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

Alaska Signs of Spring

March 29th, 2013 by

Last week, I noticed that snow had melted away from the south side of the barn, exposing dirt. Would it be strange to confess that I leaned down to Can dandelions be far behindbreathe in the scent of it? The horses and dog found warm spots to sun themselves, soaking up light and warmth the way thirsty soil drinks in the rain. Dreaming of green, I began thinking about where to place the raised-bed garden I hope to build this year. Nothing germinates more quickly during these lengthening days as the everlasting hope that maybe, just maybe, breakup will come early this year.

No sooner had that hope taken root, when the National Weather Service issued an advisory that a “polar vortex would be creating a snow event.” A snow event? Wet snow pelted the windshield and the wipers clattered with ice as I made my way down the Glenn Highway. Traffic slowed to a crawl in billowing clouds of snow.  Back home, icicles dangled from my horses’ faces as they stood wet and shivering in the wind. The term blizzard came to mind. A “snow event” sounds like something you might need an invitation to attend, in which case I would have RSVP-ed with a polite but resounding “no thanks.” While the season’s first snow may have garnered excitement, my enthusiasm has waned to a thin thread this time of year.

Not many Easters have come and gone without vestiges of that final blast of winter. One year, my Labrador retriever’s litter of puppies made their first foray into the big wide world on Easter Sunday. I put them outside on the ground-level deck and, one by one, these canine toddlers walked straight off the side of the porch – falling with a puff, into the snow below.  I retrieved them, bewildered and sneezing, back onto the sunny deck. It occurred to me that the pups had just discovered the concept of “edges.” It would be a few weeks before the pads of their feet would learn the cool feel of earth.

By contrast, the daffodils in my mother’s gardens in Vancouver, Washington are in full radiant bloom this time of year.  Pink and white blossoms cascade from blooming trees. Rhododendrons will soon erupt in red and pink flowers. The world has given birth to color.

Spring stormOur “snow event,” on the other hand, covered that frozen little patch of dirt I mentioned earlier. When the skies finally cleared, temperatures dropped to minus fifteen. Bundling the horses in blankets, I wondered if the term “breakup” might also denote a mental state induced by the thwarted anticipation of spring.

In spite of the winter’s last hurrah, long expanses of daylight do herald warmer days to come. Spring skiing is often the best of the season. In late April a few years ago, Eklutna Lake grew a perfect layer of hoar frost over eight smooth miles of ice. Conditions were the best for skate-skiing that I’d ever experienced. We sailed across the frozen lake wearing sunglasses, with coats tied around our waists.

Outdoor activities now have the leisure of happening later each day. There’s no hurry to get chores done before dark.  Animals begin shedding their winter coats. (Hint: Don’t use Chapstick before brushing the horses.) A few slow, bomber-sized mosquitoes make their appearance – an easy meal for the first robins who, by mid -April will paint the air with their warbling.

Soon, the first hint of green will shimmer across the landscape, as newly-born leaves unfurl from birch trees. Energy surges with the long hours of sunshine. We make plans, far more than we can reasonably achieve, but it’s fun to dream. Hiking, riding, fishing, gardening – we’re going to do it all this year.

Spring will happen eventually. For now, though, I’d be happy once again to catch the scent of unfrozen dirt.  After that recent foot of fresh snow, Ernest Hemingway reflected Alaskan’s sentiments best: “In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

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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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