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

March 2010 – Millie’s Hats-Off Adventure

February 4th, 2011 by

It’s not fair, the way the bad kid gets all the attention, while the good kid hardly gets noticed. But no one said life was fair. And this is yet another installment in the adventures of Millie — The Worst Dog Ever.

Millie found her way into this column two years ago as a chicken-chasing, black Labrador retriever puppy. This will be the fourth time since then that her behavior has been spectacularly bad enough to make headlines. Yet, somehow Millie has an uncanny knack for doing just the right thing, in the most charming way, to save her sorry hide from certain doom. I am not exaggerating. A friend – who shall remain unnamed, yet who amazingly remains a friend even after Millie chewed on his computer – recently remarked, “If Millie were my dog, she’d be SO dead by now.”

The latest saga is, in part, the story of Millie’s extended family. Her mother, LC (The Best Dog Ever), had four puppies the end of February. At first, LC made it very clear that Millie was not to come near the new puppies.  If Millie even approached the threshold of the room, LC quietly lifted a lip to expose threatening white fangs. Millie could not retreat fast enough.

While LC and I were busy tending to these four new little ones, Millie grew lonesome. And every so often she would approach the door again, asking permission to enter. After a week, LC gave Millie the okay; and a day or two after that, she allowed Millie into the whelping box itself. I was astonished to see how gently Millie treated her half-siblings, and how she enjoyed their company. As the puppies learned to walk and play, Millie was right there eager to make a game of it. She happily took on the role of big-sister and playmate.

The arrival of new puppies brought with it, visits from well-wishers, puppy lovers, and friends. One such visit coincided with a dinner gathering of friends. The group went in to see the pups, and in order to get a closer look at the little tykes, Bill set his hat down on the floor alongside his eyeglasses. After puppy snuggles and photos, we all returned to the living room for more conversation, food, and wine. As we visited, I suddenly remembered Bill’s hat lying in the puppy room.

I slipped away from the conversation but found neither the hat nor the glasses where we had left them. I immediately went to the place where Millie traditionally takes her loot for its systematic destruction. Sure enough. The hat lay on the floor next to the shattered glasses. Millie, of course, was nowhere to be found.

My father, who wore a cowboy hat most of my growing up years, has a saying “You never mess with a man’s hat or his horse.”  As Bill’s wife, Diane, later explained, the hat was made of exceptional quality (30x) beaver fur. Which is to say, it was worth roughly what I paid for my first car. I had a feeling Millie was a dead dog.

I returned to the living room – my face hot with embarrassment. It was bad enough that Millie ate brand-name shoes belonging to the kids and grandkids. And it was awful cleaning up all the spilled lattes that she scammed out of the cup holder in the car. It was disastrous when she opened the fridge and emptied the contents onto the kitchen floor. In the course of two years the dog had chewed up a steering wheel, two cell phones, three sets of prescription eyeglasses, and countless toilet brushes. But this. . . well, this was a certifiable catastrophe.

Bill’s eye brows raised ever so slightly as he quietly took his hat and turned it over. The whole room went quiet. Then he turned it over again. Apparently, the only thing Millie had done – thank you, Sweet Jesus – was give the hat a thorough slobbering. Why Millie had chosen to crunch on glass rather than chew on a fine beaver hat was both a mystery and a miracle.

Everyone let out an audible sigh of relief. Bill remarked that dog drool just gave the hat more character. (Sure, I thought. In the same way a scratch on a Corvette gives the car more personality?)

Meanwhile, I found Millie curled up on her bed, snug and cozy – sweet as her tiny sibling counterparts. As always, she’d managed to dodge a one-way ticket to Doomsville.

If I have been given this dog to teach me humility, this particular lesson edged toward outright humiliation. Maybe, in the end, Millie’s many adventures are a way to point out the value of good friends – even those gracious enough to accept a bit more character to their hats.

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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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