After being raised in national parks in the US, Crystal Brindle seemed destined to become a park ranger. Now working as a DOC ranger, she talks park life in the US versus NZ, and what it’s like to spend five months at a hut on the Dusky Track.
Why did you want to become a park ranger?
Both of my parents worked for the US National Park Service, so I grew up in the most beautiful places in the country. My dad worked as a law enforcement ranger and later became a park manager, and my mum was working in park education. I started life in Yosemite National Park, and we were there for six years. My parents got me out exploring before I could walk and I was hiking on my own by the time I was four.
We then moved to Texas and lived for eight years in a number of other parks, but my teenage years were spent living in a suburb. I really missed living in the outdoors, so I studied park management in Colorado and soon started working for the National Park Service.
You’re now living in NZ and working for DOC full time – how did that happen?
I came here on holiday with my parents in 2013 and it completely changed my life. When I got back to the US, I spent the whole summer trying to get a job with DOC and ended up doing three seasons working as a hut warden on the Abel Tasman Coast Track and the Heaphy Track. I’d work six months for DOC and then head back to the US to work for the Park Service.
How is being a park ranger in NZ different from the US?
One big difference is the lack of law enforcement in national parks here. In the US, they take on the role of the police in the parks. Another difference is interpretation. In the US you can spend your entire career working as an interpretation ranger, engaging with visitors to help them learn more about the wildlife and the park. That’s not so big in New Zealand – DOC doesn’t have as much of a public presence. I think that’s something that’s needed here, and it’s something DOC is working to change. I’m keen to work as an interpretation ranger in Fiordland in the future.
You spent five months at Lake Roe Hut on the Dusky Track studying rock wren. What was that experience like?
The location is incredible. The hut is just above the bushline, surrounded by beech trees and it’s a landscape of water. You look down onto Lake Laffy and Lake Bright and every small depression seems to hold water.
The hut doesn’t get many people through it, but over the holiday period it was sometimes over capacity, which can make it hard to get your work done – there was only one night I had to move bunks due to a snorer. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with people about the work. It makes me value what I’m doing a lot more when I’m able to tell someone about it, and people would get really jazzed hearing about it.
What was a typical day like?
First, we had to find rock wren nests. The best way to find them is to offer a bird a feather. If the wren is nesting, it will grab it and take it right back to its nest. As long as you can track the bird, you’ll find the nest.
Once we found a nest, we would return each day to monitor it. Each morning it would take about an hour to reach the first nest, walking almost entirely off track, through tussock, scrub and boulders. We would stake out a nest for long enough to observe their nesting habits. Sometimes that would take 15 minutes or two-and-a-half hours. Then we would walk to the next nest.
You become very invested in the work. Once, after a weekend, we came back and found one nest was empty – it was likely predated. It was such a sad feeling, knowing how much effort the birds had put into building the nest, incubating the eggs, feeding the chicks. It was pretty emotional, but overall it’s the most enjoyable field position I’ve ever had.
Crystal Brindle is giving a talk about life as a DOC ranger and her experience monitoring rock wren at the NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival in Wanaka on Sunday July 1. Info: www.mountainfilm.nz