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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 Spotlight: Bear biologist Joy Erlenbach

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This article was originally published in the July 17, 2020, edition of Kodiak Daily Mirror newspaper.

 

Joy Erlenbach didn’t spend much time outdoors as a kid. One of four children of a single mom who was always working, Erlenbach never really had the chance to go outside except to do chores. 

So to this day, she says, it boggles her mind to think about how and why she became enamored of wilderness experiences.

The love affair started when she was a teenager in Burlington, Washington.

“When I was in high school, a friend and I saw an advertisement for a search and rescue organization that needed volunteers, and so I joined and went through a bunch of training,” she said. “That was my introduction to backpacking and surviving in the woods. And I just sort of fell in love with being outside.”

Meanwhile, Erlenbach had always harbored a love for animals that made her think she would someday become a veterinarian, but as she spent more time outdoors, she realized she didn’t want to become a zookeeper or spend her days working in a vet’s office.

“I wanted to be outside with the animals,” she said. “When I was researching degrees for college, I stumbled upon wildlife ecology, and I read the description and it was like light bulbs went off – this is it, I get to be outside with animals, this is what I want to do.”

In 2004 she started the wildlife ecology program at Washington State University, which is home to one of the few facilities in the world that houses adult brown bears for research. 

“I guess that’s where it all started because I got to interact with bears at pretty close range like most people don’t get to do,” Erlenbach said, adding that her early volunteer work at the research facility mostly consisted of “just shoveling poop and helping feed the bears a couple times a week.”

But she also began getting a sense that each bear had a unique character, at a time when there was not a lot of discussion among wildlife ecologists about animal personality.

Her interest in bears was reinforced when she was asked to join a research project in Yellowstone National Park, during which she spent a summer tracking bears and measuring what they were eating. She got to see firsthand how resilient and adaptable wild animals could be, as they survived in an area characterized by frequent interactions with park visitors.

“The bears could switch from day-active to nocturnal, and mediate those risks between encountering humans in the park,” she said. “They could exist by doing all these different strategies. Some bears ate elk calves, some bears didn’t. Some bears hung out at streams, some bears hung out at high elevations. The variety really got me.”

Erlenbach went on to earn her master’s degree, with a focus on the nutritional ecology of bears — what they eat and why — as well as some study into behavior. Not considering herself to be a “standard academic type,” she thought her university career had reached its conclusion. When the opportunity to apply for a Ph.D. program in Alaska arose in 2014, her initial response was to say no.    

At the same time, she recalled photographs of Alaska that a graduate student had shared with her when she was an undergrad, and she also knew she wanted to keep working with bears.

“Just seeing the pictures, I fell in love with the scenery and had in the back of my mind this idea that I wanted to go to Alaska,” Erlenbach said. “The Ph.D. project was really amazing, and I talked to a lot of people and they sort of convinced me that I just had to do this.”

 The project involved spending four years in Katmai National Park studying the link between coastal bears and the marine environment — more specifically, what consequences oil spills, climate change, ocean acidification, warming water and other factors might have on the animals.

The project also brought Erlenbach one step closer to Kodiak. During her research, she would spend a month camping along the coast while conducting bear observations, and then head back to civilization to shower and restock food before returning to the coast for another month.

“I had spent four years over in Katmai staring at Kodiak,” she said. “Kodiak was one of our ways that we reported weather. If we could see Kodiak, that meant it’s a good day because there weren’t that many rain clouds between us and Kodiak. So I stared at Kodiak for years and always went, ‘Gosh, I wonder what’s over there.’”

After the Katmai project was completed, Erlenbach returned to Washington. She was preparing to defend her Ph.D. when some friends told her they had seen a job posting for a bear biologist at Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge that seemed perfect for her.

She looked at the posting, agreed that it was an ideal fit for her experience and interests, and promptly applied. She was in the middle of a trip to Thailand — a pre-graduation present to herself — when she was notified that she was going to have an interview for the job, which she ultimately landed.  

“It was all pretty crazy,” she said. “I knew there was a history of a lot of really great bear research here (in Kodiak), and so to be able to come into a position where I knew there was a history of good research and an opportunity for good future research was pretty appealing.”

Erlenbach arrived in Kodiak on March 1 to take up her position as the refuge’s new bear biologist, and promptly sprained her ankle on her third day here. The injury prevented her from immediately making it out into the field, but gave her plenty of time to start digging into the data that has been collected over the years about the island’s bears.

“The first thing I’m doing is taking stock of what all the past surveys are saying, and … making sure we really understand where we’re at with populations, and whether there’s any reason for concern going forward or if we think everything is fine,” she said. “Kodiak bears are so iconic and it’s so well known for its hunting. I think the main issue is just making sure that we continue to keep the bear population thriving.”

Erlenbach said there’s a fair amount of evidence showing that changes in salmon populations are occurring around the world, so it was important to look at salmon abundance in the areas where refuge bears are consuming them, how changes in salmon abundance might be affecting the bears, and what can be done about it.

“Everything is connected, right? So it’s hard for me to point a finger at any one thing, especially at this point with being pretty new to the area,” she said. “But I think food supply is really high up there on my list of concerns. If animals are being affected by a dwindling food supply, then things like hunting can become more of a pressure than they were in the past. We just need to make sure that we don’t trend that way.”

As for Kodiak itself, Erlenbach said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by the town and the island.

“Never having been here, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it’s beautiful,” she said. “The people I’ve met have been really warm and welcoming.”

With her ankle sprain healing, she has also been able to get out and enjoy some of the local hikes, including Termination Point, Pyramid Mountain, Sharatin Mountain and Cope Mountain. But what she’s most anticipating is exploring more remote areas of the island away from the road system.

 “I’ve been able to get out, and the hiking is awesome,” she said. “But I can’t wait to see the refuge because I hear it’s also pretty fantastic.”