Late for Nowhere

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Kodiak Spotlight: Wilderness mystery writer Robin Barefield

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This story was originally published in the March 19, 2021, issue of Kodiak Daily Mirror.

Robin Barefield knows the Kodiak wilderness. For more than 30 years, she has worked as a naturalist and guide at Munsey’s Bear Camp at remote Uyak Bay on the western end of the island.

Barefield owns the camp with her husband Mike, and they live there year-round. Using the knowledge she gained from earning a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology from the University of Hawaii, she spends her summers taking guests bear viewing, whale watching and sport fishing.

Given her long-standing familiarity with Kodiak’s outdoors, it only made sense that when she started writing mystery novels, the island’s rugged terrain and tempestuous weather would factor heavily in her stories.

“Kodiak is just such a wonderful backdrop for anything,” Barefield said. “But for a mystery novel, you’ve got the environment, you’ve got the ocean, you’ve got the difficult terrain, you’ve got bears, the weather, so many different things that can play into it. I try to use the environmental aspects as much as I can.”

From the start, Barefield’s mystery writing has been deeply rooted in her own experiences. Her first story unfolded unexpectedly as she sat in the hospital with her mother, who was battling cancer.

“I sat with her every day. It was very depressing, so I started to write down my feelings,” Barefield said. Before she realized it, her anguished journaling had veered into the realm of fiction.

“I had this character who had been sitting in the hospital with her mother and she goes out on a drive to get away from everything for a bit. She started to think about all the things she would never be able to do with her mother again,” she said.

“Then, all of a sudden, this guy goes off the road and she goes to help him, and he tells her this mysterious message, and that starts the mystery. I just laughed because it’s like, here I am sitting here and I’m supposed to be writing my feelings down, and I murdered somebody.”

That brief scene sowed the seeds for a story that Barefield would work on for the next 10 years. It eventually grew into her first novel “Big Game,” which she self-published as an e-book in 1992. The story involves a band of politicians hatching a sinister plot in a remote Alaskan hunting lodge.

Since then, her mystery novels have come more quickly. The manuscript for her second book, “Murder Over Kodiak,” caught the attention of Evan Swensen of Anchorage-based Publication Consultants.

Swensen said that when he read “Murder Over Kodiak,” he knew right away that it was a book he wanted to publish.

“Most of our Alaska-themed books were nonfiction biographies. We needed a good Alaska mystery author, and we felt that Robin would fit that bill — we haven’t been disappointed,” he said. “She’s a book publisher’s ideal author. Readers of Dana Stabenow, C.J. Box, Joseph Haywood, Craig Johnson and Keith McCafferty will love Robin’s works.”

Publication Consultants has been publishing Barefield’s novels ever since. She followed “Murder Over Kodiak” with “The Fisherman’s Daughter” in 2017 and, most recently, “Karluk Bones” in 2019.

Although Barefield originally thought of her stories as straight mysteries with a “whodunit” angle — early influences included writers like Sue Grafton and Dick Francis — she has come to be known as a “wilderness mystery author.”  

“I never actually read any wilderness mysteries and didn’t really think of myself as writing wilderness mysteries. I just set the characters in the place I knew, which is the Kodiak wilderness. So my publisher called me a wilderness mystery author, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I am a wilderness mystery author,’” she said.

For Barefield, though, the categorization of her stories seems of secondary importance to the writing itself.

“I started writing and I’ve just never quit. I love writing stories, I love telling stories, I love making up stories. I don’t have a background in writing, but I just use what I know. I studied and I learned as I went.”

What she knows is not only Kodiak but also wildlife biology. The main character in her novels, Jane Marcus, is a fisheries biologist who works at a marine center in Kodiak. Whale necropsies and paralytic shellfish poisoning have played roles in her plots.

Getting the science right in realms beyond biology is also important. For “Karluk Bones,” whose storyline involves the discovery of human remains in the middle of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Barefield did extensive research to figure out what information forensic anthropologists could glean from the study of bones, such as how long the person has been dead and how old they were at the time of death.

For many people, balancing life as a bear camp owner, naturalist and prolific mystery writer would be enough to keep them busy. But not Barefield. She also finds time to produce a true crime newsletter and podcast.

The online newsletter came first, stemming from her desire to find more readers for her books. There is a crowded market for mystery novels, so she was advised to create free content that would introduce new readers to her writing.

“If they like your writing, they’ll want to read more of it and they’ll be willing to pay for it,” Barefield said. “I thought, true crime is so popular, Alaska is so popular. True crime in Alaska has got to be a goldmine.”

For someone who mostly wrote fiction, which gives the author complete freedom of invention, she found writing true crime to be much harder than anticipated because of the research involved and the grisly content of the stories, not to mention the challenge of turning passive historical facts into engaging tales.

“I always pick an Alaska crime or a mysterious disappearance that I hear about or read about. I’m always researching,” she said, adding, “It’s tougher and it’s darker because you’re writing about real people and real murders. … A lot of them are so crazy, I don’t think anyone would believe them as a plot.”

Eventually, some of her newsletter subscribers suggested that she start a true crime podcast. At first, she resisted the idea, but then she started looking into it and realized it might be another fun outlet for her urge to tell stories. Her husband built her a small office at the bear camp with a sound studio in the corner, and the “Murder and Mystery in the Last Frontier” podcast was launched.

Her first episode was about a 1983 murder spree in McCarthy, Alaska, that was part of a convoluted, and ultimately unsuccessful, plan to steal a mail plane and blow up the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. More recently, she did a podcast on the Birdman of Alcatraz, whose original crime was killing a man in a Juneau bar.

The podcasts have helped Barefield gain more attention for her work. She’s received multiple enquiries from the producers of true crime television shows who wanted to interview her, or who were searching for information on crime in Alaska.

“The podcast has been the most successful thing I’ve done by far, but it isn’t the thing I like to do the most. I’d much rather write my novels,” Barefield said. “But it reaches so many more people. I think it might be a sad statement that not many people read anymore.”

Yet another one of Barefield’s ongoing projects is her nature blog. Many of the posts about animals and the environment are inspired by questions that guests at Munsey’s Bear Camp have asked during guided excursions. Those questions, and their answers, grew into the idea to write a book about Kodiak’s wildlife, a project that Barefield has been working on for about 10 years.

“Our spring season last year [at the bear camp] was completely canceled, and then our summer was about 50%. I got a lot more writing done. I finally said, this is getting finished,” Barefield said.

The resulting book, “Kodiak Island Wildlife: Biology and Behavior of the Wild Animals of Alaska’s Emerald Isle,” will be released by Publication Consultants at the end of April. It will feature not only Barefield’s writing, but also her husband’s photographs.

Barefield describes “Kodiak Island Wildlife” as more in-depth than a simple guidebook. It focuses on the island’s endemic mammals, as well as those introduced to the environment by humans. Ocean and avian species are also covered, including sea otters, sea lions, porpoises, whales, bald eagles, puffins and arctic terns.

“The Kodiak bear is a huge section, of course. I talk about the biology, bear and human interaction, the crazy history the bears have on this island, management,” she said. “I didn’t spend a long time, say, on caribou because there’s some on the south end of the island but it’s not a major animal that most people are going to run into here.”

Aside from “Kodiak Island Wildlife,” other Barefield projects that will hit the shelves later in the year include her fifth mystery novel, which she hopes will be out by the fall, and a true crime book based on stories she has published in her online newsletter. She has about 60 stories — enough for two books — but will start by publishing a single volume with some of the major Alaska crime stories.

In the midst of all these projects, Barefield’s primary motivation remains a simple love of writing, which includes her dedication to bringing Kodiak to life for her readers.

“For me, writing just relaxes my brain. It’s a great pastime. It’s something I love. I don’t think you go into writing to make money. You hope that happens. But you go into writing because you love to write,” she said.

Hopefully I describe [Kodiak] well. The best compliments I get from people is when they say, ‘Oh I love this, it just brought back Kodiak to me when I was there or when I visited.’ That’s what I’m trying hard to do.” 

Robin Barefield’s website can be found at http://robinbarefield.com, where she writes a blog about Kodiak wildlife. Her “Murder and Mystery in the Last Frontier” podcast be found at https://murder-in-the-last-frontier.blubrry.net. She is also a charter member of Author Masterminds: https://authormasterminds.com/robinbarefield. Her books can be purchased online through Publication Consultants (https://publicationconsultants.com/).

Kodiak backyard hikes: Mission Beach gallery

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Mission Beach is only about 1.5 miles from our apartment. Getting there involves walking through quiet neighborhoods rather than trail hiking. The beach is usually calm and quiet. People sometimes come to exercise their dogs, collect seaweed for fertilizer, or launch sea kayaks. We come to walk on the stones and the rippled black-and-tan sand, looking down in search of sea glass, looking up to breathe deeply and take in the ocean and the wide sky. On some days, silver-gray water melds with silver-gray clouds on the infinite horizon; on others, the blue waves shimmer with unimpeded sunlight. We’ve seen sea otters swimming and bald eagles searching the shoreline for food. We’ve skipped rocks, and we’ve simply sat watching the sunrise or the fishing boats coming to and from the harbor.

Written by latefornowhere

November 16, 2020 at 5:22 pm

Kodiak backyard hikes: A spine-tingling animal encounter

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Kodiak Island is a wild place. My wife Pauksi and I never set foot in the forest without carrying bear spray, and rare is the bike ride outside of town when I don’t spot at least one Sitka black-tailed deer crossing the road.

During a hike last weekend, we had an unusual encounter with a wary species of mammal that, up to that point, we had not yet seen on the island.

We started our walk by heading for Pillar Mountain, the base of which is only a few blocks away from our apartment. The sun was shining, and the temperature in town was cool but had not quite dipped below freezing during the night. As we gained elevation, though, we saw more frost as well as a few puddles topped with an icy glaze.

We hiked about three-quarters of the way up the 1,240-foot (378-meter) peak on the gravel access road, and then followed a forest path that branched off to the north and descended for a mile to a paved road leading out to White Sands Beach.

Another half mile of pavement walking brought us to a dirt lane leading not to White Sands Beach, which was 5 miles farther along the paved road, but to a coastal cove with black volcanic sand that we had previously seen from the mountaintop but had never visited.

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After spending an hour or so eating lunch and hanging out at the beach, we set out to return home the same way we had come.

While walking back along the short stretch of paved road, I spotted movement in the bushes bordering the left shoulder up ahead. At first, I thought it was a small dog, but when the animal stepped out onto the road, I saw that it was a red fox. In its teeth was what appeared to be the spine of a rather large animal, which it was laboriously dragging across the road.

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My wife and I stopped and watched from afar, but when the fox reached the other side of the road, it suddenly noted our presence, dropped its prize, and scampered up a steep embankment into the forest.

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We slowly walked forward, stopping to look at the spine, which appeared fresh and bloody. I thought it might have belonged to a deer but wasn’t sure. I couldn’t imagine how a fox could have taken down such a large animal, and thought it more likely that the deer had been killed by a bear or hit by a car.   

As we contemplated these possibilities, we realized the fox was still there, sitting motionless and observing us from the trees with its sharp, intelligent eyes. Was it merely curious, or was it waiting for us to leave so it could come back down and reclaim its food? For a few minutes, we watched the animal watching us. Then we moved on, retracing our steps over the mountain and back down to our neighborhood on the other side.

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Written by latefornowhere

October 24, 2020 at 6:13 pm

Kodiak backyard hikes: An autumn morning in North End Park

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After a week of stormy weather that brought heavy rain and gale-force winds to Kodiak, the first Saturday in October dawned bright and clear. My wife and I were keen to get out of the house and enjoy the crisp fall weather.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Kodiak is the amount of exploration that can be done without the need to get into a car and drive somewhere. Forest trails and beaches abound within a 3-mile radius of our apartment.

On this day, we headed for North End Park, just 1 mile from our front door on Near Island, which is accessible by bridge. With the previous week’s storms now passed, as we crossed the bridge, we were able to catch our first view in many days of the mountains to the west.

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We entered the park the back way on Channelside Trail, which at the start is lined with salmonberry bushes that bear fruit in the summertime but whose leaves were just beginning to show the discoloration of approaching winter. Farther along, Sitka spruces and some deciduous trees started appearing. The mossy forest ticked with water droplets from the all-night rain that had tapered off shortly before we left our apartment.

Channelside led us to the Northend Trail system. We followed the path to a set of wooden stairs that descended to a rocky beach. The tide was low, and the shoreline was strewn with seaweed, tangles of bull kelp, and other debris washed up by the previous week’s high waves. At one end of the beach, a small, temporary waterfall cascaded down the rocks.

Re-entering the forest on the other side of the beach, we picked up a trail that took us to land’s end, providing a clifftop view of the ocean and local fishing boats heading to and from Kodiak’s two harbors.

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From there, we followed the forested coast, where mushrooms sprouted in the shade beneath the trees and, on one occasion, an unseen but vocal squirrel bombarded us with pinecones from high up in a Sitka spruce tree.

We stopped at another small beach, drenched in sunshine and caressed by the cool wind blowing off the ocean. The calm was occasionally broken by small aircraft landing at the Near Island floatplane base.

We later happened across another interruption in the natural splendor of the forest in the form of a rusted vehicle dating back to World War II – a remnant of the U.S. military forced deployed on Kodiak to defend Alaska from invasion from Japan.

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We eventually made our way back to the first beach, where the tide was reaching its highest point and the morning’s waterfall was now silent.

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We climbed back up the stairs and followed the forest path through the tunnel of trees to exit the park at the main parking lot. A short walk back across the bridge to Kodiak Island had us home before noon.

Written by latefornowhere

October 17, 2020 at 4:46 pm