The kids and I got to spend one last, magical, winter day outside. After breakfast, we packed a backpack with lunch and extra socks and mittens. We donned the snow pants and winter boots that are still hanging out in the mud room next to the raincoats and galoshes. We got in the car and drove to Bois-de-Liesse to meet up with Instruction en famille, yet another group of homeschoolers that I just recently found out about. GUEPE (le Groupe uni d’éducateurs-naturalistes et professionals en environnement—an organization of naturalists and environmental professionals) was leading a (free!!) activity on trappers and the First Nations/Canadian tradition of trapping.

turtlesWe arrived at 10:15 to find the leader, Étienne, building a trap out of sticks right outside the main building. We went inside for a few minutes to meet the little animals (snakes and turtles) that call the GUEPE office home. When everyone in the group had arrived, we went back outside so Étienne could show us how his trap worked. Then he led us to another building where we had a lesson inside.

 

building a trap

coyote furÉtienne had a bag full of animal skins. He brought them out and asked the kids what they thought. Some were quick to condemn the practise. Others defended the First Nations tradition. Étienne himself did an amazing job at presenting both sides. He said that he himself would never be a trapper, that he did not like the job itself and that he would never wear fur. He talked about the despicable behaviour of the fur farms covered in the press. But then he talked of his family members who are trappers, their connection to nature, their amazing skills at surveying the land and their ability to strike a predator/prey equilibrium in their territory. He argued that using the skin and fur meant not wasting any part of the animal and he talked about a trapper’s code of ethics. It was truly fascinating and the kids listened attentively.

After that lesson, we went back outside. Étienne had organized two games for the kids: one that showed them the effects of predator/prey disequilibrium and a hunt in the woods for hidden animal track casts. As the little kids brought them back, Étienne gave more details to the big kids. We also set off into the woods for, not an Easter egg hunt, but an “animal traces” hunt. We looked for signs that beavers were in the area.

gamesanimal trackingwoods

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

animal trackFinally, after a presentation of the animal track casts, each kid chose one and pressed it into the snow to see what the track would look like in the ground. Then we went in for lunch.

 

track in snow

 

Our family is new to this group that has been together for years; in fact, some of them have been doing this very GUEPE program for six years. Étienne has seen their kids grow up. Yet they were all very welcoming; we made new friends (including a family that has joined the Nook!) and had a great time.

After lunch was put away, we got the chance to make our own animal track casts. Zahra chose a fox, Noah a bobcat, and Leila a mink. They poured plaster into their molds, and we played another track identification card game while we waited for them to set. Then it was time to go outside again.

animals trackstrack identification

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took a walk through the woods and found a few sets of tracks. We gathered sticks to make our own trap. Étienne explained the importance of the whole environment for a trapper—not just looking for tracks on the ground, but looking for broken tree branches or trampled grass. He pointed out to us that we were close to a shortcut back to the main building. Did we see it? It took awhile, but we found it and made our way back.

tracks in the snow

Back inside, Étienne showed us a couple different traps on the market today, from the common mousetrap (which is terribly inhumane) to the newer traps, some used by biologists when tracking or identifying animals. Then we got to work making our own trap with the sticks we had collected.

traptrap

 

 

At shortly past 3:00, the program was finished and it was time to head home. It was a wonderful day spent in the woods with the softly falling snow. We learned so much and had so much fun!

 

 

Little did we know the fun wasn’t over. Stopping at the mailbox on the way home, we found out our Wonderful Objects package had arrived. We have been looking for this box nearly every day for several months. That’s right. Zahra said she had given up hope. Let me explain.

crazy wonderfulWe were gifted this subscription shortly after Christmas. It’s along the lines of a mystery box: you don’t know when it’s going to arrive and you don’t know what’s in it. The promise is this: the objects in the box will be magical, wonderful, will inspire storytelling in your children. It’s a year-long subscription with random mailings and other surprises. It’s a leap of faith. It’s also produced in conjunction with Cricket Media, an amazing company whose magazines we love. Expectations were high. I’m so happy to report that Cricket Media and Wonder and Company did not disappoint.

warningWith a fire going, the kids and I sat on the living room floor and opened the box. Zahra read aloud a letter from Professor Cornelia Hornshaw of the Brazen Inquiry Guild. It was inviting us to accept a research post to look into the recent acquisition of a mysterious object. As part of the group of young scientists who had invented the Cypher (a device that let humans understand animal language), we are highly sought after. The professor promised us unlimited resources in our investigation and warned us against the hype of a certain Dr. Sheepshank. The letter had a wax stamp with a crown symbol.

wax stampThe next thing in the box was a letter from this Dr. Sheepshank, the head zoologist at Cypher Labs. When Zahra opened it, a golden feather fell out. Dr. Sheepshank wrote that he was enclosing several objects from the land of Kyngdom, with the instruction that they be forwarded to us. The kids remarked that this letter was sealed with a bird-and-crescent-moon wax symbol.

The letter ended like this: “As you know, the Cypher has opened a box of troubles—but it has also opened a box of wonders. This is only the beginning of those troubles and wonders. Kyngdom needs your help to sort it all out. Maybe it’s because you’re so young, or maybe it’s because you’re particularly intelligent—but you have a unique ability to look around and ask, What if another world lies behind this one? We need that. Kyngdom has waited a long time for someone like you. Everyone here looks forward to meeting you. You’re part of a story that all animals (including people) will tell for years to come.”

clay coins

By the time I finished reading this, the kids were jumping up and down in excitement. There were squeals. There were gasps. And we hadn’t even seen any of these wonderful objects yet. We peeled back the dark blue tissue paper, and the first thing we saw was a purple pouch. Inside are two beautiful clay coins, each with a bird image stamped in relief.

The second object we uncovered is an antique-style book with an image of a mythical creature on the front. We opened the book to find that it’s hollow, and there were many more treasures inside. The first is a black feather with a coded message wrapped around it. The second is what appears to be a decoder—only it’s stamped with paw prints, whereas the coded message is stamped with birds’ feet, and we can’t figure it out yet. Still mulling that one over…

bookcards

There’s also a magnifying glass and a set of cryptic cards identifying mythical creatures. There appears to be a map printed on the back of the cards, but it’s missing pieces. There’s a dossier with sheets we can use to track characters that we meet.

 

wonderful

And finally, there’s a notebook and a pen that writes in invisible ink. When we used the light on the pen to scan the pages of the notebook, we found two messages handwritten inside! The first said, “Fur and feathers forever!”, and the second said, “3.25.16 5PM CT”. According to Dr. Sheepshank, that’s the date and time of our secret meeting online at the Chatterbox. That’s tomorrow!

secret message

I was as giddy as the kids were. It was all we could talk about at dinner, and the kids were adamant that they do not want to join Professor Hornshaw. She dismissed Dr. Sheepshank, saying he’s trying to mislead the public into thinking that animals have feelings and reason, and the kids cried wildly, of course they do!

Wonderful Objects has a tagline on the box: Unbox a Story. Well, we unboxed a dozen stories at dinner tonight, trying to imagine what’s going to happen next. I loved how the kids worked together to build off each other’s scenarios, how they took the story down different paths, how wrapped up in the details they were. And get this: not once did anyone “claim” one of the objects as their own or grab something out of someone else’s hands. It was just natural that they were working together. After the initial conversation died down, they reboxed the wonderful objects, and I set them on the kitchen counter as we sat down for dinner.

Sweet dreams for the kiddos as they try to imagine what’s going to happen at this secret meeting tomorrow! And sweet dreams for me because there’s nothing I love more than the possibilities of a new story.