– Words by Angela Cowan Photography by Lia Crowe
Lifelong park warden George Mercer wrote his first book Dyed in the Green while working for Jasper National Park, often writing into the wee hours of the morning, compelled to get the story down on paper. But it would be more than a decade before anyone else had the chance to read it.
Dyed in the Green is set along the world-famous Cabot Trail, where National Park Warden Ben Matthews faces down a notorious, ruthless poacher as well as the local communities who view poaching as their way of life, in a thrilling mystery story.
“It was a powerful story, based on our experiences in Cape Breton, which I just couldn’t get out of my head,” says George, who now lives in North Saanich. “But it basically sat in a binder in our house for 15 years.”
When George retired in May of 2012, he decided it was time to get Dyed out of the drawer.
He’d been taking fiction classes, and at his instructor’s urging, entered the Saanich Peninsula Writing Contest, which he ended up winning. When he took his prize—a $100 gift certificate to Tanner’s—he found himself staring at the cover of Patrick deWitt’s bestselling novel The Sisters Brothers.
George, who had been tinkering with Dyed and planning to self-publish it, flipped the book open to find the cover designer—Dan Stiles—and sent him an email.
“I told him I’m not an award-winning author like Patrick deWitt,” George says with a bit of self-deprecation, “but about 30 minutes later I got an email from him saying he’d love to do the cover.”
It turned into a series-long gig, and in fact one of the subsequent books, Jasper Wild, won the Independent Publisher Book Award for Cover Design in 2018.
Further IPB Awards include Regional Fiction Gold for Wood Buffalo as well as for Fat Cats, and a Silver Medal for Book Series for the Dyed family in 2019.
Born in Gander, Newfoundland, George spent over 30 years working as a park warden in national parks on the east and west coasts, the north and the Rocky Mountains, and actually took a demotion (back into warden operations) to come out and help establish the Gulf Islands National Reserve in 2004.
“My wife and I had both been keen to help establish a new national park,” he says, adding that the 16 years they’ve since spent on Vancouver Island is the longest they’ve ever lived anywhere.
Through his Dyed series—which is available across Canada through Indigo and any number of independent bookstores—he’s remained a strong advocate for national parks and the challenges they face, despite retiring eight years ago.
He was in the researching stages of his fifth book when COVID-19 hit and threw a wrench in his plans.
“I had actually sent my main character to Tanzania, so I’d planned to get to Africa and make connections with rangers there,” he says.
But with international travel taken off the table, he turned his attention to one of his other projects on the go: a young adult adventure designed to introduce younger readers to the wonder of national parks, as well as address a growing issue of overuse by humans.
Harking (just released in October) follows teenaged Harking Thompson as she follows in her late father’s footsteps in tracking and monitoring wildlife and predators on remote mountain trails, while struggling to understand a series of cryptic notes he left behind, and fighting to save a mother grizzly and her cubs.
The idea sprung from a real-life, remote-camera project that George was involved with in Jasper, as he and others tried to figure out how large predators were moving through the valley.
“We soon realized it was more of a ‘human-use’ project,” he says. “Trails that we’d assumed were just wildlife trails…we’d get a picture of a grizzly on a trail, and then 10 minutes later there would be someone on a mountain bike going by.”
George, endlessly passionate about protecting not only the national parks but the wildlife within them, hopes to influence readers’ behaviour if and when they make it out into the wild.
“We don’t manage wildlife and we don’t manage ecosystems. The best we can do is manage our own impacts on them.”
His stories are pure fiction in their characters and relationships, but the issues the characters face are all rooted in reality.
“They’re very much based on personal experiences in the four parks, and each [book] deals with a major issue facing our national parks,” says George.
Those issues range from a proposed slaughter of bison in Wood Buffalo National Park, to the ramifications of a cougar showing up on one of the small Gulf Islands, and poaching on the East Coast.
His characters are lively, and the settings so descriptively written that you can almost hear the wrens singing in the bush, or feel the feathery tips of moss on the tree trunks. It’s an authenticity that comes from decades of experience in those environments.
He’s able to give readers a strong sense of place, offering both an escape and a stark window into the challenges of these amazing, huge, natural spaces.
Having self-published five books now, George laughs as he talks about how many more half-formed ideas he has floating around for stories to come.
“I just like the writing, and as long as I can keep my head above water financially, I’ll keep doing it.”
This story originally ran in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Pearl magazine.