Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska


Written with wit, wisdom, and a grateful heart, A Tender Distance explores the perils and joys of raising two fearless boys from toddlerhood to young men. Mothers everywhere will relate to the hard, familiar choice between holding close and letting go.

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

Canyons and Ice
The Wilderness Travels Of Dick Griffith


"In Canyons and Ice, Kaylene Johnson recounts the adventures of Dick Griffith, who has undertaken a series of remarkable wilderness journeys across Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and the American West over the past six decades...As this gripping and inspiring book explains, Griffith is simply afflicted with an irresistible inclination to attempt what others say can't be done. When asked what possesses a man to repeatedly strike out alone across hundreds of miles of rugged, lonely country, he replies, 'Every so often, it's just time to walk.'"

- Jon Krakauer, Author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Where Men Win Glory

Go the the Canyons and Ice website to learn more!

Aurora’s Winter Surprise

Our daylight may be returning but the darkness of the night sky still has some surprises in store. The magic of the aurora borealis never fails to impress those whose eyes are cast skyward this time of year — and there is no better place to view them than in Alaska’s back country. The farther away from urban lights, the more vivid the night sky.

It was four years ago and temperatures were dipping into the teens one night in the Brooks Range. I had just turned in, snuggling deep into a warm sleeping bag. Just as I drifted off to sleep, the sound of footsteps crunched outside my tent. A friend’s voice was filled with wonder.

Northern lights over Peters Creek. (photo by Erik Johnson)

“Come out here–you’ve got to see this!”

I quickly pulled on boots, coat and mittens and stepped outside into the cold air. A last glimmer of twilight still tinged the western horizon. To the east however, the sky was dark and stars that had earlier been just pinpricks on the dome of sky, now gleamed bright through layered depths of space. There in the darkness, another kind of light had begun to shimmer.  Like an apparition, moving ribbons of light appeared at the dark eastern end of the sky. The aurora slowly grew more vivid and the lights began to twirl like ribbons as they reached toward the dimming light of the western horizon. At first they shimmered silky white, but then changed to green. As the light show continued, they transformed themselves to shades of rose and then back to green again.

The show continued long enough for our fingers and toes to grow cold and our necks to ache from standing open-mouthed, staring at the night sky. We were all seasoned Alaskans, but none of us remembered a show quite so dazzling.

So what are the northern lights, exactly? Electrons and protons from the sun are blown towards the earth on a “solar wind.” The aurora can be seen on dark, clear nights when these charged solar particles strike the atmosphere near the earth’s magnetic poles. The colors are a result of the types of gas particles involved in the collision between the solar wind and the earth’s atmosphere.

The aurora borealis, that mystical light that has engendered so much legend and lore over the millennia, has become a pilgrimage for travelers world-wide. Aurora seekers often travel to Fairbanks which is located at the edge of what scientists call an “auroral oval,” a ring-shaped region that circles the north magnetic pole where solar activity is most common. Fairbanks has relatively clear skies in winter, and being a smallish town, you don’t have to go far to escape the city’s lights. Some hotels in Fairbanks even offer wake-up calls for visitors who want to be alerted to northern light activity.

I stepped outside early in the morning recently to the feed horses and discovered the sky shimmering with the aurora borealis. It was clear and cold enough for the snow to creak underfoot. The full moon cast shadows on the snow and to block the moonlight, I leaned against the shade of the barn. This was the best display I could remember since that back country experience four years ago.  I remembered that gleaming night in the Brooks Range so well because earlier that same day I’d made a satellite phone call to my daughter-in-law. We had made a date to talk because it was the day they would learn the gender of their baby.

Aurora Grace (photo by Renee Howard)

Aurora Grace (photo by Renee Howard)

“It’s a girl!” she announced over the static on the line.ora

It was the same night that the northern lights twirled overhead like dancing spirits. I couldn’t help but wonder if, like me, they were celebrating this new life in the world.

Today that baby is four years old with eyes that sparkle like stars in a blue night sky.

And unbeknownst to me on that cold evening when I watched those dancing lights, my son and daughter-in-law chose to name their daughter “Aurora.”


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November Tulips

As the calendar nudged into November, I dug through nearly two inches of frozen dirt to plant tulip bulbs. I felt compelled to finish this task before I left on a flight to visit my parents in Portland. They are reaching an age when health issues are taking their toll and I was traveling to help Mom convalesce after surgery.

05-tulip-bulbs-central-midwest from webEven with the generosity of our late autumn weather, I was already a month late in this task; the opportunity to plant bulbs would surely be gone by the time I returned.

Icy shards of dirt flaked in crumbling columns away from my trowel. It had been close to a decade since I’d last planted tulips. As I made an opening in the earth and deposited those hard seeds, I remembered past seasons when I planted bulbs with my sons. With cold fingers and rosy cheeks, they carefully placed each bulb into the ground.  They enjoyed the ritual; it was like burying treasure, one that would appear of its own colorful accord come springtime.  Today those little boys are men and have grown, not so unlike tulips, into the full bloom of adulthood.

The wind blew raw as leaves skittered across the dry grass. The ground was cold and would soon grow much colder as winter’s deep freeze permeated the soil. A thick layer of snow would soon blanket the frozen ground.

As I considered Mom’s upcoming surgery, it occurred to me what an act of faith it is to plant bulbs in the fall. There is the faith that after the dark winter, spring will come. There is the simple faith that we will be present an entire season from now; that the sun’s rays will warm both the earth’s skin and our own. That we will experience the transformation of seed to blossom in the cup of our own experience — tender green shoots, deeply colored blossoms, a tinge of fragrance. photo 3

My mother recently made her funeral wishes known—just in case. She has had three heart procedures in two years. My father had a recent bout with cancer and now his memory if failing. I wonder if we are ever ready for our lives to wind down into a season of winter. Autumn of course is brilliant. But winter? These bulbs lie nestled in the earth as the season of darkness descends, a buried deposit on the future.

It seems a gift that so many rituals of family take place during the winter months. They keep us rooted in the past and expectant for the future. Surely no rituals are more entrenched than Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maybe it is during these months of quiet dormancy, when activity is at a relative lull that we can pause to reflect and truly give thanks.  Yet how can I rightly give thanks for the parents who gave me life and by whose lives I have been indelibly shaped? How do I express gratitude for my children and grandchildren who weave shimmering joy into the fabric of my days? And what words are there for my husband who was not born into this ragtag family, but rather, freely chose to fold his life into mine?

Maybe we need this period of dark and the muffled sound of snow to quiet our minds. To take stock.  It is tempting to fill the void with frantic activity and preparations for the holidays. But perhaps the greater richness of the season is to listen for the hope that lies quiet beneath the new fallen snow.

I patted the dirt over the bulbs and mulched the area with frozen leaves. Then I marked the mound with black-eyed Susans uprooted from their summer pots, not wanting to forget this place once spring arrives.

photo 1







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October’s Tasty Harvest


It rained medallions of gold this past week as birch trees released their last leaves to the cool air of autumn. In years past we’ve had termination dust by late August in time for the state fair, but this year our summer seemed to hold through much of September, allowing gardens another month of growth. The result was a bountiful harvest that my sons and their families gathered from their plots of ground as late as last week.  The last zucchini Erik pulled from his patch made his three-year-old daughter stagger under its heft.

“Daddy, it’s heavy,” she complained as she posed for a photo.Zucchini kid lr

This was Mark and Renee’s first year for a garden, one they essentially had to scratch out of a glacial moraine.  They moved into their new home near Hatcher Pass earlier this year where the ground was little more than a jumble of rocks. Yet after hours of toil, some topsoil, and a lot of organic care, it grew with wild abandon throughout this long season of sunshine. Not only was it prolific, it was beautiful, with nasturtiums climbing up the moose fence that Mark built to keep out marauders.

As they dug the last of the potatoes and harvested the kale and cabbages, I asked my nine-year-old grandson what he liked best to eat from their garden. Carrots. These were his favorite and I remembered the carrots Renee gifted us a few weeks ago, sweet as sunshine, bright as a harvest moon. Their flavor danced in your mouth. The peas too were simply astonishing in their crisp size and sweetness.

Renee's garden 2Now there will be canning and pickling and freezers to fill. There is something deeply satisfying about filling the larder just as the first snowflakes kiss the ground. Putting up the harvest marks the end of the season of growth and cultivation and hearkens a quieter time of rest for garden and gardener. Soon a fire will crackle in the wood stove and the scent of baking will waft from the kitchen.

I asked Elias his favorite foods to make from the garden’s harvest. He said Rhubarb Crisp was the best. He liked Zucchini Bread too. I can vouch for the tastiness of the following recipes. Gluten-free flour can be substituted for the Rhubarb Crisp but I have not tried gluten-free flour in the Zucchini Bread recipe. Happy Harvest!




Elias’ Rhubarb Crisp

3 c chopped rhubarb

1 c white sugar

¾ c rolled oats

1 tsp all-purpose flour (substitute gluten-free all-purpose flour)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

¾ c brown sugar

¾ c all-purpose flour (substitute gluten-free all-purpose flour)

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

1/3 c butter


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 2 quart baking dish. In a large bowl, combine rhubarb, sugar, oats, 1 tsp. flour, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Stir until well combined and pour into prepared baking dish. In a small bowl, stir together 3/4 cup flour, baking soda and salt. Blend in bitter until all flour is incorporated. Sprinkle over rhubarb mixture. Bake 30 minutes until rhubarb is tender.


Harvest Zucchini Bread

3 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

3 tsp ground cinnamon

3 eggs

1 c vegetable oil

2 ¼ c sugar

3 tsp vanilla extract

2 c grated zucchini

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)


Optional: Add crumb topping 15 minutes into baking time:  Combine 1/2 c. regular oats, 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/4 c. flour, 1/4 t. cinnamon, 1/4 c. butter.)


Grease and flour two 8×4 inch loaf pans. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sift flour, salt, baking powder, soda, and cinnamon together in bowl. Beat eggs, oil, vanilla, and sugar together in a separate bowl. Add sifted ingredients to the creamed mixture and beat well. Stir in zucchini and nuts. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake at 325 degrees. Add crumb topping 15 minutes into baking time.  Bake for total of 50 minutes or until test inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack for 20 minutes. Remove bread from pan and cool completely.


Elias harvesting cabbage lr

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A Book as Old as Dirt

Years ago, at Powell’s Book Store in Portland, I happened upon a used book called The Wise Garden Encyclopedia. Its weight wasWise Garden lr substantial but not unwieldy and it felt good the way some books do, to hold in my hands. In small type on glossy paper, with a smattering of excellent pen and ink illustrations (but poor quality photos), the book held a cornucopia of in-depth gardening facts and advice. While the original copyright had been 1936, this edition heralded from 1965. The dust jacket had a photograph of a woman pruning red roses in her garden wearing white shoes and a white dress with a floral apron. No joke. The original price for the book appeared to be $5.95. I happily laid down $20 to take it home.

Since then, The Wise Garden Encyclopedia has been my go-to guide for all horticultural questions and endeavors. I saved the dust jacket in a Ziploc bag and to this day use the sturdy green hard-bound book when and however it’s needed. I have an entire shelf of gardening books, but Wise Garden is always the one with the answers. I have decided to transplant some ferns from a ditch near my house to the top of the rock wall that my son and grandkids helped to build last summer. I reached for the encyclopedia and was once again delighted by the book’s depth and also its poetry. The entry under “ferns” takes up seven of its 1,380 pages. And there in the midst of types of ferns, their uses and methods of propagation is a quote from Thoreau!

“Thoreau said, ‘Nature made ferns for pure leaves.’ And it is primarily for the great beauty of their leaves, the endless variety of forms, the range of subtle shades of green, that we treasure these plants.”

Be still my heart.

fern2 lrFifty-four varieties of ferns and horsetail are known to grow in Alaska. I am transplanting a northern wood fern, lifting it from the ditch and placing it where I can see it from my kitchen window. Wise Garden says to reset the plant facing the same way it was oriented in its original bed. Isn’t that something . . . how a plant can be sensitive to its orientation on the earth, or more specifically to its alignment with the moving sun?  An entire universe in a plant. It seems maybe some life lessons could be learned from observing just this individual fern.

The book also says that “some ferns are valuable for attracting birds because of the woolly substance which clothes the uncoiling fronds and is much prized as nesting material.” The language of the book itself is like sweet fruit, delicious and ripe for the picking.  Oh yes, and that was the other thing I’d hoped to place on the rock wall this year — a bird feeder.

It is summer, and plans abound. As daylight increases, energy and ambitions soar. Yes, there will be the beginnings of a garden, even if just in pots this year. I’ll transplant ferns and maybe put in some berry bushes. My son has given me some apple trees that he grafted himself from Siberian stock. Those should go in the ground this year as well. For these and other projects, Wise Garden will be there. like an old glove, worn and comfortable. Just for kicks I googled “transplanting ferns” and the omniscient “G” came back with 98,000 entries. I like the internet for its

wheelbarrow lrresearch capabilities; on a daily basis I have the world’s library at my fingertips. But a quick cruise of the top few of those 98,000 entries felt like a cheap and entirely unsatisfactory substitute for the heft and grace of Wise Garden.

The book feels as old as dirt which is, after all, the substance of the garden itself.

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Dream Builder: Willis Crafts Sleds to Go the Distance


Bernie Willis runs his hands along the runners of a dog sled perched on a workshop table at his Arctic Arrow Farm in Wasilla, Alaska. He inspects the stanchions, the hardware and straps. In a few days, the sled will be traveling the punishing 1,049 mile trail between Anchorage to Nome. The sled needs to be ready for whatever the weather and trail conditions dish out – boulder-strewn mountain passes, jagged ice, deep snow, even bare ground. Mushers and dogs are depending on it.sleddog raceBuilding dog sleds to traverse the world’s longest sled dog race is both a science and an art, one that Willis has been practicing for more than forty years. This year, in the lineup of 69 Iditarod race mushers, at least seventeen of them – many of them top ten contenders – will be racing to Nome using sleds built by Willis. In all, he has crafted nearly 500 dog sleds over the years, some of the finest built in the world.

Willis knows what mushers need on the trail – he ran the Iditarod himself in 1974 and 1989. He started early, building his first sled at the age of 16 in his high school shop class in in Glendale, California.

“I was infatuated with Alaska,” Willis says. “I was introduced to Alaska in the third grade when Mrs. Sutton read Panuck: Eskimo Sled Dog by Frederick Machetanz to our class. I stole that book from the school library and didn’t return it for a year.”

Later on, Willis read an article by Raymond Thompson in Alaska Sportsman Magazine about building dog sleds. He took the idea to his high school shop class.

“It was a horrible sled. I didn’t understand that the joints had to be flexible. I made it with furniture joints. It was only good for a coffee-table-smooth trail,” he says. Today that sled is being used as a planter for flowers in the yard of one of his cousins in California.

In 1969, Willis with his wife, Jeannette, came to Alaska as missionaries. They lived in Gambell on St. Lawrence Island where Willis said Abraham Kaningok advanced his knowledge of dog mushing. Willis needed a sled, so he built one. As he began flying his airplane around Alaska as part of his work, everyone seemed to need a sled – and from the beginning, the Willis sleds were sought after.

“One time I came into Anchorage from Gambell and stopped in at the old Gary King Sporting Goods store,” Willis says. “There was a sled there that looked familiar, and on closer inspection, I saw that it was one I had built.”

He continued to refine the design with the guidance of Elders like Joe Sun from the Kobuk River region. Joe Sun grew up in an era when dog teams were the only form of transportation; in the 1960s, snow machines were quickly replacing the old ways of travel.

IMG_0378Over the years, Willis mixed the best of old and new technologies. Runners, for example, are crafted of carefully lathed strips of ash wood layered with carbon fiber to be both flexible and tough. The foot boards have a boot-size piece of mountain-bike tread for mushers to stand on.  Willis’ attention to detail is why top mushers like Lance Mackey, Rick Swenson, Martin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Aaron Burmeister, and many others, use his sleds.

The entire Willis family has been involved in mushing and sled building over the years.

“One year we built forty-seven sleds,” Willis said. “The kids helped with piece work and varnishing. Jeannette swept the floor.”

Today Jeannette sews the canvass bags that hang in the sled’s cargo basket. An accomplished musher in her own right, she just retired after twenty years teaching dog mushing as a physical education course at the University of Alaska. Their son, Andy, is race manager for this year’s Iditarod. It’s always been one of many hobbies for the family – they all have other day jobs.  Bernie is a retired airline pilot.

Bernie doesn’t put a signature on his sleds; he says it’s the design that gives them their unique identity. He’s thought about getting a stamp to mark them, but then shrugs. The signature of a sled is in the craftsmanship.

As dogs and mushers head down the trail for Iditarod 2014, a lot of Bernie’s sleds will be drawn behind dog teams racing to Nome. And if the spirit is in the craftsmanship, then a whole lot of Bernie will be heading down the trail too.



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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson is a professional writer and long-time Alaskan who lives in Eagle River, Alaska.

    Her books include A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska; Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down, Portrait of the Alaska Railroad and Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor. Her award winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Spirit magazine, Parish Teacher and other publications. She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.


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