After several months working toward a big project deadline, I’m in dire need of some downtime in a beautiful setting. Give me craggy, towering mountain peaks, expanses of water, or lush green forests and I’m happy. Give me all three together and I’m very happy. So I check out the schedule for my favorite Northwest place that combines them all—the North Cascades Institute (NCI) Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake, a 2+-hour drive northeast of Seattle.
Just a week after my deadline, NCI is offering a Diablo Downtime weekend of yoga, slow food, canoeing, hiking, and relaxing. I sign up immediately.
This LEED-certified “green” compound sits on the edge of verdant forest in the North Cascades National Park complex, sandwiched between the steep south face of Sourdough Mountain and the lake. Snow-covered Pyramid Peak, looking a bit like the Matterhorn, juts skyward across the lake from the center.
My friend Rich and I are blessed with a gorgeous spring day as we head north and east from Seattle into the North Cascades. After winding through the narrow, rocky Skagit River canyon above Newhalem, we turn off Highway 20 to get to the center. We drive across the vintage 1920s Diablo Dam and along the lakeshore, arriving before dinner on Friday afternoon. We’ll stay through lunch on Sunday.
Tires crunch on the gravel entry road as we drive up and park in front of the main office to unload our bags before looping back down to the parking lot. To mirror the surrounding forest, the walkway between the Environmental Learning Center’s main office, library, and classroom buildings was designed to represent a forest canopy. The tall, thick concrete columns are the tree trunks, and the upper support bars are the branches.
Our group of 16 from around the region gathers on benches outside the Wild Ginger library building. “Welcome! Take a minute to learn three things about someone you don’t know sitting near you,” says one of the fresh-scrubbed graduate student interns hosting us this weekend. It’s a great ice breaker and good way to get the weekend off to a friendly start. I learn that several other guests live near me in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
A Bit of History
Back in 1986, some former North Cascades National Park climbing rangers started NCI, offering weekend courses for adults with an emphasis on the region’s natural and cultural history. “We thought it would be a good gig for a few years,” laughs Executive Director and co-founder Saul Weisberg, “…sort of like summer camp for adults.” This is exactly what I hear several people call the Diablo Downtime weekend.
Within a few years NCI added courses for kids. “We’re teaching kids to care about nature and the environment,” says Saul. The adult weekend programs help fund the mountain school for kids during the week each spring and fall. Saul mentions proudly that one boy who attended NCI’s mountain school years ago is now a teacher specializing in environmental education for kids, completing the circle.
NCI got a boost when the Environmental Learning Center opened in 2005, funded in large part by Seattle City Light as a condition of their permit to continue operating dams on the upper Skagit River. Now this beautiful facility allows more people to come and participate in a variety of courses and getaways. I enjoy coming here so much that this is my third weekend visit.
Savoring Slow Food
After we get settled into our spartan but comfortable dorm room, we head to dinner in the light and airy dining hall. On the deck overlooking Diablo Lake, we start with fresh grilled seasonal vegetables, local cheeses, and artisan bread. Chef Charles Claassen, a lean, smallish man, introduces himself and talks briefly about his kitchen’s emphasis on working with local Skagit Valley food producers. As usual, the food is healthful and wonderful—tonight we dine on wild salmon with pesto, a wonderful greens salad, wild rice, and several veggie sides.
Scrambling for Downtime
Our agenda for the weekend includes a choice of several activities—yoga classes, hikes with naturalists, canoeing on the lake, mushroom foraging with Chef Charles and then a discussion on slow food…or just lounging. My only complaint is there are so many cool things to do that I want to do it all and don’t really allow myself much downtime.
So I do a lot—Saturday morning Rich and I kayak on mirror-smooth Diablo Lake up the old Skagit River canyon and back. (We brought our kayaks, although NCI provides canoes.) After scarfing down my lunch, I head out with Chef Charles and five other women to go hunt for morel and oyster mushrooms. We get back just in time to change and dash to yoga class, where I contort my body into what are supposed to be restorative postures. Then I have a few minutes to shower and change for dinner—another fabulous feast featuring some wild greens we foraged this afternoon. Whew!
Ring around the Campfire
Saturday night we gather around a campfire at the edge of the forest while the dusky evening dwindles into twilight. The grad students read a brief history of time they’ve crafted about the geologic and cultural origins of the site on which we sit, starting millions of years ago when the land was the ancient supercontinent Rodinia, then Pangaea, before the North Cascades mountains were formed. Adam, a handsome twentysomething NCI staffer, brings it to a close with a stellar Conan O'Brien impersonation.
“So what brought you all here?” asks Adam. Laura, who left her husband and kids at home and came with a couple girlfriends, speaks up first. “I have kids and think it’s important that they experience nature and mountains beyond the suburbs where we live. But it’s also important that I do, too.”
“As a girl I was fascinated by the history and lore of these mountains and the old mining stories,” I pitch in, "And I like being on the edge of this roadless, protected wilderness where grizzlies roam." Soon it's dark, and I head back to the room. Despite my intention to make progress in the current book I’m reading, I quickly fall into a sound sleep breathing the clean mountain air.
After a tasty breakfast of French toast with strawberries, I opt for a birding hike with three NCI naturalists. As we move slowly along the trail, we hear lots of birds but don’t see many in the dense green understory beneath the forest canopy. I do manage to spot a big pileated woodpecker high up a tree, and almost step on a gray-green alligator lizard skittering across the trail. The deer we pass seem blasé about us humans as they munch away on a salad of fresh vine maple leaves.
Too soon our time in this beautiful place draws to a close. Some people leave after breakfast, but we roll out after lunch to head home. I met some nice and interesting people, learned more about the North Cascades, and went home refreshed but tired. I’ll be back, but next time I’m not going to try and do it all.
When You Go
NCI has a full season of courses and sponsors occasional events in Seattle and Bellingham. Check out their website for a full list of events. They’re offering discounts on upcoming weekends. We paid $325 each, which included six excellent meals, two nights lodging, and yoga classes, hikes and canoe trips with naturalists, and an afternoon with the chef. First-timers get a $30 discount.