Connection to the land:  carving out a home of her own

The daughter of US park ranger parents delves into her journey of connection to New Zealand where she has found a home of her own.

Crystal has worked for DOC on the South Island for five seasons as a hut warden and biodiversity ranger and is now concluding a summer as a research assistant monitoring the highly endangered Tuke/rock wren in Fiordland. She has featured among the highly commended entries of FMC’s annual photo competition, and when we started asking questions about the stories behind the photos, we discovered her story about her journey from growing up as the daughter of U.S. park rangers to valued member of DOC’s ranger team and the Kiwi outdoor community. In August 2017, Crystal featured in the “She Explores” podcast, a U.S. production on inquisitive women in the outdoors and on the road. Her podcast interview delves into her journey to find her turangawaeae, her place to stand. Enjoy the podcast and enjoy her accompanying words and images of the places she feels so connected to.

My life is focused on place and my connection to it. I had the charmed upbringing of a child of park rangers – always on the move from one beautiful natural wonder to the next. I began exploring winding trails in the mountains of Yosemite before I could even walk, carried on the backs of my parents. I remember the scale of the towering granite and the depths of the forest as a small child does: magical and full of wonder in every detail.

Tramping starts early – Crystal is carried into the national parks of the USA to experience the great outdoors before being able to walk on her own.

The open spaces and endless skies of the deserts of Texas worked their way into my subconscious as I grew in childhood. Alone on uplifted bone-dry mountains beneath an inky sky alive with the most brilliant stars imaginable – no other lights for almost 50 miles, I remember the way it felt to live in such isolation. As I began to seek my own path in early adulthood these memories set my feet upon a similar track: I too would make my life as a park ranger and continue to live close to nature, to a grandness that made me feel small. In my attempt to choose a purpose-driven career I decided upon the obvious choice to give back to these places that nurture me through working life-long for their protection.

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is where I first gained my legs: both figuratively in the start of my career as a park ranger and literally as I climbed mountains for the first time on my own and set out to explore the wilderness first-hand. Four seasons of summer exploits in the high mountains of Colorado firmly entrenched my love of all things alpine.

Winter sunrise at Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Halfway through my last year in Colorado I discovered New Zealand. Suddenly and unexpectedly I fell completely in love with a new place. Whether it was the shining turquoise water, the snow-capped peaks, the lush green forest with unknown trees, or the golden tussock-clad hills – it came together to enchant me more than anything else I had seen in my entire life. How could this be and how could I make it a reality to live here? All-of-a-sudden the recognition of a path I had never considered struck me. It consumed me. I decided I could find a way to make this place my home and that I would stop at nothing to achieve my new-found dream: I would be a park ranger in the mountains of New Zealand.

Early morning at Lake Mackenzie on the Routeburn Track in Fiordland National Park

With time up my sleeve and a focused rush of energy I committed myself to the pursuit of this dream during my last summer in Rocky. Incredibly, it worked. I moved to New Zealand in October 2014 and began working as a hut warden with the Department of Conservation, albeit a little far from the mountains, in Abel Tasman National Park. Although I worked on sunny beaches I spent almost every weekend tramping in the heart of the mountains getting to know my new-found home.

Camp under a starry sky above Lake Barra in remote South Westland

Morning light at Crucible Lake in Mount Aspiring National Park

At the conclusion of the summer there was no question in my mind that I wanted to live in New Zealand permanently. I knew I couldn’t stay on my current visa so I returned to the USA to work an exciting season as a park ranger in the wilds of Alaska in the interim. This northern summer was filled with wildlife encounters, wilderness adventures, and plenty of time spent securing a return to New Zealand.

Autumn at Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park, Alaska

Moose tracks and brown bear tracks side-by-side on the shore of Lake Brooks in Katmai National Park, Alaska

To my surprise and the fulfillment of my secret hope I beat the odds and returned to New Zealand to work again as a hut warden – this time on the Heaphy Track, a little closer to the mountains. Another summer of exploration and joy left me wondering how to make the permanent transition. I knew I needed a little more time, a little more experience under my belt. So, I got both by securing a position as a park ranger in the rugged North Cascades of Washington for the summer up north.

Alpine larch trees in full autumn display on the boundary of North Cascades National Park, Washington

With more time and relatively easier access to a city than I had on the Alaska Peninsula I threw myself into an application for residence in New Zealand. Again, I had a beautiful summer of mountain adventures that was capped off with my personal crowning achievement of gaining residency in New Zealand. The final realization of my dream was so large I found it difficult to process. But, in no time, I was on a long flight again bound for the shores of Aotearoa – this time with two overstuffed bags instead of one. I meant to stay.

Milford Sound as seen from Cascade Peak in Fiordland National Park

I don’t own a single square inch of land in this place but I’ve taken ownership in a different sense. I know the call of the kaka as it wheels overhead, I can distinguish the wing-beat of a tui from a kereru, and I can hear the smallest peep and know it comes from a rock wren high on a bluff. I can tell you where to find the largest, most succulent buttercups as well as the tiniest, most intricate alpine cushion flowers. I’ve learned where it’s easiest to step over a muddy bog on the Dusky Track and where the best clear pools beckon a swim under a hot summer sun. I find peace in this knowledge, in the easy way it comes, but I don’t forget what it took to get here.

Mount Campbell at sunrise in South Westland

Maybe I feel ownership so acutely because it was never mine from the beginning. Always the outsider, always unknown, perhaps I seek connection more than others. If I had felt out-of-the-loop in the past, arriving in New Zealand was like arriving on another planet. Yet, instead of feeling like the place was foreign, temporary or other-worldly, I felt as if I had always imagined a place like this. As a very idealistic, passionate, and dream-big kind of person I am always after the most shockingly magnificent natural landscapes I can find. What I didn’t realize until New Zealand was that each individual element of beauty that I perceive could coalesce to form one environment that ticks all the boxes for me. Some boxes I knew I had, others I didn’t.

Sunrise as seen from a saddle above Plateau Creek in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland

When recalling my first arrival in New Zealand I remember stretched before me a scene of unparalleled grandeur that I knew absolutely nothing about, except that I belonged. I wanted to find out more, I wanted to discover its secrets, and more than anything I wanted to call it mine.

Wilderlife