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

February 22nd, 2018 by

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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  • 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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