Posts Tagged ‘New Zealand’

Discovering amazing places in the world is a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because it shows travelers the beauty and diversity of the world, a curse because it leads to this draw away from the comforts of the settled life and a struggle to choose where to call home.

When I was at The Pub a few weeks ago, I chose to wear my New Zealand All Blacks shirt from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which NZ hosted and won while I was working and traveling there. The man seated next to me asked me the reason for the shirt, and I proceeded to happily talk to a complete stranger about my country for a chunk of the evening.

Over the course of our conversation, this father of a first year college student and a free spirited teenage daughter heard tales of my travels in NZ, China, and Mexico. Some of my adventures worried him as he thought of his own daughter, but mostly he seemed entertained by my tales. Toward the end of the conversation he asked, “Since you love New Zealand so much, what’s keeping you from going back?”

After my usual bs mumbling about visas, needing a job, and the cost of living, I stopped and reflected on how I’ve compiled excuses for not making a move to my favorite country happen. A few years ago I read a blog post about dreams and whether we pursue them or not. Unfortunately I can’t recall the exact line or find the post, but it said something like:

When our dreams seem too difficult to realize, we convince ourselves we never really wanted them that badly, and then we force ourselves to not want them any more. In making up excuses and moving around our dreams, we abandon them and never know what could have been.

The Importance of Big Dreams – similar yet different post by a great blogger

As someone who still gets more fired up to talk about New Zealand than anything else, that idea saddens me. I haven’t let the dream die, but I’ve realized that something else has gotten in the way. To explain, we have to return to the South Pacific.

Wanaka, a cute town in the Central Otago region of the South Island, wanted me to slow down and stay awhile during my travels. I arrived with only 5 days left in my ~4.5 weeks of wandering everywhere I could squeeze in down south, and I was greatly saddened that I had to catch a flight so soon. Though it’s a town situated on a beautiful lake and just down the road from ski areas and the Southern Alps, Wanaka seemed rather unassuming and quiet compared to the nearby tourist-saturated Queenstown. I quickly decided that its character and 4 season climate made it my preferred area to live.

While walking down the main street, I noticed The Picture Lounge – NZ Photographers Gallery, home of what I discovered to be a gorgeous collection of landscape and adventure photography. Naturally, I went inside to check out the beautiful images. As I took in the pictures hanging on the walls and flipped through the many albums, the unexpected happened. I began to cry.

I cried because New Zealand is too unfairly beautiful. I cried because I’d fallen in love. I cried because I had just about 2 weeks left to spend there.

As I struggled to contain myself, an employee walked over to chat with me. When I looked up from the album and he saw I was in tears, his expression changed to concern. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” I smiled through my tears as I worked on wiping them away. “Sorry, just give me a minute.”

Once I’d closed the albums, I was able to walk up to him and explain I had no interest in leaving his amazing country. He was relieved to know that was the only reason for a teary visitor, and of course he appreciated my mentality. Kiwis know how fortunate they are to live in a gorgeous country and be so distant from the rest of the world; one simple t-shirt design reads “Living in a better place… New Zealand.” I bought one.

Despite not wanting to return to America, I left New Zealand on schedule and have spent the last 5 years frequently daydreaming of my hobbit home and when I will return. Alaska – specifically Fairbanks – has been my home base ever since, but it hasn’t necessarily felt like home.

Being a homeless couchsurfer who typically floats into town for just a week or so between jobs hasn’t allowed me to establish my post-college life. Yes, I’ve found time for backpacking, dogsitting, biking, The Pub, and visits with friends. Until recently my stints in town have been too brief to really feel like I’m part of the community, though.

Now I’m back in Homer – home of the headquarters of Alaska Maritime NWR – and just a week away from leaving civilization for another summer on Buldir. After visiting Saturday’s indoor Farmers Market, I decided to step inside businesses I’ve ignored on my last 2 seasons’ worth of stays in Homer.

Enter Ptarmigan Arts, a co-op art gallery full of Alaskan photography, paintings, drawings, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, and woodworking. While browsing through the gallery, a feeling hit me as I realized…

Alaska. Alaska is why I haven’t focused my life on returning to New Zealand. Although I shed no tears, my visibility grew fuzzy, and I had to hold myself back from light crying as I gazed at the beauty – and more so the character – of Alaska captured by cameras and carved in wood.

I love Alaska’s mountains, glaciers, tundra, trees, flowers, and hot springs; its boats, lakes, rivers, islands, and ocean; its moose, bears, wolves, otters, and other furry animals; and its birds. I love its small towns, breweries, dry cabins, outhouses, plaid and Carhartts, hiking boots and XtraTufs, potlucks, and puppies. I love its funky daylight cycle and aurora borealis. Perhaps most importantly, I love its people who have welcomed me to stay for almost 10 years.

I love New Zealand. I don’t like being American, but I do love Alaska. Even though I don’t really have a home, friends always welcome me back.

So what to do? Beats me.


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Over the years I’ve had numerous conversations with fellow field technicians about poop. When I worked for Conservation Canines, we probably somehow brought the topic into conversation every night while at dinner. Out on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta we just have a temporary outhouse, so it’s pretty clear when someone is heading out to do their duty. Pooping is just a regular part of life and yet probably more prevalent for us because we go without indoor plumbing for months at a time.

When I was volunteering in New Zealand, my crew’s little field house had running water, but we were asked to spare the plumbing system from #2 and instead walk across the field to use the longdrop. If it’s not clear, a longdrop is what New Zealanders call an outhouse. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more fitting name, and I’m trying to propagate using that name wherever I go.


Longdrop is circled, and home is the building on the right

Walking the 3 minutes to the longdrop really wasn’t a big deal, but sometimes it seemed like a hassle right before bed. One time I needed some extra encouragement to get myself out the door, so as I left the house I said, “Maybe I’ll see a kiwi on the walk.” Hearing kiwi calling in the field outside our house wasn’t necessarily common, but it wasn’t unheard of.

As I walked through the dark by the light of my headlamp, I crossed a land bridge over a small ditch in the field. I heard some rustling in the grass to my right, and then something splashed in the water. Turning to shed some light on the scene revealed a kiwi scrambling to climb back out of the water and run away through the grass! Although I did feel bad about startling the kiwi into the water, all of the sudden my poop walk had given me a great big smile.

Feeling rather content with my walk, I carried on to take care of business. Once that was done, I decided to walk back to the house by following the beach rather than just walking through the field. On a number of occasions we’d been fortunate enough to play in bioluminescence in the waters of the bay. Organisms in water can create a blue glow by some chemical reaction in their bodies, and it looks absolutely awesome. Splashing in glowing water is Not just for kids. “Maybe there’ll be some bioluminescence tonight,” I said.

I didn’t have my hopes too high because recent weather conditions hadn’t seemed like the usual bioluminescence-promoting state. However, I noticed blue in the water as I approached the beach. Suddenly my unlikely wish-to-reality ratio was 2 for 2! Like a little kid, I kicked my XtraTufs through the water to splash blue drops across the water’s dark canvas. As I created swirls, a bigger smile spread its way across my face.

As I meandered my way down the shore, my thoughts turned to the little blue penguins living under our house. We heard their goofy sounds all the time and knew that they walked down to the beach, but I’d never seen them. “The only way this poop walk could get any better is if I see a little blue penguin!” I decided.

All I had to do was ask, and my wish was granted. As I left the sand and approached the gate to enter the field again, my headlamp lit up a little blue penguin in the grass. It froze just long enough for me to appreciate it, and then I decided I should move along. My smile couldn’t have gotten any bigger.

I’ll never have a more worthwhile poop walk in my life.


*The moral of the story: “When you gotta go, you should really go.” You never know what will happen! Take care of business, but take time to appreciate the little things.*

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For anyone who’s been waiting for a post, my apologies. As a seasonal wildlife field technician, my mind is often on the upcoming months. For the last few months my thoughts have focused probably 90% of their time on wanting to know what I’ll be doing this summer. With that being the case, I haven’t had tales of my life running through my head. I’ve had plenty of musings on the future, though. Maybe there will be more on that later.

I’ve also discovered that my dying German skills can perhaps find some life by using Duolingo to get some German practice. It’s pretty addictive, and refreshing my German has become my pre-slumber hobby. I accidentally added Italian to my courses, and tonight I started some Italian lessons just because I can. Why not, right?

So if you’re looking for something to read and are curious about kiwi research, check out the interesting blog I wrote for the San Diego Zoo Global while working down in NZ from 2011-2012.

I promise I’ll try to get the stories going again soon!


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(from a Greyhound bus and BART train in SF Bay area on Christmas Day 2014)

Dear Coach Dantonio and Spartan football team,

This letter is a couple of years late, but all of the sudden I felt the need to write and share it anyway. My name is Steph, and although I’m originally from the NW suburbs of Detroit and love MSU, I didn’t go to college there. I actually felt my soul break a little when I declined my admission to State back in 2007. Ultimately the University of Alaska Fairbanks claimed me for its own. Regardless, anyone who knows me will tell you I love the Spartans. Even when UAF and MSU hockey were part of the CCHA, I couldn’t commit to supporting one team over the other – a fact that amused my friends.


UAF vs. MSU playoff hockey game in Fbx with Chris Chelios

I went to college in Alaska to study wildlife, and life has taken me many places since graduation. All I have up in Fairbanks these days is a storage unit, along with friends who have couches. (One of those friends unfortunately supports the Buckeyes, but we still manage to get along.)

After graduation in 2011, I took a volunteer position working with North Island brown kiwi in New Zealand for 10 months. I had a schedule that kept me working on an island in the Hauraki Gulf for 2 weeks at a time with 2 weeks off in-between. During football season I always checked The Detroit News for my Spartans’ scores and to read stories about the games. Without internet access on the island, I sometimes needed to wait for scores.


There was one score that I couldn’t wait for: the result of the U of M – MSU game. Typically I avoided using my international phone card with my NZ cell because it ate through minutes. Learning the outcome of the game was no choice, though; I had to know.

With an 18 hour time difference between NZ and Michigan, I had to take game time and day of the week into account. While hiking out with my telemetry gear and heading off to search my gullies for kiwi that Sunday (in NZ), only the game was on my mind. I’m one of those fans who gets really nervous no matter which teams are playing. Just picture Sheryl from “Remember the Titans.”

Since I was working in forested gullies with steep hillsides, I had no cell reception most of the time. Fortunately my work was split between 2 gullies, meaning I needed to climb up a ridge to drop down into the second gully.

RS Gully

Working terrain

By the time I was up there, I figured the game must have ended. With trembling hands I dialed home to Michigan, unsure of whether I’d end up joyful or disappointed.

“Hello, Steph?” answered my mom.

“Do I want to know?” That was all I asked. With my mom not being one to necessarily pay attention to sports, all I could do was hope she knew her daughter well enough to know what I was calling about.

“Do you want to know? … ohh. For the 4th year in a row, the Michigan State Spartans defeated the Michigan Wolverines! 28-14.”

“Thanks, Mom!! That’s all I was calling about. You just made my day.”

For the rest of the day I carried a ridiculous smile on my face. I even had to share the news with my fellow workers – although they could tell I had heard good news when I walked in the door.

I’ve returned to the US since then and tend to spend most of my time in Alaska, but no matter where I am, I’m a Spartan fan. I greet anyone wearing green and white with a smile! This year I’ll be rooting for my Spartans on New Year’s Day from California.

Although you already know this, there are Spartan fans around the world cheering you on. Sometimes we can’t actually watch games, but we’re anxiously waiting to read of good news. On January 1, go after Baylor with all of the class and strength of Spartans!

Go Green!



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Looking at fish for most of the day, day after day, really provides plenty of thinking time. Unfortunately there’s only one place my brain seems to find itself wandering around. If you know me, you can probably guess where that might be.

Really, can you blame me? Herring are fish, so therefore they look like trout. Turangi calls itself the “trout fishing capital of the world” and happens to be in this place called New Zealand. Obviously by sorting through herring for almost 2 weeks, my mind would be on travels through Turangi!

I promise I don’t try to call up memories of my 10 months there. My brain will just wander down to the southern hemisphere without warning! One minute I’m thinking about how I need to get groceries at Safeway, and the next minute I’m walking through a yellow Pak’n’Save in Palmerston North. One minute I’m eating a bowl of cereal, and the next minute I’m wishing for some “Sanitarium” cereal.



When I was watching part of the winter Olympics I saw numerous American snowboarders and didn’t particularly care how they did. When a kiwi was about to run the course, all of the sudden I got far more patriotic for NZ than I did for the US. There’s also a kiwi musher who ran the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. I cheered louder for these New Zealanders than I did for anyone else!

What’s wrong with me? While mindlessly processing fish, I figured out the name of my condition: Post-New Zealand Love Disorder, or PNZLD. Please note I mean absolutely no disrespect toward PTSD, which gave me the inspiration for the name. I just realized that clearly there must be a name for this state, and I know I’m not the only one who suffers from it. Once you spend some time in that country, you realize that life is just better there. You love New Zealand from afar and can’t ignore it or get over it.

True, prices are even higher than prices in Alaska, but NZ has fresh fruit and vegetable stands along the roads in the spring and summer in NZ! I can eat peaches so juicy that I use my NZ cell and phone card to expensively call my Dad on the spot and torture him with news of my peaches that rival Michigan’s autumn Red Haven peaches. The fresh produce there is sweet as! That’s kiwi talk for “sweet.” You can also say that the weather will be cold as. Cold as what, you ask? Absolutely nothing. Just cold as. Even their phrases are more fun!!

I could give more examples if I took the time to reflect on the random memories that always pop up in my head, but I don’t need to drag this out.

PNZLD is real, and it’s the best and worst disorder to have. Sadly the only cure is to return to the country. Unfortunately this is another health problem that insurance won’t cover. Insurance is such a rip-off. PNZLD. Tell your friends.


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2014 had the proper beginning for the makings of a very good year. The 2 key components?

Running and ice cream.

I know that’s not how most people welcome the start of a new calendar, but I try not to do things the way most people would.

This year I spent my first Christmas and New Year in Fairbanks. With the way the UAF schedule works, I was always back in the lower 48 by this time. I also didn’t go home for the holidays in 2011, 2012, or 2013.

Post-UAF I had a NYE to remember ~ 7K down the road from the East Cape lighthouse in New Zealand: the easternmost lighthouse in the world. After drinking wine and chatting with my fellow freedom campers, I sat in their campervan and listened to a somewhat drunken monologue about the relationship between music and emotions from Mike Howlett, a Grammy-winning producer for A Flock of Seagulls. (He also was in a band with Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers before The Police rose up.) When I flew to Australia, I took their offer of a place to stay in Brisbane. Why not?

I drove to the lighthouse for sunrise and found about 20 other people also hoped to catch a glimpse of the first sunrise of the year.  Unfortunately it was cloudy, but I did get filmed to be on some Asian (South Korean?) travel tv show saying “Happy New Year!” as the token American. (People from various countries were filmed saying it in their language.)

Last year wasn’t as memorable. I just had a solo TimTam slam in my room at the oil camp in NE Alberta. Our Conservation Canines group had made the drive up from Washington just a few days earlier, so we were settling in.


Tim Tam slam

This year I’ve been fortunate enough to care for my 2 favorite dogs, house, and car just outside of Fairbanks for the last 2 weeks. I went to an eleven pm candlelight service on Christmas Eve, watched the Northern Lights when I got home, and then didn’t leave the neighborhood for the next 3 1/2 days. The dogs and I walked, and I ran for those days.


Winter running


Christmas walk

I was wondering what to do for NYE in Fairbanks when I checked out the website for Running Club North – a group I regret not joining over my years up here. It turns out that instead of holding a New Year’s Day 5K (like I’ve run in Chicago many a time) they have a New Year’s Eve 3 mile run at 11:30pm. That sounded perfect! We’d be finishing up 2013 with running and possibly running into 2014. Of course at midnight we’d see/hear fireworks around the area.

Bundling up and climbing in the cold car was a little rough late at night, but I knew I’d regret staying home if I didn’t go for the run. I drove to The Diner near downtown Fairbanks, wondering just how many people were going to show up. Considering it wasn’t that cold out – only -5F compared to the -30s we’d left in recent days – I figured there should be some other runners around. Turns out that a record 51 of us showed up for a late night run! As I parked and then signed in, I noticed most runners were dancing around in various styles of layers.


Post-run socializing

The route was an out and back that mostly followed the Chena River to the entrance to Fort Wainwright. Although I hadn’t been training to necessarily push myself, and the run was more of a social event than a race, I found myself going faster than I should have. After all, it’s been observed that I’m like a sled dog. I just want to GO! It felt really good, though, and I think I finished just outside the first 10. As I was running and thinking of how the new year generally arrives, I had a startling thought.

In my years of watching fireworks, never do I remember laughing and saying to myself, “Fireworks, Gandalf!” 

What’s wrong with me? Obviously it’s impossible to produce fireworks as grand as Gandalf’s, but one can hope. Needless to say, I started laughing while I was running and thinking this over.


Post-final run of 2013

Finishing on a runner’s high minutes before the year ended, I mixed up a hot chocolate and started socializing with the other runners. That’s when I heard it: the accent of an Australian. Despite running in 35C just a week or so ago, he’d finished the run 2nd and was visiting from the Gold Coast. I needed to grab my jacket before I got too chilly, so I left the conversation for a minute and walked to the car. As I approached, I suddenly found myself unsure of which side was the driver’s side – something that happens every now and then ever since I’ve been back in the wrong hemisphere. I think simply hearing the accent triggered the muscle memory to question the car’s layout, and that realization made me notice I was back in a happy place.

Chatting with other runners and – in this case – travelers, put me in the frame of mind for adventure. Runners really do count as “my people” because they’re just so friendly and encouraging no matter what. Since being back in town, I’ve felt like I’m stuck back in the Fairbanks groove with no refreshing changes. People go about their daily lives, generally commenting on the cold and darkness. There just hasn’t been anything particularly new going on, and now that I’ve gotten out and talked to a traveler, I know it’s time.

It’s time to jump on a boat and head out to the Bering Sea for winter. It’s time to meet internationals who all signed up for long days processing fish in the middle of nowhere. It’s time for potential seasickness. It’s time for adventure!

Of course before that happens, I need to run more, which is why I went for another run after I finished socializing. 🙂 My first run of the year happened around 12:45am on the 1st!

Unfortunately the other part of my NYE plan fell through as Fairbanks’ own Hot Licks ice cream was closed. 😦 Needing ice cream to make up for all the running I’ve been doing, late night Ben and Jerry’s fit the bill.

ice cream

Ice cream to match the Kindle cover my aunt made for me 🙂

The last reason 2014 is off to a great start? My Spartans defeated Stanford to win the Rose Bowl! Finally, some national respect.

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Probably my favorite thing about my travel style is the capacity for crazy random happenstances. Admittedly I’m not the most outgoing person, but I seem to bump into the right people at the right place and time. I was too busy having fun in NZ to write about it when it happened, but I ended up joining a group of internationals when I was on my hike up/down Mt. Doom. One member of the group got helicoptered off the volcano, I had fun people to hang out with and a free bed for the night, and I made a possible link for helping with research in Antarctica!


From: NZ, India, Poland, Finland, Sweden, Germany, US, …

I’ll have to break up my most recent series of adventures into posts because otherwise I’d be writing a book in a blog post…

Back in early October I left Alaska for a visit home to Michigan. Before I get too far along, I should try to summarize the point of this excursion to the Lower 48. Seeing as I didn’t use my flights home and back north last Christmas, I had a healthy chunk of credit to use on Alaska Airlines before this Christmas Eve. Since my Grandma will be turning 90 this February and I hadn’t seen her in almost 3 years, I figured I really should make it home to see her, visit my Aunt and Uncle near Chicago, take a long overdue trip to my family’s cabin in da U.P., and maybe go hunting. After a few weeks at home, the plan was to visit Seattle and meander south to the puppies and people of Conservation K-9s in Eatonville before taking the Alaska State Ferry through the Inside Passage and returning to Fairbanks in early November.

Map of Planned Trip

That was the plan, right? Well, naturally that plan changed when I realized I could potentially lengthen my trip to include joining my best friend’s giant group of her dad’s college friends and family in southern California for Thanksgiving. I’d heard about the gathering and unofficially been invited for years, but I’d never considered going because of the travel expenses. However, being that I was already on the West Coast and traveling mostly on previously spent money, the idea seemed conceivable. Plus, Teri looked at me with big eyes and emphatically said, “Yes,” when I proposed the idea.

I booked myself a flight to see my brother in the San Francisco Bay area; after all, I hadn’t seen him in almost 3 years, either! My plan was to split extra time from mid-November to Thanksgiving between Seattle/Eatonville and the Bay area. With Teri’s assistance I caught a ride to Thanksgiving at Pine Mountain with some people I’d never met. For post-Thanksgiving travel I checked out plane and train ticket prices for my return north and – to my delight – found Amtrak’s Coast Starlight could take me from Los Angeles to Seattle for only $145 and roughly 34 hours of life. With nothing to rush back to in Fairbanks and an appreciation for train travel, the trip sounded perfect. Tack on a flight to Fairbanks (using my last $50 of AK Air credit!) on my birthday in early December, and I had a round trip!

Map of Actual Trip

Now isn’t that how most people plan their travels?

*My apologies for the random pins and strange colors on those maps. I just found this exciting website (www.scribblemaps.com) and wanted to illustrate my travels, but it’s after 2am and I really need to sleep rather than refine maps. 🙂

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