"The group, some ahead of me, some far behind, moves slowly, silently. It's not the silence of quiet communion with the wilderness, but rather the footsore slogging of exhausted students. Our discussion on forest succession ended when gray clouds descended to the ground. Our camp is miles away. We move without speaking. I think of the many forms of water: clouds and rivers and lakes and rain and sleet. I'm wet and cold and tired. I'm also teaching.
"Once, when I was new to this business, an old friend turned to me in the winter darkness of a Wyoming cabin and said, 'You can't teach in the rain.' That was years ago and miles removed from this green river valley deep in the North Cascades, but once again that thought returns.
"You can teach in the rain, of course. But you teach differently, you learn differently. The wilderness is not merely a backdrop for this class — everything we do is placed in the context of wildness. The rain is an integral element of this wilderness place. And the place changes you. It reaches out and grabs your attention, demands to be noticed. In the North Cascades, rain is one way the wilderness says, 'You're not in the classroom (or the city) anymore.'
"There are many people out there who identify wilderness as wide open spaces, deserts, the dryness of the Sierra or the Rockies. They often forget about this lush green land, yet ten percent of Washington State is preserved as wilderness. Then there are the nonbelievers, people who feel you need drylands to run outdoor and environmental education programs. Nonsense. All it takes is a willingness to accept the rain as an essential element of place, to accept what the land is teaching you.
"Rain is the signature of the North Cascades. It makes the land. Glaciers, mountains, rivers, and the inland sea we call Puget Sound are all molded by its wet embrace. If you come here you're going to get wet. If you teach here, sooner or later you find yourself walking through a dripping forest with your socks down around your ankles.
"I've been teaching in the Northwest wilderness for over fifteen years — the last six as director of the North Cascades Institute, a nonprofit environmental field school. Our classes bring people into direct contact with the land. My work with NCI has shown me that teaching outdoors in the Pacific Northwest means accepting the rain as an essential element, and, more important, accepting what the land is teaching you.
"The crux of teaching, and learning, in the wilderness is using the power of place. Letting the rain teach. Letting wild lands speak for themselves, with minimal interpretation. Getting out of the way.
"The elements of wilderness education are time, place, people, and something to talk about. The art lies in putting them together, then trusting yourself and the students enough to stand back and watch what happens. Immerse a small group of students in a powerful natural environment, give them something to sink their teeth into — be it alpine ecology or old growth forests — mix thoroughly, and let simmer for a few days, a few nights under the stars. The experience is deep, powerful and lasting.
"Teaching in the rain involves more than just teaching. Living in the rain is hard. Wet clothes, wet sleeping bags, soggy granola, field guides that either fall apart or swell to twice their original volume. We can learn from the earlier native inhabitants. Did they stay inside their longhouses, sitting around a smoky fire, or did they put on their cedar-bark capes and go out to face the wet? After two or three days the rain stops being an outside force. Its presence is invasive, another being living with you, dose to your skin. It becomes as familiar and natural as the wet wool that clings soggily to our backs.
"Each time I am out with students and clouds roll in from the southwest, sink toward the ground, and begin spitting at us, I relearn the same lessons. At first I look for signs of clearing, delaying projects 'until the weather changes.' Eventually, there is nothing left but to continue. We gear-up and move on toward the day's lesson. It's not always fun, but it is important. A good time to learn the lessons of microhabitats, to hunker down in protected crannies and watch alpine saxifrages hiding from the wind.
"Teaching in wilderness is powerful, teaching for wilderness is infinitely more so. Teaching for wilderness implies listening to the voices of the land. It can change your life.
"Our goal is no less than to change the world. Rain is one of the essential ingredients of place. A basic tenet of ecological truth here in the Pacific Northwest is that the land is the way it is — in shape, smell, texture, sound — because of the rain. It sings sweetly to the cedars. Our job is to learn to listen to its song."