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

July 2011 Llama Drama and Other Hazards of the Trail

July 27th, 2011 by

On a cool June day, horses and their owners gathered to test their trail savvy at the third annual Extreme Trail Challenge in Peters Creek. No one knew what the bonus challenge would be, but for twenty bucks, riders could choose to make the secret challenge their final obstacle. As they rode the course, riders had the whole day to think about what they might be up against at the end of the competition.

The event drew 28 competitors from as far away as Fairbanks. Horse and rider teams had the opportunity to test their skills in an event that has steadily grown more popular over the past three years. Sponsored by the Chugach Range Riders, the Extreme Trail Challenge is held at Bill and Diane Sullivan’s 15-acre ranch in Peters Creek. Diane is the event coordinator while Bill thinks of ways to make the course more challenging.

The couple was in Oregon with their horses in 2006 and just happened upon the Northwest Mountain Trail Championships. On a whim, Bill decided to enter the competition as a rookie. In the two day event – to the astonishment of professional cowboys and horse trainers from around the country – Bill, on his horse, Jake, won the championship hands down.

The event was so much fun, the Sullivans decided to create a similar competition for Alaska riders. The obstacles along the course test the skills of the rider and the bravery of the horse. Horses were asked to traverse a bridge, climb onto a rock, jump barrels, drag a log, and undertake a variety of other challenges. More than a few horses snorted and danced at the silhouette cutouts of bears on the trail.

Perhaps the most challenging of all was a deep trench that horse and rider teams were asked to ride through. At least 10 feet deep and 50 feet long, this obstacle was – for some horses – akin to entering the dragon’s lair.

The Extreme Trail Challenge is not just an obstacle course. It reflects the relationship between horse and rider. Horses are willing to try things that are unfamiliar and even frightening when they trust and have confidence in their rider.

“It’s the riders and their sense of adventure that make this event,” said Diane Sullivan, who is a certified John Lyons trainer. “Hopefully they come away having learned something from it.”

At the end of the competition, riders who signed up were given the chance to try the bonus challenge. At that point, Bill brought out “General Westmoreland” the llama. This was a creature many horses had never seen before. While horse and rider teams side-passed around the pen, the cranky llama pinned its ears and spit on any horse that came too close. Most horses managed the obstacle well; but for others, “Wes” was just a bit too much to handle.

In the end, the Extreme Trail Challenge offered a day to revel in the presence of horses and the people who love them.

Winners of the novice division were 1st Emily Brassard; 2nd Karol Kolehmainen; 3rd Christine Lorenzen. Winners of the open division were 1st Deb Moore; 2nd Terri Mielke; 3rd Laurie Knuutila and her horse also won the bonus challenge.

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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.