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

March 2011

March 10th, 2011 by

Camp Clean

Camp clothes holds a lot of dirt.

When I was at hunting camp in the Brooks Range last fall, I came to a new appreciation of a few modern conveniences. While I wouldn’t trade anything for that time in the back country, I did make note of the difference between clean and “camp clean.”

One day I counted the number of steps it took to do a few water-related chores like take a shower, do dishes, and wash clothes. The routine went something like this:

1)      Check water supply in the camp kitchen. The 55-gallon water drum is nearly empty, so it’s time to fill it up.

2)      Hike a hundred or so yards down to the small water pump on the bank of the river. The pump, attached to a hose, will pump water back up to the cook shack. It beats hauling buckets but I discover the pump is nearly out of gas.

3)      Get gasoline from the container back at camp. Oops. Gas can is empty.

4)      Dig into metal drums to resupply gas can. Split the contents of one can into two containers so it’s easier to carry.

5)      Take gas can to river, carefully fill pump and turn it on. The pump is persnickety. It likes to randomly turn itself off. Wait to make sure it cooperates.

6)      Return gas can to container back at camp.  Pump randomly turns off. Return and restart pump.

7)      Collect clothes, soap, and a bucket and take to cook shack. Go back to river and turn off pump. (Okay, almost set.)

8)      I’m lucky, because the cook shack has an on-demand hot water heater which means I don’t have to boil water. (The heater is fueled by propane, another resource to carefully conserve.)

9)      Take shower. Temperature is mistakenly set at “scald.” Shower lasts 57 seconds. Soap removed from eyes but not from hair. (Sigh.)

10)  Fill bucket with water and wash clothes 1-2 pieces at a time. AMAZING how much dirt a single item of clothing can hold! Wring out by hand.

11)  Hang clothes up to dry on outside clothesline.

12)  Wind changes direction and smoke from the small garbage fire wafts over to drying clothes. Bring clothes inside the cook shack to dry.

13)  Note to Self: No more burning on laundry day!

14)   Do dishes.

15)  Fill 55 gallon water drum to top again. (Repeat steps 5-7).

16)  Make a pot of coffee and take note of time. Four hours since starting chores.

17)   Sing praises to pioneer women over time that did all of this using wood or coal as fuel.

This morning before leaving the house, I threw a load of clothes in the washing machine and pushed a button. In less than an hour, I would have clean clothes to throw into an electric dryer. Meanwhile, I turned the lights off, jumped in the car, and tootled off to work. Easy.

Yet what I did not do this morning was stand on the steps of the cook shack and gaze at the face of a moody mountain behind camp. I did not take note of the fog lifting as the sun rose over the river. And I didn’t pay much attention to the cool air in my lungs or the hint of seasons on the verge of change.

Hard to say, some days, which is the better world. I’m grateful to experience the best of both. As the days grow longer, the longing grows stronger to get out into the backcountry again. I like to be clean as much as the next person – but “camp clean” has its own soulful appeal.

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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.