Kaylene Johnson: Writer and Photojournalist

Our Perfect Wild

An unlikely couple—a wild boy and a good girl—Ray and Barbara Bane, both teachers, set off from the sooty landscape of West Virginia into the snowy panoramas of Alaska. There they make another unlikely commitment: to learn the Old Ways of the land they come to adopt—and defend. With her characteristic poise and bravery, distinguished Alaskan journalist Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan chronicles the Banes’ story of environmental gumption in the wilderness.

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--Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 and Paradise, Piece By Piece.

A Tender Distance
Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska

Turtle Sitting

There’s Island time—the slow, simple pace of a vacation—and then there’s turtle time. We were in Hawaii walking along a beach when we noticed distinctive tracks that led from the gentle ocean surf to a place in the sand where a sea turtle lay. Just a day earlier, we had been snorkeling and observing the quiet world of coral, brightly colored fish, and the occasional sea turtle. The turtles appeared to be flying in slow motion as their large fins propelled them through clear, sunlit water. Just watching them gave one pause to relax and settle into calm wonder at this underwater world.

When we saw the turtle laying in the sand on the beach, we were alarmed. It was so completely still, we wondered if it was dead. We made a wide berth, careful not to disturb it, and noticed that the slit of its closed eyes still glistened with moisture. Its eyelids moved but did not open. We decided to sit nearby and wait and watch. The sun baked down and the sand scorched our bare feet. Surely the turtle could not survive for long out of water.

We sat. We sat some more. We wondered about turtles’ lifespans. Was this normal behavior or was this sea turtle like a beached whale, stranded and dying? We noted that it was relatively small and if it needed to be rescued, we could probably lift it back to the water. We dismissed the notion, knowing these are protected animals and that nature would take its due course if the turtle was sick. Why else would it lay so motionless for so long? Maybe we ought to call a Hawaiian Agency for Turtles or something. Let someone know, just in case.

On the beach, the only thing that stirred was a breeze. Waves lapped rhythmically against the shore. Fine hexagonal lines patterned the turtle’s head, fins, and bony shell. It moved ever so slightly once, opened its eyes a small bit. Bill and I had planned to explore the entire isthmus, but we didn’t want to miss the turtle’s movement back into the water. So, we took turns. While one of us walked the beach, the other sat in the sand turtle sitting.

Sometime during the second hour, the turtle lifted its head, opened its eyes completely, and slowly turned to look at me. I held my breath. He stared and blinked then slowly turned to look the other direction. For a moment he seemed entirely awake. Then the turtle lay his head back in the sand and closed its eyes.

Although we seemed a comfortable distance away, maybe he was waiting for us to leave to make his getaway back to the water. So, we left to walk farther down the beach, resigning ourselves that even after our time watching, we would likely not witness his departure.

As we walked farther along the shore, we came upon two more sea turtles in the sand! These two had found each other on the beach, one was asleep like ours, the other was awake, its large eyes blinking slowly as it watched a handful other beach walkers pass by. No one seemed concerned. Later, we saw yet two more turtles in various positions along the shore. One lay partially on a sharp protrusion of volcanic rock looking positively content—like a puppy curled sleeping in its bed. We sighed with relief; apparently, our turtle wasn’t dying after all.

I had to laugh. Is it just human nature to worry about things, and then come up with a plan to fix it? Isn’t it just like us to have an expectation and then assume the worst when it doesn’t come to pass? (Someone once said, “Expectations are just disappointments waiting to happen.”) How was it that by spending time with him, we came to claim the turtle as ours? Finally, why is it that we lack the patience to wait for the unfolding of something in its own time? These are all questions that followed me home.

The first turtle was exactly where we had left him on the beach several hours earlier. Scientists, as it turns out, have been studying this behavior. When turtles are not nibbling on underwater seagrass or making pilgrimages to the shore to lay eggs, they come to the beach for the same reason we do.

To bask. In turtle time.

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Treasure in the Attic: Writing Trails Across Time

When I was commissioned to write Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor, I had no idea that I would discover such rich and fascinating stories. Places I’d traveled for years, often on our family’s way to go fishing on the Kenai Peninsula, took on new meaning as I learned about the area’s geologic, Native, gold rush and transportation history. Researching this book was like digging into the cobwebbed trunk of my grandmother’s attic. She was just someone you took for granted until you opened that chest and discovered the living treasures of a real human being. Most interesting were the stories of the people who first claimed this land as home. From the complex cultures of Alaska’s Native peoples to tough women who struck out on their own, these are stories of courage, heartbreak, and humor.

Nancy Lord, recently reviewed  Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor in the Anchorage Daily News.  The second edition of this book was released in October 2017 with new photos and stories about what has since been designated the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area.

I hope you’ll read Nancy’s review. The book is available at local booksellers and online. You can get a signed copy by ordering it through the KMTA website, or come visit my favorite bookstore, Fireside Books, in Palmer.

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Cold Case: Book helped find a Stampeder’s final resting place

Six degrees of separation, it turns out, can span an entire century and two continents. The book, Gold Rush Wife (Ember Press, 2016) about the Turnagain Arm gold rush of 1896, helped solve a family mystery in Norway, which in turn added to the historical veracity of a stampede that predated the Klondike gold rush.

Hammers left his wife and two children in Norway for a new life in America. (Photo credit: Norse Folkemuseum)

One hundred years ago, the last his Norwegian family had heard from 63-year-old gold miner, Tallef Hammers, was a letter he sent from Sunrise, Alaska. Hammers left Norway in 1880 at the age of 38 seeking a new life in America. He made his way to Seattle where he worked as a carpenter and in real estate. Like others who had fallen on hard times during an economic depression, the promise of gold lured Hammers north in 1896. The last letter the family received from him was dated May 1, 1907. Hammers wrote that he was headed back to Seattle for treatment of an illness. No one heard from him after that.

For years, Hammers’ family wondered what became of him. Fast forward one hundred years.

Today all that remains of Sunrise is a historic archaeological site and small cemetery overlooking Sixmile Creek. Rolfe Buzzell, a historian recently retired from the Alaska office of History and Archaeology, has made it a life-long, personal quest to capture and preserve not only the artifacts but the spirit of one of Alaska’s most important gold rush communities.

What first fired Buzzell’s interest was a manuscript titled Memories of Old Sunrise penned by stampeder Albert “Jack” Morgan. Buzzell researched the manuscript’s authenticity, then wrote an introduction, and edited the book for publication (CIHS1994, Ember Press 2013).

Buzzell also had a manuscript by the daughter of Nellie Frost, a friend of Albert “Jack” Morgan and resident of Sunrise. This manuscript offered a woman’s account of many of the same stories that Morgan told. Again, Buzzell edited and wrote the introduction to Gold Rush Wife (Ember Press, 2016) which was published through the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm (KMTA) National Heritage Area.


Earlier this year, in Bergen, Norway, Torjus Midtgarden, the great-grandson of the missing T. Hammers, did an internet search and discovered Memories of Old Sunrise and Gold Rush Wife.  He contacted KMTA National Heritage Area explaining how the family never knew what happened to their relative. He hoped to learn more about his great-grandfather and his life as a gold miner in Alaska.

Midtgarden was put in touch with Dr. Rolfe Buzzell and the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. Buzzell and Midtgarden shared photos, historic documents, and newspaper clippings. Buzzell found Hammer’s obituary in June 1, 1907 Seward Weekly Gateway. Hammers passed away May 7, 1907, just a week after writing his last letter home. He was buried two days later at the Point Comfort Cemetery at Sunrise.

Buzzell knows the cemetery well, having overseen the restoration of Point Comfort in 1995. Now the Hammers’ family knows where their relative is buried; and Buzzell has accounted for one of the unmarked graves that he always wondered about.

From Midtgarden, Buzzell learned that Hammers was the eldest son of twelve living children and he that had inherited the family farm.

“He left Norway in 1880 after a serious conflict with his wife and after having to sell or pledge his family’s farm,” Midtgarden wrote. “He bought and sold timber in the 1870s when the prices were high but the prices suddenly dropped and he went bankrupt.”

Hammers left behind his wife, Signe Andrea and two children, one-year-old daughter, Gro and three-year-old son, Gunnar.

Hammers was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1896 and Midtgarden doubts if he ever intended to return to Norway.

Investigating his great-grandfather’s travel dates and the schedules of the SS Mexico and the SS Bertha, Midtgarten discovered that Hammers sailed on the same ships as Gold Rush Wife Nellie Frost and her husband Jack. He is listed along with the Frosts on a roster of just 141 residents in the Sunrise district in1897-98. The Frosts mined in the summer and ran a general store in the winter. Although thousands went north looking for gold, surely the Frosts and Hammers crossed paths from time to time. They may have even shared coffee over Nellie’s famous home-baked chocolate cake.

Through the curiosity of a great-grandson, the tenacious research of a historian, and the publication of Gold Rush Wife, a mystery was solved. While history is often considered a study of bygone days, it turns out in the end, that the past is still being written.



(This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of Alaska magazine. This story also appeared as the preface to the 2nd edition of her book Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor which was released in October 2017. As her day job, Kaylene is executive director of the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area.)

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The Tyranny of Snow


Another snowfall

Adds to the weight

Of this winter.

Skiing through the marsh,

Slender spruce trees

Bow beneath their burden.

Stooped old women,

Curled into themselves.


Flake by pure-driven flake,

It is not one but the many

Small injustices that

Bend these trees over time.

Break some of them.


How can something light

As a perfect crystal,

Accumulate into

Oppression? Like

Letters, formed into

Words, formed into

Ideas, onerous enough to

Bend low the life beneath them.


A pine grosbeak lands lightly on a

Heavy-laden branch.

Small feet

Disrupt the fragile weave

Releasing an avalanche.

The only sound a

Whispered breath of snow.


Hope comes unexpectedly.

A flutter of wing.

The stir of wind.

A tiny beating heart.



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Horseback in Winter

Bareback and bunny boots are secrets to staying warm

Light snow falls like a whisper, settling softly on the black mane of my horse. In the crisp air of winter, he snorts and paws at the snow-covered trail. He is as eager to go as I am. There’s no better way to explore the soul of the wilderness than from the saddle. Winter or summer, the discovery of what’s around the next bend is made richer by the easy companionship of a good horse.mark-and-renee

That said, winter riding poses some challenges. Riders need to stay warm and horses need to stay cool. Horses adapt well to Alaska’s winter by growing thick, luxurious coats, and they can overheat. On the other hand, horseback riding in winter can be cold for riders. I’ve asked friends who ride about the lowest temperature they will venture out on horseback. For Laurie Knuutila of Fairbanks, she says she used to ride regularly at 20 below.

“The older I get though, the warmer the threshold,” she laughs. “I’m at about 20 above these days.” Knuutila has owned horses for 39 of her 40 years in Alaska.

For my husband and me in Southcentral Alaska, we often stave off the cold by riding bareback, in close contact with a warm horse. Vapor-barrier “bunny boots” are ideal for keeping toes toasty. The bulbous rubberized footwear was originally designed by the military for use in extreme cold weather. When we do saddle up, we have extra-wide stirrups to fit those big boots. Hiking alongside our horses is another great way to warm up.


Chugach State Park

Alaska’s Governor Bill Egan rode a horse to the dedication ceremony of Chugach State Park at the Glenn Alps trailhead in Anchorage in 1970. From the construction of railroads and telegraph lines to packing supplies in to miners, Alaska could not have been settled without equine horse-power.

“It’s a great way to see some of the best areas of the park,” according to Ranger Tom Crockett. There are some restrictions, however, and he suggests getting on the Alaska Department of Natural Resources website (dnr.alaska.gov) to learn which trails and seasons are open to horse travel.


Eklutna Lake

We once took a moonlight ride along Eklutna’s Lakeside Trail. The temperature was well below, zero but the stars were bright and the moon cast long shadows on the snow. Cold frosted the inside of our noses, and the horses’ breath crystallized on their eyelashes. The wide trail goes 12.9 miles one-way but we rode for only an hour or two. Long stretches of glaciated ice across the trail eventually turned us back. Our horses have ice shoes, much like studded snow-tires. They are sure-footed in some amazing winter conditions, but we didn’t press our luck. Another winter challenge is the short daylight hours. Our Eklutna ride proved that moonlight can be as enjoyable for riding as sunlight.


Indian Valley

We traveled this challenging trail early one winter when the ground was frozen but the snow wasn’t too deep for passage. The trail crosses Indian Creek several times through an old-growth forest as it winds up the hillside along Turnagain Arm. The trail is steep in places with 2,100-foot elevation gain along the 6.3 miles up to Indian Creek Pass. This is a well-traveled ski trail once the snow is deep enough, and good trail etiquette means being considerate of other trail users—i.e. not post-holing through soft trail conditions.


buddiesPeters Creek Valley

Peters Creek Valley is our weekend go-to since we live just minutes from the trailhead. An old roadbed at the start offers five miles of gently sloped trails that are usually wide enough to ride two abreast. The roadbed ends at an open area that was once the site of an old homestead with views of Mount Eklutna. A short embankment slopes down to Four-Mile Creek, and a spur trail connects with the rest of the 14-mile Peters Creek Valley trail. It’s not uncommon to see moose anywhere horses can go in Alaska. Same goes for bears—and we’ve encountered many. One advantage to winter riding is that bears are mostly napping.


Matanuska Greenbelt Trails

These remain some of our favorite trails year-round. With more than 3,000 acres and miles of winding paths, this network of trails crosses Matanuska-Susitna Borough, University of Alaska, and State Recreation Area lands. Smooth lakes dot the terrain and soaring views of Pioneer Peak can be seen from snow-covered hay fields. The adjoining forested trails are home to moose, raven, snowshoe hare, spruce hen, and the occasional fox. Stories of the comings and goings of these creatures are written in the tracks on the snow.
The subtleties of winter are made even more remarkable from the back of an honest horse. The way of the horse is to perceive fully every nuance of their environment. They are attentive to every turn of leaf and shadow, all of which are measured and considered with quiet regard. We would all do well to see the world in such a deliberate way.


Published in November 2016 Alaska magazine.

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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Palmer. She has found adventure on Mt. McKinley, the Chugach Mountains and as a wrangler and cook in the Brooks Range. Her award-winning articles have appeared in Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Louisville Review and other publications. Her books include Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith; A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising My Sons in Alaska;Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor; and Portrait of the Alaska Railroad.

    She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.


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