For many Yale students, East Rock Park represents a chance to escape papers, exams, social obligations, and the other stresses in their lives.
Lots of student groups make consistent use of the park. The Yale Cycling team bikes through it, the Yale Outdoors club runs there at night once a week, and the Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips program holds an annual event for its new leaders on the road that winds up the mountain. Still, few students have a sense of the park’s history, or know the man whose job it is to make the woods and summit clean and safe for the Yale and New Haven communities.
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That job falls to East Rock Park Ranger Dan Barvir. The park is Barvir’s life. Barvir said he feels lucky not to have a wife, so that he can be “married to the park” instead. To those who live in the East Rock neighborhood, his devotion to the park has become his identity and residents said they cannot think of the park without thinking of him as well.
“He’s a great park ranger,” said Terry McCool, park ranger at Lighthouse Park. “He’s been contributing to East Rock with his programs for years. He’s almost synonymous with that park.”
Barvir’s responsibilities vary from cutting back branches that block the trails to maintaining the ranger station and other park facilities. He offers public programming like nature hikes and private programming such as educational courses for elementary schoolchildren.
The job comes with surprises, as well. Once or twice a year, Bavir said he works with the police to evict homeless people who are found living in the park. Four times over his 26-year career, he has stumbled across human corpses.
Barvir said he knows many locals consider him a symbol of the park, and something of a character.
“I don’t have a last name anymore,” he joked. “It’s Ranger Dan. Ranger’s my first name, Dan’s my last. It’s a little scary sometimes, actually.”
SNAKES FOR DINNER
Barvir’s lifestyle might seem peculiar to some, but compared to past inhabitants of East Rock, Ranger Dan is a conventional guy.
In the early 1800s, Elias Turner moved to the summit of the mountain. According to the book “Exploring East Rock Park,” he left New Haven to buy a piece of land before his wedding day, and returned to find his fiancée dead and to learn that the purchase of the land had been a fraud. Distraught, he moved to a hut on the top of East Rock, descending to the city only once a week to deliver herbs and vegetables he had grown. Turner was rumored to enjoy eating black snakes seasoned with salt and pepper for dinner.
After Turner froze to death in 1823 alone in his hut, Elizur Hubbell built a stone structure called the Mountain House, which he advertised as a “pleasure resort.” Despite the inclusion of a bowling alley, the vacation spot closed in 1848.
Next, Charles Smith and his wife assumed the role of caretakers of the top of the rock in 1850, but both were murdered by a New Haven local.
Their demise made way for the arrival of Milton Stewart, who charged 10 cents — at gunpoint — to any person who wanted to see his view, and constructed a 40-foot sailboat so that he would be prepared should God again flood the Earth. Ultimately, the boat was filled with flowers and used for landscaping.
In 1884, the City of New Haven seized the summit property from Stewart for $13,000. One hundred years later, Ranger Dan took control of the mountaintop — and the rest of the 425-acre park.
“We don’t own it,” he said of himself and his fellow rangers. “We take care of it for next generations. And that’s been part of my philosophy as part of handling this park: making it liveable for the humans, the plants and the animals. I don’t necessarily rate the humans as high as the other two.”
ORNITHOLOGY AND EVICTIONS
Whatever Barvir’s opinions about the nature of human beings, he still sees them as his responsibility from the moment they enter the park.
“The woods can lull you into a sense of ‘everything is wonderful,’” he said. “So many people in the community come to a park for peace, to embrace nature, but you know you can be victimized in that too.”
Cilla Kellert ’74 FES ’81, program director of the FOOT, said East Rock used to have a reputation as a “den of crime,” but as of about 15 or 20 years ago, she thinks it has grown safer. She added that she feels comfortable riding her bike to the park from her house, nicknamed “Rock View,” two or three blocks away.
Barvir said the city is so divided on socioeconomic lines that there are “almost two New Havens.” To address the issue, he said he makes an effort to provide inexpensive but meaningful public programming to everybody in order to unite the community. He runs seasonal arts and crafts programs — dipping candles and making wreaths — goes bird watching with New Haven residents, and teaches New Haven schoolchildren about nature.
Michael Jones ’12, who spent last summer working with the New Haven Parks and Recreation Department, helped Barvir with the summer camps for kids.
“Dan is a specialist in a lot of things,” he said. “He’s actually one of the best ornithologists in the northeast. He’s extremely talented in leading anything from archery to fishing.”
But Barvir said the city budget is forever an issue. He does not even have his own maintenance crew, and sees himself as responsible for every aspect of East Rock Park. He said the other six rangers hired to oversee New Haven’s various parks — including Lighthouse, West Rock and Edgewood Parks — work as a team.
Once or twice a year, Barvir also needs to call in the police to help him evict homeless people camping in the park.
Years ago, he found a campsite that he described as “immaculate.” A sign that said “No Trespassing” hung on the tent, and a tarp fed water into a drum that had a hose running inside the tent where it could be turned on with a nozzle. There was a power generator as well.
When the inhabitant did not respond to a notice asking him to leave, Barvir called the police. He remarked to them that he had never seen a cleaner campsite, and suspected the man had a military background. The man, who eventually agreed to leave peacefully, told Barvir that, while he was in the military, he simply liked to rough it.
A BORN NATURALIST
Barvir said he has always found the woods comforting. His father was in the Navy, and his family moved frequently, but from kindergarten through third grade they lived in the Connecticut countryside. At this young age, Barvir came to consider himself a naturalist, he said. After graduating from East Hartford High School, he went to Southern Connecticut State University to earn a degree in outdoor recreation and leisure.
As a freshman in college, he saw East Rock for the first time when he and his friends went to a late-night party there.
“Now the irony of all that: because of what I saw went on there as a college kid, the first thing I did as a Park Ranger was to get the city to put gates on the park,” he said.
He accepted the job of park ranger in 1985, and simultaneously completed a graduate program in wildlife biology.
In a previous Yale study, Barvir said the value of his services was found to be around $90,000. He made $14,500 a year when he first took the job, and now makes $50,000.
Barvir has no computer at home, and only carries a cell phone when he goes out on his fishing boat to catch black fish and striped bass. For dinner, he often eats the fish he has caught on his trips.
And before bed, rather than perusing Facebook, he opens his latest book. He’s about to start “War and Peace.”
“My whole goal has been live simply, but live a full life,” he said. “We don’t have to take much from this planet. We can find a healthy little balance.”