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Close encounters of the wild kid: Brandenburgs co-author book about wolves for children

ELY -- Judy Brandenburg isn't surprised to see a wolf loping along the road, scavenging for food near the home she shares with husband Jim. But it's still not a sight she likes, because it puts the wolf too close to danger.

"Coming home from town, and there's a car ahead of me, doing normal speed, and here comes Blackie -- we call her Blackie -- trotting down the road on the other side just like she's a car. ... I was just sick, because I thought somebody was going to hit her. They're becoming accustomed to people on the roads, and any animal goes after free food."

After more than 30 years of photographing animals in their wild habitat, former Daily Globe and National Geographic photographer and Luverne native Jim Brandenburg has become an expert on wolves and wolf behaviors. Among the numerous books he's published, there are several that focus on canis lupus. It's an interest that's been absorbed by his wife, Judy, as they now live in the midst of wolf habitat in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota.

Jim and Judy share a byline for a children's book recently released by National Geographic, called "Face to Face With Wolves." The book details their love of the animals and gives some insight into what it's like to live near wolves and to watch them in the wild.

"We see them here at the house and hear them howling," said Judy during a recent phone interview. "Last year, it was really interesting. Jim was shooting high-definition film and has set up several remote blinds, mini cabins where he can watch them at a particular rendezvous site. He'll sit out there and will radio me, call me and say, 'Run to the top of the hill and howl.' So I'd run up to the cliff to the east of us and start to howl, and that would get the pups to start howling so he could get film of them."

Jim's photographic work in the field is most often a solitary occupation, but Judy is involved in almost every other aspect of his endeavors, whether it's howling for wolves, negotiating contracts, editing film or bookkeeping.

"I handle the financial part, the accounting, the negotiations for sales of things, editing, assisting, the general behind-the-scenes, whatever he needs to have done," Judy detailed. "Jim loves the shooting part, but not the editing part. That's the boring part to him. It's more exciting to create images, work with the galleries and selling prints. He loves that part."

When Jim was broached about doing a children's book for National Geographic, he was reluctant to take on the assignment, but Judy was intrigued by the project and prodded him to agree.

"It's a series they have, taking some of their people and using some of their specialties," Judy explained about the "Face to Face" books. "... I started doing some negotiations with National Geographic on the contract stuff, and finally he agreed, then he took off for Europe."

During Jim's absence, Judy began to pull images of wolves that could be used, looking at other books in the series to determine what would be appropriate so he could start writing it upon his return. But Jim's trip was extended, and Judy continued to move forward on the book.

"I thought I'd start putting my thoughts down so he'd have a base when he came back to work around," she recalled. "When he kept getting delayed, I wrote the first chapter. He got home, and I gave it to him, and he said, 'That's just fine. I wouldn't change a thing.'"

Jim had other projects to occupy his time, so Judy began work on the second chapter, too, and soon had written the entire manuscript.

"He went through and added his own touch," she said, adding with a laugh, "I've lived with it so long, I know the stories better than he does sometimes. If he can't quite remember something, he'll look at me and say, 'Is that right?'"

The writing is primarily Judy's, but the voice is Jim's, written in the first person. The book begins with Jim travels to the high arctic to photograph white wolves:

When I arrived on Ellesmere Island, just west of Greenland, I saw my first pack of seven white arctic wolves. I followed them as they headed toward an iceberg. The leader of the pack was the first to see me. He looked at me without fear, letting me know there was no way I would sneak up on him. He went on walking and climbing to what was clearly his favorite spot on the iceberg, a shelf halfway up. He sat down to watch me still clumsily trying to catch up to him. When I got as close to him as I could, we stared at each other. I looked at him through my powerful telephoto lens. After all these years, I was finally face to face with my favorite animal.

"It's the first time that I've done the bulk of the writing," Judy said. "I've helped on all aspects of every book, but have never done any of the writing, really. I'm very proud of it. I jokingly used to say I was going to write a book, and I'd kid Jim that I was going to write about him and our crazy life."

Judy said writing a book for children came naturally because the Brandenburgs have grandchildren in the same age group for which it was intended. Their daughter, Heidi, also lives near Ely and has two children, Olivia, 10, and Liam, 6. Son Tony lives in Minneapolis and also has a 10-year-old, Lindsey.

"It was just like taking the kids outside and trying to teach them about animals, but instead of saying it to the kids, just putting it on paper," Judy explained.

In addition to the main text that Judy put together and the photos shot by Jim, the book has been supplemented with facts and tidbits about wolves, such as the food they eat, legends, habitat, threats to their existence and how the reader can learn more and help protect wolves. It's typical of the package that National Geographic puts together for the series, Judy explained.

Among the acknowledgements in the back of the book is one for singer James Taylor, who has become a good friend to the Brandenburgs -- and to wolves.

"He had seen the white wolf story in National Geographic," Judy explained. "He's a conservationist first and a musician second. I answered the phone, and he said, "This is James Taylor, and I'd like to talk to Jim about using wolves on my next album cover.' Jim had just left, and I was trying frantically to wave to him, catch his attention, but he didn't see me. I had Jim call him back, and he came to look at images."

That was in the late 1980s, and Taylor agreed to a concert to raise money to fund the Defenders of Wildlife's Wolf Compensation Trust, which reimburses ranchers for livestock losses to wolves. The fund was critical in the Rocky Mountain reintroduction of wolves.

"He's just a normal person with a great sense of humor," said Judy about Taylor. "He is so clever, so down-to-earth and an extreme environmentalist."

In conjunction with "Face to Face With Wolves," the Brandenburgs are planning some visits to schools in southwest Minnesota sometime in the near future as well as an event at their gallery in Luverne. They've also got a lot of other projects on tap, including another wolf book -- this one about how man and wolf evolved together -- a time-lapse sequence project for British Broadcasting Company and a high-definition film about life in the north woods before white man came there. Jim also wants to do his own version of a prairie movie that was shown on the Animal Planet network and did not live up to his expectations.

"It's time to start retiring, but there's no way that's going to happen anytime soon," laughed Judy. "There's never a dull moment; always something new. That's what makes it exciting."

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Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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