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

Jan 2011 – Cold Snap

February 5th, 2011 by

A recent article in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer describes how various animals survive Alaska’s cold weather. “Whether it’s a chickadee that weighs less than half an ounce or a moose that weighs 1,200 pounds, animals have different ways of coping with cold temperatures during Alaska’s long, bitter winter,” wrote reporter Tim Mowrey.

Moose and caribou, for example, have hollow hair and their metabolism can drop by 25 percent in cold weather. Ptarmigan have feathers on their feet that act like snow shoes – and they snuggle together under blankets of snow to stay warm. Everyone eats more. (Sound familiar?)

What friends from outside Alaska want to know, however, is how domesticated critters – like people – get along in the dark and cold. I thought about this during a recent ski at the Eagle River Nature Center.

It might have been more reasonable to stay home that day and snuggle with a book next to the fireplace.  The world was encased in white. After weeks of cold temperatures and no wind, hoarfrost had begun to form on already snow-laden trees. When I arrived at the parking lot, the thermometer read minus 6 degrees. I pulled my scarf a little tighter knowing the temperature would drop even further as I skied downhill toward the river.

Frost formed on my eyelashes as I moved along the trail. My dog bounded ahead with enthusiasm. Looking up, I saw a father and his six-year-old son skiing toward me and we stopped to chat. Dad and the family were out camping at a nearby cabin. The rosy smile of the little boy told the whole story. This was an adventure!  Further down the trail a woman with a baby on her back and her two companions were snow shoeing along the river. Later on, I came across a couple walking their three dogs. All of these people were undaunted by the cold. The reward of their decision to be outdoors could be seen on each of their faces. “What a beautiful day!” one of them called out as we passed on the trail.

On another cold outing at Eklutna Lake, the scene resembled a crystal fairy tale.  A rocking-chair moon hung over Twin Peaks and down below the world was nothing short of magical.

There is a deep stillness that accompanies the cold, one that infuses the spirit with a sense of calm. But the cold also demands action. You have to move to stay warm, and therein lies the crisp paradox that becomes an antidote to the winter doldrums.

A warm hearth is a fine place to pass a winter cold snap. But a winter trail, a pair of skis, and a happy companion make winter a time to enjoy, not just endure.

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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.