Those who lead extraordinary lives make the biggest difference if they are willing to share their experiences. Rebecca ‘Bec’ Detrich, executive director at North Cascades Institute, sat down with WhatcomTalk to humbly recount her story leading up to becoming the second individual in the history of the institute to hold her job title.
Nestled in breathtaking North Cascades National Park, North Cascades Institute is a haven for environmental education and outdoor excursions. “We do programs up in the North Cascades National Park, but we also partner with the forest service and do a lot of activities throughout Whatcom County,” says Detrich, who has been with the organization for a year. “Our learning center is beautiful.”
Founder and former Executive Director Saul Weisberg found his successor in Bec Detrich as she sought her next great adventure. “Saul Weisberg was the founder of the organization and had been there for over 35 years,” Detrich says. “He built something so incredible but was ready to retire, so I’m now the second executive director to serve the organization.” She stepped into the roll in May 2021, part time, and had a two-month overlap with Saul before fully taking over in July of 2021.
Before North Cascades Institute, Detrich lived in beautiful and diverse communities, leading to an active and meaningful career path. What began as a desire to study in Africa became a life of stewardship and education as Detrich traveled around the world, working in both foreign and domestic landscapes, and connecting people to nature all over the globe.
“Probably way back in university, I started with a dual biology and art degree from Willamette University in Oregon, but I really wanted to study in Africa and I couldn’t with a biology degree, so I switched to environmental science — mostly because I could go study elephants in Tanzania,” says Detrich. “It was phenomenal; it incorporated a mix of science and the human components of politics and economics with how things interact. I did my senior thesis on the grey wolf reintroduction, which was just starting to happen at that time.”
After university, Detrich thought her career would begin in wildlife ecology, but a series of circumstances changed her direction. “I had applied for a role helping to do group research up in Alaska and was not given the job — the reason being there was no housing for women,” says Detrich. “When I questioned that, the narrative changed and the official response was that I had no large mammal experience, but of course I studied African elephants in Tanzania. The timing didn’t line up and it completely changed the trajectory of what I was doing.”
A friend of Detrich’s had grown up in Central Valley, California, and convinced her to apply for an internship at an outdoor educational facility called Scicon. “I ended up getting the job, going, and absolutely loving it,” Detrich says. “I went from doing hard science to environmental education. From there I ended up going to eight or nine different environmental learning centers throughout the west coast and east coast — doing some things in Maine as well as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and spending a year in the Royal National Park in Australia doing outdoor adventure and education pieces.”
When Detrich left Australia, she came back to the United States to Catalina Island, where she engaged in marine science education for kids. From Catalina Island, Detrich worked for the Nature Bridge in Yosemite. Then, she moved on to run an environmental education program and high ropes course in Sonoma County before taking a brief break from environmental education.
“I became the executive director of a bike-based program that did mountain bike activities with kids, but I really missed environmental education and connecting all sorts of people to the natural world,” she says. “I missed helping kids feel engaged and inspired while fostering an understanding of nature. I turned to getting back into the more traditional environmental educational field.”
Wanting to spend more time with family and friends here in Washington, Detrich applied to the North Cascades Institute at the insistence of several people in her life. After a six-month hiring process, Detrich was selected to continue Saul Weisberg’s work at the Institute. “There is a throughline in all of my work for getting kids — and all sorts of people — in the outdoors, in their bodies, moving, and learning in a really hands-on experiential way about science, ecology, and the natural world.”
These days you can find her working hard to help run a partnership with Seattle City Light and the Parks Service on a hydropower relicensing program involving dams in Skagit. “Coming in during this huge process has taken up a large component of my time,” says Detrich. “I’m doing a lot with finance and the partnership along with other administrative aspects tied to the relicensing.”
Aside from the relicensing project, Detrich makes sure to trek out to the Learning Center as often as possible. “I get up to the learning center and the park usually about every week or so,” she says. “One of our programs, Youth Leadership Adventures, is a nine-day backpacking and canoeing program where kids who have never had backpacking experience, and are largely low income BIPOC students, focus on climate change and climate leadership. We recently had a chance to hear all their wonderful stories from their trip up in the national park and it’s moments like those that make my job rewarding and meaningful, actually seeing firsthand the impact of all of the administrative work that allows these programs to run.”
Detrich leaves us with one very important challenge. “A big word for everyone: unplug,” she says. “Go up to the National Park, go out to the forest, come out for basecamp, go canoeing on Diablo Lake with us. The moments of joy and connection happen when we are reminded of the beauty, the purpose, and the magnificence of everything around us.”