Collins Sisters

A young Miki and Julie beam triumphantly after spending six weeks in 1997 at this remote camp building the West Line cabin. Our horse Dropi is on the right while Lilja snoozes on the left; Lilja’s Tree stands behind the cabin above the white spot on Dropi’s shoulder. Collins sisters photo  

When my sister Miki and I built our West Line trapping cabin 20-plus years ago, our lead mare chose a big spruce tree behind the cabin as her favorite loafing spot. Lilja is long gone, but we’ve called the spot Lilja’s Tree ever since. The spreading boughs protect a woodpile and break the cold winds that blow through the yard.

The cabin itself lies along a 10-mile stretch of trail that burned in 1968. That wildfire also took out the original line cabin five miles upstream; when we reopened the trail in the 1980s, we chose a camping spot some distance away because it offered a good water source and surviving timber for shelter.

At the time, the 1968 burn still bristled with ghastly black skeletons of long-dead spruce, with only a few tiny spruce seedlings and nightmarish tangles of hip-high dwarf birch. At first the sooty dead spruce gave us easy firewood, but in the following years the rate of growth accelerated, with two decades of explosive growth. Our once-expansive views of the Alaska Range disappeared behind shaggy spruce trees, while the fast-growing birch became stout enough to selectively harvest for firewood.

As years passed, I always thrilled at the sight of our stocky little cabin each time I arrived. The sled dogs loved racing around the tiny yard after a long pull, and I loved how quickly the little 10-by-10 cabin heated up. The stump chairs, the chain-saw-milled plank furniture and floor, and the dry wood from the pile under Lilja’s Tree made the cabin a homey spot to stay over, while offering nothing substantial for summertime bears to chew up.

Lynx proliferated along the floodplain with its brushy hare habitat and the enthusiastic growth of new birch and willow shoots also invited moose and grouse, followed by wolves and wolverine. Fifty years after the 1968 burn, the old stumps finally disintegrated and we had to range farther afield to find dead standing spruce for firewood to stack under Lilja’s tree.

In late June a lightning strike ignited a fire nearby and it grew rapidly with the hot dry weather, ultimately burning more than 46,000 acres, including patches of the 15-mile trapline trail that extends over to our Spruce Cabin in the east. While in the past we surveyed fire damage from the air after the season tapered off, this time we could monitor the progression by following fire service websites or by calling employees at Denali Park.

Since the cabins lay within the park, decisions regarding their fate lay with the National Park Service. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, enacted nearly 40 years ago, had engulfed our trapping area into the original Denali Park, with a goal of protecting not just wild lands, also the age-old subsistence way of life. I’m not sure if the folks Park Service was required to protect the structures, but they were certainly determined to try.

A crew landed at each cabins to cut brush and install water pumps and sprinklers. The fire approached within a quarter-mile of the Spruce Cabin on the east side of the burn, nearly reaching the trigger point that would activate an aggressive defense. The fire plowed through thickets of brush and small spruce clogging a 25-year-old burn, but hit the creek a short distance north of the cabin.

The drama at the West Line cabin outpaced the Spruce Cabin. With the wildfire making a run toward our little winter shelter, the firefighters were forced to take more drastic action. They lit a backfire 100 feet from the cabin, burning the area toward the oncoming wildfire. If the forest fire hit the backburn, it would fizzle out instead of over-running the yard and consuming everything.

The backfire ran along a forest floor of moss and shrubs under the tall spruce that survived the 1968 fire. The thin soil overlying granite cobbles from the old riverbed reduced the likelihood of the backfire sinking and smoldering as it can in deeper soil, but the shallow-rooted spruce trees may not survive even though they did not burn in the backfire. The dead standing trees will provide firewood to last the rest of our lives, and maybe our clean views will be back, too.

Our cabins were in good hands, and while the wildfire ran across stretches of the 15-mile trail connecting the two cabins, as of this writing neither structure was damaged. It’s too bad to spend a massive amount of money on two little old winter-use cabins, but we are profoundly grateful that they were saved. With their remote locations and our arthritis and advancing age, it may not have been feasible to rebuild them.

Although at this point the fire is still burning, it has been lying down more with the gradually cooling temperatures and a few showers. Thanks to the fire crews, we’re optimistic that next time we pull in to the West Line cabin, our shelter will still be there, with Lilja’s Tree right behind it to break the wind and protect our firewood.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.