The big move

In this 1964 photograph, Florence Collins boats toward the Lake Minchumina FAA station with her children Ray, Miki and Julie, while Pandy the husky recklessly perches on the bow. During this period the family was starting the move from their first home at the station across the lake to their home site. Florence R. Collins collection

In the 1950s when our mother, an adventurous flying geologist, joined forces with our father, the manager of a wilderness FAA flight service station, to raise a family in the Bush, neither of them slowed down despite their three small kids in tow. Their travels, both local and across Alaska, typically included our older brother Ray, my sister Miki and me. Indeed, just two weeks before my twin sister and I were born, our mother accompanied Daddy on a moose hunt, and at 6 days old he flew us home to the Bush from Fairbanks.

Some of my earliest memories include boating off to distant blueberry patches. I remember admiring colorful leaves, getting cold, and the bumpy rides home with us kids scrunched under the tiny covered bow of the wooden red and white boat. The bow protected us from cold spray, but put us at the very front of the boat which caught the worst of the jarring from slamming waves.

We took that little boat to Holek Spit or to the cold spring in Moose Bay for picnics, where we frolicked in the sand, waded in the lake, fished, picked flowers or skipped stones. Our mother did not hunt, but she often boated out with our father, and loved her story about the bull who strode past her as she sat in the boat waiting while Dick fruitlessly searched the thickets. After he or Ray shot a moose, she always pitched in with butchering and found great satisfaction in helping secure the winter’s meat.

In the mid-1960s when our parents boated or snowmachined up Deep Creek to cut logs for their new cabin, we kids sometimes tagged along as they moved logs by bobsled or raft to the lake. And of course we delighted in the day-long picnic trip aboard the log rafts as our father’s boat slowly pushed them across the lake to the home site where Miki and I still live.

Then, too, were the many trips along the lakeshore gathering big rocks for the stone basement they built, and dozens of trips to haul lumber, roofing, and belongings. Although too little to help with the loading, we pitched in to push trailer-loads of supplies uphill to the cabin site behind Daddy’s rickety motorcycle, years before ATVs hit the scene.

During the winter months we spent hours towing behind our father’s snow machine, mostly traveling back and forth between our home and the village six miles across the lake. One of the first sleds we rode in was an ahkio brought down from the Kobuk River, a low double-ended toboggan-like sled which offered no protection from flying snow or bitter weather.

Our father also acquired an old bobsled for logging, built like a small horse-drawn wagon but with ski-like runners instead of wheels. For snow machining with the family in bitter weather, he constructed a plywood box, painted vivid orange and open only at the back, to ride on the bobsled. With kids tucked safely inside the “Turtle” and our mother pressing her hooded face into his warm back, our father could cross the lake in cold windy weather scrunched behind the windshield and his family in tow, protected and warm.

Daddy was horrified when the bobsled tipped over on rough ground, but for us little ones that was part of the fun.

While we kids were quite small, all five of us could cram into our mother’s Supercub on floats for the quick flight over to Snohomish Lake to picnic on a sandy little beach, or on a longer journey to the Nowitna River to search for the agates my father worked into jewelry. Or we piled into Daddy’s Cessna 180 for wheeled landings when we visited Fairbanks for appointments, visiting and eating at TikTok or the TikiCove. We flew to the Kantishna airstrip to visit Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood when those well-known adventurers and early environmentalists operated Camp Denali. We flew to Purkey Pile, Farewell and McGrath to visit friends there.

Some journeys took us farther afield. I vividly recall flights to our father’s cabin on the Kobuk River near Shungnak, where we picked blueberries, fished for grayling, and visited the wonderful friends he’d made while working there in the early 1950s. We flew to Manley Hot Springs, where legendary aircraft mechanic Cy Hetherington performed maintenance work on the Cessna while our mother visited with his fun, peppery wife Daisy.

Even into their 60s and 70s, our parents continued to travel. Several times Daddy chauffeured us in his 22-foot riverboat to move our sled dogs to Fairbanks where we attended college. He also used that boat to haul supplies out to our remote trapline cabin when a summer horse trek stalled out there for two months, and the Supercub to move supplies for us in winter and summer to other distant camps, with or without one of us along.

Our parents are gone now, as are the old folks of Shungnak and the Hetheringtons. Today my sister Miki and I wear float coats in the boat and the dog knows she’s not allowed on the bow. Our parents were not reckless for their time; they did put their little kids in life vests when boating and seat belts when flying, but during the 1960s people took daily risks in stride.

Of our childhood rambling, I best remember snuggling down in old Turtle for the long journey across the lake as we returned home, often in the dark after visiting neighbors and collecting mail, as well as similar trips undertaken by boat when wind stirred up the lake and waves slapped our sturdy boat as it plowed steadily homeward. I did not realize at the time how lucky I was to live in the beautiful wilderness, and to have adventurous, fun-loving parents who loved sharing this extraordinary life with their impressionable children.

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