Last year, we set out on a journey through the Great Lakes. A study though story as we followed a little wooden canoe on it's route to the sea.
Homeschooling itself is a journey. The road pocketed with potholes of doubt, questioning, and curriculum switching. Our first years of homeschooling were dominated with a steep learning curve, on all our parts. It took us two years of navigating and last year (my son’s first grade year) was the year we hit our rhythm. What works for my teaching style, their learning styles, and flows well into our daily life. I decided to be open to ideas for our learning that didn’t look anything like “school.” And I discovered that learning through story is a beautiful thing.
Prior to discovering Beautiful Feet Books and Ambleside Online ( the two curriculums we use); I had never heard of Holling. C. Hollings. He was an American author and illustrator and wrote a multitude of award winning books throughout his career. In 1942 , perhaps his best known book, Paddle to the Sea was a Caldecott Honor Book. Every one of his books are a journey through story, rich with flora and fauna, history and place. The story of Paddle begins with a First Nation boy near Nipigon, Ontario, who has kept himself busy over the winter with carving a one foot long wooden canoe that he intends to set on a journey as the snow melts and runs to the sea. For our own study, I decided the kids would each paint their own canoe to play with as we made our way through the Great Lakes last year. They had such fun painting their own little canoes and paddle people, giving them names and details. A few days later our canoes were dry, our maps had arrived, and we were prepped and ready to launch our learning.
Prepping their canoes for our launch into learning. Both of my children painted their own canoe to use as we made our way through the story.
And so, we began. Our pace was a slow and steady one chapter per week. Each chapter is one page of reading. However, the illustrations and accompanying mapwork are enough to keep dialogue going all week long. Mondays were the day we read Paddle to the Sea, and each week my kids enthusiasm grew. They eagerly climbed on their desks to retrieve their canoes and placed them on our map as we followed along. After we read the chapter, we went to our map (from Beautiful Feet Books). My children took turns coloring in the lakes as we discussed where Paddle was at. They exuberantly claimed dibs on who would find the lake on our globe. My son practiced copywork as he painstakingly wrote out the names of the cities Paddle visited on his journey. We laughed at the shenanigans along the way, and I learned along side them as the story unfolded. When Paddle made his entrance to the sea in the last chapter, I cried. Our own journey through the story over the past 36 weeks had been such an amazing experience to both my children and to me. Our style of learning had been changed and shaped for the better.
Our own journey through the story over the past 36 weeks had been such an amazing experience to both my children and to me. Our style of learning had been changed and shaped for the better.
Our school year ended and our summer began, but the study stayed with us and my children played with their little canoes often. As we began to make plans for our fall vacation and my husband’s birthday, an idea hatched that I was hoping we could pull off; because epic shenanigans are my favorite thing. My husband, prior to us meeting, lived and worked in Dryden, Ontario for three years. So, for his big birthday we decided to head up there to see our friends we hadn’t seen in a few years and go fishing for big musky. After a bit of research I discovered that the city where Paddle began his journey, Nipigon, was only about four hours east of our destination of Dryden. I also learned that the city had dedicated a series of 12 parks and playgrounds to the story of Paddle to the Sea. Well, that sealed the deal and we made our plans to go on our own journey to the Great Lakes. In early September we drove to Duluth, Minnesota and then followed scenic Hwy 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior, stopping along the way at places mentioned in the story. One of my favorite stops was to Onyx beach. A beach made up of black sand, a natural byproduct of the local industry. My children grabbed their little painted canoes from last year and raced off toward the edge of water. My husband and I frolicked alongside them. How wonderful it was to bring the story we studied to life and make memories as a family. Memories I will forever cherish.
First view of Lake Superior. Chilly and windy and wonderful. My children shouted exubrantly about touching the water where Paddle went. Their knowledge from the last year bubbling to the surface and spewing out in excited shouts.
The views of the vastness of Lake Superior astonished me. It’s one thing to study about these great lakes, but to stand on the shore and look out over the expanse is jaw dropping. What a joy to have history and geography come to life not only for my children, but for me as well. Life long learning is my goal for them and for myself. A rolling stone gathers no moss and a mind open to learning gathers no dust. We stood on cliffs overlooking the blue waters, stopped for pizza at a place my husband remembered from childhood, and lingered in north woods coffee shops and bookstores. Our border crossing at Thunder Bay was smooth and quick. You do need passports for traveling to Canada, for children as well. From Thunder Bay, we headed about an hours drive north to Nipigon. The tiny town was shut down for the evening and we had the parks to ourselves. My children grabbed their canoes and seemed to fly up the steps to reach the big Paddle to the Sea statue that awaited them. Nipigon has dedicated a wonderful playground to this story, and fairly recently. It is a series of 12 small playgrounds, with each playground telling a part of the story. The playground equipment meshed seamlessly with the story as my children ran and climbed. My favorite playgrounds were the sawmill chapter, the Duluth chapter (which had monkey bars shaped just like the great lift bridge in Duluth), and the forest fire. The playgrounds are spread throughout a few spots in the city, but not a far walk to reach them. The story and playgrounds end down at the lagoon; which spills into Nipigon Bay of Lake Superior. I cried, again. We all ran down to the small dock and touched the water. It was cold but the landscape surrounding the bay is stunning. Nipigon is quiet little town (though it does have a Tim Hortons which we stopped at on our way back to Thunder Bay); that has done an incredible thing with installing the Paddle to the Sea Park. The story is a celebrated story in Canadian and American literature, and will be a cornerstone in my children’s memories of our homeschool journey.
We played our way through the parks as we reminisced about our favorite story from last year. What a joy to see such a beautiful story come to life before us. Paddles journey to the sea will forever be a favorite of ours.
These resources can be found at Beautiful Feet Books. The company was founded by the wonderful Rea Burg and her husband Russell. They offer Charlotte Mason influenced studies in history and geography, as well as just wonderful literature. We have used several of their sets over the past two years, and I am certain we will continue to use more. In fact, if you look at their catalog you may just recognize my children’s little canoes they painted! The book and map can be purchased individually, or Beautiful Feet also offers a Study through Geography pack which I would highly recommend. We are still using ours as this year we are using Tree in the Trail and Seabird. The Geography through literature pack can be found here. It includes all of the books and maps for United States geography. Please note that these are affiliate links and by using them I will receive a benefit, at not additional cost to you.