The Swamp Whisperer

Ranger Rich finds small pleasures in the Great Swamp, like helping children overcome their fear of nature. He leads tours and explains the intricacies of nature to anyone willing to take a romp through the swamp.

Romping through the swamp: Morris Country Park Commission trail guide Ranger Rich displays the tools of his trade- and a surprise specimen turned up on one recent hike through the Great Swamp.
Photo by Christopher Villano.

Ranger Rich Sofie is one of those rare guys who likes mosquitoes. And that is a good thing, since for the last fifteen years, the 60-year-old retired postal clerk has taken thousands of kids on hikes through the backwoods of the Great Swamp in Chatham.

On a recent hot and steamy Sunday afternoon, Ranger Rich, who has never married and lives in his boyhood home in Summit, sat on a bench in a favorite Maplewood park to talk about his commitment to teaching young people about the great outdoors in New Jersey.

You have been called “the Lou Gehrig of hiking,” a reference to the late baseball player’s streak of consecutive games played. What do you think of that description?

Well, I’m a Yankee fan so that’s quite a compliment. I guess the description refers to my taking groups of kids out hiking seven days a week during the spring and fall seasons for the last 15 years. I still don’t think I could hit an inside fastball, but I’m pretty good at picking out the difference between moths and butterflies.

What is the difference?

Butterflies touch their wings together when they land, moths keep their wings apart.

Are there any parts of the Great Swamp where you are out of range of traffic sounds?

It’s funny you should ask that question. It is something I point out to children all the time on hikes. When we get out into the Great Swamp, I ask them to be completely silent and listen to the world around them. One child almost always enthusiastically exclaims that they don’t hear any cars in the distance. They concentrate on the sounds of frogs, birds, and the wind whipping through the trees. Soon after, they’re climbing on rocks and challenging themselves physically in new ways. It is so rewarding for them and for me as well.

Do you see yourself as the antidote to school-age kids’ obsession with video games?

Absolutely! I really believe that there is no substitute for Mother Nature. And the Great Swamp is a wonderful place to discover the wonders of the natural world. Kids love the challenge of the outdoors. They learn a lot about their relationship to nature and how important it is to protect the planet. They really do forget about the Wii when they are in the Great Swamp.

What are some of the things hikers discover in the Great Swamp?

Hikers see the kinds of trees hairy mammoths ate long ago and Indians made their canoes from. They discover turtles and frogs sitting on logs by the large pond. They observe nests of hawks and songbirds. They feel a tree half-chewed by a beaver, and peek at the den of a red fox family. They view where ice fell off a big glacier long ago and left the ground tilted. They hike past the burrowed homes of river otters, owls, and woodchucks. They walk where George Washington and his army hid from the Redcoats.

I think people will get the picture. Is it true that you do all your hikes free of charge as a volunteer?

Being a volunteer is a wonderful experience. There is nothing more rewarding for me than helping young people get out into nature. My rewards are in the faces of the many kids I’ve seen overcome their fears of the natural world. The look in their eyes is indescribable. I also have to admit that I walk for my own health, too. I had numerous bypasses five years ago. Hiking has helped me to regain my health.

Do you knock on wood when you’re in the Great Swamp for the good health you are now in, and for the opportunity to do something you obviously love so much?

No, but every time I hear a woodpecker in the Great Swamp, I thank my lucky stars.

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