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

Adventures in Puppies

July 9th, 2014 by

My grandchildren’s summer adventure will be to watch seven wriggling Labrador retrieverAurora lr puppies grow from birth to eight weeks, when they will go to live in their new people’s homes. My son’s family owns their mother, Rhubarb, who is the daughter of my dog, L.C. 

So, L.C. and I now boast seven new grand-puppies.

The day before her delivery, I spent part of the day dog-sitting Rhubarb who was showing signs of being in labor. A first time mother, she paced and panted and repeatedly asked to be let out. Each time, she led me to two specific locations at the edge of the yard. Beyond the clearing, the terrain was overgrown against a steeply wooded slope. She looked back at me as if to say, “Come on… over here.”

“No, let’s go back inside,” I said, and reluctantly she followed. Together we sat in the whelping box while she tried in vain to get comfortable. In some of these attempts, the seventy pound dog literally crawled on my lap. I wished I could explain to Rhubarb what was happening, why her body felt like it did, and how puppies would soon be on the way. I talked to her and she seemed to listen. Perhaps the need to know and understand is a human desire. And maybe all Rhubarb really wanted was some reassuring company.

River lrEarly the next morning I started receiving text messages and photos of puppies, one at a time. “It’s a girl!” “It’s a boy!” until the litter consisted of four females and three males. All safe and sound with mother doing what came naturally. No explanation needed.

The puppies were born on Father’s Day, a sweet gift to my son, who celebrates a decade of parenting this year. Erik and his wife, Ashlee, have three children so with the puppies their household has grown to thirteen! Plus there are the chickens outside. The terraced garden is in full bloom and it is the time in summer and in their lives when the world is fecund and rich with life and possibility.

Their household is also a riot of non-stop action and noise. From the moment the kids open their eyes in the morning, the day is an unfolding adventure. This is why parenting is exhausting. With all the tenderness of those years when the children are young, there is also a tremendous amount of work and energy that go into tasks of daily living – meals, laundry, piano lessons, swimming lessons, bath times, and the multitude of little catastrophes that crop up during the day. When I arrived yesterday, three-year-old Aurora was outside on the porch, standing barefoot in a yoga pose, holding her foot in her hands. She was stricken because she had a hangnail on her toe and no one seemed to know where to find a fingernail clipper. (Did I have one in my purse?)

She quickly forgot about it however, when I asked if she would show me the puppies, who were now a week old. Erik and Ashlee are planning to keep one of the pups, a female they have already named “Nelchina.” The boys, Elias and River, joined us and together with their Dad, we proceeded to weigh the pups one at a time. It is a daily ritual to assure that each puppy is thriving. A week from now the babies’ eyes will begin to open and soon after they will begin to totter around on wobbly legs. Eat, sleep, grow. That is their job. Rhubarb’s job is to feed this little mob for which she requires enormous amounts of calories and water. Even eating all that she can, she is a slender shadow of her pregnant self.

After my visit with mother and pups, Elias and River invited me outside to see the den that Rhubarb dug before the puppies were born.

“It’s huge!” Elias said. “She dug two of them, but this one is big enough to be a fort.”

They took me right to the edge of the yard where Rhubarb had led me the week before. There, just beyond the brush and under the roots of a tree, Rhubarb had excavated an impressive cave. Instincts apparently kicked in long before the pups were born for her to have produced that kind of den for her family. And since the boys had taken over the fort, Rhubarb was nearby, dirt flying, digging up another one.Elias lr

This summer will certainly be an adventure for my son’s family – even more so once the puppies become mobile and start wanting to make their own way in the world. Be it puppies or kids, I have the feeling Erik and Ashlee’s summer fun and their parenting adventures are only beginning to get interesting.

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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 Denali, 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 Our Perfect Wild: Ray and Barbara Bane's Journeys and the Fate of the Far North; 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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