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

Aug 2009 – Managing Miss Millie

February 4th, 2011 by

I can measure the seasons of my life by the dogs I’ve owned – one per decade so far. Each dog has come with its own gifts and challenges and until now the gifts have always outweighed the challenges. For the first time, however, I have a second dog – one that tests my patience and my theory of dogs being worth the trouble.

Over a year ago, our dear Labrador Retriever “LC” gave birth to a litter of eight. One of the pups, Millie, is special in a way that defies description.  In almost every way, she behaves like all the other retrievers I’ve owned. Energetic, friendly, robust. But Millie’s special-ness began as an infant. She suckled differently, learned to walk awkwardly, and played a snapping game with her littermates that we called her “alligator” game. Lying on her back, she clacked her teeth making gutteral sounds as the others piled on to play. She devoured food with even more enthusiasm than the normal Lab. (As if this were possible!)  While the other puppies ate heartily from the sides of the dish, Millie jumped into the bowl of gruel, braced her feet against the edges and planted her face firmly in the mush until it disappeared. Afterward, she fell over into a food-induced coma, her pink puppy belly extended like an overfilled balloon.

Today she is nearly a year and a half. Her gait is different from her mother’s and she moves in slightly off-kilter ways. None of these by themselves puts her in a category of being disabled. It is her behavior that has been the challenge. Let me preface all of this with the fact that Millie is hopelessly sweet. She drops her head heavily into the hands of anyone willing to pet her. Her whole body at times flops forward with gentleness. In her moments of quiet affection, she folds herself into your heart.

Yet she has shredded couch cushions, chewed up two cell phones, two sets of prescription glasses, and assorted electronics. She’s destroyed countless shoes, half of which belonged to visitors who didn’t heed the warning to please leave their shoes outside. Of course Millie chose only the finest for us to replace – L.L. Bean boots, Dansko clogs, and Salomon runners. I decided to stop keeping track of the dollar amount of damage.

Along with her passion for chewing, Millie displayed extraordinary puppy klutziness. She loves to go for car rides, yet when she was younger, her flying leaps into the Subaru often fell short. She crashed headlong into the car’s back bumper. Without a whimper, she shook her head and tried again. I’ll give her this much – she possesses perseverance. I started spotting her, standing between her launch point and the car to help her land the maneuver without the wreck.

One winter day, chasing a tennis ball, she fumbled and went sprawling across the icy driveway. She limped back, unable to put any weight on her foreleg. The injury looked serious. At Ravenwood Veterinary clinic in Eagle River, Dr. Versteeg assured me that Millie had not broken a bone, but rather, suffered a bad sprain.

“I’m curious though,” she said, looking at the x-ray. “What’s this in her digestive tract?”

I looked at the metallic pieces and thought for a moment. “Oh yes, that’s the wire from the speakers she ate the other day.”

In hopes of keeping a closer eye on her, I began taking her with me everywhere. Millie loved this idea. When I ran into the store, she happily chewed up my steering wheel. She also developed a taste for lattès. She quickly learned to pop off the lid and dump the contents –usually executing this feat as I drove down the Glenn Highway at 65 miles an hour.  What fun to watch me yell and grab and swerve as I tried to salvage my coffee!

So I taught Millie to sit in the backseat with her mother, who had long since relinquished her position riding shotgun. LC wanted nothing to do with the arguments her daughter and I were having in the front seat as I scolded Millie to leave my coffee, my cell phone, my purse, the seatbelts ALONE!

We tried puppy class. The trainer suggested bringing the most delectable treats we could think of – hotdogs, cheese, liver sausage – as motivation for our puppies. The first evening of class I brought little chunks of ham. Millie nearly lost her mind with joy and in her exuberance she could not fathom the difference between the ham and the hand that fed her. I left class with fingers savaged by puppy teeth. The trainer suggested trying a squirt of cheese from a spray can as her reward. This worked great until Millie discovered that going for the hand yielded the entire can of goodness.

I took up swearing.

Now that Millie is approaching adulthood, she’s starting to outgrow some of her more exasperating ways. My son and his wife recently were astounded to find Millie asleep amidst a pile of their shoes – one of her favorite flavors.
“Aw, she’s growing up,” Ashlee said, scratching Millie’s ears.

And on a recent walk, a strange man approached us unexpectedly. Millie’s hackles went up and she growled – a protective stance I’ve never seen before. I felt proud of her then, and saw for the first time the good dog she’ll be as an adult.
Until then however, she still has her moments. She topped herself recently when I left her indoors while I completed an outdoor project – without her ever-curious assistance. I barricaded everything she might get into and left her and LC in the kitchen. When I returned an hour later, I was astonished to find the refrigerator door hanging open with crisper doors gaping and empty. The contents of the fridge lay scrambled on the kitchen floor, including a now-empty pizza box and a medley of half-chewed garden vegetables. Oh yes, and she’d also peed all over the mess.

Did I mention I’ve taken up swearing?

I’ve decided that this dear creature is on the planet to humble me; to stretch my capacity to love; and perhaps to drain my bank account. Millie makes the infamous “world’s worst dog,” Marley, look like a saint. As my four-year-old grandson likes to say, “Silly Miss Millie. What has she done today?”

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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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