Pioneer Potluck: Escape from the Swanson River Fire, 1969

Here is the rest of the story and thanks for asking.

  • Tuesday, July 16, 2019 9:00pm
  • Life
The Swan Lake Fire can be seen from the East Fork Moose River bridge on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy Robert Kuiper)

The Swan Lake Fire can be seen from the East Fork Moose River bridge on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Photo courtesy Robert Kuiper)

Swanson River Fire 1969, Funny River Fire 2014 and now the Swan Lake Fire of 2019

I have written about this before but now I have many more new followers of my articles and I HAVE HAD SEVERAL PEOPLE ask me what happened when you got to the beach during the 1969 Swanson River Fire. My six kids and I were back on Betty and Gene Coulter’s homestead painting an old wooden door, getting ready to fish from the beach at Arness dock.

Here is the rest of the story and thanks for asking.

After loading the car with toilet paper, silverware and guns and our coats, I jumped in the Jeep parked in front of my car, with my buddy Paul. Betty jumped in my big old Plymouth station wagon with seven kids and the valuables — no seat belts in those days. She roared into gear and almost hit me before I could get the Jeep started and out of her way. The way out of the fire was to head to the beach. The trail out of the homestead to the beach was deep and narrow with ruts.

I could see in the rearview mirror Betty trying to keep up with me, fishtailing and bouncing from side to side down the long narrow trail in my BIG-LONG blue and black four-door Plymouth station wagon. It was not easy to keep it on the road, let alone on a narrow trail loaded with household goodies and seven kids.

I was so excited myself that when I saw lots of rabbits, spruce hens, foxes and coyotes running down the same trail in front of me, I started to scream “run bunnies run” over and over again.

I opened up the canvas door of the Jeep at one time, while still in motion, to see if I was going to run over a bunny in the trail. I scared Paul so badly, he thought I was jumping out of the Jeep! He started crying, clapping his hands and saying and “run bunnies run” over and over. I was busy keeping the Jeep on the trail and looking in the mirror to see if Betty was in the right tracks and not hung up in some treetop and trying to calm poor Paul.

We made it to the edge of the beach, bounced off the shelf that the tide had made and onto the sand — turning, churning and spinning, throwing rocks and sand everywhere. We finally got to this small fishing cabin that had been on the beach for years. We herded the kids out of the car into the cabin with Betty jabbering at whoever “we gotta feed the kids, we gotta feed the kids.”

She kept repeating it over and over!

“No we don’t!” I finally shouted back. “It’s not supper time yet!”

Just then a big thick cloud of smoke rolled over the top of the bluff and onto the beach, choking us. Betty and I unwrapped the towels that were holding the guns in place in the car. (Every gun was loaded just as I suspected!)

We led the kids to the edge of the water of Cook Inlet, soaked the towels in water, placed them over the heads of our kids and over our heads. We sat by the water’s edge with several moose, bears, coyotes and a couple of wolves — who hung back watching us with their beady, bright eyes — rabbits, and yes small bunnies, a lone fox, a bunch of spruce hens and various birds. We sat at the water’s edge for a long time before the smoke cleared. The water had a calming effect, but we were still very worried about our husbands.

We ate later but I don’t remember much about that, my stomach was tied in knots. Then we heard a pickup coming down the beach. It was my husband, Richard and Gene looking for us to see if we were all safe.

They had been caught in the middle of the fire and had to push burning trees and brush out of the way to get to the homestead just in time to be bombed by the pink fire retardant that had been released from the airplanes above.

Our nice new blue Ford pickup was bright pink. The guys were black with soot. They told us exactly what we had worried so much about, sitting on the beach under the wet towels. “Was the homestead safe?”

Yes, they said. The house is bright pink but safe and the potato field was plowed up to make a firebreak. All Betty and I could do was cry.

Just as fast as the fire roared through it was gone. The Army and National Guard stayed in tents set up along the trail into the homestead, to take care of any hot spots. They were gone in a couple a days but the scars from the fire lasted for years and years, all because someone camping on Swanson River was very careless and did not put out a little campfire.

We had wonderful neighbors, Claude Gabbett and Danny Johnson, who had big D8 Cats that worked wonders and kept everyone’s home from burning by pushing away trees from the houses and making firebreaks. If it had not been for them and the CB there would have been a lot of personal loss.

Our six kids and Betty’s daughter, through the years, told us that they did not know there was a fire until Betty and I started running in and out of the house, shouting at each other. They thought we had lost our mind or that we were mad at each other.

I still see all the kids watching from behind trees wondering what those crazy ladies were doing running back and forth from the house with streaming toilet paper, clanking silverware and then coming back out with guns! It’s a very funny picture now and one that we still talk about.

THIS story was suggested by Susan Jordan — one of my daughters who witnessed the fire and the deeds of “two crazy ladies.”

The recent Swan Lake Fire reminds me to never ever be to complacent about burning trash unless you have it in a container and a water hose near by. Clear dead brush and trees and be aware all the time that not only would you loose everything but you put your family, friends and neighbors in jeopardy also!! This year’s Swanson Lake Fire was caused by lightning, but still be aware of your surroundings. Have a great week and God Bless America!

RECIPES

SUMMER SALMON SALAD

This is a nice salad for a potluck picnic.

Combine:

1/4 cup milk

1 1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons onion chopped

1 teaspoon dill weed, not seed

Refrigerate and in a large bowl combine:

2 cups cooked shell or elbow roni

1 small can black sliced olives

1 cup frozen peas — thaw under hot water and drain thoroughly

2 large tomatoes chopped or small tomatoes cut in half

1 large cucumber halved and sliced

1 chopped onion — for color use green onions sliced

1 pint canned salmon or 2 cups of cooked salmon — dark pieces removed

Combine and fold in the milk mayonnaise mixture.

Spoon into a big lettuce-lined salad bowl. Garnish with parsley from your hanging basket, chopped tomato from your greenhouse and a cucumber from your garden. Chill at least 6 hours. The additions to this salad are endless. You can add halibut, shrimp and imitation crab, making 2 to 3 cups of fish.

SMOKED SALMON ON A SOURDOUGH MUFFIN

Split an English or sourdough muffin. Toast and butter.

Spread with room temperature cream cheese.

Place flaked salmon over top.

Place a slice of cheddar or Swiss cheese over salmon.

Place under broiler until browned and bubbly — watch carefully!

Serve with sliced tomatoes.

Great finger food for a picnic.

BLUEBERRY CRUMB PIE

Quick and so good

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Brush the bottom of a 8-inch graham cracker crust with 1 egg yolk.

Bake 5 minutes until lightly browned.

Pour one can of blueberry filling into pie crust.

Sprinkle top with

1/2 cup flour

1/2 cup oats

1/4 cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons melted butter

Stir together and sprinkle over top of pie filling.

Bake on a baking sheet for 35 minutes.

Pass the whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

More in Life

Bacon is prepared on a fire pit, June 19, 2020, in the Copper River Valley, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalifornsky Kitchen: Eating from fire

My attitude toward camp cooking is that you can eat pretty much anything you would eat at home.

Irene Lampe dances a robe for its First Dance ceremony at the Sealaska Heritage Institute on Monday, June 22, 2020. (Courtesy photo | Annie Bartholomew)
Weavers celebrate new robe with first dance

The event is part of a resurgent trend for traditional weaving.

Kalifornsky Kitchen: Summer traditions

Over the years, a paella feed has marked momentous occasions, like moving or birthday parties.

Nick Varney
Unhinged Alaska: Looking in the rearview mirror

I stepped through a time warp last week.

Concert on Your Lawn revives spirit of KBBI festival

The concert came about after the pandemic forced KBBI to cancel a planned Solstice weekend concert.

Minister’s Message: Finding hope in dark times

A life lived without hope is like a life lived without love.

Morel pasta is enjoyed outside on May 19, 2019, near Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kalifornsky Kitchen: Morels all the ways

When the Swan Lake Fire started, we knew we had an opportunity to get even more morels.

This portrait—one of few that Richard Shackelford reportedly allowed to be published—graced the 1909 commencement booklet for the California Polytechnic School, of which he was the president of the Board of Trustees. (Photo courtesy Clark Fair)
A tale of Two Shacklefords, in a way — part three

Untangling the origins of Shackleford Creek’s name.

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: It’s all in the game

It’s amazing what a deck of cards or a set of dice can teach a young person.

Kachemak Cuisine: Find comfort in hard times by cooking good food

The first tastes of spring for me are rhubarb, fresh-caught fish from Kachemak Bay and chives.

Fiddlehead ferns shooting up from the ground, on May 24 in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Foraging for fiddleheads

Springtime in Alaska is the beginning of foraging season for me.