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

The Eduction of Lily Blue

November 10th, 2019 by

I stepped into my kitchen yesterday and discovered that a pan of cinnamon rolls I had left on the stovetop to rise, now lay face down in a gooey mess on the kitchen floor. A lot of thoughts ran through my mind at that moment. One thought is not printable in a family magazine. Another thought was why two reasonably sensible adults would choose to get two puppies in the span of two and a half years.

“LILY!”

The mess was clearly the handiwork of the younger of the two dogs, eighteen-week-old Lily Blue. Our granddaughter, Aurora, chose the name when we announced her arrival into the family at Easter dinner. Lily’s second name, Blue, is after the dog whose legacy preceded her. They even share some of the same markings.

We wound up with two dogs in quick succession in the same way couples often wind up with two kids back-to-back. The first child is so easy-going and joyfully compliant that we congratulate ourselves on our amazing parenting skills. “This is easy and fun, let’s have another!” Then number two comes along and our pride gets roundly thumped and taken out with the trash – much like that pile of bread dough on the floor.

In trouble again.

The older of the two dogs, Essie Lou, is a border collie and is by far the smartest dog we’ve ever owned. Her intelligence is a tad unsettling because you wonder if she just might be smarter than you.  Someone once asked, if we got lost hiking in Alaska, could she help us find our way home? I answered, “Yes, and probably figure out my taxes along the way.” Essie Lou’s greatest anxiety in life is that she might displease us and so any reprimands to this sensitive dog must be measured and calm; followed by lots of love and assurance that we do indeed adore her.  

Then came Lily.

We cannot remember Essie Lou destroying a single item even through the insatiable curiosity of her puppyhood. (Might we have amnesia about her youth in the same way that parents forget the pain of childbirth or the challenge of raising teenagers?)

Although she is the epitome of sweetness, to date Lily has shredded my reading glasses, my husband’s hearing aids, a pair of Carhartt’s, the wooden stair banister, and a corner of the leather couch. Lily is also a thief. She pilfers from the laundry, the garbage, and the grandkids’ dollhouse. She once stole from the table, a crime we discovered only after her pink belly was as round as the blueberries that were in the muffins she consumed. Why wouldn’t she check on what tasty morsels – like cinnamon rolls – might be awaiting discovery on countertops and stoves?

Lily is an Australian Shepherd, another herding breed. Along with being smart, they’re known as “Velcro dogs” for the strong bonds they form with their owners. It is easy to keep Lily under close supervision because she’s always underfoot, except when she quietly exits our space to explore her world. The results of her forays have become self-evident.

We asked our friend, 92-year-old Dick Griffith, who was once a sheepherder in Wyoming, how to train these dogs. We have horses and the dogs have a natural drive to herd them, which can be problematic without some direction. I was gathering the horses up one day when I heard the thunder of galloping hooves coming at me from behind. When I turned around, one of the horses was running toward me full tilt with a border collie on its heels. “Whoa!” As far as the dog was concerned, she was just doing her job, helping me bring in the herd.

Dick said you don’t have to train these dogs – they learn what to do by watching older dogs do their job. Essie Lou has always adored Dick; we put her indoors when he leaves, or she will follow his car out of the driveway. Now Lily has also glommed on, following Dick around and laying at his feet to nap. We’ve decided that either sheepherders have a secret handshake or it’s in the blood. They certainly seem to share a kindred spirit.

Maybe Lily and Essie Lou have adopted Dick as the old dog that will teach them what they need to know in life. He’s certainly taught us a thing or two over the years.

Meanwhile, Lily is educating us on how best to puppy-proof our surroundings and the importance of keeping the cinnamon rolls out of reach. 

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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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