Being a homeschool family, when we go on a vacation, I always try to incorporate educational activities into what we do. Having a balance between learning and fun activities has resulted in some memorable trips during the past year.
One of the subjects that we have enjoyed this year is U.S. geography. During the fall, Sophia, Olivia, and I took a trip out east to visit six New England states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut).
After flying to Connecticut, we drove well over 1,000 miles and visited nature centers, zoos, historical sites, university agricultural programs, submarines, a religious community that once flourished, factories (like Ben & Jerry's ice cream!), and a lighthouse.
We studied Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois next. However, we did not have a chance to take a trip to these states while we were studying them. Hopefully, at some point, we'll be able to visit them.
In the spring, we began studying a group of mid-western states: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Because we live in Minnesota, I thought it would fun to take some short overnight trips to different parts of the state that we had not yet visited. The first area that we visited this summer (from June 8th-10th) was southwestern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota.
When I asked Sophia and Olivia what their favorite memories were from the trip, they said:
Going swimming in Lake Shetek and the hotel pool. Both days were in the upper 80s, so swimming was a welcome break for the girls and a way to cool down.
The girls swam in two different parts of Lake Shetek - the south lake which has sustained gusts of wind at 35 mph (and strong waves as a result of the wind) and the north lake which was buffered by a walking path/sandbar. The picture below was taken in the calmer north lake section of Lake Shetek.
Seeing the Prehistoric Indian Village. Over 1,000 years ago, there was a Native American settlement in Mitchell, South Dakota. There were about 80 lodges in the community. Currently, there's a dome over one area of the settlement, and archeologists are uncovering artifacts that are buried under a layer of heavy clay.
Inside the visitor center, there's a reconstructed lodge as well as many fascinating exhibits about life back at that time.
Roasting hotdogs and marshmallows over the campfire. The night we needed to cook our dinner outside, it was extremely windy (the same day the girls went swimming and the wind speed was 35 mph).
Needless to say, getting the fire started was a bit tricky without firestarters. Yet, within five minutes, we had started a fire with sticks and dry leaves we could find as well as some newspaper.
Taking pictures with the taxidermy skunk and squirrel. The interpretive center at the state park was about 90 feet away from our cabin, so we walked to it several times to read about the history and natural elements of the area.
There were lots of hands-on activities for children at the center, including several taxidermy animals. Olivia picked the skunk and Sophia picked the squirrel. We took them outside and put the skunk on the grass while Olivia pretended to pet it, and Sophia held the squirrel like it was one of pet cats.
Seeing a young bird on the "Welcome to South Dakota" sign. The first stop we made in South Dakota was at the visitor center. We saw gophers and chipmunks running around the grassy area, and Olivia ran after them and discovered the holes where they disappeared into.
As we walked around, we took a picture by the concrete tipi sculpture, and then headed over to visitor center. We happened to look over at the "Welcome to South Dakota" sign and noticed a bird there. It was a young bird that was unafraid of the girls. We enjoyed being able to see it so closely, and then left it alone so it would stay safely where it was perched.
Going to Cabelas and seeing the taxidermy animals - especially the arctic fox and musk ox. From this list, one might think that Sophia and Olivia has a strong interest in taxidermy. Until this trip, I had no idea they were so interested in seeing animals like this.
The original reason for going to Cabelas was to see the 10,000 gallon aquarium. However, the minute we walked in the girls' eyes were focused on the two-story mountain display ahead of them. One of the animals displayed on the mountain was an arctic fox - which both girls enjoyed learning about many years ago.
The other animal that caught our attention was a musk ox. This is the animal that Olivia is studying for her Wildlife Biology project for 4-H. The fact that she could see what a musk ox looked like in person - rather than just reading about one in a book - was a pleasant surprise.
Being caught in the middle of an army convoy. As we were leaving Winthrop, Minnesota, four army vehicles were headed north. At the stop sign, it was our turn to drive. We needed to head north, so we did so...and were the fifth vehicle in the convoy. As we drove for many miles, we looked back to see that we were the only non-military vehicle - there were four military vehicles ahead of us and six behind us.
It was interesting being a part of this convoy - even if it was for a short period of time. Periodically, we would see drivers in vehicles on the oncoming traffic salute or wave to the driver in front of us. It was such a simple gesture, but truly one that conveyed respect and gratitude. It was a good thing for the girls to see.
Going to Pipestone National Park. We learned about pipestone that is hand-quarried here by Native Americans. They consider this space sacred land; and the items they make from the pipestone have spiritual and cultural significance.
After watching a very informative movie about the land, quarries, and history of the Native Americans who lived and live in this area, we walked around on a trail that led by active quarries and through native prairie.
We spent some time inside looking at the hand-crafted artwork made from pipestone, watched artists at work making peace pipes and animal totem items. There were hands-on activities for visitors. One of the activities that the girls did was use saws and files to cut and smooth pipestone.
Visiting the Corn Palace. When I was growing up, my family saw the Corn Palace on the way to Colorado. I wanted Sophia and Olivia to be able to see this structure as well. Unfortunately, when I said it was a "palace" Olivia thought of royalty, kings, queens, and the like. Her vision of the Corn Palace was much different than the reality of what it looks like and its function.
Despite her disappointment, it was still an amazing building from an artistic and historic standpoint. It's been around since the early 1900s, and each year there is a new theme for the building. Each of the murals and design needs to reflect this theme. For 2012, the focus was on youth sports.
During the summer corn and other crops are brought in and attached to the side of the building. I do not remember seeing this done when we visited in the 1970s. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see one side of the building being created. Underneat the design are plywood backgrounds. On top of that it appears that the design is cut from tar paper and coded with the color or type of agricultural product.
Once the corn is ready to be put on the building, each cob is cut in half lengthwise and then affixed to the building. It's impressive when you think of the work involved in creating and installing a new design each year.
Playing the pump organ at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. In Walnut Grove (Minnesota), there's a Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum that has several buildings - each with a different focus. One of the girls' favorite buildings was a home built in the 1800s (not during Laura Ingalls Wilder's time while she was Walnut Grove). It was filled with historical items that would have existed during Laura's lifetime.
One of the items that was in the hands-on activity room was a pump organ. Sophia figured out how to use it and played several songs. "It's a lot of work," she said. The sound quality also is quite different from a standard piano. The pump is rather loud and kind of gets in the way of the music being played. That being said, the song was clear enough to hear and be enjoyable to listen to that morning.
Hearing her play the pump organ reminded me of one of the trips that the girls, my mom, dad, and I took right before my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. At that point, we all knew something was wrong, but didn't yet have the diagnosis.
At one of historical homes we visited in Pella (IA), there was a pump organ. My dad use to play the pump organ at his church when he was a teenager. He shared that information with the tour guide, and she invited him to sit down and play the pump organ.
Dad sat down, opened the hymnal, and began playing the organ. It was as if he had no problems with his mind at that very moment. It was - and is - a treasured memory that we have from that trip.
So, as we look back on this trip to southwestern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota, these memories are the ones that the girls (and I) will remember and continue to enjoy.