A Blue Flame on the Kenai
It was the summer of 1977 and the salmon were running in all the rivers of coastal Alaska. As strong as this call of nature was for the fish, it was just as strong for the fisherman; you just had to get out there and catch some monsters!
At the control tower we had been taking turns working double shifts to allow everyone the opportunity to take four days off in a row and not have to use any leave time, which was a very cool thing. Everyone cooperated and things went smoothly, no griping or whining about someone getting more time off, or “I had to work an extra day”, etc. The four days off in a row was necessary, because you used up a day traveling each way and that way you could have two full days of fishing and enjoy yourself.
When it was finally my turn to go, I teamed up with three other controllers and two radio technicians who worked on our equipment at the tower. One of these RT’s was a character named Scott, who was the second ugliest man that I’ve ever known and not quite house-broken yet. You really didn’t want to take him out into the public’s view; it could be very embarrassing to put it mildly. I’m not talking about his looks, he couldn’t help that. Scott was the kind of guy that could and would, belch the entire alphabet. He did just that a funeral we went to once, I kid you not! I wanted to crawl under the casket and hide in the hole until everyone else had gone. I was standing right next to him and all those daggers coming out of people’s eyes were hitting me! He was oblivious, as usual.
We were taking two vehicles on our trip, and loaded enough supplies for a week of feeding frenzy. If you are a camping type, you know how you always get hungry and look for something to munch on just about constantly it seems. Finally, we were ready! The other vehicle had enough cases of beer to supply a 7-11 and loads of chips and dip. It was easy to see where their priorities lie!
The group met at the tower and when I went through my checklist (yes, I do that) the other guys were laughing and making wisecracks at my expense. They were until I got to the fishing tackle, then a strange silence came over them and they exchanged looks and said,” We’ll be right back, don’t leave without us.” You guessed it! We were about to depart for a four day fishing trip and they forgot to put in their fishing gear. But they had the beer and chips!
We finally got underway at 7:30am, which was irritating as we were supposed to leave no later than 6:00am. Our chosen destination was Jean’s Creek Campground on the Kenai Peninsula; a beautiful spot where the Kenai and Russian rivers meet and fish are plentiful.
Jean’s Creek campground was state maintained and even had an outhouse! A beautiful structure made of imported redwood and green corrugated fiberglass panels on a cement slab, with a concrete sidewalk leading up to it. I tell you it was a sight for sore butts! To actually be able to sit down when you had to go was amazing. The simple pleasures in life are the best!
If you have never been to Alaska, it would be hard to envision the awe inspiring sight of a complete hill of violet colored fireweed in bloom, waving in the breeze like waves on the ocean. Perched on top of a hill you could see the old Russian Orthodox Church of Ninilchik, still ready to welcome visitors. Incredible! It’s still there if you want to go see it; just take the road to Homer and you’ll drive right by it.
Driving “around” (OK, substantially over) the speed limit we made up lost time and pulled into the campground in plenty of time to set up camp and get everything arranged. There were only two other “camps” (tents grouped together) in the entire area; we practically had the place to ourselves!
Everyone was dog tired after driving and two of the guys had “duty” the night before and had been awake for about 36 hours at that point, so we made an early night of it and agreed upon a time to meet in the morning.
What we couldn’t have known, (but found out rather rudely in the middle of the night), was one of the other camps was all “Cheechaco’s,” or new guys to Alaska, (and apparently to common sense.)
One of these intellectual giants had cleaned his salmon in his campsite and then dumped the remains down the hole in the outhouse! If you are a stranger to the bush, you probably wouldn’t know how far away bears can smell food, or what considerable efforts they will go through to get what they want.
This clown had rung the proverbial dinner bell for an entire family of Brown bears (aka Kodiak bears) and they strolled into the offender’s camp sometime after midnight.
Bears have a habit of “sampling” (smelling and tasting) everything that the fish had touched, in search of the real thing. When bears sample, there usually isn’t much left in one piece. The guy had even hung the fish on his tent pole for a while, which got plenty of scent on the canvas and the bears tore that to shreds.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we weren’t all sleeping through this escapade; but you also don’t yell, “Shoo!” at a Brown bear that’s hungry (Even if you stayed at a “Holiday Inn Express” the night before.) We were all awake, outside of our tents and watching the bears. Our vehicles were unlocked in case we needed to get in them to get away from the bears. At least the guys who caused this ursine visit were smart enough to get out of their camp and let the bears have their way with it, because they were going to anyway!
There was one fellow who would have been grateful for some assistance. At least a warning or something! He had taken a midnight stroll out the sidewalk to visit the outhouse and was in there with his flashlight and a book, taking a … “read,” when all hell broke loose in the form of a very large, hungry bear with a good nose.
The now cranky bear had followed the scent across the area from the camp to the outhouse, where the dummy had deposited the fish guts. By the comparative size we guessed that it was the mother of the others and she was getting more vocal as the smell of salmon got stronger. Her patience was wearing out and she was hitting things in her way with a huge paw and reducing things to splinters.
The unfortunate fellow could only get out one way (the door), and that was the side that the bear was standing up pushing on. It was terrifying for the guy inside and a real quandary for those outside.
You knew that it was very scary for the guy inside the outhouse, but at the same time it was so funny! Think about it; the guy sitting on the seat with his pants around his ankles, saying, “Common guys, that’s not funny!”
We had to wonder when he would realize that it was really a great big brown bear banging on the door. A brown bear which at this point, might just consider some human snack food if she couldn’t get salmon.
The instinct for survival is strong, even in the puny human species. When the trapped fellow got his clothing in place he kicked the back wall out and made good his escape. And like in the movies, just in the nick of time! As he was going out the new back “door,” the bear was tearing down the front.
She was so worked up by this point that she tore the entire outhouse down and pounded on the sections on the ground with both front feet, (kind of bouncing on them) and then she got back to the matter which brought her here in the first place; salmon guts! Yum!
The problem was, the hole was too deep. Even for a great big bear with a very long reach. She couldn’t quite get her claws low enough to snag any fish parts. The big bruin grunted and yowled for a long time before giving up finally and moving off into the bush with her mostly grown offspring following her.
We posted a watch for the rest of the night and took turns sleeping and standing guard. There was a real need to be alert for the possible return of these obviously hungry bears to insure everyone’s safety. Fortunately for all concerned, they didn’t come back.
The question has been posed to me when I tell this story, “Why didn’t you just shoot them, or at least at them, to scare them away?”
My answer was simple; common sense.
I had a .41 Magnum revolver with me and would have used it if we were attacked. I had it in my hand walking towards the outhouse when the man inside it escaped. But otherwise there were only two .22 caliber handguns in our camp. That caliber is less than useless where a bear is concerned.
Knocking a bear down takes a LOT of stopping power and if you can’t kill it, then you had better not shoot it. It was best not to start a war we couldn’t win.
The members of the camp being destroyed were yelling, banging on pots and pans; doing all of the stuff you hear about doing. But making noise apparently only works on timid black bears. Those brown bears just got pissed off and tore things up worse.
Besides, it was their woods! We humans were the intruders and provoked the incident with our stupidity. Why should the bears die for that?
The rest of the story
The next day we all caught our limit and did so with such great ease, that we were very picky about what we kept and what we released. The fishing was incredible! I’ve never seen anything like it since.
Even the big feeding frenzies of ocean fish like tuna, where they catch them on bare hooks, can’t compare to the acres and acres of Salmon and Arctic Char and various types of trout that seemed to occupy every square inch of these rivers. We were in awe. If we had not taken one fish out of the water, it would have been worth the trip just to see this spectacle with our own eyes!
That night we had to celebrate and talk big “Man Talk” about how we weren’t going to take anything (meaning fish) the next day, that didn’t weigh at least 60 pounds, etc.
We drank the cold beer which we had chilled in the icy river all day as we grilled salmon steaks on our cook fires and then sat around a very large bonfire eating, talking and relaxing, enjoying the night air and reliving each catch of that day. Life was good!
All was good that is until Scott, (you remember Scott) had consumed enough beer to get completely stupid. Encouraged by the others, he was holding a lighter near his rear end and lighting it at the appropriate time to cause blasts of blue flame to shoot outward.
Laughing like the mental case that he was, he would wait a few moments to “recharge” and then do it again. That was dumb, but it got worse.
Someone (nobody would admit to it later) said, “How big of a flame can you shoot Scott?” in a challenging sort of way.
Now, common sense tends to depart when you add alcohol. We all knew that you really shouldn’t challenge a drunk to do anything. They won’t say, “No,” no matter how stupid something is.
Scott stood up (rather precariously) and turned around. Then he dropped all clothing from the lower portion of his body and bent over. Reaching back between his legs with his lighter he assumed the “ready” position.
He let go with a tremendous blast of methane which he ignited, and shot a blue flame at least twenty feet. It seemed to light up the entire Kenai Peninsula!
Lacking any barrier between flesh and flame, the fire moved back upwards to his tender parts and seared them royally! It probably was good that Scott was seriously drunk at that point, because that had to hurt!
He apparently didn’t feel much of anything. We saw his hair in that region ignite and knocked him down and threw water on him immediately. It’s a good thing that we always kept a bucket of water by the fire for emergencies as this definitely qualified!
Upon quick examination, we determined that he should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible and loaded him into my Scout and hauled ass…er, Scott, back to Anchorage to the hospital ER.
That was a very fast and scary ride as the constant threat of animals on the road made things very tense. You only hit a moose once and survival isn’t likely for either party.
Scott singing to us, on the other hand made me drive even faster. That was for two reasons; I knew that when the alcohol wore off the pain would be bad, and his singing was really, really awful! We arrived in the quiet time before the day shift had taken over from the midnight crew, and got to go right into the ER treatment area.
If there had been such a thing as America’s Funniest Home Videos back then, we could have won the money just on the ER visit alone. Don’t get me wrong, Scott was swiftly and expertly being taken care of by the nursing staff (of course.)
When the first doctor asked us, “How did this happen?” and we explained the evolution of the injuries, he got a funny, quivering look on his face and took off around the corner. We could hear him cracking up laughing.
A few minutes later, a different doctor (sent by the first one), came into the waiting room and asked us, in all professional seriousness, “How did this happen?” and we explained again, with much the same results. Only this one didn’t quite make it out of the room before he lost it.
And then another doctor, and another one, until we had gone through the entire night staff of the hospital. All of them fairly young; and each new one being sent in to question us without any advanced knowledge of what took place. In other words, they were being set up by their peers.
It’s a good thing that nurses really run the hospital and take care of the patients, or you could die from a funny accident!
Scott recovered fully with no bad side effects, and he never “lit up” again with his pants down, you can rest assured of that! You still couldn’t take him anywhere that you might encounter polite folks and we did catch lots more fish on those rivers, but I doubt that they will ever see another “Blue Flame on the Kenai” like that night. And they probably don’t really want to.