Residents of Sitka, Alaska woke on the morning of Monday April 1, 1974 to a bright, clear day. They could see right across Sitka Sound to Kruzof Island, where the familiar sight of Mount Edgecumbe, a volcano dormant for 400 years, loomed. But today something was different about the view. A menacing plume of black smoke was rising from the crater. It looked like the volcano was preparing to blow!
Photo taken by Harold Wahlman, April 1, 1974, who was walking across the
Alice Island footbridge when he noticed smoke rising from Mt. Edgecumbe, so he ran home to get his camera.
Concerned residents spilled out of their homes onto the streets to gaze up at the volcano. Calls poured in to local authorities. The Coast Guard commander radioed the Admiral in Juneau who ordered a chopper be sent out to investigate.
As the Coast Guard pilot approached Mt. Edgecumbe, the plume of smoke grew in size. Finally he was right above it, and he peered down into the crater. At first, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He looked more closely, and then he laughed. Stacked in the cone of the volcano, burning with a greasy flame, was a huge pile of old tires. And spray-painted in the snow beside the tires, in 50-foot-high black letters, were the words "APRIL FOOL."
Pulling Off the Prank
The fake eruption of Mt. Edgecumbe was the work of a local prankster, 50-year-old Oliver "Porky" Bickar. The idea to ignite the volcano had occurred to him in 1971. As soon as he thought of the idea, he knew he had to do it. So he collected 70 old tires that he kept in an airplane hangar. But he had to wait three years, until April Fool's Day 1974, until the visibility conditions were just right for the prank.
When he woke that morning on April 1, he looked out his window and could see right across the sound. So he looked at his wife, Patty, and said, "I have to go do it today." She replied, "Just don't make an ass of yourself."
Views of the eruption
Although Porky had prepared the tires, he hadn't arranged for a chopper pilot to fly the tires out to the crater — and this detail almost foiled his plan. The first two pilots he contacted refused to do it, but then he phoned Earl Walker, in Petersburg, who agreed to come over as soon as the morning fog in his area cleared.
Porky also secured the assistance of some friends — Harry Sulser, Ken Stedman, and Larry Nelson. They were all part of a group calling itself the "Dirty Dozen" that used to meet every week for coffee and conversation at Revard's Restaurant.
As the pranksters waited for the chopper, they piled the tires into two, large canvas slings. Soon the pilot had arrived, and they attached one of the slings to a hook on the bottom of the chopper. They also took along some smoke bombs, several gallons of kerosene, and some rags. Then they headed out to the crater.
Porky Bickar in November 1973, at the Alaska Loggers
Association Convention in Anchorage. He's showing off the
hard hat he crushed with the spar tree.
After the chopper dropped the first load of tires into the crater, Porky got out and began stomping the words "APRIL FOOL" in the snow, as the chopper headed back for the second load.
When the chopper returned, all the men piled the tires into a stack. Then they lit them on fire and headed home.
The pranksters had taken the precaution of notifying the FAA controller of their plan. As the group returned to Sitka, the controller radioed them: "You have clearance. And by the way, the son-of-a-(gun) looks fantastic."
They had also warned the local police, but they forgot about the Coast Guard, which is why it wasn't long before the Coast Guard pilot was retracing their path out to the mountain.
The prank succeeded beyond Porky's wildest dreams. News of it got picked up by the Associated Press and ran in papers around the world.
The reaction of people in Sitka, once they realized the volcano wasn't really erupting, was almost uniformly positive. Even the Coast Guard wasn't too mad about the stunt. Porky met the Admiral years later at a Fourth of July party. As the Admiral walked over to meet him, Porky was afraid he was going to be chewed out, but instead the Admiral told Porky he thought the prank was classic.
Alaska Airlines also liked it. The company included Porky's prank in ad campaign the following year, 1975. The campaign highlighted the irreverent spirit of Alaskans by collecting together brief accounts of great "brags" pulled off by Alaskans. Porky's brag read:
On April Fool's Day, I hired a chopper and flew 70 old, kerosene-soaked tires on top of the dormant volcano, Mt. Edgecumbe, that looms over Sitka. I set the tires on fire, and the billowing, black smoke created one hell of a commotion in Sitka. I dare you to top that April Fool's joke."
Detail from the Alaska Airlines ad
Porky's favorite response to the prank came in 1980. He received a letter from an attorney in Denver, inside of which was a clipping from the Denver Post
with a photo of Mt. St. Helens erupting. Attached was a note that read, "This time, you little bastard, you've gone too far."
Porky was born November 1, 1923 in Chehalis, Washington. As a young man, he fought in World War II and took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy — for which he was later awarded the Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty by the French government.
He married his wife Patricia (Patty) in 1950, and they had three children together. The family moved to Sitka in 1960, while Porky was working for the Barton and Reynvaan Logging Co. In 1964, he started his own business, Porky's Equipment Inc., selling and servicing logging gear.
Porky was a talented logger and was famous for the ending act he performed every year at the All-Alaska Logging Championships. He felled the spar tree
so that it hit a target on the ground. The target was usually a hard hat, but sometimes it was a bottle of hooch.
Porky was also an artist who worked with metal. One of his projects was the fashioning of heavy steel outline maps of Alaska out of pipe left over from the Alaska oil pipeline. He gave these as gifts to friends. He also made metal cutouts of moose, deer, and bears, which he placed in public locations around town, as a kind of guerrilla art project.
Porky in 1972, showing off a chainsaw
But Porky was best known as a prankster — a reputation he enjoyed even before the 1974 stunt. Some of his other pranks included using a backhoe to drop an entire tree in the middle of a friend's driveway, placing plastic flamingoes in trees to confuse tour boats looking for wildlife, and holding a chainsaw sale at his store — one for the price of two! But it was the eruption of Mt. Edgecumbe that made him a legend throughout Alaska.
Porky died on August 11, 2003, age 79.
Eruption of Mount Edgecumbe Haiku (Submitted by Hoax Museum visitors)
Modern echoes of Pompeii:
End comes in Edgecumbe
Links and References
- Bernard, Chris (Mar 29, 2002). "April Fool's Day: Sitka Legend Lives On," Daily Sitka Sentinel: 13.
- "Services set Monday for Oliver J. 'Porky' Bickar," (Aug 15, 2005), Daily Sitka Sentinel: 6.
- "One of the greatest April fool's pranks EVER, orchestrated by Porky Bickar," sitka.com.
- "Porky's April Fool's Day Adventure...," olyopen.com.