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

Sept 2009 – Seven Bear Summer

February 4th, 2011 by

I lived in Alaska more than ten years before I saw a bear. Evidence was everywhere. Paw prints and scat on the trails in Chugach State Park continually reminded us of our proximity to one of the wilderness’ most iconic creatures. Bears also made plenty of appearances closer to home. The whole neighborhood was abuzz one afternoon when a large brown bear meandered down First Street, stopping for a moment to peer into our open garage. I always seemed to arrive ten minutes too late. Photo albums from our first years in Alaska are stuffed with pictures of moose in the yard, but no bears. Not even in the wild. Finally, on a late evening drive near the Eagle River Nature Center, I watched a black bear sow lope across Eagle River Road with her two cubs. What a treat to see their black fur shimmering in the sunlight. At long last I’d caught a glimpse of an Alaska bear.

While nothing may ever compare to the magic of those McNeil River bears, this summer marks a record year for random encounters. The first was in Bicentennial Park, in Anchorage. Riding with Bill and Diane on horseback, we came upon a black bear whose big rump was the most we saw as it crested the hill and disappeared. Less than a week later, on a trail near the Knik River, we encountered a black bear grazing on a grassy hillside. We watched it for some time before it saw us; Diane even had time to snap a few photos before it loped back into the shadowed forest.

A few days later, in the Brooks Range, we saw a brown bear sow and her two cubs. The mother bear woofed at her youngsters, who scrambled up the hill behind her. The twins stood on their hind legs and peered at us with curiosity. Mother was not amused however, and there was an edgy moment between our group and the bear. We shouted at her to leave, but it wasn’t until we moved our horses forward that she decided not to tangle with us.

And then yesterday, my friend Katie’s horse alerted us to a black bear peering at us on its hind legs less than 50 yards from the trail. We kept a respectful distance and grinned at our good fortune to see yet another one of these fascinating and colorful envoys of Alaska’s wilderness.

With September comes a change in seasons. While we rake our yards and harvest the last carrots and cabbages from our gardens, the bears will be fattening up on late-run silvers and seeking dens to spend the winter. This seven-bear summer will be one to remember – both for lasting friendships and for the bears. A summer to remember with gratitude.

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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.