Between stints of fear, self-doubt and even physical pain at times, a group of teenagers laughed harder than ever, felt proud of what they achieved and found moments of peace surrounded by the vistas of the North Cascades.
“I hiked 37 miles with a 40-pound backpack,” 17-year-old Marisol Martinez of Mount Vernon said. “Nothing is impossible anymore. If I could do that, I can do anything.”
Martinez is one of eight high school students from areas of Washington and Oregon who shared Thursday what a 12-day summer adventure in the mountains near Lake Diablo meant to them.
The group is the latest to participate in Youth Leadership Adventures, an outdoor education program offered by the nonprofit North Cascades Institute.
On day 11, the students gathered at a meadow not far from the lake’s edge to overcome an added challenge to the outdoor education program: public speaking.
With the sun shining and a deer grazing nearby, the students shared stories with institute staff and members of the public. They described fears they had experienced before embarking, struggles they had encountered along the way and the biggest lessons they had learned.
Most said the positive outcomes of their challenging journey — gaining confidence and close friendships — outweighed the tough parts. But each offered unique perspectives.
“Going uphill with a backpack on your back is not fun ... but when you see what you’ve done and the views, it’s worth it,” said 15-year-old Kareena Dawley, who will be a sophomore at Mount Vernon High School this fall.
Almost all of them spoke about the day that brought the most daunting challenge: an 8-mile hike that started in the rain after waking at 5 a.m.
“It was really hard with all those switchbacks and ups and downs,” said Martinez, who will be a senior at Mount Vernon High School this fall. “It took us all day, but we did it.”
The Youth Leadership Adventures program immerses students in the outdoors while also teaching lessons about science and sustainability, including an emphasis on climate change. It is offered as eight- and 12-day courses to students in ninth to 12th grades.
Thirty-six students were able to participate in various groups this summer.
The latest group spent two days doing maintenance on the Stetattle Creek Trail, two days canoeing on Lake Diablo and the rest of their days backpacking in surrounding areas.
“By processing what this experience has been, they can start making connections with what that means for their future ... how it can influence their lives back home,” said Thumper Ormerod, who is participating in a graduate student program at the North Cascades Institute and introduced visitors to the Youth Leadership Academy students for their public speeches.
For some, Youth Leadership Adventures is an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise had and might not be keen on doing again, while for others it may spark a desire to pursue a career in the outdoors or take up hiking as a hobby. Either way, North Cascades Institute Marketing and Communications Manager Christian Martin said just getting the students outside is considered a success.
North Cascades Institute Development and Marketing Director Jodi Broughton said a handful from each year are typically inspired to return for the longer running program, to join as a program leader or to otherwise get involved with outdoor education.
Inna Mayer of Mount Vernon is one of those returning students. She participated in Youth Leadership Adventures during high school and as an intern with the North Cascades Institute this year helped guide students through the program.
“I definitely could reflect back on my trips and know exactly what they are going through,” she said.
For her, Mayer said the Youth Leadership Adventures experience solidified an interest in pursuing a career in environmental sciences, and she’s now working toward the four-year environmental conservation degree offered at Skagit Valley College.
Martinez is also a return participant who felt ready for an added challenge this summer after completing the eight-day program in 2018.
Mount Vernon High School science teacher Mike Thimgan was among the community members who came to listen Thursday. He said he’s a longtime supporter of the program and helps make sure students are aware of the opportunity.
“The experience has obviously impacted them,” he said. “To get our students outside is huge.”
Thimgan said he’s seen past participants enroll in environmental science classes or join the environmental science club at the high school the following school year.
Thanks to grants and donations, the program is available to students from diverse backgrounds, regardless of their financial situation.
The state Recreation and Conservation Office in July announced a $120,000 grant to continue enabling the North Cascades Institute to provide scholarships.
Broughton said tuition for the program costs $1,795 per student, but scholarships help reduce that cost for students in need.
Thirty-four of the 36 students participating this year received a scholarship of some kind, according to the institute. For about half of them, tuition was covered in full.
Martinez was among the students who shared appreciation for the opportunity, particularly with the possibility of financial help.
“It’s cool how programs like this are helping kids like me ... with or without money,” she said.
Most participants have never been to the North Cascades or any federal public lands before, and the program is meant for them, with the institute providing all the necessary gear.
During the experience, each student is assigned important roles in keeping their group going — such as cooking dinner or fetching water — and takes the lead for at least one day.
Martinez and others said during their days as leader, they learned valuable lessons about being aware of and taking care of the needs of others.
“Leadership to me is considering everyone’s opinion, not just yours,” Martinez said.
In an encouraging sendoff for their last day, Martin assured the students that the good parts of the experience they described Thursday are what will stick with them after they return home.
“You won’t remember the mosquito bites in uncomfortable places, you’ll remember the friendships and the views,” he said.