Pioneer Potluck: About Alaskan Forest Fires Past and Present

  • By Grannie Annie
  • Tuesday, June 3, 2014 3:40pm
  • LifeFood

SWANSON RIVER FIRE 1969

FUNNY RIVER FIRE 2014

The recent Funny River fire puts my memory in full motion of the 1969 Swanson River fire and the terror we felt as we roared down a small smokey trail, off the bluff, onto the beach at Boulder point. Boulder point is located to the right of Arness dock in Nikiski, Alaska.

My three kids and I had been in Alaska two years, arriving in July 1967. In those two years I had re-married and acquired 14 fishing site at the left of Arness Dock in Nikishka Bay. This northern Colorado gal, never ever seeing a body of water bigger then an irrigation lake, was now in wonderment of the beautiful body of water on the eastern shore of Cook Inlet.

Have you ever been in a forest fire? There are many in Alaska this time of year, mostly starting in May. They are terrifying and not easy to deal with. The Swanson River fire was started by a careless camper.

I had acquired three more kids through my marriage, so there were six cute kids in my care. We were back on the homestead of Betty and Gene Coulter’s, painting an old wooden dory white. We were gearing up for the first season for my family to go set-net fishing. Fishing by net from the beach; Betty and Gene where our teachers. Betty was my teacher this day as Gene was with my husband getting supplies to start our fishing career. The only communication-no phone service in those days-was a CB which was turned on all the time. You more our less monitored the calls, listening to everyone’s conversation, sort of like a radio newspaper.

We had the boat almost painted, after chinking the cracks with long ropes of sticky oakum. Betty looked at me and bent down to look at the wet white paint on the boat. “What the heck is that? Look, little black bugs everywhere in our new paint!” She went to wipe them off and the bugs turned into little black streaks.” That’s ashes!!” She shouted.

Just then the CD squawked the life with Genes voice. “Get the kids (there were eight kids with Betty’s two), get them in the cars, get what you think is valuable, get my guns and load the cars. There is a forest fire coming your way, head for the beach!” Then he clicked off the air.

Sheer panic set in for both of us. Betty and I looked at each other wondering if we had just heard “Forest Fire!”

Betty, never being too calm in a crisis, heard Gene’s words: “what is valuable” and ran into the house, grabbed a big roll of toilet paper, came back out of the house with a mile of toilet paper trailing right behind her. She opened the rear door of my big, old Plymouth station wagon, threw the toilet paper roll in and turned around and ran back in the house to retrieve more valuable items.

The toilet paper zinged off every corner of the car, coming unwound, then came to rest on the front drivers seat. Out comes Betty again with the big blue roaster pan that she had in the oven full of moose roast, carrots and potatoes. She was more careful placing that in the car. She turned around and shouted at me “What else?”

I shouted back at her “Do you have any money, old coins, silverware….?” She didn’t let me finish my sentence. She ran back in the house, me right behind her and grabbed the silverware drawer, ran back out to the car and flung the whole drawer full of silverware into the back of the car. Clattering and clanging around, the silverware was now scattered all over the car.

“And he said guns.” I said — finishing my sentence.

We went running back into the house, Betty acting like the house was already on fire, and she handed me some guns from the corner of the bedroom. I grab some towels and handed some to her, saying as we are running out the door, “wrap the guns in towels.” “Okay, okay”, she said, wrapping them gently, while I personally placed the guns in the car. I did not know if they were loaded and I do not did not want her to be flinging guns into the car on top of the silverware and the toilet paper, causing the guns to accidentally fire a bullet into the car and all the kids waiting around watching two crazy lady shouting and screaming at each other!

“Get in the car” I shouted at all 8 kids. I helped load Betty’s son Paul, into the Jeep. Paul was a sweetie with a big smile from ear to ear but handicapped and the ride in the Jeep was the best treat. Betty and I ran back inside and grabbed coats and more food, but by this time the smoke was swirling around thick and we could hear bulldozers.

Continued to next week

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