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

July 2010 – Sharing our Backyard Splendor

February 4th, 2011 by

I was out walking the dogs in my neighborhood the other day when I saw a woman standing in the middle of the road taking pictures, one after the other, of Hiland Mountain.

“I’m here visiting my daughter,” she said. Then, gesturing to the mountain she said, “We don’t have anything like that in Wisconsin.”

I looked at the mountain and noticed it in a way I hadn’t for quite some time. After living in Alaska for more than 25 years, some things – like the view from my picture window – start to seem routine. When our family first arrived in Eagle River, we too walked around, eyes wide with wonder. The woman’s enthusiasm was contagious. And it reminded me of how easily I find myself walking through life with my chin tucked to my chest, preoccupied and worried, rather than lifting my eyes to the hills.

A favorite place to share with my guests is the Eagle River Nature Center at the end of Eagle River Road. From a short evening stroll along salmon-viewing decks to the longer trek through Crow Pass, the nature center trails offer something for everyone. I can’t help but feel nostalgic when my two grandsons toss twigs and leaves into the water from the same place on the viewing deck that my two sons did more than 20 years ago. There’s something rich about sharing this unchanging landscape one generation after the next. It makes you breathe a little deeper and walk a little slower along the path.

Earlier this year, as spring sprinted toward summer, I grabbed my backpack and sleeping bag for an overnight trip near Twin Falls. Several years had passed since my last visit and traveling those trails felt like coming home again. For all its timeless splendor, each season still feels like a new chapter in the story of this place – and this trip was no exception. A month ago the newborn leaves on the trees were just unfolding. Today blooming bluebells and wild roses fill the valley’s air with sweetness.

After all this time, I only recently learned that the nature center was once a bar called Paradise Haven Lodge. Apparently during the 60s and 70s, “wild-life” at the end of Eagle River Road looked a little different than it does today. The lodge looked out over a track built for motorcycle and snowmachine races. The establishment was open for nearly ten years before it was sold to Chugach State Park in 1980. Since then Friends of Eagle River Nature Center have turned it into a must-see destination to bring visitors and a soulful place for those of us who live here.

The woman with the camera reminded me of another great hike behind Hiland Mountain. The trail begins in the Alpenglow ski area and is a gentle climb to a saddle that overlooks the South Fork of Eagle River. From there, hikers can either climb Mt. Gordon Lyon to the left or Rendezvous Peak on the right. The trail to Eagle and Symphony Lakes is another nearby wonder – a flat six mile hike along the South Fork to two dazzling alpine lakes surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Chugach Range.

I have guests coming in July and it will be an opportunity to savor my own back yard again. The view from my picture window is just the beginning. We Alaskans have a pretty special corner of creation to call home. Sometimes our visitors help remind us of that.

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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.