Posted by: stacylynn12 | September 6, 2011

School Days

It’s one of those rare, perfect fall days where the sun is shining and the sky is bright blue. There is a nip in the air and it feels good to have a jacket and hat on but the sun is warm and I do not feel cold. There is a light breeze softly rippling the red and yellow leaves of the birch trees. I have coffee in my hand, the kids are gleefully riding bikes and, in a “fort” they discovered, playing wild imagination games that are heavily influenced by the experiences of the last two months.



We are currently in Whitehorse, Yukon and heading east after two wonderful months in Alaska.
In just a few days our friends back in Seattle will be starting school and so will we. We’ve decided to follow the public school schedule, more or less, as otherwise it would be all too easy to put school work off for another day.

I’ve pondered this transition for some time. Before we left, I spent a significant amount of energy pulling together materials for reading, math, spelling…

I know it’s important that Bodhi learn these basics if for no other reason than in all likelihood he will be returning to school next year and he would have a difficult time if he were not academically prepared for 2nd grade. But I must say, when I reflect on the summer and the tremendous amount of spontaneous learning that has occurred with no planning, no lesson plans, no workbooks…it is hard to think about becoming more regimented.

Some of you may know this but I have some strong opinions about education in general and institutionalized learning in specific. That’s not what this post is about but it is worth noting that much of the learning which occurred this summer would be hard to quantify, to test, to grade, to apply practically – therefore it would be hard to “prove” we had learned anything at all. What a shame.

Nevertheless, I will attempt to summarize our summer school here because, well, it’s fun! Here’s some of what we learned, in no particular order.


How to identify the following plants:

Low bush cranberry
Dwarf willow
Sphagnum moss
Labrador tea
Cotton grass
Reindeer lichen
Watermelon berry

Low bush cranberry

We now know that wild blueberries are delicious, soap berries taste yucky, cranberries are better after a frost and crowberries don’t have much taste but are good added to jam because of their high pectin content. We also know that watermelon berries taste only so-so most of the time but when you are on a hike with no snacks, no blueberries and you are really, really hungry, watermelon berries can taste delicious.

We can identify the scat and tracks of the following creatures:



We’ve learned that grizzly bears in interior Alaska are smaller than coastal bears because interior bears don’t have access to the abundant salmon that the coastal bears do.

We now know that caribou depend on cotton grass, which is very high in protein, as they migrate each year.

We observed in their natural habitat:

Grizzly bear
Black bear
Dall sheep
Artic Greyling
Ling cod
Rainbow lake trout
Great northern horned owl
Bald eagles
Harbor porpoises
Harbor seals
Red squirrels
Trumpeter swans
Arctic terns
Sandhill cranes


We learned about the northern lights even though we did not see them (yet).


We learned about glaciers and about glacially fed rivers. We know that salmon can’t live in glacially fed rivers because they are too full of glacial silt.

We discovered that Mt. McKinley is 20,320 feet tall and is the tallest mountain in North America. It is also called Denali which means “the Great One” in the native Athabaskan tongue. Bodhi remembered, though the rest of us did not, that the youngest person to summit the mountain was an 11 year old boy. I think he has his sights set.


We experienced that Alaska is a very big state.

We checked out braided rivers and studied a bit about the mighty Yukon, the Nenana (like banana), the Tanana (not like banana) and the Susitna.

We learned that Taiga is another term for Boreal forests, that tundra is super squishy (and makes for very good nap spots), that tussocks are raised clumps of grass that grow as such to create heat and insulate themselves from the permafrost beneath their cute little bottoms.


We had a blast panning for gold in Bonanza Creek near Dawson City, Yukon and learned a bit about gold mining and the Klondike gold rush.


Some of us learned about the recent and distant past in Alaska, the tumultuous entrance into Statehood, the significance of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. (I read a highly recommended, fascinating book by John McPhee called “Coming into the Country.”)

We learned about sled dogs and the important role they played and continue to play in the Alaskan landscape.


We did not add up the distance but we put in many hours and hiked many miles and feet of elevation.
We kayaked a little, swam a little and walked a lot.
Randy and I envied Josh and Bodhi as they rode countless hours on their bikes and practiced bike tricks at a skateboard park that made my motherly heart skip a beat and my adventurers soul encourage them to go bigger.



Er… Um… Well, who needs math. (editor’s note: I really have a problem with this statement: RE) We almost counted the blueberries we picked but there were way too many.



We drew lots of pictures of the things we saw and learned a bit about the art of Native American totem poles.

We created countless mouse villages and fairy forts, hunting villages and fish camps made from rocks, cones, spruce boughs, flowers and grass.

We attended a bluegrass festival and saw live, local music in Denali, Talkeetna and Homer.


We read books about Alaska, the poetry of Robert Service and lots and lots of Winnie the Pooh. 🙂
We wrote a few postcards and a poem:

Barnacles stick
Seaweed is slick
The tide goes in and out.

The otter dives
The sea is alive
There’s just no time to pout!

Additionally, these things evade categorization:

The kids learned to build a fire, to gather and saw wood to heat our cabin, to forage for food. Ok, even I’ll admit that last one is a stretch but they really did get much closer to their food sources. They sampled moose and they knew who shot and killed the moose. They knew it was an animal that had to die to feed us. They tried halibut and salmon and fell in love with crab cakes while watching the fisherman bring these creatures in off the boat. They worked hard picking blueberries and sampled every other kind of berry we encountered. They saw our friend’s bee hives and then gorged themselves on the delicious honey.

They became Denali Junior Rangers after doing a significant amount of work learning about the park.


They learned how to cast fishing poles, what a pixie is, how to hook the upper left lip and how to gently ease the fish back into the water so it doesn’t drown while it adjusts from the shock of being hooked.

The list could go on and on.

We all feel very lucky that in Seattle Bodhi (and eventually Joshua) attend an Expeditionary Learning School where experiential learning is highly valued. I know that education means different things to different people and there are many different valid options but for us this is the best fit. Even so, experiential learning within the confines of 4 walls can only go so far. Whenever we tell someone that we are traveling for a year, the conversation inevitably turns to Bodhi and school. What will you do for school? How will you know what to teach him? Will he be able to keep up when he gets back? There’s lots of skepticism and smiles that suggest “good luck, you’ll need it”.

Frankly, I’ve been nervous about the responsibility of educating my son this year. Randy will of course help (thank goodness for that or Bodhi’s math future would be bleak) but I’m still driving this train. I’m also excited, brimming with ideas of how to get us started, to draw upon the vast amount of knowledge we gained this summer, to transform it into something more quantifiable. I’ve got reading, writing, spelling and math curriculum but the meat and potatoes of what we do won’t come from a book. It will literally spring forth from the day to day experiences that we have. Experiential learning in it’s purest, most elemental, authentic form.



  1. Not to mention all that they have learned from the books on tape that they are listening to! I just looked back at all of your pictures from your months in Alaska – so many great adventures! I’ve been watching the wind blow the golden aspen leaves off the trees all morning…you got out of here just in time. Here’s hoping you see the northern lights from the hot bubbly springs in Laird! Miss you! Go Bessie Go!

  2. Very well written, I feel I am also learning from your vast experiences. I am looking forward to more of your adventures.

  3. I just LOVE hearing you guys discover the Alaska of my childhood.

    And I am SO glad that you are enjoying it.

    How are the mosquitoes?

    • Hi Wendi! Good to hear from you! The mosquitos were very minimal most of the time we were in Alaska. It was rather cold… I guess that is the upside…no mosquitos! We are now in the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota after a two week drive across Canada.

      Hope all is well in Room 1! We miss you guys! Stacy

      Stacy Mercier Earlywine

      Sent from my iPad

  4. Stacy
    I am really enjoying your blog! I almost feel like I’m cheating on my trip planning by taking notes! We are a Thornton Creek family as well (4th grade) — and will be headed off on our own World Adventure this coming July.
    We wish you all the best on your journey and hope that our paths cross when we are all back in Seattle.
    I just wrote my first blog entry in a series about our homeschooling plans. You can read it here if you are interested 🙂

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