February 2017: Final Days of Winter

February was the last month of our Winter Session and a transitional month in the forest - we still experienced many cold, wintry days, but on clear days the sun started to feel warmer and early signs of spring started to appear throughout the park. For our final winter survival topic we focused in on fire for two weeks this month. Our Sprouting and Homeschool Roots classes both learned about fire safety and the elements of fire (fuel, oxygen, and heat). We talked about the necessary precautions when building fires in the forest, surrounded by trees and other fuel, and had conversations about the role of fire in the forest (as well as playing several rounds of the game “Fire in the Forest”). Some of our campers remembered that Douglas firs are fairly fire resistant, so they suggested we build our fire near these trees. We also talked about wind strength and direction, and how that would effect where/whether we built our fire.

While collecting firewood to burn is not allowed in the state park, our Sprouting class practiced clearing the ground, building rock fire circles, collecting tinder, kindling and larger sticks, and building them into teepee fire structures. Fires in our park are normally only allowed in raised barbecues, which are at approximately face level for our preschoolers. We got permission from our Park Rangers to bring in a metal fire pit, wood and kindling, so the kids could help set up for the fire and safely stand around it. After practicing safe fire behavior, the Sprouting Roots helped set up the wood, the teachers lit the fire, and the kids each carefully contributed kindling to the flame. Once the fire was burning, we set to work getting sticks ready to roast apples over the fire, and before long the delicious smell of roasting apples mingled with the woodsmoke in the air. After 5-10 minutes the apples were soft, and the teachers helped scrape off the blackened skin so each child could enjoy the sweet treat they had roasted.

The Homeschool Roots also helped build campfires, but part of their preparation was creating fire itself. They each had a chance to practice making sparks with flint and steel, and trying to light “fairy fires” - small balls of dryer lint coated in petroleum jelly and contained in clam shells. After they all mastered the technique of creating sparks, each was given the chance to try to light the campfire - one camper succeeded, but many were very close, and I’m sure they could have succeeded given more time! As well as roasting apples, we roasted salal leaves, which make a fantastic crackling sound in the fire! This activity gave us an opportunity to refine plant identification skills, as well as to review sustainable gathering principles.

These experiences with real tools, creating real fire to cook real food, are so empowering to children. It is clear in the depth of their concentration and length of their attention that they take the process seriously. It is also clear how much confidence and pride they feel as they see the sparks flying off the flint in their hand, or taste the apple they roasted over a fire they helped to build. It is wonderful being able to facilitate these experiences with so many inquisitive and capable children!

We had some very cold, wintry days in February, including a couple of snow cancellations, but we have also seen many signs that spring is on its way. We’ve continued our close observation of understory plants, in particular the shrubs and small trees like Indian plum, huckleberry and hazelnut that are some of the earliest to open new spring leaves. We watched the buds of the Indian plums as they gradually began to open into delicate new leaves, and by the end of the month we saw a few of their white flowers opening. We also spotted the tiny, spidery red flowers appearing on the tips of hazelnut buds, and noticed that the catkins were hanging longer and looser on their branches, ready to release pollen to the wind. It’s easy to become caught up in the excitement of spring, and we all felt it as we spent the last few days of the month searching for signs of spring - the fullest bud, earliest flower, freshest leaf; the emergence of a shiny pink worm or delicate spider; the magic of the first sighted butterfly. One day, the sun was so bright and warm that hats, gloves, coats, boots, socks… all but base layers were shed and the kids (and teachers) ran, danced and tumbled ecstatically free through the grass.

I love winter, with its mysterious ice, frosty breath, cozy layers and refreshing stillness. This winter session brought us so many amazing opportunities for exploration - we built snow sculptures, skated across frozen streams and puddles, watched birds in all corners of the park, found shelter under cedars, warmed our hands over campfires, and lay in the fields with faces to the faint winter sun. Our campers braved some serious cold (this was the coldest winter in 32 years!) and wet (it was the wettest February in 50 years!), and through it all showed resilience, ingenuity, positivity and curiosity. It has truly been a pleasure and a privilege to share the park with them this season. I do love winter, but along with all the barefooted, frolicking, butterfly-chasing children, I am ready and excited for spring!

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