Chip Robelen: Natural history whiz
Robelen stands knee-deep in the Peace River in south central Florida as
streams of pint-sized fossil
hunters ebb and flow around him.
“Good, Robert,” he says to
a six-year-old boy who’s holding up a dark brown finger of
stone. “That’s a very nice dugong
rib. And Gretchen’s got…a lemon shark tooth!
Beautiful! And what’s that you have Lance? Oh my.
That’s just a rock…but it’s one of the
best rocks I’ve ever seen!”
Lance tosses the rock upstream
and runs off laughing, joining other kids, and their parents, as they
splash around the river’s
coffee-colored water, shoveling scoops of sand into screen sieves and
watching wide-eyed as ancient
fossils seem to magically materialize out of river silt.
Chip, the special projects
coordinator of the South Florida Museum of Natural History and leader
of this expedition to the
far reaches of south-central Florida, stands khaki-clad in the center
of the activity looking like a cross
between Mr. Rogers and Indiana Jones.
“Look!” he shouts excitedly, pointing
skyward at a soaring bird. “There’s a
swallow-tailed kite. Very rare. Bird-watchers could
come here every weekend for a year and never see one.”
He keeps up a running dialogue throughout
the day, purveying an endless stream of information about all things
and telling tales about things like giant glytodonts -- armadillos the
size of VWs -- that used to
roam these parts. And come evening, he leads the campfire stories and
songfest before showing the
kids how to find the North Star.
To go along with his encyclopedic
knowledge, Chip has a contagious enthusiasm for learning which
whether he’s leading a Peace River fossil-hunting expedition
or one of his other innovative programs,
which now include three sleepovers in the South Florida-based museum:
the Dinosnore Adventure,
Mummy Mania and the latest, The Natives Are Hungry.
“We make a Paleolithic knife and
talk about hunting techniques, then go outside and throw spears at
targets,” he says of the
latter event. “We try to make it realistic, so if you
don’t hit the target, you don’t get
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell when
he’s kidding. But he’s definitely serious about
“What I love about this job is when
I start talking about dinosaurs or fossils or mummies to the kids and
their eyes sparkle
because they get it,” Chip says. “And I love
learning. I love it when my eyes sparkle because I get it.”
Remarkably, this natural history
know-it-all is a self-taught expert who has no college degrees, no
initials attached to
his name. A former charter boat captain and registered nurse, he was a
professional photographer shooting
weddings and commercial work about a decade ago when one of the museum
founders, Gypsy Graves,
hired him to help out with some audio-visual projects.
“When I interviewed a professor
or some other expert for a video, I hated asking stupid
questions,” Chip recalls. “So I
always did my homework. And one test was to explain things to my son
and daughter. That made me work
harder on the education side.”
The job turned into a full-time
position, and in the following years, Chip has developed a fun set of
activities which he keeps
fiddling with to improve. For example, the Dinosnore Adventure, which
takes place on select Friday
nights, used to consist of a scavenger hunt through the eerily-darkened
museum followed by a screening
of Jurassic Park.
“Now we go outside and dig up buffalo
bones, then treat them the way paleontologists would treat dinosaur
explains. “We also cast a spinosaurus tooth and have a bunch
of crafts and hands-on activities,
so there’s no time for Jurassic Park.”
Another popular program is Mummy
Mania, which includes making a scarab and doing “mommy
wraps” with toilet paper.
At the last Mummy Mania event, Chip enlisted the help of his
nine-year-old son, Spencer, and
12-year old daughter, Ariel.
“We dressed Spencer in a loin cloth
and had him lie in a tomb as King Tut,” Chip says.
“And Ariel played Indian Queen Osceola.
The kids really love the adventure.
“Me too. To quote Ian Fleming, ‘Never
say no to adventure.’ I love being the guide and have so much
fun teaching the kids
what I know. I’m living my dream.”
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