Whio Journal: Ken McNamara – Trapping legend of the backcountry

Department of Conservation —  05/11/2020

The whio, or blue duck, appears on our $10 note and the wild rivers of the back country, and not many places in between. As such, few New Zealanders know whio exist, and most will have never seen or heard one. With just 3,000 left in the wild, a partnership between Genesis and DOC called Whio Forever was created in 2011 to protect and grow the population of this national taonga.

In this journal we talk to recently retired backcountry legend, Ken McNamara, about his massive contribution to the whio programme as a trapper. We learn the secret to his famous hot “hut” chips, what it was like to home-school his son in the back blocks, and find out that despite being ‘retired’, he won’t be downing his tools any time soon!

Ken and his dog, Sky, check traps in the Central Southern Alps Whio Security Site.
📷: Nigel Snoep

Backcountry trapper, Ken McNamara, recently retired from his trapping role in the Central Southern Alps Whio Security Site near Hokitika after 16 years – but only because the rugged terrain was taking a toll on his feet. Under his watch, whio pair numbers in the Site have risen from single digits to 40 on the most recent count. Ken’s career in conservation has spanned 25 years, and the number of predators he has under his belt must be in the thousands. Though he refuses to call it a job (because he enjoys it so much), this line of work has taken him to some of New Zealand’s most remote and beautiful places to protect our precious native species.

During the 90’s, Ken was contract ‘possuming’ (hunting possums for their fur) in the mountains behind Haast, and later for himself on the Taramakau River, near Hokitika. He has cut tracks and culled deer on the weathered mountains of Resolution Island in Dusky Sound, and Secretary Island in the Doubtful Sound, to support a diverse range of plant habitats. For two weeks, he memorably released tuatara on Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island, where he also conducted surveys of New Zealand’s only fully parasitic flowering plant, Dactylanthus (woodrose/pua o te reinga).

Before he moved to his current home in Hokitika, he lived and worked in beautiful Ōkārito, a coastal settlement bounded by ocean, estuary, sea cliffs, and forest, to protect our rarest species of kiwi, the rowi. He worked 20 days a month for 5 years here to cut tracks and trap, essentially walking the length of New Zealand annually. Once that contract ended, he began trapping for stoats and rats in the Central Southern Alps to support the dwindling whio population with fellow DOC contractor Paul van Klink, and shortly afterwards moved to Hokitika.

This most recent chapter was a special one for Ken, who is a solo Dad. DOC Hokitika biodiversity programme manager, Dave Eastwood, granted Ken permission to bring his son with him on the job, on expeditions that ranged from 5-10 days in the backcountry, depending on the weather. For the next 3 years, between the ages of 10 and 13, Ken’s son Sam had the special job of keeping a Health and Safety eye on his Dad during the day. In the hours before and afterwards, he home-schooled in the quiet of the DOC huts where he developed a love of books provided by the home-schooling library. In between, he got a unique education in self-sufficiency which included hunting deer for kai, and memorably using his first aid experience to patch up his Dad’s hand, after Ken ripped it open on a riverbed.

Ken and his son, Sam, walking through sleet on the Arahura and Styx valley tracks.
📷: Nigel Snoep

Ken muses that tramping together, which naturally allows for a lot of thinking and observing, provided the unique opportunity for father and son to share numerous experiences and talk about a wide variety of subjects. Sam is now completing his building apprenticeship in Christchurch, and the two speak regularly.

Ken and his son, Sam, check traps in the Central Southern Alps Whio Security Site.
📷: Nigel Snoep

And what an education it must have been. The Central Southern Alps Whio Security Site encompasses the Arahura, Styx, Taipo, Deception and Kawhaka Valleys, and is renowned for the beautiful but challenging tramping and kayak opportunities found here, where you can take in the large greywacke boulders and pounamu found in the crystal-clear rivers, lush podocarp forests, gorges, saddles and tussock tops. The area is also renowned for the network and number of its backcountry huts, and its ‘benched’ tracks – roads that were pickaxed in the 1870s in an attempt to cut a road between the west and east coasts. But the area is also infamous for its unpredictable weather which ranges from howling wind, torrential rain, blankets of snow, and burning sun. Ken has tramped in these conditions, and everything in between.

Checking traps in deep snow in the Arahura valley.
📷: Ken McNamara

These weather events have caused plenty of landslips and floods that have filled the rivers with silt and debris and washed away traplines. These tumultuous conditions have of course had an impact on whio, and Ken has witnessed the boom and bust years of the Security Site’s population on his trips. Reassuringly he says, “they are a tough little duck who survive in tough conditions”.

Massive boulder on the Arahura track, which has since rolled over during a flood to the place Ken is standing!
📷: Ken McNamara

Likewise, Ken is hard-as-nails himself, but even the toughest amongst us need some creature comforts. And nothing screams comfort more than the humble potato, especially when its fried and served up after a long day walking through rivers and along ridges to check and rebait the 700-strong trap network. While his trapping colleague, Al (who joined him 3 years ago), preferred to parboil the chips before frying them, Ken did away with this step, saying that the result is the same. His secret to a plate of delicious hot chips is the potato itself – the Agria. Every few months, when the helicopter flew up trapping paraphernalia and supplies, Ken would include sacks of Agria potatoes, as well as spare clothes, shampoo, soap and the like, to make life a bit easier in the backcountry. Some of you, who have had the pleasure of meeting Ken and Al in the Mudflats Hut, may have been lucky enough to try these famous hot “hut” chips.

Ken and Sky traverse a river in the Central Southern Alps Whio Security Site.
📷: Ken McNamara

Ranger Antje Wahlberg, DOC lead for the Central Southern Alps Whio Security Site, says of him, “Ken has been a key part of our security site for over a decade. Every month he checked the backcountry traps come hail or shine, often with more hail than shine, and in some pretty arduous conditions. He is one of the most positive people I have ever met with an unfailing good humour. Ken’s contribution to the whio programme is greatly appreciated and will be missed.”

Asked what he plans to do in his retirement, Ken replies that he is still trapping in the Ōkārito Lagoon which is a lot nicer underfoot than the rough, steep and uneven terrain of the Southern Alps. The lagoon covers an area of about 3,240 ha, making it the largest unmodified coastal wetland in New Zealand. It preserves a sequence of vegetation types from mature rimu forest through mānuka scrub. By trapping around the lagoon, Ken is protecting a wide variety of wetland species including New Zealand’s only breeding population of rare white herons.

Home, sweet home: The Mudflats Hut in the Central Southern Alps Whio Security Site.
📷: Nigel Snoep

As Ken says, it’s not a job – it’s a way of life. Asked why he thinks people should get involved in conservation, he replies, “We need a generation of people that know how to work in the mountains, so that they can see what birdlife is left, and save it. It’s our identity and without that we have nothing.” He adds, “I would love to see people adopting a local valley to trap – many hands make light work and all that!”

8 responses to Whio Journal: Ken McNamara – Trapping legend of the backcountry

    Edward. WOLSKI 29/11/2020 at 5:46 am

    I’m interested in that project…and would be happy to help you..

    Richard Nichol 28/11/2020 at 12:00 pm

    Good luck in your ‘retirement’ Ken. Great to have worked with you a wee while back!

    (Jane) Clare Spring, 27/11/2020 at 3:37 pm

    True Conservation asks amazing dedication. New Zealanders tmust be so proud of what characters like Ken do. You have so much to look after, best wishes and thanks to all involved!


    im 10 year old and in my schools envrio team this blog helps me know what going on around new zealand

    Florina McNamara 13/11/2020 at 8:10 pm

    What a great contribution and legacy Ken.Enjoy your retirement.


    Stunning work Ken. And what an awesome way to bring up Sam. Enjoy “retirement”!

    Fiona Anderson 05/11/2020 at 3:27 pm

    Awesome story. Living legend that Ken 🙂


      After this report at the latest, I would like to emigrate to nz and would love to work in this area😉