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

Horseback in Winter

November 1st, 2016 by

Bareback and bunny boots are secrets to staying warm

Light snow falls like a whisper, settling softly on the black mane of my horse. In the crisp air of winter, he snorts and paws at the snow-covered trail. He is as eager to go as I am. There’s no better way to explore the soul of the wilderness than from the saddle. Winter or summer, the discovery of what’s around the next bend is made richer by the easy companionship of a good horse.mark-and-renee

That said, winter riding poses some challenges. Riders need to stay warm and horses need to stay cool. Horses adapt well to Alaska’s winter by growing thick, luxurious coats, and they can overheat. On the other hand, horseback riding in winter can be cold for riders. I’ve asked friends who ride about the lowest temperature they will venture out on horseback. For Laurie Knuutila of Fairbanks, she says she used to ride regularly at 20 below.

“The older I get though, the warmer the threshold,” she laughs. “I’m at about 20 above these days.” Knuutila has owned horses for 39 of her 40 years in Alaska.

For my husband and me in Southcentral Alaska, we often stave off the cold by riding bareback, in close contact with a warm horse. Vapor-barrier “bunny boots” are ideal for keeping toes toasty. The bulbous rubberized footwear was originally designed by the military for use in extreme cold weather. When we do saddle up, we have extra-wide stirrups to fit those big boots. Hiking alongside our horses is another great way to warm up.


Chugach State Park

Alaska’s Governor Bill Egan rode a horse to the dedication ceremony of Chugach State Park at the Glenn Alps trailhead in Anchorage in 1970. From the construction of railroads and telegraph lines to packing supplies in to miners, Alaska could not have been settled without equine horse-power.

“It’s a great way to see some of the best areas of the park,” according to Ranger Tom Crockett. There are some restrictions, however, and he suggests getting on the Alaska Department of Natural Resources website (dnr.alaska.gov) to learn which trails and seasons are open to horse travel.


Eklutna Lake

We once took a moonlight ride along Eklutna’s Lakeside Trail. The temperature was well below, zero but the stars were bright and the moon cast long shadows on the snow. Cold frosted the inside of our noses, and the horses’ breath crystallized on their eyelashes. The wide trail goes 12.9 miles one-way but we rode for only an hour or two. Long stretches of glaciated ice across the trail eventually turned us back. Our horses have ice shoes, much like studded snow-tires. They are sure-footed in some amazing winter conditions, but we didn’t press our luck. Another winter challenge is the short daylight hours. Our Eklutna ride proved that moonlight can be as enjoyable for riding as sunlight.


Indian Valley

We traveled this challenging trail early one winter when the ground was frozen but the snow wasn’t too deep for passage. The trail crosses Indian Creek several times through an old-growth forest as it winds up the hillside along Turnagain Arm. The trail is steep in places with 2,100-foot elevation gain along the 6.3 miles up to Indian Creek Pass. This is a well-traveled ski trail once the snow is deep enough, and good trail etiquette means being considerate of other trail users—i.e. not post-holing through soft trail conditions.


buddiesPeters Creek Valley

Peters Creek Valley is our weekend go-to since we live just minutes from the trailhead. An old roadbed at the start offers five miles of gently sloped trails that are usually wide enough to ride two abreast. The roadbed ends at an open area that was once the site of an old homestead with views of Mount Eklutna. A short embankment slopes down to Four-Mile Creek, and a spur trail connects with the rest of the 14-mile Peters Creek Valley trail. It’s not uncommon to see moose anywhere horses can go in Alaska. Same goes for bears—and we’ve encountered many. One advantage to winter riding is that bears are mostly napping.


Matanuska Greenbelt Trails

These remain some of our favorite trails year-round. With more than 3,000 acres and miles of winding paths, this network of trails crosses Matanuska-Susitna Borough, University of Alaska, and State Recreation Area lands. Smooth lakes dot the terrain and soaring views of Pioneer Peak can be seen from snow-covered hay fields. The adjoining forested trails are home to moose, raven, snowshoe hare, spruce hen, and the occasional fox. Stories of the comings and goings of these creatures are written in the tracks on the snow.
The subtleties of winter are made even more remarkable from the back of an honest horse. The way of the horse is to perceive fully every nuance of their environment. They are attentive to every turn of leaf and shadow, all of which are measured and considered with quiet regard. We would all do well to see the world in such a deliberate way.


Published in November 2016 Alaska magazine.

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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.