If you come to Sitka – and I think you should, at least once in your life – you’ll be greeted by Mt. Edgecumbe, our resident volcano. Come in early May, before the cruise ships begin their daily tourist deposits, and that winter’s snowfall will be cascading from the hollow in her shoulders, down to the curve where her hips meet the rainforest of Kruzof Island. Come in late September, when summer’s lustful sun has coaxed her out of her cloak, and you’ll see her skin glowing sienna-red in our waning daylight hours.
If there’s one iconic image representing Sitka, she’s it. Thirteen miles west of downtown, she presides over Sitka Sound with the confidence that comes of some 12,000 years of an unquestioned regime. At 3201 feet, she’s a quarter the height of her unofficial sister, Japan’s Mt. Fuji. When Southeast Alaska blesses us with a clear day, we can be trolling on the Fairweather Grounds, more than 130 miles away, and see her piercing the farthest reaches of the sea. When we head north every season and she finally appears on the horizon, I know I’m home.
Mount Edgecumbe represents homecoming to many Sitkans. One of our fishing partners is a gifted song-writer. After much pleading (and a fair few cans of Rainier beer,) he can be cajoled into sharing his Swede-tinged, bluesy baritone, crooning ditties created over long fishing trips. This is one of my favorites, to the tune of “Rawhide”:
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’
We’re all filled up from trollin’.
We’re rollin’ into Sitka tonight.
With that big full moon a-shinin’,
And the northern lights a-blindin’,
And that old volcano comin’ into sight.
Dormant for over 10,000 years, Mt. Edgecumbe gave Sitkans a big scare just 37 years ago. After waking up one beautiful morning to see dense black smoke pouring out of her crater, terrified residents flooded the streets. When you live on an island with 19 miles of road, and the only exit is by boat or by plane, how do you flee from a volcano’s imminent eruption?
Fortunately, folks didn’t have to find out. Before any panicked exodus could occur, the Juneau Coast Guard sent a helicopter to investigate. Flying low, the chopper crew peered through the plumes and radioed in their report. A tower of tires was alight within, fifty-foot letters spray-painted in the nearby snow. “APRIL FOOL!”
Local prankster Porky Bickar later shared the details in an interview with the Sitka Sentinel. With a team of co-conspirators, he’d chartered a helicopter to deposit hundreds of tires in the basin. “We’d planned it for 3 years, and just waited for an April Fool’s Day when it wasn’t raining like hell.” Awakening to the long-awaited clear morning, they made a final trip out, armed with assorted smoke bombs, fuel, and matches.
Porky had the good sense to give the Sitka Police and FAA a heads-up of his scheme, but he’d forgotten to contact the Coast Guard. There was some significant fall-out over that lapse, and he was billed for the clean-up required to remove the pyre’s remains. Seems a small price to pay, really… Though Porky passed away in 2003, his infamy is as absolute as Mt. Edgecumbe’s continued reign over Sitka Sound.
This is one of those stories so over-told that it’s a terrible cliché to post, but I can’t resist. To Sitka readers who could tell this story far more authentically than I, my apologies for appropriating local lore. To the rest of you… May you one day experience for yourself the warmth of a Mt. Edgecumbe welcome.