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

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, one

Curls in upon itself like

A fiddlehead fern.


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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A Place to Gather

Published in Alaska magazine.

I sat at the Talkeetna Roadhouse with three other women climbers after an attempted ascent of Denali. After two weeks of freeze-dried meals, our mouths watered in anticipation of home-cooked fare, and the aroma of freshly baked bread warmed the room.

We replayed our failed summit bid of North America’s highest peak, the storm that hemmed us in and the staggering grandeur of the mountain itself. We needed a place to collect ourselves. We needed comfort food. And we were not alone. Conversations about trail conditions, hazards of wilderness travel and the weather have been taking place around tables at the Talkeetna Road- house for nearly 100 years.

IMG_9333The Roadhouse sits on Main Street in Talkeetna, a community with an official year-round population of 876, located halfway between Anchorage and Denali National Park and accessible by road, rail and local air taxi. Founded in 1917, the original Roadhouse was constructed by brothers Frank and Ed Lee who freighted supplies to mines in the Peters Hills, Cache Creek and areas west of the Susitna River. Ed Lee married Isabella “Belle” Grindrod, who began serving two meals a day for miners and other folks traveling through. Belle raised chickens, grew a garden and baked bread to supplement the wild game and fish that she served her guests.

Today, travelers gather to eat hearty food and enjoy the Roadhouse tradition of family dining. You’re likely to sit at the same table with bush pilots, Alaskan old-timers and expedition members from around the globe. Fresh-baked goods— crusty breads, succulent pies, and three varieties of cinnamon rolls—have become a local institution. For breakfast, the menu explains that you can “order eggs any way you want, but they’ll come out scrambled every time.”

A dozen years after my Denali climb, I met the current owner of the Talkeetna Roadhouse, Trisha Costello. It was a chilly winter morning and she was picking up several guests at the Talkeetna train depot to attend one of her cooking classes. In summer, the bakery and café are often packed with diners, but during the slower months of winter, Trisha offers her skills at making piecrusts and other delectables to aspiring bakers.

IMG_9347At the flag-stop train depot, Trisha greeted a new round of students for her baking class, receiving a hug from Sarah Owen, a four-time participant who traveled from Anchorage. As the mid-morning sun crested the horizon, Trisha explained that she bought the Roadhouse in partnership with her father in 1996. Since then she has worked hard to uphold the tradition of frontier hospitality and good food. The Roadhouse also rents rooms and a historic trapper cabin. “Adventure isn’t just about getting the wind in your hair,” Trisha said. “Adventure can be about culture, about food or wine. It’s about experiencing something new.”

Back in the bakery, Trisha’s three students lined up at the counter and learned how to work flour between thin flakes of cold butter. Hot loaves of bread cooled on a table nearby.

Out in the dining room, an older couple enjoyed a giant sourdough pancake with blueberries. Another couple on a Saturday field trip from their home in Palmer joined the table. Before long their breakfast arrived—enormous plates of eggs, Yukon gold potatoes and thick slices of bacon. My husband and I ordered up the breakfast wrap and a piping plate of biscuits and gravy. All of us commented that we would not need to eat for the rest of the day—maybe for the rest of the week.

At an adjoining table, a group of young people talked about snow conditions and how soon it would be before they could wax their skis. Stickers from climbing expeditions around the world plastered the support beam in the middle of the dining area. A stone fireplace spanned one wall of the room, and a piano sat in the corner. Photos of visitors from far and wide covered the walls.

Talkeetna has always been a place to gather. Native people found sustenance at the nearby confluence of the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna Rivers. Later the town became a supply stop for miners and trappers on their way into the bush, and in the 1920s the community served as a base of operations during the construction of the Alaska Railroad. And ever since frontier days, when fresh bread was first pulled from the oven, the Talkeetna Roadhouse has been there to feed the hungry and offer rest to weary travelers along the way.Denali lr


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Join us in celebrating the book launch of Our Perfect Wild


How far would you go to save the things you love? 

KaylenOPW Covere Johnson-Sullivan will be discussing her new book (with Ray Bane) Our Perfect Wild published by the University of Alaska Press. Joining her via Skype will be Ray Bane, co-author and the subject of this biography about a couple whose passions led them to love and fight for the treasures of the Far North.

UAA Consortium Library, Room 307

December 3, 2015

6-8 p.m.


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A Poet’s Unusual Neighbors

On the heels of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it seems appropriate to review a book that I recently finished by a poet whose work I admire. Next Door to the Dead is a reflection on living in an old country church just outside Louisville, Kentucky. Next to the church is an antiquated cemetery. Driskell takes to visiting the “neighbors” which is the basis for this collection of poems. I have heard Kathleen read her poetry aloud and her words can bring a lump to my throat and at times makes me laugh.

I was reading Next Door to the Dead when my father grew ill.  I flew to Portland to help the family with Dad’s care and left the book behind. In the crisis that ensued, I forgot all about the book and Driskell’s poems.

Each day, as I drove to visit Dad, the road I took passed by two old cemeteries. Huge maple and oak trees stood sentry over the headstones. The moss-covered grave markers listed with age. I tried not to look at the graves as I drove past, tried to look instead at the autumn brilliance of maple leaves against the blue sky. I did not want to contemplate the inevitable.

Then my father died. And a few days later, our family stood at a different cemetery. This one looked more like a golf course – neat, sunny, and freshly mowed.  We left the service both numb and wailing inside with some of Dad’s last words emblazoned in our minds. “Be brave,” he had said. What other choice did we have?

I returned back home to Alaska and suddenly Next Door to the Dead became a whole other realm of reading. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish the book. It seemed too soon, too raw to be gallivanting around a graveyard with words. Aren’t some things better left to the quiet?

I picked up the book anyway. Driskell’s poetry is accessible and earthy and, as her poems have in the past, the words gave me pause to consider the beauty and nuance of language. Every word of this book felt like the thump of my heart. Her words brought people to life, gave substance to names and dates, and created a context around lives that had long since passed.

Driskell had been told on purchasing her home that the old cemetery had fallen out of use. So she was astonished when she came home from shopping to discover a hearse and a congregation of mourners next door.  In the poem “Living Next to the Dead Acre” she writes:


… I slid in behind the long row of cars

      and parked as if I belonged there. I did

My best to hush the rustle of grocery store bags,

      to hush my kid trying to kick free

From his car seat. He bleated to be

      let loose, to be allowed to join that party.


The poems offer meditations that weave the past with the present and the living with the dead.  She also discusses visitors, including birds and deer and the man who mows the grass.

There are poems about the miller’s wife, about the slave girl, the Civil War infantryman, the snake handler, and the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who buried his poetry with his wife. Bereaved, she had died of an overdose following the birth of their stillborn child. Later Rosetti dug the poetry up again.


Rosetti stood by the fogging window

and watched the wet street

for the men’s return. Despite

The storm, it was a good day

For those who had been parted.

While all know the lesson that life must go on, a few had learned

so will love, and others

had learned, so must art.


Rather than finding Next Door to the Dead morbid, even during my own time of grieving, I re-discovered Driscoll’s gift of turning a phrase that packs a wallop while maintaining a sense of humor. She lets us laugh at ourselves even in the shadow of death. That may be one of the best gifts of this book. In her poem “Infant Daughter, Marcus 2 Years Old, Myra 8 Days” she writes:


Among these tiny grave markers, I think of my own

little terrorists, my budding suicide bombers.

They shriek against inoculations, squirm, refusing

spinach on their plates, try to swallow marbles …

Every day, with such joy, they threaten to blow apart my heart so utterly. 


In any collection of poetry, I find poems that I connect with deeply and a few whose resonance eludes me. But in this slim volume Next Door to the Dead, I found myself finishing the book and then starting again from the beginning.

It was but a small bravery to pick up this book just a few weeks after my father’s funeral. But the courage and humor of Next Door to the Dead made it worth the persistent lump in my throat.


For more information about Kathleen Driskell and her poetry, please visit  her website at:


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  • About Kaylene

    Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is a long-time Alaskan who makes her home in Eagle River. 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; Portrait of the Alaska Railroad; and Trails Across Time: History of An Alaska Mountain Corridor.

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


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