It’s got a Vietnam vet with a big heart and anger management problems, a small-town newspaper reporter, and a hippie radio station.
Throw in some meth-fuelled wildlife crime and a few cruise ships and you have the makings of an adventure mystery set in Southeast Alaska.
Dale Brandenburger is a former biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game who’s combined decades of journaling and a knack for storytelling into a new novel called Grizzly Trade.
To speak to Dale Brandenburger, first you’ve got to find him. For the past six weeks he’s been working on a research cruise for the Sitka Sound Science Center.
We finally established a scratchy connection via satellite phone as the boat he’s working on, the Sitka-based Surveyor, motored out of Rodman Bay.
“You know a lot of things you read about Alaska, it’s always man-versus-nature struggling. And I don’t really see people striving so much to survive, as thriving up here. I wanted to include Alaskans’ sense of humor and have some fun with the book. Hopefully, it’s a fun read.”
And Grizzly Trade, despite it’s dime-novel cast of cops, reporters, petty criminals, and other ne’er do-wells, is a fun read. The protagonist is a Vietnam veteran named Red who grows frustrated when law enforcement is unable to stop the poaching of brown bears, whose paws and gall bladders are then trafficked on the Asian aphrodisiac market.
Red’s decision to track the poachers leads him through a series of episodes — most of which are based on events that actually happened and many remember — like a cruise ship spill involving dry cleaning and photo chemicals.
Brandenburger worked for ADF&G for 28 years, both in Juneau and in Sitka, and was a diligent journal-writer. He’s seen a lot. Maybe too much, according to his wife.
“Two of the incidents in the book, she was like, No one would believe that! They were true incidents as well. And I had to cut them from the book, otherwise my credibility would have been shot, I think.”
Although the character of Red is based on a friend of his in Ketchikan — a “big guy with a red beard and anger-management problems” — most everyone else is an amalgam of folks he has met over the course of his career. There is a newspaper reporter, however, from a town north of Sitka whom Brandenburger says may see a bit of himself. And that hippie radio station? That could be anywhere.
Brandenburger set his story in the fictional town of Alkoot, rather than pin all this strangeness on a specific locale.
“Yeah, it gives you a little more freedom than trying to write a bunch of facts about Alaska. And it makes for more of a page-turner, I think, for certain readers.”
Brandenburger has written one previous unpublished novel, which he says was good experience for this book, plus changed his approach to writing. He’s decided to not be quite so serious, and to follow the lead of authors like…
“Carl Hiaasen, who’s written a lot of satirical-type stuff about environmental issues in Florida. David James Duncan who wrote The Brothers K and The River Why. And I was a fan of John D. MacDonald, too — and author who hasn’t been around for a while but has written some great stuff.”
Brandenburger says he has mined his journals of the last thirty years for material for Grizzly Trade. So much happens, readers may wonder if there’s anything left for the little town of Alkoot.
Brandenburger says he’s already well into his next story.
“It’s in the same town ten years later and they’re trying to put in a hydroelectric dam, and there’s also a reality TV show that comes to town. So that’s going to be fun as well. I’m having a good time writing it.”
Hydroelectric dam and reality television? Now, that really could be anywhere.