Florence R. Collins, long-time resident of Lake Minchumina, passed away quietly Nov. 4, 2015 at the Pioneer's Home. Her birth in May 1921 was an especially joyful event since her parents had nearly given up on having children. Florence Rucker probably inherited her curiosity from her father, an inventor; her lifelong love of reading fed a sharp intellect and long memory. As a child, her favorite word was "Why?" and as an adult she served as a living encyclopedia, answering questions as diverse as "How old is the Earth?" "Who was Henry VIII?" and "What's ANILCA?"
Although fascinated by paleontology, geology offered more opportunities for a young woman during World War ll, so she studied rocks at the prestigious University of Chicago. There she struck up a lifelong friendship with another young Florence, Miss Robinson. In 1945 the pair witnessed an exhibit of fighter planes meant to encourage people to invest in war bonds but which instead triggered them to invest in flying lessons. Gas rationing meant no fuel for a car, but they could buy gas for a plane. By the time the pair learned to drive in 1947, they had already flown from Texas to Florida.
Adventurous spirit led the young ladies up the Alaska Highway the first year it opened to the public. Later, master's degrees in geology allowed Florence and Florence (a.k.a. Ru and Ro) to return to Alaska as employees of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Florence found 1949 Fairbanks a fascinating town, with Cushman and Second boasting the only pavement, dog teams in the streets and float planes on the Chena. She and Ro microscopically analyzed rock cores from northern Alaska oil fields, while envying male field workers who geologized remote outcrops in the exotic far north.
In 1950 the two paid $3,800 for a Cessna 140 which they flew to Alaska. With their own wings, the two Florences flew almost every weekend to Nome, Kotzebue, the North Slope and Canada. Once, over Lake Minchumina, they spotted an isolated homestead on the lakeshore, with the quintessential log cabin and garden plot. "Gee, it would be wonderful to own a place like that!"
The thought so intrigued them that when some property came up for sale at Minchumina, they joined another pilot, Nancy Baker, to buy it sight unseen, only to discover they'd purchased the same idyllic site they had flown over! Weekends at Minchumina gave Florence a chance to know Dick Collins, the FAA station manager there, but more adventures lay ahead before marriage entered her mind.
In 1953, she and a group of friends floated the Yukon from Whitehorse to Circle, 700 miles of wilderness only 55 years after the great Klondike stampede opened the country. The two Florences also kayaked Porcupine River from Old Crow to Fort Yukon.
The USGS rudely interrupted Ru and Ro' s northern adventures by shipping them to Washington, D.C., to write reports. As soon as they acquired a grant for a new Alaska study, the two women bought a Supercub on floats and flew from the Potomac River to the MacKenzie Delta and down to Fairbanks. Landing at isolated locations for fuel garnered stares of amazement at the daring women piloting the lanky craft.
Ru and Ro spent summer 1956 at Lake Minchumina, studying prehistoric sand dunes that ripple across much of the flat country between Nenana and Minchumina. They landed at many remote lakes, naming several of them including Dune Lake, Totek and Big Spectacle Lake.
A romance blossomed between Florence and Dick, and by 1959 they were a family with a son and twin daughters. Florence didn't give up her adventures just because she'd "settled down." She went moose hunting shortly before giving birth and flew home from the hospital with Dick and their new babies. They flew around Alaska and across the nation and made family vacations from Kobuk to the Bahamas.
They invested years in building a new home at Minchumina, which included blasting a basement in the bedrock with dynamite and hauling local boulders for cementing into a stone basement before rafting in cabin logs for a two-story home.
After a few idyllic years, the kids made the mistake of becoming teenagers. Knowing that after eight years of home schooling, they would benefit from a formal education, Dick and Florence sacrificed five winters in Fairbanks so they could attend public school.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the couple made many 300 to 800-mile wilderness journeys in their 22-foot riverboat. They hauled the dog team back to Fairbanks for the school year, and headed off to the Yukon River site of Birches to set up a ham radio rig for helping the Yukon 800 boat races.
They traveled the world from New Zealand to Iceland to Bonaire. Closer to home, Florence served alternately as president and secretary of the local Homeowner's Association, boating across the lake and zipping around the village perched behind Dick on his motorcycle.
Florence continued the environmental work she'd begun with pioneers Ginny Wood and Celia Hunter, and worked as a subsistence liaison with Denali Park. Members of the Denali Subsistence Commission voted her president for about two decades; the Park Service gave her a lifetime achievement award; and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center named an award in her honor.
Time flows unstopping, but even after her husband died in 2004 Florence joyfully went dog sledding, snow machining or boating each time she caught the mail plane to Minchumina for a visit home. She chose to move into the Pioneer's Home when in her mid-80s, but still joined her daughters on the 300-mile round trip flight to the lake for her 90th birthday, her last great thrill in adventure-filled life.
Florence is survived by her son Ray and his family - wife Frankie and children Richard and Karen - and her twin daughters, Miki and Julie.
Published in Daily News-Miner on Nov. 15, 2015