Writer, Meet the North Cascades Institute

Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Reading & Writing | 9 comments

I feel anx­ious.” A redun­dant admis­sion, if Joel glances from the wind­ing coun­try high­way to my white-knuckled grip on my travel mug. “What if they don’t like me? What am I going to ask in this meeting?”

Five months ear­lier, I’d approached the North Cas­cades Insti­tute, ask­ing if I could be their first writer-in-residence. They’d said yes. Now Joel and I are on our way to visit NCI’s Envi­ron­men­tal Learn­ing Cen­ter, two hours from meet­ing every­one and learn­ing what this exper­i­ment will look like. My palms are sweaty and I’m afraid we left the house too late.

Of course they’re going to like you. That’s what you do best, Tele – you ask ques­tions. Hey, do you want to prac­tice?” Ini­ti­at­ing a role play to bol­ster my con­fi­dence: nine years shacked up with a for­mer social worker has left a mark on Joel. He deep­ens his voice. “Well, hello, are you Tele? How was your drive up?”

I roll my eyes at the role play, then start talk­ing it through any­way. What exactly are they offer­ing? What can I offer in return? What’s their ideal out­come – what will make this exper­i­ment a suc­cess worth repeat­ing? And other impor­tant details: Can I get mail there? Can Joel visit?

The dis­cus­sion calms me, enough to notice the change in our sur­round­ings. We are “Up River,” the Skagit’s green water bub­bling along High­way 20. We pass a series of farms, one with a pair of goats kick­ing through the front yard, another with a scrap of ply­wood spray-painted “Chanterelles Here!” Mar­ble­mount passes in a blink of two gas sta­tions and a warn­ing that these are the last ser­vices for 74 miles. We shake our heads as we remem­ber look­ing at a house here, try­ing to con­vince our­selves that the cheap price out­weighed the moldy walls and remote location.

Joel has spent more time up here than I have, and now smiles like he’s encoun­tered an old friend. “Now we’re get­ting to the wilder­ness. This is where it starts.”

As if agree­ing, the high­way nar­rows into a par­en­thet­i­cal after­thought. Moun­tains steepen, the drop-off sharp­ens. Black rocks tum­ble to the pavement’s edge, green with moss. My eyes widen as we cross the sin­gle lane road over the Dia­blo Dam. My dri­ve­way is a dam!

Signs on the closed gate simul­ta­ne­ously wel­come us to the ELC’s smoke, pet, and firearm free cam­pus, and warn that the facil­ity is closed due to the gov­ern­ment shut­down. Our Sub­aru join­ing a herd of oth­ers, we fol­low a trail up to the office.

I walk with my head cran­ing up the cedar trucks, whip­ping around to the lake, and won­der aloud, “Do you think my book lives here?”

Joel doesn’t hes­i­tate. “Yes. It does.”


North Cascades Institute, Diablo Dam



A crowd is vis­i­ble inside the office. Sud­denly shy, I grab Joel’s hand and tug him away so we don’t inter­rupt the staff meeting.

Too late. Anne bounds out, greets us with hugs and enthu­si­asm. She’s just made an announce­ment about our visit, and pulls us into the group to wait as the meet­ing wraps up with chore assign­ments. It’s been 25 years since I was the new kid enter­ing class mid­way through the school year, yet the same uncer­tainty rushes back, the same search to iden­tify the open, friendly faces among this cir­cle of estab­lished com­mu­nity. But the ELC proves dif­fer­ent than school. Here, they’re all friendly faces. Peo­ple greet us with smiles and wel­comes, and I start to relax.

Kristofer, ELC pro­gram man­ager, invites us into his office to talk about the struc­ture of our pilot project. Like me, NCI has high hopes that this exper­i­ment will result in a last­ing pro­gram, and we quickly find we have sim­i­lar val­ues of reci­procity. Pro­vide a debrief­ing eval­u­a­tion at the end of the res­i­dency? Of course. Con­duct a half-day work­shop with the ten envri­on­men­tal edu­ca­tion grad­u­ate stu­dents? Cer­tainly. Do an event with NCI after pub­li­ca­tion? Absolutely. My excite­ment grows as we exchange ideas, inspired by the oppor­tu­ni­ties in blaz­ing this trail for future writers.

Our meet­ing shifts from pos­si­bil­i­ties to prac­ti­cal details, includ­ing the real­i­ties of win­ter in the North Cas­cades. I scrib­ble notes as Kristofer talks. I learn they plan to house me in Dog­wood 2, half of a duplex that’s up the trail from the heart of the cam­pus. Quiet, still more remote in an already iso­lated set­ting. Meals will be included when the din­ing hall is open, just pitch in with the dishes. My cell phone won’t work; bring call­ing cards for the land­line. They’ll have room for me after Moun­tain School wraps up in mid-November, avail­able through February.

It can snow “a lot,” or it may snow “a lit­tle.” Road clo­sures, avalanches, and “roof-alanches” are all pos­si­ble. I may be alone on cam­pus at times in Decem­ber, and will need to be famil­iar with NCI’s emer­gency response pro­ce­dures. Keep chains, shovel, and emer­gency kit in my car. Head­lamp and snow­shoes are a good idea.

With­out glanc­ing over, I can feel Joel’s grin widen­ing. How many win­ter hikes has he had to do solo, how many lone camp­ing trips, when I’ve wrin­kled my nose at the cold? Bet­ter toughen up, I warn myself. This is the gift that’s going to help you fin­ish your book.


North Cascades Institute, Dogwood House


When Joel and I head back down the trail the next morn­ing, a shadow passes over the sun. I look up and gasp. At the pre­vi­ous night’s din­ner, nat­u­ral­ist Matt told us about Elvis, the res­i­dent raven. Now, on our way to the park­ing lot to leave, he appears, skim­ming over in a low fly-by, light­ing in a branch above the park­ing lot. His part­ner Priscilla fol­lows. Nuz­zling beaks, they mur­mur softly to each other.

I haven’t heard mur­mur­ing ravens since I left Sitka. Ordi­nar­ily, if I wanted to find a good omen, a bless­ing for this new ven­ture, they’d be it. But in this instance, all the affir­ma­tion I need has already been pro­vided by human kind­ness. Kristofer’s thor­ough intro­duc­tion to both res­i­dency and life at the ELC. Anne’s orga­niz­ing of a wel­come potluck. Chef Mike’s spec­tac­u­lar din­ner – includ­ing Nerka–caught coho – and break­fast. Katie, Dog­wood 2’s cur­rent res­i­dent, who inter­rupts her visit with her dad to offer a tour of my home-to-be. An inspir­ing group of stu­dents so diverse in their back­sto­ries (BA in math­e­mat­ics; a year as a camp coun­selor in France; bicy­cling from Maine to Wash­ing­ton) yet all drawn to NCI by their pas­sion for envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion. Gen­eros­ity abounded, so much so that hon­ored as I am by Elvis and Priscilla’s visit, this is one time I don’t need a corvid send-off to know that the North Cas­cades Insti­tute is the place for me.

Open­ing the car door, I take a final-for-now glance at the steep peaks sur­round­ing the lake. This time my gaze is not spec­u­la­tive. There’s no uncer­tainty in my tone as I tell Joel, “This is where my book lives.”


North Cascades Institute



I’ll let you know when I head up, friends. In the final days’ flurry of prepa­ra­tion now, and just like when we’re get­ting ready to go fish­ing, I’ve been ter­ri­ble about respond­ing to mes­sages. As always, you’re in my best thoughts. 


  1. So psy­ched for you buddy. The North Cas­cades are mag­i­cal and inspiring.

    • It’s a lit­tle bit scary, giv­ing up the next few months of time with my mag­i­cal and inspir­ing writ­ing bud­dies, but I’m count­ing on you being right. Thank you so much for all of your sup­port and encour­age­ment, Pam. Here’s to us both meet­ing spring with full man­u­scripts to trade!

  2. Tele, what a mar­velous trail you blaze. As always.

  3. Dear T,

    We have spent a week­end here and it was sacred space for us …such an hon­or­ing by every­one of the lucent, mag­i­cal world. My warm thoughts and prayers accom­pany you. Rody

    • Rody, I’m so glad to know that you and Alice have spent time at NCI! When I get stuck, I’ll be able to take a lit­tle walk and think of my writer friend strolling the same path. You’re always an inspi­ra­tion, my friend. Love to you both.

  4. Talk about white knuckle read­ing Tele, you couldn’t tear me away from your rev­e­la­tions above, so won­der­fully told with such imme­di­acy and bring­ing the reader into every thought and feel­ing. You are one lit­tle lioness in your courage tak­ing this on, and well deserved the wel­come you found there and the com­rade­ship there will be. It is beau­ti­ful too, the sen­si­tiv­ity of your Joel, you are two of a kind I think! All the best and keep safe and warm in the win­ter yet to show what’s up its sleeve.

  5. This is thrilling — to really go for it like this, to be with Your Book — it’s heroic. Your heart, your words make a dif­fer­ence. Cheers!

  6. Thank you for tak­ing us along on this jour­ney. Is it cor­rect to pre­sume that a con­nec­tion borne and nur­tured only via blog­ging, might truly qual­ify as a friend­ship? I cer­tainly hope so because I do think of you as a friend, Tele, since we stum­bled into each other’s blogs long ago. I’m so excited for you. You had a vision, acted upon it and now your book’s new home sounds like it is noth­ing short of per­fect for all involved. I’m look­ing for­ward to the updates!

  7. Hi Tele,

    I don’t use this acronym often, but this post def­i­nitely war­rants it, OMFG! So thrilled. I can’t imag­ine a more per­fect respite for you :)


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