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

Oct 2010 – Penguins & Etiquette and Sheep Camp

February 4th, 2011 by

As camp cook at Jim and Lori Kedrowski’s hunting camp in the Brooks Range this fall, I had the rare opportunity to live and breathe in one of the most remote and mystical places on earth. The landscape defies description, even by Alaska standards. North of the Arctic Circle, these mountains are stark and vast. Broad valleys and boundless sky cast human perspective in a whole new light; a moving reminder that we are just visitors on the landscape of time.

I met some interesting people at camp, one of whom was a young man from Minnesota who, at age 17, was the camp’s junior wrangler and meat packer. Quentin Baert provided not only tremendous help around camp; he offered endless entertainment with stories about his home and family on a diary farm in Minnesota. Quentin taught us a number of penguin jokes. “What did one penguin in the bathtub say to the other?  . . . Please pass the ketchup.” The blank look on our faces sent Quentin into fits of laughter. The whole point of these jokes was that there was no point.

I certainly enjoyed cooking for someone who ate with such gusto. His enthusiasm earned him some good-natured ribbing from the hunters to which he responded, “Hey, I’m seventeen and growing.” The kid already stands over six feet tall.

One evening, we were eating dinner, talking about the day’s events when one of the hunters paused mid-sentence and looked at Quentin, whose rosy cheeks were bulging with burritos. “You know, kid. That’s just plain disgusting,” he said.

Quentin, with his still mouth full, sputtered. “My mom made me take an etiquette class.” This sent the group into hysterics. Really??

“Quentin,” I said. “You know your manners are bad when hunters at sheep camp are complaining. Tell you what. At tomorrow night’s dinner, you are going to give all of us an etiquette lesson.”

Everyone around the table agreed this was a grand idea and so the date was set for a fine dining experience.

I spent much of the day preparing for our meal. I broke out the wine for Lori’s delicious chicken recipe. I remembered the ingredients for my mother’s pie crust and made strawberry tarts. I scored the butter and baked beer bread. I found an unused shower curtain to serve as a table cloth and retrieved the candle Lori had given me as a gift.  Using most of the silverware plus some supplemental plastic spoons, I set the table as if it were a restaurant. By evening, all that was left to do was light the candle and wait for the guys to return from their hunt.

It was hard to say when they might arrive. Some nights, after a successful bid, dinner took place at 2 a.m. But the evening of our etiquette lesson, the guys returned in the daylight. They had been razzing Quentin all day. After doing his chores, Quentin arrived at the table, freshly scrubbed with a clean shirt. He was prepared for his assignment.

This time Quentin’s servings of food were placed in an orderly and meager fashion on his plate. He showed us how to take butter from a community knife, how to sit up straight, and how not to lean on the table. Meanwhile, one of the hunters grilled him with questions. Which fork do you use and is it allowable to switch hands after cutting a bite of meat? (Quentin wasn’t sure about that one.)  We all got a huge kick that the wine Lori had packed for the chicken dish was a Penguin chardonnay.

Penguin jokes aside, our conversation was more muted than it had been at previous meals. Everyone was too busy concentrating on manners. Yet as we ate, Quentin commented, “You know when you eat slow, you enjoy your food more.”

We nodded in agreement. As crusty hunters dabbed their mouths with their napkins and Quentin gingerly reached for seconds I said, “Okay, Quentin. We’re impressed. You’ve taught us some things. Now, for seconds and dessert, you’re released from your lesson. Enjoy the rest of your meal.”

Whereupon, he heaped his plate in the usual fashion, and made a mountain of food to feed a village – or one growing teenager. Once again, hilarity ensued, and we got back to hearing Quentin’s stories from his farm and family of eight kids. (Tales about “double cousins” and the “Screaming Mink Ranch” will have to wait for another column.)

Quentin and I had some great adventures at camp this fall. Some of those stories may appear here in issues to come. Meanwhile Quentin’s etiquette lesson from sheep camp was memorable for us all. And penguins rule in the Brooks Range. (Get it?)

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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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