Twins and their tales draw large following

For many of their dedicated fans, identical twins Julie and Miki Collins are frozen in time. After all, they have been writing books and weekly newspaper columns about their subsistence lifestyle for more than 30 years.

But they are aging just like everyone else. The sisters are 58 years old now. 

The lifestyle they cherish is hard work and they can feel a few aches and pains that didn't used to be there. But they have no plans to change their day-to-day lives.

"We're pretty well set up," said Julie Collins, during a visit to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. "We have communications, we have solar panels and water we haul from the lake."

Their wilderness view of Denali is magnificent, a full horizon-wide panorama that shows off both the north and south peaks.

The sisters were on an Alaska tour promoting the new edition of their book "Riding the Wild Side of Denali," and "Trapline Twins," which remains one of the top 10 selling titles since it was published 30 years ago. They presented a slide show to a standing room only crowd and talked about daily life at Lake Minchumina, on the edge of Denali National Park. That has been home their entire lives, except for a few years leaving to attend high school and college. After college, they returned to their roots and continued to live traditionally.

It doesn't sound like they are planning to leave anytime soon.

"Our favorite thing to do is run around with our horses and our sled dogs," said Julie. "We have a lot of fun with them."

All that fun is also a lot of work. They cut up to 10 cords of firewood every year. They plant and harvest a large garden. They pick many gallons of blueberries, chokecherries, crow berries and currants. They fish with a gill net. Last year, they stocked about 1,200 whitefish.

They raise sled dogs that are hefty enough to break trail in deep snow – not the slim racing models featured in competitive dog mushing teams.

There is no veterinarian nearby, so the twins handle their own veterinarian care for their dogs.

One of the biggest jobs every year is finding a moose during hunting season, no easy feat in the thick brush that surrounds the lake.

"Sometimes we have to get awfully close in order to get a clean shot," said Julie. "We use every trick in the book to make them think we're just another moose."

The sisters waste nothing. They save the moose hide, the head, the guts and hooves for trapline bait. Every winter, they spend a lot of time on 120 miles of their trapline, covering 10 to 15 miles every day. Selling those trapped furs is part of their income.

A trip to the post office is a 12 mile round-trip journey in the winter.

Icelandic ponies joined the family many years ago and become integral to their lifestyle, for both fun and work.

"The horses run around on their own, foraging until the snow gets about knee-deep," said Julie. "Then, we have to start feeding them."

And when they go on vacation? They go camping, usually in the spring.

"In March, the sun is coming back it's warming up, we like to travel around Alaska – Nome, Bettles, Knik," said Miki. "Our favorite is Denali Park. We have to do our own trail breaking, but it's awfully beautiful country."

"We can only go half-mile to one mile an hour when we're breaking trail," she added.

But times are changing. The sisters can see it in how the climate affects the landscape and in the economy.

"We used to get enough money from a single marten pelt to buy three bags of dog food," said Miki. "Now, we can't even buy one. The economy doesn't support people who want to go out there and make money."

The seasons are changing too.

"Permafrost is thawing," said Miki. "We have a really rough trail where it used to be smooth. And the seasons are changing at different times. Freeze up is two to three weeks later.

"We used to have a fairly clean freeze up, now that lasts a month or more. That impacts how much time we have for traveling in the early season."

Those changes also affect populations of the fur bearers that they trap. They think it might have something to do with the new normal for weather in November, which now means a little bit of snow, followed by rain. That, they said, may be hurting the vole population, which is the food supply for martens.

And they are slowing down themselves.

"Like everyone our age, we will play it as it goes," said Miki. 

"We have a lot more aches and pains."

That might have something to do with getting thrown off dog sleds, horses and surviving a plane crash over the years.

"We have started to depend a little more on small machines," said Julie. "And we are hunting in easier locations.

"But as long as we keep doing it, and it's fun, then we will keep doing it."

They never seriously consider moving to town and would do that only if they could not physically handle the hard work of their subsistence lifestyle.

When they go to town, here's what they look forward to.

"I mostly look forward to getting back home," said Miki. "But I do like a good hamburger now and then. But that's about it."

Kris Capps is a longtime Alaska journalist who lives at Denali Park and Fairbanks. She writes a daily column for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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