What is a forest?
That question came to life last week for students in Shelli Furlong's fifth-grade class.
The Kalifornsky Beach Elementary students traded the brick and plaster of their school Friday for shrub-lined hallways and a lakeside classroom as they learned first-hand just what a forest is.
The trip was part of a yearlong study the class is participating in through a grant through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Coopera-tive Extension Service. The class is studying area forests, as well as those in other regions by trading information electronically with a class in Kentucky.
The program started primarily with classes in the Fairbanks region, said Furlong. This year, though, it was extended to include different regions and Furlong and two other K-Beach teachers jumped on the opportunity.
During the summer, participating teachers in Kentucky and Alaska met to plan their lessons and correspondence, and their classes will spend the year comparing and contrasting forests by collecting and sharing information.
K-Beach Elementary fifth-graders explore the forest edge during a scavenger hunt Friday near Skilak Lake.
Furlong's class already has taken core samples and age data on several trees, sending data, digital pictures and letters to Kentucky via the Internet.
On Friday, the students took the next step, studying forest fires and cycles first-hand with Michael Bernard, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, near Skilak Lake.
The students started the day at Hidden Lake Camp-ground.
Gathered under a picnic shelter, the students told Bernard what they already had learned about forests and forest fires.
They discussed the fire triangle -- the combination of fuel, air and heat which must be present for a fire to burn -- and the five stages of forest growth -- herbs, shrubs, young mature, mature and over-mature.
Bernard added to their knowledge by displaying the equipment firefighters use to combat forest blazes and leading the kids through a forest-stage game.
But the real lessons came later as Bernard led the students on a hike along Hidden Creek Trail to see the parts of the forest that burned about six years ago.
The fire, which was started by a discarded cigarette in May of 1996, burned more than 5,000 acres of forest and took about 10 days to extinguish, Bernard told the students. Over time, the forest has started to grow back, he said, and is now in the shrub stage.
"During the trip, you'll see how nature heals itself," he told the students.
Indeed, as they hiked down the trail, starting at Skilak Lake Road and heading for the lake, the students saw just that.
The trail begins in lush woods, an area untouched by the fire. Soon, however, Bernard told the students they were heading into the edge.
"Isn't that a cross between the spot where the trees caught on fire and the ones that didn't?" asked one student.
The answer became obvious as the taller leaf-filled trees disappeared and charred logs began littering the ground. Among the decay, new herbs and shrubs sprouted and thrived.
That, Bernard pointed out, is the natural cycle for forests.
In the edge area, Bernard stopped the hike to begin a quick scavenger hunt, letting the students explore the regrowth.
"Tell us what you found that was interesting," Bernard challenged the students.
"Bark hanging halfway off a tree."
"Cranberries and watermelon berries."
"Evidence of a moose that bit off the top of a bush."
"Spruce bark beetle holes."
The forest may still be recovering from the fire, but it is still an apt habitat for many animals, the students learned.
That lesson went even farther a little ways down the trail where, embedded in the muddy path, the students found a fresh bear print.
"Just wait 'til we send that picture to Kentucky," Furlong said as a student snapped a digital picture of the print.
Finally, the class arrived at Skilak Lake.
"It's really pretty, but it doesn't smell all that great," students laughed, pointing to dead salmon along the tide line.
After about 30 minutes of eating, skipping rocks and exploring, it was time for one last game and a tired trek back to the road.
"This is cool," one student said. "But could you imagine if we had to do this every day to get to school?"
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