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.

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!

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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All in the Family

Mom and girlsMemoir is a tricky business because there’s always someone in the family who doesn’t want the story told and others whose recollections don’t line up with your own memory. To write from personal experience can feel like working your way through an emotional minefield. As Anne Lamott so aptly described in her book about writing, Bird by Bird,“your mental illnesses arrive at your desk like your weirdest most secretive relatives. And they pull up their chairs in a semi-circle around your computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.”

In my last blog, I wrote about my father’s Alzheimer’s disease, my parent’s turbulent relationship and the power of story. I wrote through tears as I remembered my father who was, in so many ways, my first and best hero. I wrote because it NEEDED to be written. But once finished, I had to wonder how my mother might view the piece. The burden of caring for my father is growing increasingly challenging each day. Would this only add to her sadness? A friend suggested letting Mom see it first and then decide whether to share it with the world. When I looked at the piece in this light, I immediately saw a sentence that needed changing. Already, I was filtering the work through Mom’s eyes.

I sent it off to her and she was quick to reply. She had only one suggested change beyond the one I made earlier. So I made that change too. Purists might disagree with my methodology here—it is memoir, after all, which by some definitions means no-holds-barred disclosure. But I had no reason NOT to make this change. It didn’t diminish the story and it offered Mom a sense of dignity in allowing their story to be told.

I’ve written three biographies and a memoir, and I can tell you that the memoir was by far the most challenging. I was emotionally tied to not only to the writing but to the people I was writing about.

In A Tender Distance, I wrote about raising my sons in Alaska. Mostly it is a coming of age story of a mother who is being shaped by the landscape as much as her growing boys. My sons were in their late teens when I wrote the book and I offered, haltingly, to let them read it. But frankly, they weren’t all that interested. When I told them the book would be published by Alaska Northwest Books, they shrugged. “Cool.” After publication one son made the remark that he remembers one of the scenes in the book quite differently. No other comments. Zilch.

I was surprised and taken aback, however, when a friend who appears in the book took me to task about something I had written about her. I spent all that energy wondering about my family and the one who was hurt wound up being someone completely unexpected.

Writing strikes a nerve. Like the blog about my father, A Tender Distance NEEDED to be written. More than a decade after its writing I understand more clearly why. My fears about my family’s opinion of the book were tied into the fears that framed the book itself, the fear—no, terror—of loss. The sputtering irony is that I lost them anyway. I lost the boys as they grew up and became men. I lost the marriage to divorce. In the intervening years, I’ve discovered that our fiercest love cannot stop the march of time; our clenched grasp cannot conceal the deepest truths.

Which brings me to writing about family: When I sit down to write I close the door to those weird relatives (imagined or otherwise) that clamor to criticize. In that barricaded solitary space, I write out of fervor and a burning need to understand something. I don’t write out of some (laughable) notion of imparting wisdom—I write in hopes of gaining it.

Only after the essay has become the best that I can write it, do I consider the life this writing might have outside my self-imposed seclusion. Only then do I consider what to change, what to leave in, and who the story might impact. Then, if I do make changes I ask, why am I making that change? For them? For me? For the good of the work? Whatever the answer, I try to be aware of the motives behind those decisions. And I challenge myself to write as honestly as I know how.

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The weight of gravity presses me into my seat as the plane lifts off the ground. As the 737 banks over the Columbia River, pelicans wing low over the gray water. I am thinking about what it must be like to unlearn everything you’ve ever known. My father has Alzheimer’s disease and as the spool of his life unwinds into tangled confusion, the four women in his world struggle to pick up the threads and weave them into something that we can hold onto. Dad has a wife and three daughters whose presence, in his shrinking mind, grows dimmer each day.

I went to Portland to help during my mother’s most recent heart procedure—the fourth in two years. Before her first procedure she asked the surgeon to “mend my broken heart.”My mother’s heart was often broken during the fifty-four years of my parent’s relationship.  Their marriage was held together by my father’s tempestuous devotion and my mother’s grit to persevere. My father was a rolling stone, a self-made man, independent and indignant at the structures of institutions or the unreasonable demands of the companies he worked for. We moved around a lot as Dad followed the next best job or business opportunity. He provided for his family over the years but sometimes just barely. He was restless, even then.

All my mother ever wanted was a house to call her own and roots where she could create community. She came from a small town in Germany where connections and familial ties went back for generations. She wanted to build a foundation for her own daughters that reflected the rich family life she so dearly missed. Born during the height of World War II, her need for security clashed with my father’s impulsive, devil-may-care sensibilities. The brashest thing she ever did was marry the handsome GI she met at an ice cream shop in her hometown. He sang to her “It’s Now or Never” and kissed her in the shadow of the moon. Following him to America as his bride—one baby in tow, another on the way—was the beginning of a fifty-four-year odyssey of one new beginning after the other.

Now that Dad has been diagnosed, we are turning the memories of him over and over in our minds, seeing them in the new light of this illness. We know he loved us and this knowledge is a gift. Yet he had a volatile temper and we were at times terrified of him. My mother, sisters, and I have made careers of studying this man, trying to unlock the key to his heart and mind; trying to learn the hows and whys of his ways over the years. At the least, Dad has been profoundly depressed much of his life. His older sister tells us that he was a sensitive child who suffered greatly through the fractured childhood they led. Looking at him today, we are once again terrified. This time we are afraid that like his mother before him, who also died of Alzheimer’s, we too will someday watch the contents of our minds drain irretrievably into an abyss.

With each passing day, my mother is ticking off the things my father can no longer do. She is reminding him daily, sometimes hourly, of the things he can no longer remember. He is leaving us one day at a time. For Mom each day is a painful series of goodbyes. For his daughters comes the shock from one visit to the next, at how much he has changed since the last time. For an illness that has been known to take years to run its course, it seems to us that his decline is going much too quickly. As his train pulls out of the station, we’re calling after him, “Wait!”

There are mercies. For now at least, Dad is compliant and mostly listens to Mom’s direction. For someone so fiercely independent, that alone is an indication of the changes in his brain. And in my father’s uncharacteristically unrebellious state, I see between my parents a tenderness that defies their earlier conflicts. Mom is at her best as caretaker. She is nurturing, attentive and devoted. Dad tells her he loves her repeatedly throughout the day. Yet this too can be a trial—he wants her at his side at all times. It is exhausting and Mom’s heart is not strong.

As each of his daughters grapple with the ravages of the disease, we remember the stories of our childhood with him. And we remember the stories that he told us with sometimes aggravating frequency. We now surmise that he has been sick for some time—and all along we thought it was “just Dad.” Now, somehow it has become important to preserve the stories we had learned to ignore.

What were they again? There was the time he bought his first car and wrecked it; what kind of car and how did it happen? There were the times as a young man that he fought with and for his kid brother; at a dance once, but what was it about—a girl maybe?

There are others we do remember, like the story of the first time he field-dressed a deer, learning as he went with a rock on either page of the Field & Stream magazine that he kept in his hunting jacket. And the story about his love affair with his one and only horse, Lena, and how her long-lashes and black eyes captured his heart. She was a high spirited Arab that needed a sensitive and knowing hand, but he was a “show ’em who’s boss” cowboy. They argued a lot. He was crazy about her.

It’s a bumpy ride from Portland back to Anchorage. I’m grateful to be trading Portland’s soggy skies and rain for Alaska’s crystal winter landscape of mountains and blue sky. I think about the power of stories—how they connect us, define us, and carry us from one generation to the next. They become the mythology of our families and ourselves and unless they are heard and passed on, they disappear. Vanish. I think how we are suddenly alert to capturing Dad’s stories before they are silenced behind his retreating eyes. Because at the end of the day, this is what remains of our lives. This is all that we have left of each other.

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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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  • 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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