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

Feb 2009 – Alaska Aglow

February 3rd, 2011 by

When winter’s darkness first descends on Alaska, it has the cozy feel of a comfortable blanket. I tend to breathe a sigh of relief by late September when the summer’s maniacal activities begin to wind down. Frantic fishing, a steady parade of visitors, and very little sleep make me look forward the long winter’s nap.

Yet as temperatures dip below zero and winter drags into February, that winter blanket begins to lose its comforting qualities. If left to its own devices, darkness can creep into the spirit this time of year.

Over the years, we’ve learned to compensate by lighting up our home and hearth in whatever ways can be found or fabricated. Most Alaskans keep Christmas lights shining from November through the start of the Iditarod in March. Some folks along our stretch of their road decorate their most prized possessions — an old jeep, a new airplane, a barn. Lights invoke a sense of community. Cheers go up when Christmas trees are lit in Eagle River and the Valley’s town squares.

For times of solitude, a well-lit tent can provide just the right setting to enjoy the grandeur of the Talkeetna or Chugach Mountains. As I returned from a hike with the dogs at Independence Mine a few weeks ago, a crisp, startling sunset reminded me why we choose to call Alaska home. As daylight faded, the rosy light of alpenglow cast its magic over the snow-clad mountains.

Recently, when the days were at their shortest and our spell of deep cold proved unrelenting, my friend Katie called to ask if I’d be home later in the day. Several hours later, I opened the door to four ice lanterns flickering brightly on my front porch. Katie and her family had created beautiful luminaries using buckets and water and candles The only thing brighter than the flickering flame of those lanterns was little Sophia’s smile at delivering her home-made gift.

Eventually spring and summer will come. Meanwhile, this is how Alaskans make the most of winter. Moonlit walks. Neighbors alerting each other to the spectacle of northern lights. Ice lanterns and little-girl smiles. It doesn’t take much to ward off the darkness; just a candle and a bit of kindness go a long way.

How to Make Ice Lanterns

Take any clean, five gallon bucket and fill it about 2/3 with water.  At subzero temperature the bucket will begin to freeze from the top to the bottom and from the outside to the inside of the bucket.  After about 24 hours the ice will thicken enough to be removed. The top of the bucket will be frozen and ice will be two or more inches thick. When the ice is removed, the top frozen part will now become the bottom of the ice lantern.  The unfrozen water will have to be dumped out; once the water is poured out, place a votive candle inside the cavity. Light and enjoy!  (With thanks to Manny Reyes.)

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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.