Three dozen adults and children file into the dining hall at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on a warm Tuesday in August. The adults size each other up discreetly as they move through the lunch line, and each family sits down at a separate table. The kids -- ranging in age from 1 to 14 -- are on their best behavior.
By the third day of the North Cascades Institute Family Getaway, meals will have become much more relaxed. Kids save spots at their table for new-found pals. Parents joke with staff members. Three days of hikes, canoe trips and twilight gatherings by the fire pit have transformed a reserved group of strangers into friendly acquaintances.
Every year, from May through September, the North Cascades Institute hosts several family getaways at its beautifully designed facility, located on Diablo Lake. Families spend three days exploring some of the most breathtaking, rugged country in our state, but roughing it is not required. Think of it as camping -- with comfortable beds, on-site naturalists, and a chef to prepare organic meals.
Exploring unfamiliar terrain
As we pulled up in front of the office for check-in on the morning of the first day, my then-5-year-old daughter was apprehensive: She didn't want to meet a lot of strangers. What if she couldn't find any kids to play with? I wondered whether we'd all end up keeping to ourselves in polite-but-cool Northwest style.
But as we found out on the first event of the day, a post-lunch "neighborhood hike" through the lush forest that surrounds the learning center, it's impossible to maintain reserve for long on a tramp through the woods with a pack of excited kids.
Naturalist David Sansone led our group along the trail, pointing out edible plants and inviting us to sample the tart purple berries of the Oregon grape. We spied clumps of dead-white Indian pipe, a native wildflower that gleams like marble against the forest floor. My daughter spotted a branch encrusted with bird's-nest fungus, its delicate tan cups the size of pencil erasers. City kids were transfixed as they realized that there's more to a pristine Northwest forest than Douglas firs.
Staff nurtured this sense of discovery at every opportunity. When an iridescent green beetle landed on a low wall where we were resting after the walk, Sansone pulled out magnifying glasses so the kids could take a closer look. According to naturalist Lee Whitford (who led a crafts and poetry workshop for kids), the mission of the institute is to connect the public to the outdoors via enjoyable, group-based experiences. "The aim is that through small groups, people will learn enough that [they value the habitat]," she said.
Activity choices for families
Each day, families choose among activities that might include a geology hike, arts-and-crafts session or edible-plant walk. Activities vary, according to Whitford. "We're flexible depending on the composition of the groups," she said, noting that a group filled with younger children will have different needs and interests than one packed with grade-schoolers or teens.
Do as much or as little as you like. A family with toddlers might decide to spend part of the day relaxing in the lovely Wild Ginger Library, where children's books, games and a selection of guide books and nonfiction for adults are available for checkout. Visitors are also welcome to explore the learning center's miles of trails on their own. Three charming shelters along the trails make good destinations for goal-oriented kids.
Families with kids ages 5 and older should not miss one of the canoe excursions on Diablo Lake, which is a startling turquoise, the result of suspended particles of finely ground rock. Learning to paddle a 14-person canoe was an interesting exercise on its own, and the naturalist on board talked about the history of the nearby Diablo Dam. We made a surprise stop at an inaccessible campground so covered in moss that we expected to see an elf behind the boulders. The kids were set loose to climb the hill and explore the trails.
Fueling up and sacking out
One of my favorite parts of the trip was being able to spend time with my kids without having to lift a finger except to lace up my hiking boots and ladle soup into my bowl at lunch.
Chef Charles Claassen laid out a generous buffet at every meal, with oatmeal and pancakes at breakfast, soups and salad at lunch, and dinner choices such as burritos with organic free-range chicken and roasted vegetables. Dessert might be a vegan carrot cake or organic blueberry cobbler. The menu wasn't dumbed down for kids, but there was enough food that even my picky eater filled up at every meal.
We tended to go to bed early, in our spare but comfortable lodges. Each room contains two or three twin beds, desks and Internet ports. Clean, roomy bathrooms are down the hall. In the evenings, families hung out in the lounge (each lodge has one), playing games or reading. Guests bring their own bedding and towels, but after a long day at play, we did appreciate the fact that we were rolling out our sleeping bags on a mattress rather than onto the ground.
As we pulled into the driveway on our final day, girls who had befriended my daughter noticed we were leaving and shouted their goodbyes. My once-wary daughter asked, "When can we come back?"
Planning your trip
The learning center is located on Route 20 near the town of Newhalem. The drive from Seattle takes about three hours.
Getaways are offered on weekends, May-November. Register early as sessions fill quickly.
More great family camps
Families looking for a few days of outdoor togetherness have other options in the Puget Sound region.
IslandWood, a 225-acre learning center located on Bainbridge Island, offers family camp in July. According to Summer Camp Coordinator Janelle Shafer, the camps give families "an experience that focuses on natural and cultural history, using the environment as a context for learning." The curriculum for each camp depends on the ages of the kids who attend, and activities might include "critter-hunting," nature hikes, crafts and harvesting vegetables from the garden. Shafer suggests that families sign up now as sessions tend to fill up.
The YMCA of Greater Seattle hosts family camps at Camp Orkila on Orcas Island and Camp Colman, located on the South Sound's Case Inlet. Programs run May through September, with camps over Mother's Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Families enjoy old-fashioned camp fun (archery, boating, challenge courses), plus nature activities, hikes and arts and crafts.