Editor’s Note: This story is
about two pioneering, smart and tough sisters in a place that despite
the passing years remains somewhat remote, while retaining what is left
of the American spirit of natural living.
Air cargo across Alaska is an absolute way
of life, in a place where flying freight harkens back to the early, high
adventure aviation days.
Our contributing writers here and, as it
turns out, shippers as well, are Miki and Julie Collins who live in Lake
They live a completely remote life without
phone or computer.
In fact, we only hear from Julie when the
hard freeze comes and she or the mailman can walk across the streams that
separate the sisters from the rest of civilization, or when an itinerant
cargo plane flies into their tiny airstrip.
Miki and Julie are also trappers.
In fact, as the picture confirms, they are
both damn good at what they do as the only female trappers out and about
in Alaska right now.
The twins leave home in mid-November and
stay out in the wild, trapping until mid April.
Miki and Julie Collins are experts with
horses and dog teams, and have written two books.
What you will learn (among other things)
right away from their work is that Denali is a place that was a natural
wonder of the world, a long time before Cadillac automobiles pasted the
word ‘Denali’ in plastic on the side of their SUV.
So take a ride on the wild side with a closer
look that reveals a culture of life in Alaska and a new breed of woman
there that meet or exceeds any challenge.
Exclusive Lake Minchumina,
The checkout clerk was curious but polite.
"You don't want to buy cereal for awhile?" she tactfully inquired,
surveying the 40 boxes in my shopping cart.
"My freezer broke last week, and you
don't have time to hear the rest of the story," I replied gloomily.
The clerk didn't have time, but you, dear
reader, may read on if you wish, or click the page if you don't.
The freezer failure didn't surprise us;
after all, it was almost 40 years old. The problem was with replacing
it. Freezers reach this Bush community by air, and you can't fit a 24-cubic-foot
freezer in our little mail plane.
The only charter available was a DC-6A (C119
Liftmaster) that cost $4,254 and carried 28,000 pounds.
Now the freezer itself only cost $470, and
you could fit about 90 of them on a plane that size.
This is real typical of life in the Bush.
Your freezer breaks down and you have to buy 28,000 pounds of stuff to
fill up the plane. OK. I flew to town and started buying. The buildings
around our place were getting run down so I started with construction
Roofing, flooring, stovepipe, cement, greenhouse
materials, deep cycle batteries, water storage tanks, gutters, tarpaper,
plywood, and other lumber. Fuel is hard to transport too, so I ordered
seven drums of gas and a jug of propane.
"Your total so far is 5,401 pounds,"
Sheryl from Everts Air Cargo told me after my fourth pickup load. I felt
Usually the whole village joins in to fill
up a big charter like this, but so far nobody else had delivered anything.
There were other complications, too. Our neighbor Bill Janusz had generously
loaned us his empty freezer, but he would need it back after moose hunting.
If the charter didn't fly soon, we wouldn't be able to haul the freight
home by boat due to low water. And our own
moose hunt couldn't be delayed too long.
Back to shopping. I bought more stuff that
was cumbersome or hazardous to ship by mail. Cultivator,
wheel barrow, 30-gallon trash can and Plexiglas; sheet metal, rebar, angle
iron for welding projects; plastic for sled runners, a galvanized fence,
dog pen, white ash for dog sleds. Ten gallons of two-cycle oil, five of
chain oil and 12 of white gas. Two pickup loads of hay and straw which
shed all over the hangar.
I was still far short of 28,000 pounds. Everts
Air Cargo couldn't tell me just when the plane would fly, either. Sheryl,
who efficiently managed every ounce of freight, didn't know the flight
schedules, and Robert, who managed the flights, was clueless, swamped
with flying for Bush construction projects and flights disrupted by bad
"How can I tell you where I'm flying
next week when I don't know where I'm flying tomorrow?" he asked,
but he promised to attempt my flight on the Tuesday after Labor Day.
That gave me two more shopping days, so
I turned my attention toward dead weight. I bought 400 pounds of groceries,
fertilizer, oats, sweet feed, horse chow, block salt and chicken food.
For the dogs I bought rice, tallow, fat blend, powdered eggs, bone meal
and 2,250 pounds of Eukanuba dog food.
From out of town I ordered a sickle bar
mower and a washing machine. Neither arrived in time to get on the flight.
a headache for the charter outfit. Freight trickled in for two weeks and
they had to store it all. As deliveries came from other people, Sheryl
carefully logged the weights of each so I could bill people who joined
my charter. The freight boys had to deal some unorthodox freight, but
they skillfully shrink-wrapped everything onto pallets.
"Please don't tell me you've got more
hay," one guy begged.
"I enjoy reading your stories in Heartland,"
Sheryl told me.
"You'll be reading about this,"
I assured her with a gesture of dismay.
Every day I harassed them with questions.
Could they take fuel? Frozen food? Dogs? Could they back-haul old batteries?
Had they nailed down a flight date? How much weight had accumulated?
Fairbanks businesses helped out a lot too.
Some made free deliveries. Some went to long lengths to specially cut
or package items for me. I got some great discounts. Northland Wood, Cold
Spot Feed, OK Lumber, Superior Hardwoods, Alaska Steel, Cameron Equipment
and Rod's Saw Shop all went beyond the call of commercial duty. I went
to four hardware stores and four boat shops; to Bucher Glass, Alaska Battery
Supply and Big Ray's; twice to Alaska Feed and three times to Grubstake.
I ran out of checks and maxed out my credit
card but with 10,000 pounds thrown in by neighbors, the charter grossed
28,576 pounds. (How lucky that my parents were sharing in the home improvement
The DC-6 flew on the promised Tuesday. It
rumbled into Minchumina, a World War II antique, and the pilot delicately
maneuvered the big craft onto the tiny parking area.
If it took a town to help me fill up that
plane, it took a village to help me unload it. People came whether they
were expecting freight or not. Walter Maakestad brought his forklift and
did most of the unloading. Jack Hayden brought his crew from Denali West
Lodge and they provided most of the brute strength.
All we brought was cookies.
There were our two new dogs, the dog pen,
water tanks, hardwood floor, the new roofing and five pallets of feed
and straw--how would we ever haul it all? And the fuel and lumber, we
could move that after freeze up. And there was the freezer. All we really
needed was the freezer—28,000 pounds later, I had almost forgotten
The washing machine and the mower are still
in Fairbanks, waiting for another plane. I just hope they get on someone
It took two hours to unload the DC-6 charter
at the Lake Minchumina airstrip. Freight was lined up along the parking
area to be picked up by the individuals who had ordered it.
From The Past.
once said unrequited love is a bore.
we’ve got it pretty bad for these two.
mentioned at the top, we asked Julie to write this story for FlyingTypers
back in 2008, at a time when Everts Air Cargo operated their DC6As,
which “despite high maintenance requirements and shortages
of AvGas” are still in service today alongside some Curtiss
2017, National Geographic interviewed them in a short video. Click
above image to view.
Identical twins Miki and Julie Collins
trap, hunt, fish, and garden in Alaska's wilderness just north of
Denali National Park in Alaska's vast interior.
Their closest companions are loyal sled dogs and Icelandic
horses, which eat fish and can withstand northern extremes.
Whether taking a 1,900-mile excursion around Alaska by
dog sled, defending their huskies from a charging grizzly, or dealing
with a panicked horse in an airborne plane, the Collins sisters offer
a new perspective on life in the northland.
Theirs is an unusual lifestyle even by Alaska standards.
The sisters share what has happened in their lives in the past twenty-five
years in their two books.