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

Nov 2010 – The Thing About Thelma

February 4th, 2011 by

I owe Thelma an apology. As camp cook, sometimes-vet, and general hand at Jim & Lori Kedrowski’s camp in the Brooks Range, I learned that mules are different from horses. While that might be stating the obvious, it was also where the misunderstanding began.

My task for the day was to deliver horse feed to a spike camp several miles away and then return to base camp with some gear. I rode a big horse named Sako and Thelma was the mule tasked to carry the freight to and from camp.

Thelma was a bargain mule. Jim and Lori originally decided not to buy her because they weren’t sure a one-eyed mule could manage their wilderness excursions. They did however, want to buy her buddy, Louise. The seller insisted the two mules came as a pair – it was Thelma & Louise or nothing. So the two of them became part of Kedrowski’s dream-team of mountain horses and mules. Turns out the one eye was not her issue.

As Sako, Thelma, and I left base camp, I dallied Thelma’s lead rope around the saddle horn. Thelma was known for making a mad dash back to camp, which resulted in quite a rodeo to get everyone back on the trail. At a given distance far enough away from camp, I would let her loose. Allowing Thelma to follow freely meant she could find her own footing through bogs and rocky creek beds.

When I unclipped the lead rope from her halter, Thelma looked back in the direction we had come and then dropped her head to graze.

“Come on Thelma, let’s go,” I said. She ignored me and continued eating. Sako and I went around the bend and then stopped, waiting for the anxious clop of hooves wanting to catch up. These are, after all, herd animals. Surely she would decide not to be left alone in grizzly country. We waited. And waited some more. Finally Sako and I snuck back around the corner to discover that Thelma was totally unconcerned with our whereabouts.

“Fine then,” I said and re-clipped the lead rope. Sako sighed. It made both of our jobs more difficult to have to lead this mule.

A couple of hours later, we arrived at spike camp and I unloaded the grain and repacked Thelma’s panniers with the gear. The return trip with a horse is almost always faster – they know where to find dinner, herd buddies, and rest. Surely the same held true for a mule, right? Certain that I would not have to lead the mule any further, I loosened Sako’s cinch a bit, figuring we could both relax on the way back.

“Come on Thelma,” I said as we left spike camp. “Let’s go home.”

Sako and I rode ahead, but after a couple of bends in the trail, Thelma still wasn’t following. I could feel the heat of anger rising in my face. Sako and I turned around and rode back to spike camp, where Thelma was investigating a patch of blueberries. By now my blood was boiling. I stomped over to the mule, clipped on the lead rope and wrapped it around the saddle horn. “Come on!” I said.

Just moments from camp, Thelma decided to walk around the far side of a spruce tree. In my huff to grab Thelma, I’d forgotten all about the loosened cinch.  As the lead line pulled tight between the two animals, the rope winched my saddle sideways, depositing me unceremoniously onto the ground.

Now I knew why the other guides never dallied their mules – it is a good thing to be able to let go of the rope. I spoke kindly to Sako as I untangled the line, took off his saddle, and started over. I did not speak kindly to Thelma – at this point we were not on speaking terms. Thelma turned her blind eye to my aggravation and happily nibbled on spruce needles.

Traveling to and from camp required a traverse across a narrow rocky shelf that gave way to a scree slope. The mountain rose steeply on one side of the trail and off the other edge yawned a 40-foot drop into a boulder-strewn alpine lake. One misstep would have been disastrous. I dismounted Sako, unclipped Thelma’s lead rope, and led the way. A slow rain had begun to drizzle and the trail was growing slippery. This was not a place to pause and look at scenery.

After we painstakingly made our way to the far end of the traverse, I looked over Sako’s shoulder. This time a cold shiver coursed through my veins. There was no mule behind us. I had not heard the splash of a large object hitting the water below. But there was certainly no room to turn around on that section of the trail. So where was Thelma?

With my heart in my throat, I tied Sako to a tiny bush sprouting from the side of the hill – the only one available. If he wanted to leave he could, and so I pleaded with him “Wait here.” Then I walked back along the cliff’s edge wondering what could have happened.

I didn’t have to go far when there, in a slight depression of the undulating trail, was Thelma – head down and hidden – grazing contentedly on a few sprigs of grass protruding from the rocks. My relief was quickly replaced with white-hot fury.

“Are you f$%# kidding me?” I yelled. “What the f$%# is the matter with you? If I had a f$%# gun you’d be f$%# bear bait! You f#&$% one-eyed, bargain-basement idiot!”

All the while I hollered, Thelma barely flicked an ear. The real idiot was the red-faced person cussing and carrying on at the edge of a seriously scary drop-off. Suddenly I remembered that expression “swearing like a mule skinner” which is EXACTLY what I felt like doing at that moment. Skinning a mule.

When I told the story back at camp, Jim nodded with amusement. Yes, he said, the thing about Thelma is that she likes to dawdle. There were times she showed up at camp fifteen minutes behind the rest of the group.

“I’m sure she would have followed eventually,” Jim said, chuckling.

In the coming weeks, I learned that Thelma was an affectionate mule that enjoyed sharing your ham sandwich. (Whoever heard of an omnivorous mule?)  Like the other mules she was steady on her feet and cautious. Jim and Lori explained that mules have a strong instinct for self-preservation which generally keeps them out of trouble. And if they do get into trouble, unlike most horses, they don’t panic. A mule’s attitude is often “You got me into this. Now you can get me out.” My meltdown with Thelma, it turns out, was a simple misunderstanding into the nature of this curious and hearty beast.

Funny, the things you learn from critters. Even in the animal world, lack of knowledge and miscommunication are often the core of conflict. I didn’t know mules. I didn’t know Thelma’s dawdling habit. And I certainly didn’t know the extent of my swearing vocabulary.

So dear Thelma, here goes: I’m sorry I lost my temper and cussed you out. You are a good mule – a bargain at any price. And next time I’ll let you take your sweet f#&$% time.


2 responses to “Nov 2010 – The Thing About Thelma”

  1. Lauri McBeath says:

    What a great article. I spent this august (2011) with Thelma and the gang. I fell in love with Jesse! I am an avid rider, have had horses all my life on a farm, and also use my horses in Search & Rescue and Animal Rescue. I learned so much on my trip. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • kaylene says:

      Thanks Lauri — I so enjoyed my time in the Brooks Range. Yes, I liked Jesse too. She spent some time in camp with me after injuring a leg. I did hear about your close calls both on the way in and on the way out of camp! Phew!
      So . . . do you think you’ll go back?

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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.