group of five friends who, beginning in the early 1980s, turned a shared vision into the North Cascades Institute.
The nationally respected environmental education nonprofit organization marked its 35th anniversary in 2021. The milestone spurred author and institute insider John C. Miles to chronicle the organization’s remarkable history in “Teaching in the Rain: The Story of North Cascades Institute.”
To write the story, Miles combed through historical records and interviewed staff — chiefly Saul Weisberg, who was among the five determined dreamers who conjured the idea of a field school in the North Cascades.
Weisberg went on to serve as the organization’s first executive director until his retirement in 2021. Bec Detrich now leads the institute based in Sedro-Woolley.
The book reads as local history, a business lesson and a love letter. (Image courtesy of John C. Miles)
The 254-page book honors Weisberg’s leadership, but it also records the contributions of National Park Service staff and others who built the dream of transformative learning experiences at the “convergence of natural and cultural history, science, humanities and the arts.”
Miles, who is professor emeritus of environmental studies at Western Washington University’s College of the Environment, was among the early supporters. He was the first chair of the institute’s board of directors, and for three decades helped to steer and cheer its growth.
Because of his own long connection to the organization, Miles’ careful recounting of North Cascades Institute’s development is enlivened by a behind-the-scenes perspective. His book reads as local history, a business lesson and a love letter.
The honest retelling of the organization’s history includes tense moments between North Cascades Institute leaders and skeptics among National Park Service and Seattle City Light staff. The book also addresses issues of equity and diversity in the institute’s programming and staffing.
Chapters trace the lifecycles of North Cascades Institute’s environmental education programs for adults and young people, including the popular Mountain School, and the construction of the Environmental Learning Center on the shores of Diablo Lake.
Readers may recognize people who contributed to the nonprofit’s success, including board members such as Village Books co-founder Chuck Robinson, instructors such as Robert Michael Pyle and staff such as Wendy Scherrer, among many more. Black-and-white photos of staff, students, supporters and institute sites, as well as small sketches by Susan Morgan, illustrate the book.
“Teaching in the Rain” will stir happy memories for alumni of North Cascades Institute programs, while also providing a peek behind the curtain, revealing the sometimes-uncertain trajectory of the scrappy nonprofit that — at least to this participant — always presented itself as an assured professional. Readers unfamiliar with the institute can enjoy the book as a history of environmental education, as a nonprofit handbook or simply as encouragement to go outside.
Sitting quietly in the background as the institute’s story unfolds are the North Cascades themselves. “A wild, gloriously scenic concentration of mountains, glaciers, deep forested valleys, and falling waters,” Miles writes. His history of North Cascades Institute invites us to explore, to honor and to protect this spectacular ecosystem.
This summer’s Sourdough Fire is a reminder of just how fragile this dream remains. The fire burned close to the institute’s Environmental Learning Center, causing staff to cancel classes and to temporarily close the center.
Just as they did during COVID when they shifted to online classes, institute leaders are determining how to navigate this uncertain time. To learn more or to donate, visit North Cascade Institute’s website or attend the 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3 “Teaching in the Rain” book launch party at Village Books’ Fairhaven store. Reserve a seat at villagebooks.com. Published by Village Books’ Chuckanut Editions, the book arrives on shelves that same day.
Mary Vermillion is the community relations manager for the Whatcom County Library System, wcls.org.