Volunteers help with Big Cypress tours

OCHOPEE, Fla.— Four days out of every week, you can find volunteer couple Janie and Bob Hinson and a small band of sixth graders trying to piece together a mystery in Big Cypress National Preserve.

And every one of those four days, both Hinsons are reminded of why they hope to stay volunteering at this preserve for many years to come.

Bob and Janie Hinson devote most of their week to teaching kids about Big Cypress. (Photo courtesy of the Big Cypress National Preserve Outreach and Education Office).

Retired in 2005, Illinois residents Janie and Bob Hinson, were looking for something different to do after spending 18 years in Southern Illinois. The only thing they knew was that they wanted to work with and around different kinds of people.

Using the Internet, the Hinsons looked on a government-sponsored volunteers Web site, (, to find a place that fit their needs. Once they saw an ad looking for two people to lead a walk for the swamp program at Big Cypress, they packed up their fifth wheel recreational vehicle and headed south to Florida.

Once they arrived at the preserve, it didn’t take long to get acquainted with their fellow volunteers and BCNP employees. The Hinsons started volunteering in October 2007 and live on preserve land in their fifth wheel.

“We have about 50 volunteers in Big Cypress,” said Superintendent Isobel Kalafarski. “One of the most important things about them is their flexibility and enthusiasm. All of our volunteers are ready to work indoors and out, but are also happy to interact with the visitors.”

Once the Hinsons themselves were taken out into the swamp several times by experienced guides, they began their real work. Today, they take groups of sixth graders on swamp walks. The program they are part of started 10 years ago as a grant. The grant allowed for sixth graders from Collier County in Southwest Florida to go on a field trip every year to Big Cypress.

Bob and Janie Hinson walk their groups through carefully chosen, knee-high swamplands in the Big Cypress area (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service).

“It’s strenuous work to keep the kids entertained,” Janie, 56, said lovingly. “But it is also the most amazing thing to see the looks on their faces when they step in thigh-high water and see all the nature surrounding them. The kids are just in complete awe and they are completely different kids once they come back from the swamp.”

Before the walk, the kids are taken to the Education House, where they are given a presentation on the Big Cypress environment and the different habitats in the preserve.

During the walk, the 11 and 12 year olds are split up into three groups. One group starts at the Pineland, another at the Prairie, and the third at the Cypress Swamps. The groups rotate within those three locations.

The swamp walk centers around a sort of crime scene investigation that starts with the discovery of purposely placed deer bones. The Hinsons, with the help of the preserve rangers, lead the kids around the different habitats to find out who was responsible for the deer bones.

Bob’s group of sixth-graders listens carefully as he uses a simple container to explain the local weather (Big Cypress National Preserve Outreach and Education Office).

Along the way, they point out different animal tracks and sometimes catch glimpses of birds close by, always identifying and explaining what they encounter. In the end, the children discover that the panther was most likely the cause of the deer bones.

“At Big Cypress, there is a total variety of things to see and do,” Bob, who is 64, advised kindly. “You can enjoy the Boardwalk or go clogging in the swamp.”

Volunteering at Big Cypress has been the longest time they’ve spent volunteering in any one place. Before BCNP, the couple volunteered for a season at the information office of a private RV campsite in the Grand Canyon. This has also been the place where they’ve learned the most. The Hinsons have learned to identify birds by their sound and color, and can also point out a whole plethora of plants and animals, including four species of poisonous snakes.

“The tours with children are very high energy, but Bob and Janie handle them well,” Kalafarski noted.

Kalafarski emphasized that volunteers make an important contribution.

“Volunteers, like the Hinsons, also form a camaraderie during their stay, so most come back for more than one season. Having familiar people around definitely adds to the park’s atmosphere.”

For this couple, volunteering has given them an incredible education about wildlife. Their seasonal stay, ending just before the December holidays, has been so enjoyable that they hope to come again next fall.

“We absolutely want to come back!” Janie said excitedly. “Working with kids is not very high on some peoples’ agendas, so we will gladly take that role, especially since it’s always been so much fun.”

Janie with the kids on the pineland section of the trail, one of five habitats at Big Cypress National Preserve (Big Cypress National Preserve Outreach and Education Office).


If You Wish to Volunteer

  • To volunteer at Big Cypress National Preserve, e-mail or call 239-695-1201
  • Every year, the Friends of Big Cypress Board supports many different projects for volunteers of all interests.
  • Volunteers can work on a wide range of things, from event planning to posting boardwalk signs.
  • If working in the Big Cypress environment, volunteers usually go through two to three weeks of training led by experienced rangers.
  • Volunteers usually live on the campgrounds or paid National Park Service houses.
  • The volunteer Web site for the National Park Service is

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