Fire Fighters, Paratroopers, Smokejumpers: An Unexpected Unit Study

FightingFireIn the school system, educators are restricted to a constrained set of standards that dictate the specific knowledge that must be imparted across the subject areas according to grade level. As homeschoolers, we can take advantage of every available opportunity to teach our children about the world around them – both naturally and historically.

In the public schools, World War I and II aren’t taught until high school. In fact, history is NOT even a subject area addressed at the elementary level (with the exception of the California Missions or the Oregon Trail, for example, depending upon the state in which you reside). When I was partnered with an umbrella school (homeschool charter program) a few years ago, the facilitator was not able to align our studies with the state standards we were required to follow.

When my children were at the elementary level, we used The Story of the World as our spine and I thereby use a chronological approach to our study of history.  Following a classical model for education, my original intent was to repeat the cycle three times, but I am now content to do it twice before they graduate.

Today, we are using History of the Ancient World and have just begun our second cycle. Opportunities sometimes arise, however, that don’t necessarily fit within our current curriculum. This is exactly what happened when we discovered the Triple Nickles.


This past summer while we were immersed in our studies of WW2, we listened to the audio book, Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles by Tanya Lee Stone. Many people have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but few have heard of this group of African-American paratroopers, nicknamed the Triple Nickles.

It is 1943. Americans are overseas fighting World War II to help keep the world safe from Adolf Hitler’s tyranny, safe from injustice, safe from discrimination. Yet right here at home, people with white skin have rights that people with black skin do not.

Previously, even I was not aware of the extent of racism in the military, of the segregation and marginalization of black troops, but Tanya Lee Stone’s narrative laid it out painfully and clearly. Her book taught us to appreciate the courage of each and every person who stood up against racism in large ways and small.

The story of these courageous paratroopers, who devoted themselves to protecting our coast from forest fires and the little known threat of Japanese balloon bombs during the war, inspired us to learn more about the war but also about smokejumpers.


In talking about the book with a friend, he shared this video with us and we started down a rabbit trail of student-led learning. We soon discovered that smokejumping was first proposed in 1934 by T.V. Pearson, the Forest Service Intermountain Regional Forester, as a means to quickly provide initial attack on forest fires. By parachuting in, self-sufficient firefighters could arrive fresh and ready for the strenuous work of fighting fires in rugged terrain.

The smokejumper program began in 1939 as an experiment in the Pacific Northwest Region. The first fire jump was made in 1940 on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest in the Northern Region.

Over 270 smokejumpers are working from Forest Service smokejumper bases located in McCall and Grangeville, Idaho, Redding, California, West Yellowstone and Missoula, Montana, Winthrop, Washington, and Redmond, Oregon.

Fire Fighters

At the time were reading Courage Has No Color, we were also immersed in an ecology unit in STEM Club. I thereby asked the Forest Service to give us a presentation on fire science and safety, Exploring Fire Science. Through their presentation and hands-on activity, we were able to see first hand how wild land fires effect our land and even how fire fighters use fire as tool to protect our homes and property.

We are currently experiencing a severe drought in Northern California and the threat of wildfire is something we live with on a daily basis. A few months after our initial meandering on the rabbit trail, a friend invited us to join them on a field trip to the Redding Air Attack Base.  I knew I had to jump at the opportunity (pun intended).

firefightersWe had the chance to visit with real fire fighters and see some of the aircraft used to fight fires, including Air Attack 240-OV-10 (the air traffic controller), Air Tankers S-2T (transports and drops retardant), T-94, and the “retardant station”. The kids got to climb inside the cock pit of the S-2T, dip their fingers in the retardant (a slippery polymer substance that created an elastic-like layer on their finger), and watch the aircraft take-off and land.

The fire fighters talked about the recent Boles Fire near Weed, California and described how fire fighters from all over the region came to help combat the fire. There were 10 S-2Ts airborne at any given time, circling about between Weed and Redding (where they would need to come to reload the retardant, “hot loading”).

It was a wonderful experience and for my aeronautics enthusiast, a dream field trip. Above all, it helped us to realize the danger these courageous men and women face in order to protect our forests and homes.

Give thanks to the fire fighters and emergency personnel in your local area. Write them a note of appreciation or bake them a batch of muffins – any small gesture to let them know we are thinking of them.


The Collision of Art & Literary History

My children and I love historical reenactments and living history. Not only does it literally bring history to life – it captures our emotions and connects us to the stories of individuals who have made a difference in the lives of others.

In my post last week, Traveling Through Time, I shared with you a little snippet of our experience at a recent Civil War reenactment. Living history volunteers worked together to recreate aspects of a Civil War, sharing with us tales of battles, living conditions, and hardships they faced. We loved singing songs from the era and learning about their pastimes.

Living history is an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time.


Pictured here are my children dressed as Snowshoe Thompson and Marie Curie and their friends dressed as Anne Sullivan and Ole Kirk Christiansen in 2013.

Each year, I coordinate a living history day for our local homeschool community.  The event is always a highlight of our homeschool year and we look forward to “talking with the historical people we meet”.

Living history is an art form whereby performers connect art and literary history.

In my post, Bringing History to Life, I share a video of the presentations my children did as Irena Sendler and Arnold Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller earlier this year. Sadly, the video I captured of their presentations the preceding year was very poor so I am unable to share that presentation with you.

My kids have just begun to think about the characters they wish to research for their presentation in 2015. I won’t reveal just yet who they have selected, but I will give you a hint. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the man who rediscovered the lost art of the guara, a kind of aboriginal center-board used by the indians of Peru and Ecuador for navigation.

I encourage you to consider hosting a living history event of your own. In my post, Bringing History to Life, I share guidelines and tips for success.

If you have taken part in living history performances or have enjoyed local reenactments, I would love to hear about it. Share your story in the comments! 🙂



Traveling Through Time: Civil War Reenactment

Last month, we had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a field trip coordinated by a friend of mine to a local Civil War reenactment.

Organized in 1991, Reenactors of the American Civil War (RACW) is a non-profit living history organization based in Northern California.  One of their goals is to stimulate interest in the historical significance of the period in our history termed “the War Between the States”.

Comprised of Confederate, Federal and civilian representatives, the group recreated the drama and realities of life during this pivotal time in American history — portraying life as it was for members of both armies in the camps, on campaigns, and in battle.


We were able to watch history come to life with reenactors wearing the clothing of the period, using the speech and mannerisms of the time, and playing and singing the tunes of the 1860s!

Much to our delight (as we had been enduring a drought) it was raining fairly heavy. Many families I discovered were canceling plans to join us due to the rain. The brave men and women who fought in the war and continue to serve and protect us today, did/do so under all extremes of weather.

I did not let the rain keep us indoors. Forging ahead on this field trip gave us a better appreciation of the hardships they endured/endure.

To learn more about the Reenactors of the American Civil War, visit their website. Here you can also find a printable guide for students to help them engage with the volunteers and learn more about the Civil War era.

Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

The volcanic activity of the Cascade Range has created unique geological formations that can only be seen in this part of the country. From gigantic obsidian glass flows (at Newberry Crater near Bend, Oregon), steaming mud pots at Lassen National Volcanic Park, and lava tube caves surrounded by a wide diversity of scenery make this journey an unforgettable experience.

The 500 mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway winds its way from Lake Almanor in Northern California through dramatic volcanic landscapes to Southern Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park.

volcanic-legacy-logoLiving in this region, we have had the opportunity to explore many of the volcanic sites over the years. This past weekend, we enjoyed unplugging and reconnecting with one another while camping at Manzanita Lake. It was the perfect field trip to augment our current geology cycle in STEM Club.

I am delighted to share some of the highlights from our experiences over the years along the volcanic scenic byway with you today.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

We will begin our tour with the remarkable hydrothermal features in Lassen Volcanic National Park which include roaring fumaroles (steam and volcanic-gas vents), thumping mudpots, boiling pools, and steaming ground. These features are related to active volcanism and are indications of the ongoing potential for further eruptions from the Lassen “volcanic center.”

manzanitaManzanita Lake at Lassen Volcanic National Park

At the nearby Loomis Museum, we learned how B.F. Loomis documented Lassen Peak’s most recent eruptions (1914-15) and reviewed the geologic, historic, and cultural past at the Lassen Crossroads Information Center.

Subway Cave

Heading Northwest towards Burney, we come to the Subway Caves where you can hike 1/3 mile through the largest accessible tube in the Hat Creek Flow. The lava was discharged in large volumes from a series of north-south fissures (cracks in the earth). This river of lava crawled northward 16 miles, covering the floor of Hat Creek Valley. While the top crust cooled and hardened, rivers of red-hot lava insulated by newly formed rock above, continued to flow. Eventually, the lava drained away, leaving tube-like caves. The entrance to the cave was formed by a partial collapse of the cave’s roof many years ago.

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Not far from the caves, McArthur-Burney Falls features a 129-foot waterfall, cascading at a rate of 100 million gallons of water daily. While it is not the highest or largest waterfall in the state, many claim it to be the most beautiful. Additional water comes from springs, joining to create a mist-filled basin. Burney Creek originates from the park’s underground springs and flows to Lake Britton, getting larger along the way to the majestic falls. Teddy Roosevelt once described Burney Falls as the “eighth wonder of the world”.


Castle Crags State Park

Heading north now along the I5 corridor, we come to Castle Crags State Park which features 28 miles of hiking trails, including a 2.7 mile access trail to Castle Crags Wilderness, part of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.  The Pacific Crest Trail also passes through the park.  The park is named for the 6,000-feet tall glacier-polished crags.  The solitude you experience as you explore the forest or traverse part of the Pacific Crest Trail cannot be matched.

Klamath Wildlife

Continuing north, we exit I5 near Weed towards Klamath Falls. Along the border between California and Oregon are numerous wildlife viewing areas including Grass Lake Rest Area near Macdoel. North of Klamath Falls, you can’t miss the nearly 30 miles long and eight miles wide Upper Klamath Lake, the largest body of freshwater west of the Rockies. Because the lake is so shallow, a highly nutritious blue green algae flourishes, sustaining a food web that lures fly fisherman, bird watchers, and nature enthusiasts from across the globe.

Collier State Park & Logging Museum

Back on the road, we come to Collier State Park is located just north of Chiloquin, Oregon near the confluence of Spring Creek and the Williamson River. Beneath towering Ponderosa pine trees, this park features an outdoor museum of historic logging equipment dating to the 1880s. You can imagine the rugged woodsmen and the immense task of moving raw timber with innovation and brute force. There is also a relocated pioneer village, giving you an idea of how these families once lived.  Railroad buffs can learn about the role the railroad played in logging.

Crater Lake National Park

Lastly, we come to one of the gems of the National Park system, Crater Lake. The collapse of Mt. Mazama created a caldera that filled with clear blue waters to form the deepest lake in America and the 7th deepest lake in the world. There is so much to explore at the 183,225 acre park, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

One of our most memorable activities in the past was creating a 3D topographic map of the park, Build Geoography Skills with Topographic Maps, for a geography co-op.



Bonanza! Gold Rush Experiences

These past couple of years, we have been immersed in a variety of field trips and experiences that have brought the Gold Rush era alive. The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James Marshall in Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California.  The gold-seekers, called “forty-niners”, often faced substantial hardships. While most of the newly arrived were Americans, the Gold Rush attracted tens of thousands from around the world.

At first, the gold nuggets could be picked up off the ground. Later, gold was recovered from streams and riverbeds using simple techniques, such as panning. More sophisticated methods were developed and later adopted elsewhere. At its peak, technological advances reached a point where significant financing was required, increasing the proportion of gold companies to individual miners.

Additionally, the Gold Rush also resulted in attacks on the indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their lands. An estimated 100,000 California Indians died between 1848 and 1868, and some 4,500 of them were murdered. The advances in mining technology also dramatically altered the landscape and ecosystems of Northern California.

Bonanza5Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

At Whiskeytown National Recreation Area near Redding, California, visitors can discover how pioneers/prospectors Charles Camden and Levi Tower reshaped the landscape to create a home for their families and an “oasis” for many travelers during and after the California Gold Rush.  If you plan to visit yourself, be sure to visit the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area website to download the activity guide for teachers and students.

In the past few years, we have enjoyed a tour of the Camden house, discovering the El Dorado Mine, and trying our hand at finding gold the old-fashioned way, using a gold pan in the creek. Each experience has provided us with a deeper appreciation for the hardships the pioneers endured.


Nevada State Museum & Carson City Mint

The Nevada State Museum and Carson City Mint, in Carson City, Nevada is an unusual museum in the sense that it seemed to have a little bit of everything. While other museums have a particular focus, this one had everything from natural history to guns. We enjoyed the coin mint exhibit and the mock mine the best – two special collections that set this museum apart from most.

Another exhibit we enjoyed was Finding Frémont: Pathfinder of the West, on display through spring 2015. Who was John C. Frémont? To some he was a villain, yet others see him as a hero and pioneer of Manifest Destiny who opened the West to settlement.  This was of particular interest to us because Shevlin Park, near Bend, Oregon (where we lived for nearly 10 years) was the location of the campsite of the Frémont Expedition on the fourth night of  December 1843.


Empire Mine, Grass Valley, California

The Empire Mine, the site of the oldest, largest, and richest gold mine in California, produced 5.8 million ounces of gold in its operating history of 106 years (1850-1956). George Roberts, the original discoverer of the gold soon sold his interest and by 1869 William Bourn Sr. owned controlling interest. The Bourn family maintained control of the mine until 1929 when it was sold to Newmont Mining. It ceased operation in 1956.

In 1975 the State purchased the surface property as the Empire Mine State Historic Park. The park contains many of the original mine buildings, the owners cottage and the restored gardens and grounds as well as the entrance to the abandoned and flooded shafts and tunnels.

We enjoyed walking around the grounds which include a club house for entertaining, extensive lawns with fountains, a reflection pool and gardens with a greenhouse, as well as the Bourne cottage. Living history is one of the main attractions of the park and it was certainly our favorite.

Volunteers in period dress recreated characters from Empire’s colorful past and led us on a tour of the two story home of William Bourn, Jr. Styled after the noble estates of nineteenth century England, the cottage was built in the late 1890’s. The architecture is distinguished by a remarkable redwood interior, leaded glass windows and massive granite walls.

Bonanza2Virginia City, Nevada

Virginia City, once a vital settlement between Denver and San Francisco, influenced the entire country. Virginia City’s mining proceeds amounted to millions of dollars, equaling billions today.

We recently had the chance to explore this picturesque, Victorian-era town and relive some of its colorful history.  As we strolled along the board sidewalks, we were able to peak into Old West saloons, visit a couple museums, and even don hard hats to explore the tunnels of an old gold mine. One of the highlights of our visit was the staged gun fight. While the Virginia City Outlaws Wild West Show is a comedy, it gave us a small sense of what it was like to experience gunfire in the street.

We also enjoyed visiting a couple of the pioneer cemeteries where nearly every plot is fenced or bordered, a typical practice of the Victorian period. Grave markers range in materials from wood to metal to cut stone. The inscriptions on the markers give silent testimony to the social and economic fabric of the area. Very few of the adults buried in these cemeteries were born in Nevada. The birthplaces noted throughout the grounds provide a glimpse of the scope of immigration and the makeup of the settlement that supported the Comstock mining industry.

There is so much to see here that you will want to stay a few days to take it all in. Perhaps you fancy a ride on a stagecoach, horse-drawn carriage, trolley, or the V&T Railroad steam engine train that crosses the high desert landscape dotted with old mines.

See America Project: Combining Art, History, & Geography

In the 1930’s, as part of the New Deal efforts to put artists to work, our government commissioned posters to showcase the country’s most stunning natural features under the banner, See America. These iconic images put thousands of artists to work, helped link our natural landscape with our American identity, and live on nearly 100 years later as celebrated works of art.

see america

See America

Artists & designers from all 50 states are now reviving the legacy by creating a new collection of See America posters celebrating our shared natural landmarks and treasured sites.

Inspired, I challenged the kids to create a See America poster of their own upon our return from Florida this past April. While it took some time to see this project through to completion, I am impressed with the final products.

My daughter created her “Mangroves n’ Manatees” poster with water colors. My son’s preference was colored pencil, choosing to title his “The Everglades“.


Everglades   Mangroves

The kids enjoyed the project so much that I am confidant they’ll want to do it again. Hopefully, we’ll finish in a more timely manner.

We happened to visit the Everglades but you certainly do not have to. You can incorporate the See America posters into any regional geography unit.

Ask students to research the flora and fauna of a natural area.  Alternatively, encourage students to research the historical significance of an area and highlight physical features prominently in their posters. You may also wish to assign a written report or ask students to give a formal presentation.

How We Use North Star Geography @EvaVarga.netIf you are looking for a high-quality and engaging Geography curriculum for middle and high school ages, I encourage you to take a few minutes to learn more about North Star Geography – the program we have been using this year.

My family is learning more about geography than ever before and the materials make my job as their teacher so easy! Please feel free to contact me if you have questions.