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

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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Writing Through Writer’s Block

As a cub reporter right out of high school, my first newspaper editor threatened to tear up my notebook if I did not compose directly from my scribbled notes to the computer. No second drafts. Just get the story done by deadline. I soon came to love that fast-paced, adrenaline rush of getting a breaking story on the front page by the next morning’s paper.

Twenty-something years later when I finished my undergraduate degree at Vermont College, it was hard to break the habit of racing to the finish line. However, my first faculty mentor, Matthew Goodman, was as exacting as that newspaper editor. Except for one thing. He absolutely insisted that his students take the time to write about the process of writing itself.

At first I resisted – it seemed like a waste of time. Here’s how it worked:  As I sat with a blank page (screen) in front of me, struggling how to carefully craft that perfect first sentence to convey a thought in the most elegant language possible, I had another page (computer document) nearby. On this second page, I wrote to Matthew what it was that I intended to write or what I struggled with as I wrote it.computer

Let’s say the essay was about carrying a gun in Alaska. I wrote to Matthew that I wanted to write about my ambivalence of carrying a firearm and how it changed over time. I wrote about how it bothered me that bears had teeth and claws and how moose had hooves to protect their young but I pretty much had nothing. So when my sons were little, I took a gun along on our adventures in Alaska’s backcountry, even though the weight of it felt ominous in my pack. The next thing I knew, I had written entire passages in my letter to Matthew – passages that I could lift, place and revise on the blank pages that still awaited that elusive, perfect first sentence.

It is like writing a letter to your best reader. “Let me tell you about …”  In that letter you  get all the literary throat clearing out of the way and then somewhere around paragraph three or maybe page four, you find the beginning of the piece. Writing about the writing can be away to break up a mental log-jam, beginning with describing “Here’s the problem …” or “I’m just not understanding …” It can also be a reflection on not knowing what to write next. “Just what am I supposed to do with these unruly characters anyway?”

The exercise is not the place for literary prowess – just a place to get the fingers moving and the mind in gear. Pour out the work’s frustrations and fears and challenges. This process led me to some unexpected surprises in my writing. Most of all it slowed me down to really think and dig deep.

Writing about writing was so fascinating that I continued on to Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program where this process was examined and refined even further. Several outstanding faculty mentors offered that same experience of having a “best reader” to be supportive while still demanding that I slow down and go deeper. To this day, my former mentors are the readers I imagine as I attempt to get unstuck in some writing challenge. I hardly need to send the email or letter – just the writing helps clear the way.

He doesn’t know it, but Matthew is often still my best audience when I write. He’s completely unlike me – male, Jewish, a city-dweller from New York – but he is curious and sympathetic and interested in my world. And he is exacting in a good way. He refuses sloppy story telling. He wants DETAILS. So I tell him about it and just by “listening,” he helps me find connections and complexities.  And he helps me to lighten up. Have some fun.

[Along with Matthew and other fine mentors at Spalding, I’d like to thank Luke Wallin who recently worked, not as an imaginary reader, but as a real and fine editor while I worked on Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane’s Journeys in the Fate of the Wild North (University of Alaska Press, Spring 2016). This faculty mentor from Spalding offered exceptional support as we exchanged emails over the project. Many thanks Luke!]




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A Perfect Title

Finding the best title for a book has always been a bit of a puzzle and most book authors I know have stories to tell about how their books were ultimately christened. So how do you come up with three or four words that somehow encapsulate what took some 70,000 to expound in the first place?

One of the first surprises I learned is that the title you begin with is often not the title that that winds up being published. There is the “working title” and then the final title that appears on the book cover. For example, the working title of A Tender Distance was originally This Caribou Season. I chose it because that Alaska fall hunt was an important ritual of my sons’ growing-up years. This was a memoir about their childhood and their “migration” from boyhood to men. To me it seemed perfect. But the editor, Sarah Juday at Alaska Northwest Books, suggested that I reconsider. The book wasn’t really about hunting and the title didn’t convey anything about my sons or our relationships.
It took months of scribbling on the backs of napkins, dozens of conversations with writer friends, and finally, a mentor friend, Richard Goodman, from Spalding University’s MFA in Writing read the book and said, “This is not a book about your sons. It is a book about you.”
My Lutheran, Lake Wobegon sensibilities chafed a little at any notion that I was trying to call attention to myself.  This was about my children, not me … but deep down I knew Richard was right.  The book was a memoi

r about motherhood. And then one evening, in that luminal space between sleep and wakefulness, the words “tender distance” perched in my thoughts. There it was. Those were the words that best conveyed that tension between a mother and her sons as they left their childhoods behind.

Sarah subsequently helped write a subtitle with “searchable” words for readers looking for a particular kind of book. Adventure. Sons. Alaska. The full title of the book grew into:

I went through a similar exercise recently with my forthcoming book (Spring 2016) from the University of Alaska Press. This is a biography of Ray and Barbara Bane whose conservation work in Alaska helped draw the lines on the map of Alaska’s treasured public lands. The working title of the book was Gathering Echoes: The Life and Times of Ray and Barbara Bane. Ray and I talked at length about this title.  It embraced his desire to collect the stories and preserve the old ways of the Native elders whose relationship with the land was reverent and resourceful.

Again the editor, James Engelhardt at University of Alaska Press, asked us to reconsider. While the working title honored Native elders, it drew no attention to the stories of Ray and Barbara as a team or the formidable fight they undertook to save wild places in Alaska.

This time I was stumped. Ray and I came up with dozens of possibilities, narrowed them down to two or three and submitted them—only to hear that they still weren’t quite right.  James suggested an exercise: Take some phrases in the book that reflect some of the book’s themes and see if they work; if not, mix them up and see what happens. Here was the list James offered to play with:

A Boy’s Dream, A Man’s Soul
A World Apart
From West Virginia to Arctic Plain
And A Heated Debate Ensued
The Fate of the Wild North
Furthest/Farthest North Park Ranger
A Place Remote and Sacred
Just Add Another Million Acres
I Hate Your Guts
The Feds Can Go To Hell
To Save the Frontier
Last Chance To Do Things Right the First Time
It Had Been Perfect
Ray, You Got Problems
Citizens of the Natural World
To Thank the Land

At first glance these phrases by themselves seemed strange. However, by playing with the words, much like playing with the letter tiles in a game of Scrabble, we came up with:

Our Perfect Wild: 
Ray and Barbara Bane’s Journeys in the Fate of the Far North

The word “Our” holds the concept of Ray and Barbara as a couple; “Perfect” conveys an Eden quality (with the potential of a fall); and “Wild” reflects all that they cherished and tried to preserve.

It was an interesting exercise and I will use it again when the time comes to name a book. As in all revision, the exercise begins with a certain level of letting go—especially when the working title seemed ideal. But as often happens, writing will take on a life of its own and surprise you.

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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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