“You will feel the Everglades today,” park Ranger Ryan Hess said, his green-and-gray uniform and iconic hat giving his words authority. “You will get muddy and wet.”
This was orientation with the 25 students from the Gateway Environmental K-8 Center in Homestead who were participating in the three-day Everglades Environmental Education Program.
Hess, who immediately became “Ranger Ryan” to the students, discussed the ecological importance of the famous “River of Grass” and conducted an exercise that demonstrated the park’s interdependent web of life.
After orientation, a bus took the students, their teacher, Pamela Nelson-Shokar, and four chaperones to the HiddenLakeEducationCenter. Ranger Ryan gave a tour of the camp, and he and Nelson-Shokar recited the program’s no-nonsense rules, stressing that discipline equals safety.
Nelson-Shokar reminded a boy acting out that she had his mother “on speed dial.” He apparently got the message and stopped misbehaving.
Ranger Ryan announced that during the next three days, no one would take showers.
“One of the best things will be the smell, the body odor, you get in three days,” he said, bringing groans and nervous laughter. “You will have to clean your tents and your bathrooms. And we will have inspections.”
More groans, no laughter.
Getting Wet and Loving It
After lunch, the students went on their first major adventure: the slough slog, literally walking in Everglades waters. The ranger led them into a periphyton marsh near Pay-hay-okee trail. After initial screaming because of the cold water, the students relaxed and started learning firsthand that this so-called swamp is not a wasteland of stagnate water.
They realized that the shallow, slow-moving water is a clear universe of animal and plant life. More than an hour later, the kids walked out of the slough, having accomplished a feat many adults dare not attempt.
“This was great,” a boy said. “There were a lot of crayfish.”
A girl said, “It was real messy, but I loved it.”
Learning to Protect the Environment
Although a goal is for students is to enjoy themselves, the environmental program, which operates from mid-December through mid-March for 9- to -13-year-olds, is not about fun and games. All of the activities are aligned with the curricula of the three county school districts the program partners with, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe.
Founded in 1971, the Everglades National Park program, which includes the Loop Road Education Center, uses private donations and park funds to host some 14,000 students annually.
In addition to being an internationally unique ecosystem, Everglades National Park, as the program stresses, is a living classroom where rangers and teachers work collaboratively to show children why they should care about the total environment.
The Night Hike Introduces a New World
After dinner the first night, Ranger Ryan took the students on a one-mile night hike from Hidden Lake to Anhinga Trail. The teacher’s manual describes the hike as “a thrilling experience that serves to dispel misconceptions about the dangers that lurk in the dark.”
After about a quarter mile, Ranger Ryan asked the students to turn off their flashlights and remain silent. An owl hooted deep inside the woods, and several bioluminescent insects flew overhead and in and out of the foliage.
“Nature doesn’t stop when the sun goes down,” Ranger Ryan said. “Many secretive animals come out at night. We’re seeing what it’s like to be a nocturnal animal.”
The “Trust Walk” Builds Confidence
On the return hike, the students were unaware that their greatest challenge awaited them: the “trust walk.” Describing the significance of the walk, Ranger Ryan talked about overcoming fears, trusting others and the importance of personal responsibility.
Then, he left the students with the teacher and chaperones as he placed faint-red illuminations, with ample distance between them, along the path. An adult stood at each illumination, and the students were instructed to proceed one by one in the darkness.
Meanwhile, Ranger Ryan had built a campfire before the students emerged from the darkness and found seats around the blaze.
The reactions of Jadalyn Zorrilla, 11, and Ted Kinard, 13, typified the reactions of other students to the trust walk.
“I was a little afraid at first, but then I realized that it was okay,” Jadalyn said. “I saw the campfire and knew I was safe. I was really excited to get here and finally see people around the fire. I’d been afraid of something coming out of the woods and attacking me. This is the Everglades. It’s kind of freaky with all of the noises.”
Ted said, “I don’t see how anyone could forget the trust walk. I was afraid. This was my first time being in the dark. You didn’t know what was in the road at night in the dark. But when you trust somebody, like Ranger Ryan said, you know it’s safe and you keep on going.”
The Adults Also Learned and Were Inspired
“A lot of the kids have never been camping before,” said music teacher Katie Martinez, on her third as a chaperone. “They come and enjoy nature and learn. It’s a good bonding experience, kind of a growing-up experience. They learn a different way of life. Last year, this boy was in tears on the last day. He said he wanted to be a park ranger. He was captured by the experience. That was probably the most amazing experience I’ve seen a child have.”
Substitute teacher Carlos Coronado was chaperoning for the first time. “This place is amazing,” he said. “At school, you can read about the Everglades, but once you’re out here, you can actually smell and taste it. The Everglades is on you, and you’re getting wet. That’s the best way to experience it. The kids are out here learning and asking questions of rangers. Everybody is learning.”
Nelson-Shokar became involved with the program as a sixth-grader, when she was a camper. She said the value of bringing children into nature is immeasurable. Today, she is the coordinator of the camps at Gateway.
“We don’t choose kids based on academics, and we don’t choose them based necessarily on their behavior,” she said. “We choose kids who can have their lives changed by this. A kid who leaves here on Friday will not be the kid who arrived on Wednesday – guaranteed. It affects them for the rest of their lives. The kids are not used to being in another world outside of their homes, outside that part of Homestead. They come here nervous and scared.”
On Friday, the last morning of camp, the students were up at 6 o’clock to watch sunrise over Hidden Lake. After breakfast, they canoed. For the majority, this was their first time in a water craft.
“Look at them,” Nelson-Shokar said after all the students gotten out of the canoes and handed their paddles to a ranger. “These kids are home.”
Bill Maxwell is a volunteer writer for the 2016 Centennial celebration of the founding of the National Park Service. He is writing articles about Everglades National Park, Biscayne National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Dry Tortugas National Park.