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

Fox Encounter is Reminder of Our Wilderness Backyard

August 31st, 2012 by

Not long ago, my friend Tina alerted me to a fox den near a trail where we regularly go horseback riding. The fox was there, sitting on top of its den watching as she and her horse passed by. I searched the next time I rode but, moving at a fast clip, the den stayed hidden from my view. On the next ride, I took my time. Slowing down, I focused my eyes beyond my habitual range of vision. Suddenly the den appeared from the shadows of the spruce forest. How many times had we gone by this place without noticing that den? As I gazed upon this wilderness home, my eyes met another pair of eyes – those of the fox, who lay on the mound of dirt lazily watching trail traffic go by.

The lives of wild creatures are replete with stories of hunger and plenty, with the dramas that play out between predator and prey, and with communications and perceptions beyond our grasp. These animals shiver in the cold rain; they nap languidly in the sunshine. They frolic. Researchers tell us the capacity to play teaches an animal the survival skills it needs as an adult. Yet I’ve watched moose twins scamper, horses kick up their heels, and bear cubs wrestling – it’s not much of a stretch to believe that animals have the capacity to experience joy.  Animals also exhibit what certainly appears to be grief at the loss of offspring or a mate.

The next several times I went by the den, the fox was nowhere to be found. I wondered if maybe he’d moved on. Perhaps he’d been killed by the traffic of a nearby road. Maybe a stray dog had gotten ahold of it.  Or maybe he just temporarily exited the area at our approach – especially when my own dog accompanied me.

One day, several miles after passing by what appeared to be the abandoned den, my Labrador retriever bounded into the brush and began in earnest to hunt something at ground level. Her tail pointed on high alert, while her ears and nose did their work, and I thought maybe she had kicked up a shrew.

“Come on, LC,” I said. “Let’s go.”  Obediently she came but as I rode on,  she lagged momentarily behind me and my horse. Then she galloped past with something small and unmistakably dead in her mouth. It was a juvenile spruce hen.  Always having been “birdy,” no dog on the planet could have been prouder of her prize.

“Oh, LC,” I lamented. “What did you do?”

At the tone of my voice LC sadly dropped her treasure in the middle of the trail.

“Leave it,” I commanded and reluctantly, she obeyed.

We rode along in silence with LC glancing back over her shoulder looking for an opportunity to sneak back for the bird. “No,” I told her.  I had to remind myself that my sweet dog was in fact a predator. She had been bred through generations to be an outstanding hunting dog. My sons and grandsons would have been proud of her. Yet, what a waste of a young spruce hen. Had there been others in the brood? Was the mother teaching them to fly when LC discovered them?

Then I remembered the fox den. Maybe LC’s kill didn’t have to be a waste after all. I went back, picked up the soft, dead bird, tucked it into a pack, and rode back to the den. I hiked into the woods and lay the limp spruce hen on the stoop of the den.

Free dinner for a fox.

LC was fascinated by these proceedings but obliged my stern command to “Leave it.”  My intent was to come back the next day to see if the dead bird was still there. If it was, then chances were the fox had left the area. If not, then perhaps our wild canine had decided to stick around.

We returned two days later and this time I took a short cut to the den, traipsing cross-country rather than taking the winding trail. Before we reached it, we heard what at first sounded like the rasping cry of a raven. Then I saw the fox, an orange coat, tinged with black, with a white-tipped tail. He was barking at us – making that strange, almost braying sound that I’ve heard only one other time. LC saw and heard it too and her hackles went up. “Stay here,” I said grabbing her collar. A low growl rumbled from her throat. Then the fox disappeared into the shadows of the forest.

It was all I needed to see. The fox was in fact alive and well. The spruce hen likely had been eaten.  “Come one,” I said to LC and we retreated back to the trail. We didn’t need to be harassing wildlife by chasing it through the woods.

I thought about the interface between wildlife and their urbanized habitat that creates the occasion for these encounters. Last year we had a brown bear sow and two juvenile cubs wandering the neighborhood. Just last week, a moose walked through a fence on my property. All of these are thrilling reminders of why I live in Alaska. We have a privilege that people living in the artifice of cities cannot fathom. All of which reminds me of author Henry Beston’s 1925 quote from the The Outermost House:

“Man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion . . .  And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

The fox encounter was a good reminder to slow down, to look beyond what is our normal habit, and to perceive the treasures of wild places. My dog and I were not only witnesses but also participants in the pattern of life and death that are the hallmarks of wilderness. I am grateful to Tina for pointing out the fox den, grateful to the fox for allowing himself to be seen, and grateful for glimpses into the “other nations” of wildlife so near my own backyard.

 

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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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