April 1, 1974; Sitka, Alaska
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.
Porky passed away in 2003 at the age of 79. RIP.