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!

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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28 Valentines of February

Pussy willows 2 lrWe are gaining daylight by noticeable moments each day.  Valentine’s Day marks the turning point of winter in Alaska. Winter’s parting gift of light could not be more welcome, more treasured even than roses and chocolate.

This year that gift has special significance. Yesterday a friend learned that her cancer is inoperable. The chemo isn’t working.

In the past months that she has battled breast cancer, her friends and family have been lifting her up in thought and prayer. We all knew this might be the outcome of her journey. Yet we all held out hope for a drug that would rid her body of this pestilence; for healing; for a miracle.

Now she has been told to enjoy whatever days that are left to her.

All of our days are numbered, of course. It’s just that some of us are given notice. My friend has learned ahead of time, the approximate time she has left in this world. Her notice has called us all up short. We are forced to stop pretending that the moments, hours, and days of our lives are endless. They are not.

It was hard to concentrate after hearing the news. Hard to fathom what some people are asked to bear in this life. So, I took the dogs for a walk. As always, it is the open air, the mountains, the movement of body that helps to clear the mind and still the soul.

Sunshine beamed down on the icy trail. Water trickled underneath the melting snow. Even though the calendar says it is still deep winter, the birds sang songs suggestive of springtime. Pussy willows popped from their buds, teased out by the warm weather. Too soon, I warned them.

Covered by fine, newborn hair, pussy willows are nothing if not harbingers of hope.  They reminded me of a book I read a couple of years ago, One Thousand Gifts, by Anne VosKamp.  As a little girl, VosKamp witnessed the death of her younger sister and that seminal event resulted in a decades-long battle with depression and anxiety. A friend challenged her to begin keeping a gratitude journal and to write, over the course of one year, one thousand things for which she was thankful. The exercise changed her life.

She went from asking questions about “Why is there suffering in the world?” to being on the lookout for unexpected gifts. And once she opened her eyes to them, she found blessing upon blessing. Grace upon grace.  The result was a genuine outpouring of gratitude and joy. She moved from living in a place of darkness into living in a place of Light.

I think about this as I walk the dogs, the sun shining on white snow. The question of why my friend must walk this road is beyond answering. When sadness threatens to engulf the light, the best we can do is to look for the gift of this day, this moment, this particular in-take of breath.

So for the month of February, I resolve to find a gift in each day and to somehow capture it. Maybe a photo. Maybe a word or two. But in these finite 28 days, I will look for a Valentine in each one. And with each small treasure found – a pussy willow in bloom, bubbles frozen in ice, dogs romping in snow – I offer it as a gift and a prayer for my friend and all those who suffer from cancer.

May each of our numbered days be filled with love and light.

Beach lake walk


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Leaving Room for Holiday Surprises

Snow is falling outside my window. Gentle flakes stack lightly on each other, so that by noon I’m guessing the dogs will be romping in knee-deep powder.  Thepic26 scent of baking wafts from the kitchen and I cannot help but remember holidays from the past, days when my children were small and the season’s magic sparkled in their eyes.

 Their anticipation always made the days a little sweeter. The traditions we shared – lefse-making, cut-out cookies, the hunt for the family Christmas tree – all made the season a time to remember.  One year, when the hectic pace of the holidays seemed a bit much, I announced that we would forgo our usual cut-out cookies. My son’s face fell, his shoulders slouched and his chin sunk to his chest. “Well,” Mark said, utterly dejected. “There goes Christmas.”

Needless to say, we did make cut-out cookies that year and many years thereafter. Along with the traditions are the accumulated family stories, and “There goes Christmas” has become one of them.

My mother has been a tradition keeper in our family. She cherishes the joys of the Advent season and brings many beautiful German customs to our celebrations.  One custom was to turn out all the lights and sing “Silent Night” in English and then in German while real candles burn on a live Christmas tree. My father stood by with a fire extinguisher at the ready –  always happy to have that part of the evening over with.

As I grew up, my father didn’t often involve himself in the bustle of the season; he left the preparations and gift buying to Mom.  On the occasions that Dad did insert himself into the picture, however, we were in for some surprises.

White snowy chapel on the hillI was five years old, standing with my younger sister in the narthex of a little country church in Belfield, North Dakota. The church had an old-fashioned steeple that rose like a spire above the windswept prairie.  In the steeple hung a solitary bell that tolled, peal after peal into the night sky. The Christmas Eve service had just ended and my sister and I shivered in cold excitement as we waited for my parents to get their coats. We could hardly wait to get home to open our gifts.

Dad had a twinkle in his eye as he placed his large, heavy hand on each of our shoulders.

“We better get home,” he said. “Your Christmas present is loose and running around the house.”

Startled, my five-year-old literal mind imagined a wrapped package that had somehow sprouted legs and was creepily walking around our living room. A questioning glance at my mother garnered only a smile and a sigh. (I knew then, that this had been Dad’s idea.)

When we got home, Dad encouraged us to look around. As we tiptoed around the house, my heart hammered in my chest. It was like looking for the monster you know is lurking in the closet.  It was not in the kitchen.  It was not in the living room. I cautiously lifted the bedspread in my parent’s bedroom and came nose-to-cold-wet-nose with a frightened flop-eared puppy. I’m not sure who yelped louder, me or the dog. I sat down with a thud, my hand over my open mouth. A real live puppy?  It was a little girl’s dream come true. When I peeked again, there he was – a living breathing creature who was as completely confused at this Christmas surprise as I had been.

My sons are grown now and enjoying their own holiday traditions, some of which they’ve adopted from their childhoods. My grandchildren’s eyes sparkle with anticipation and I am struck by the rhythm of the days and the passing of the years. One thing never changes and that is the wish for peace and joy in the lives of those we love.

This year, I’ll spend Christmas with my parents and we’ll enjoy adding some new memories while telling stories from Christmases past.  This year and in Christmas puppythe years ahead, my hope is that along with old traditions, all of us will leave room for a few surprises.


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Migration: Moving to a New Season

Winter-weary Alaskans were not the only ones who took notice of our late breakup this year. An April snowstorm and an unusually cold springCanada geese meant a chilly homecoming for thousands of migratory birds. They arrived by the hundreds only to discover that rivers and lakes were still locked in ice. Snow covered the open fields. When a tiny crack in the ice finally widened at Spring Creek in Palmer, dozens of waterfowl flocked to the open water. The result was a congregation of wings, a cacophony of sound, and a convergence of humans eager to welcome this harbinger of spring.

Birders, families, and folks just out for a Sunday drive came to watch. Cars lined up along the dirt road and next to the railroad culvert. People and their cameras spilled out of vehicles to enjoy the long-awaited sunshine. Canada geese, snow geese, greater white-fronted geese, mallards, and a family of swans shared close quarters awaiting warmer temperatures and a little more room to stretch their wings. A lone eagle sat watching with interest from a nearby tree.

There is something about the notion of migration that intrigues people. It is a movement as rhythmic and predictable as the rising and setting sun. There is wonder in this – and questions. Where has that family of swans been since they last swam Alaskan waters? What thoughts do they harbor when, after thousands of miles of travel, they arrive to find the hard reality of ice-bound waters?

When I returned with my own camera just four days later, the scene was much different. With the temperatures finally creeping upward, the open water had expanded. Now there was plenty of room; waterfowl, while still plentiful, had dispersed to more comfortable spaces. Despite the weekend’s earlier sunshine, today a cold rain drizzled. The people and cars were gone. It seemed that a calm had descended over the creek, perhaps a collective sigh of relief that spring had, at long last, arrived.

I sat with my back to a tree and watched geese paddling in quiet circles, eating sedges, snails and other aquatic fare. Some slept on the snowy bank, with heads tucked under their wings. Mini-dramas between individuals erupted in angry squawks and feathered chases across the snow. Now and then, through some collective decision, an entire flock took off. Some circled around and came back. Others left for waters beyond the horizon. Who makes the decision to leave, I wondered? Who decides where they will go?

Swans landing 2aThe unmistakable cry of swans came near and I strained to see them against the gray sky. Then the pair appeared, trumpeting their arrival with their distinctive bugle call. Eight-foot wing spans flared as they settled with a whoosh on the water in front of me. They paddled around in the open, snow-encrusted pool, long necks dipping deep. Water dripped from their beaks. With quieter snips of their trumpet call, they burbled to each other and watched me, pausing their feeding when I shifted my position on the bank.

After twenty minutes, the swans looked at each other, bobbed their heads several times, and imperceptibly moved to face the same direction. Then, with necks outstretched they lifted themselves up, churned the water with their webbed black feet, and with white wings beating, lifted their bodies with tip-to-tip synchronicity into the evening sky.

Was there any better way to spend an evening in the rain than this?Swan pair

After taking a few more photos, I made my way back to the car. Another vehicle had joined mine. A woman sat in the driver seat, window rolled down, with camera in hand. She asked if I knew the identity of a small bird whose photo she’d just taken – a little black dipper. We talked birds and photography and she introduced herself as Katie Rousey. She has lived in Palmer more than 50 years and watches each spring as the migration unfolds not far from her front door. She doesn’t think of herself as a “birder,” just someone who likes wildlife and photography. Her photos of the dipper wereKatie Rousey stunning.  We hadn’t been talking long, when two young men arrived with a big camera and a spotting scope. Luke Decicco and Scott Schuette, friends from Anchorage, consider themselves birders from way back, having loved wild birds since they were children. Like me, they were interested in Katie’s stories of this area of Spring Creek. She said it would likely be only a few days before most of the geese and swans would head still further north towards Fairbanks.

The four of us were all brought together by a fascination of movement – two young men, a middle-aged woman, and a gracious older woman who, for half a century has been neighbors to this yearly ritual. Migration is as ancient as it is new each year. Watching birds arrive in the spring and leave in the fall is a reminder that all of life is movement. Seasons change. Few things remain the same. For whatever yearning we might have for things to remain unchanged – that our children would always love us, that our hands would never grow gnarled with age, that our memories would always remain fresh – movement, of course, means life. A body that is not in motion is a body permanently at rest.

And so we move in patterns of our own migrations, predictable perhaps in the scope of human patterns, yet new and perplexing to each of us as we live our individual stories.  Maybe the best we can hope for in the journey is open water and a peaceful place to land.

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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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