My visit to the Gila Wilderness and its cliff dwellings happened early on in the Original Beetle Roadtrip. In many ways it was in the Gila, that a 24 year old Aldo Leopold found his footing. As someone who really enjoyed Leopold’s writing, it was only a matter of time for me to visit the wilderness he proposed and the very first Federally recognized wilderness in the United States.
I found a nice place to camp in the national forest, driving the Beetle across a stream to limit my neighbors, and from that campsite, I explored the Gila.
Theodore Roosevelt designated the cliff dwellings a national monument in 1907. The monument is 533 acres, and had just over 41,000 visitors in 2016. To me, there seemed to be almost that many people there when I visited. It became a challenge to get a picture taken without a person in the frame, but I worked at it.
The dwellings are located in an absolutely beautiful part of New Mexico. It was easy for me to see why the Mogollon people settled here, and I wondered why they abandoned it years later.
Hiking the trail early in the morning, I was lucky enough to come across a black bear on its morning excursion. Later in the day, I met up with a couple who had seen a mountain lion. I was not at all surprised by either in this beautiful, rugged terrain.
The above is one of the earliest known published images of the Chaco Canyon area. The artwork is by Richard Kern from his exploration of the area with the military’s reconnaissance of the Four Corners country, led by J.H. Simpson, in 1849. The account of the expedition was published in 1851.
I first visited Chaco Canyon during The Beetle Roadtrip. I spent an entire month exploring New Mexico, and Chaco was among the favorites. The southwest, in general, is so vastly different than the Far North, and I find the country fascinating.
Chaco is an International Dark Sky Park, and the sky was truly brilliant at night. It was here and in the Grand Canyon that I spent the most time looking up at the Milky Way. It is highly unusual for me to be able to sit outside and watch the stars move across the sky, while in shorts and a t-shirt.
Starting around 900 AD, Chaco Canyon became a major culture center for Ancestral Puebloans, and a hub for ceremony and trade. Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the “Great Houses”, had at least 650 rooms. Its massive walls were 3 feet thick.
The petroglyphs throughout the area are absolutely astounding. I could have spent the entire month exploring Chaco Canyon alone, if left to my own devices.
The park itself is just over 33,000 areas, and it saw 39,000 visitors in 2011.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve is located approximately 100 miles southwest of Anchorage. Originally designated a National Monument in 1978, the area was named a national park by Congress in 1980 via the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The park itself is roughly 2.6 million acres, with an additional 1.4 million set aside as preserve, putting the total size at just over 4 million acres. In 2018, the park saw 14,000 visitors.
The Lake Clark area gained some degree of fame through the adventures of Dick Proenneke, who documented his homestead life at Twin Lakes before the area became a park. Proenneke not only kept detailed journals, but filmed his world in a documentary style. Alone in the Wilderness, the book about his life at Twin Lakes, and the PBS documentary of the same name were extremely well received by Alaskans and non-Alaskans alike. Not an easy thing to accomplish!
Lake Clark is a vital salmon hatchery for Bristol Bay, and is Alaska’s sixth largest lake at 42 miles long and a maximum depth of just over 1000 feet.
Lake Clark NP&P is also home to two active volcanoes. The ever rumbling Mount Redoubt and Iliamna volcano, which has been quiet of late.
Lake Clark NP&P is not road accessible. One can get to the park via floatplane or via boat from Cook Inlet.
Residents of Sitka awoke that morning to beautiful, clear skies. It was a perfect day, until someone looked across Sitka Sound to Kruzof Island and its dominate feature: The long dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe. Black smoke could clearly be seen rising from the volcano’s crater.
Word spread quickly. Residents poured out to the beach to stare across the Sound. The authorities began taking call after call from concerned citizens. A U.S. Coast Guard commander radioed the admiral in Juneau. A helicopter was sent out to investigate.
As the Coast Guard pilot approached the crater, the smoke plume grew in size. He eased over the crater edge and peered down into the abyss, only to see a pile of burning car tires. Spray painted into the snow, in 50 foot tall letters was : APRIL FOOL.
“Porky” Bickar first thought of the idea of the fake eruption in 1971. He hoarded old tires for the next three years, and when April 1, 1974 neared, with its perfect weather forecast, Porky knew the time had come. His wife had one request: “Don’t make an ass of yourself”.
There ended up being one catch. The first two pilots contacted to fly the tires into the crater refused to go along with the prank. But the third one proved to be the charm, and Earl Walker of Petersburg was enlisted.
The tires were loaded up into two slings and hauled out to the crater along with several gallons of kerosene, and a few smoke bombs for good measure. When the pilot went back to Sitka for the second sling, Porky worked on writing the message in the snow.
The pranksters were not totally irresponsible. They had contacted both the FAA and local police, and clued them in on the joke. They did forget all about the Coast Guard, however.
The reaction in Sitka was overwhelmingly positive after residents realized that the volcano was not going to blow. The Admiral who sent the helicopter out to investigate, met Porky at a 4th of July party years later. He admitted to Porky that the prank was a “classic”. Alaska Airlines even used the stunt in a 1975 advertising campaign that highlighted the “irreverent spirit of Alaskans”.
Oliver “Porky” Bickar, was 50 years old at the time of the prank. A WWII vet, having taken part in the D-Day invasion, Porky came to Sitka with his wife in 1960. He was known for ending the All-Alaska Logging Championships, by felling a tree on a target. The target was usually a hard hat. Porky was also a talented artist working in metal.
Most importantly, Porky may be Alaska’s top prankster. On a personal note, I enjoyed reading how he would place pink, plastic flamingoes in trees along the shore for the tourist boats. A man truly worthy of his legend status.