Unexpected Lessons from a Week in the Woods

Mountains at North Cascades National Park

What can a person learn from a week in the woods? A lot, it turns out. But for me, none of it was quite what I was expecting.

Nature scenes from North Cascades National Park

When it came time to plan my sabbatical from NPCA, where I edit National Parks magazine, I decided to spend a few of those precious six weeks at the North Cascades Institute in Washington State, a well-known arts and education center tucked into the woods that border Diablo Lake. I reached out to the staff and asked if I could teach a few classes in photography and writing, and take a few classes as well; when I wasn’t doing one or the other, I’d hike, bike, read, write, take photos, and think really deep thoughts. The folks at NCI were immediately on board. So I flew from DC to Seattle on June 8, and the adventure began.

I’ve spent my first few days hiking around the campus, shadowing some of the field instructors, and taking a sketching class at Padilla Bay, two hours east. Here, then, are a few of my first impressions.

Pine cone from North Cascades National Park

Fifth-graders at NCI’s three-day Mountain School program ask a lot of questions, many of which have absolutely nothing to do with the most recent sentence uttered by their instructor. But fifth-graders also know a lot more about biology than I remember ever packing inside my brain: Consumers, producers, decomposers, invertebrates, biotic, abiotic—SAT words are being thrown in every direction, and these kids are only 11.

Taking a pencil in hand and trying to draw something that remotely resembles a flower is a humbling exercise. The temptation is to draw the idea of a flower that you have in your head; the key is to simply draw what you see, not what you expect to see. Taking the time to really look at that leaf, that stem, that bud—that’s the real gift, regardless of what ends up on the page. And here’s a bonus discovery free of charge: Learning to becoming an artist is 10 percent instruction and 90 percent just getting out and doing it, making mistakes, accepting them, and picking up that pencil again and again in spite of those mistakes. Thanks to Libby Mills and all the other participants for finding something valuable in my efforts and for letting me see the world through their sketchbooks, too.

Sketching a pine cone at North Cascades National Park

As I Iearned from a young boy named Nate, during an exercise that required students teach their fellow 5th-graders about the properties of a plant, you can “probably” eat the fruit from an Oregon grape plant, “as long as you use hand sanitizer first.” Good to know.

Two inches of snow can make hiking quite difficult. After about three hours of solo hiking on Sourdough Mountain, I noticed those white patches getting bigger and bigger, but the path always showed up, eventually. Until it didn’t. Once the route had been entirely swallowed by a field of snow, I decided it was best to turn around. But the trail behind me had vanished, too. Uh oh. The terrain was quite steep at this point, so I started hiking up and down the side of the mountain in zig-zag patterns, scratching and clawing, holding onto roots and trees and rocks and hoping the trail would show itself again. It was early afternoon, and I was surrounded by (frozen) water, so I was never in danger, but I could already envision the headlines: “National Parks magazine editor lost in national park! Rescue crews sent in to find him! Man eventually found only 100 feet from main trail!” After about 15 minutes of struggling, I stumbled back on the trail, very relieved that the story would never be printed.

Don't get lost: the snowy mountains of North Cascades National Park

And finally: It appears as though some conniving parents are signing up to chaperone their children at NCI’s Mountain School for purely selfish reasons—so they can play “hooky” from their real lives. Which is a very clever thing to do. I’ve got four more weeks to play hooky myself, and I’m looking forward to the next series of discoveries.

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About the Author

Editor-in-Chief of National Parks Magazine Scott Kirkwood

Scott Kirkwood is editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine.