Getting to Know the North Cascades Institute (NCI)

This week, we were lucky enough to visit the North Cascades Institute (NCI) where we had a tour led by the lovely Chris Kiser, a Program Coordinator at NCI. Completed in 2005, NCI is located right on Diablo Lake, a gorgeous, turquoise lake just south of Ross Lake tucked into the mountains with incredible views in every direction. To start off, Chris amazed us with the fact that the North Cascades National Park (NOCA) is the second most ecologically diverse National Park in the country. NOCA is also the only park “complex” in the United States, meaning it includes both National Park and National Recreation.

Within the park boundaries there are two recreation areas: the Ross Lake National Recreation Area and the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. NCI uses the surrounding landscape as a tool for their mission: to inspire conservation through education. Chris mentioned this mission a number of times as she guided us through the NCI campus, which included a tour of the residential buildings (all named after local plants, such as maple), the onsite composting room (which smelled exactly how you would imagine a room dedicated to composting would smell) and the dining hall (the seat were made out of recycled seatbelts!).

NCI is perched right next to the beautiful Diablo Lake

The NCI campus is an amazing model for sustainability. The campus is a LEED Certified Campus and all the wood in the buildings is from local forests and is sustainably harvested timber. All of the building materials for the campus come from within 500 miles. The campus includes nine miles of hiking trails and lodging for up to 92 people, making it an ideal location for school excursions. The compost center uses two large “earth tubs” to compost all of the leftover food scraps and then gives the nutrient-rich broken down compost back to the farms who provide much of the food for the institute. Students and staff are also able to access the compost for home or school gardens. This brings us to the awesome Foodshed program at NCI, which includes getting as much of the food as possible from local growers and making nutritious and delicious food for NCI guests.

In addition to a tour of NCI facilities, Chris also walked us through the history of NCI and NOCA. While sitting in the dining halls on recycled chairs and sipping tea, Chris showed us a video ( that told the NCI story. Started by two wilderness rangers, Saul Weisberg and Tom Fleischner, three decades ago, NCI has bloomed into a nationally known institution that provides people of all ages with outdoor experiences and learning. At the end of the video, we noticed that Chris’ eyes were a bit more shiny that when the video began. Ranger Kelsey asked, “What brought you to the North Cascades.” Chris said she really liked the area and knew she wanted to work with people and share with them the specialness of the North Cascades.

“At the heart of education is the ability to connect with people,” she said.

Chris’ sentiment was echoed by many of the people we met at NCI and NOCA. The people who live and work in the North Cascades have a powerful connection with the landscape, a connection they are eager to share with others.

Youth Opportunities

We were all curious to hear about the opportunities for youth. Chris informed us about the many programs that go on at NCI. Students of all ages often go to NCI for Mountain School, which is a 3-5 day program concerning environmental education. Fun Fact: Our own Intern Claire was once a Mountain School attendee and graduate! However, Mountain School cannot be accessed independently. It is a program where entire classes or grades will come to NCI, so it is up to schools to get involved and take advantage of this amazing opportunity.

Next we learned about Youth Leadership Adventures which is aimed at 14-16 year olds. It is a great way to explore the Pacific Northwest and hone your outdoor leadership skills. There are two trips you can sign up for: One is an 8-day backpacking and canoe trip, which focuses on outdoor leadership, trail work, and natural and cultural history. The second is a 16-day backpacking and canoe trip, which is centered on science and sustainability. These programs are tuition-based on sliding scale which allows many people to get scholarships!

In November, there is also the Youth Leadership Conference at NCI. It is FREE and provides youth with a great opportunity to learn leadership skills and network with various organizations! Both of these opportunities are great ways to get involved in the outdoor community.

If you want to learn more about NCI, check out!

Sophie, SCA Intern

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