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

28 Valentines of February

February 2nd, 2014 by

Pussy willows 2 lrWe are gaining daylight by noticeable moments each day.  Valentine’s Day marks the turning point of winter in Alaska. Winter’s parting gift of light could not be more welcome, more treasured even than roses and chocolate.

This year that gift has special significance. Yesterday a friend learned that her cancer is inoperable. The chemo isn’t working.

In the past months that she has battled breast cancer, her friends and family have been lifting her up in thought and prayer. We all knew this might be the outcome of her journey. Yet we all held out hope for a drug that would rid her body of this pestilence; for healing; for a miracle.

Now she has been told to enjoy whatever days that are left to her.

All of our days are numbered, of course. It’s just that some of us are given notice. My friend has learned ahead of time, the approximate time she has left in this world. Her notice has called us all up short. We are forced to stop pretending that the moments, hours, and days of our lives are endless. They are not.

It was hard to concentrate after hearing the news. Hard to fathom what some people are asked to bear in this life. So, I took the dogs for a walk. As always, it is the open air, the mountains, the movement of body that helps to clear the mind and still the soul.

Sunshine beamed down on the icy trail. Water trickled underneath the melting snow. Even though the calendar says it is still deep winter, the birds sang songs suggestive of springtime. Pussy willows popped from their buds, teased out by the warm weather. Too soon, I warned them.

Covered by fine, newborn hair, pussy willows are nothing if not harbingers of hope.  They reminded me of a book I read a couple of years ago, One Thousand Gifts, by Anne VosKamp.  As a little girl, VosKamp witnessed the death of her younger sister and that seminal event resulted in a decades-long battle with depression and anxiety. A friend challenged her to begin keeping a gratitude journal and to write, over the course of one year, one thousand things for which she was thankful. The exercise changed her life.

She went from asking questions about “Why is there suffering in the world?” to being on the lookout for unexpected gifts. And once she opened her eyes to them, she found blessing upon blessing. Grace upon grace.  The result was a genuine outpouring of gratitude and joy. She moved from living in a place of darkness into living in a place of Light.

I think about this as I walk the dogs, the sun shining on white snow. The question of why my friend must walk this road is beyond answering. When sadness threatens to engulf the light, the best we can do is to look for the gift of this day, this moment, this particular in-take of breath.

So for the month of February, I resolve to find a gift in each day and to somehow capture it. Maybe a photo. Maybe a word or two. But in these finite 28 days, I will look for a Valentine in each one. And with each small treasure found – a pussy willow in bloom, bubbles frozen in ice, dogs romping in snow – I offer it as a gift and a prayer for my friend and all those who suffer from cancer.

May each of our numbered days be filled with love and light.

Beach lake walk


1 Comment

One response to “28 Valentines of February”

  1. Ray says:


    Thank you for sharing your thoughts for your friend who has been made aware of her approaching passing. Note, I did not say “death”, for only her body is ending its time. She will continue to live in the memories of those who lives she has touched and in her accomplishments during her physical presence. You have introduced her to me and others, so you have, in effect, extended her existence. Many years ago I received notice that a very dear friend and teacher had passed. He lived in a small, remote village in northwestern Alaska. I went to his funeral, but I knew that he was still alive in me and countless others who’s lives he had touched. Indeed, he frequently visits me when my thoughts turn to the time spent trying to absorb the wisdom he so freely shared.

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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.