Mount Edgecumbe is an Alaskan volcano located on Kruzof Island, one of the most southerly parts of Alaska. Up until May 2022 was classed as a dormant volcano. But this, it seems, is changing: it was then recategorized as historically active by the Alaska Volcano Observatory.
It lies around 16km (10 miles) from the Queen Charlotte Fault which separates the North American and Pacific Tectonic Plates. However, this is unlikely the reason why it will be remembered. It was also the stage of one of the greatest practical jokes of all time. But how did a volcanic eruption become an April Fool’s Day joke?
Mount Edgecumbe has laid dormant for 800 years. However, in April 2022, several small earthquakes were detected. The analysis that followed revealed that there was a small deformation that had begun in approximately August 2018.
It was deemed that the deformation was related to a magmatic intrusion around 3 miles (5 km) deep underground, but fortunately this does not indicate that the mountain will erupt any time soon. Scientists say that the volcano would need to deteriorate more for an eruption to happen and now that it is being monitored, they will be able to track it effectively. In May 2022, AVO installed a seismometer and GPS sensor to monitor the volcanic field.
The indigenous people, the Tlingit, are believed to have thought the mountain to be sacred. In the Tlingit language, the mountain is called L’ux which is translated to “blinking“ or “to flash”. This is perhaps because of the fact that they knew of the mountain when it was erupting, or smoking before an eruption.
It was later discovered by Spanish explorer Juan de la Bodega in 1775. He named it Montana de San Jacinto in honor of Saint Hyacinth whose feast day was on 17th August, the day after Juan discovered it.
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It was not named Edgecumbe until 1778 when Captain James Cook passed it on his third voyage. It was perhaps inspired by a somewhat smaller and less impressive hill overlooking Plymouth Harbour in England. However this was the name that stuck, being made popular when George Vancouver the explorer accepted the name Edgecumbe.
The first time that it was climbed and recorded was in 1805 by the Russian Navy, specifically by Urey Lisianski. It is not a particularly hostile or challenging peak, and in the 1930s, a trail was even made up the side by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the New Deal to ease the Great Depression. The trail is approximately 7 miles (11km) long and is described as only moderately difficult.
When people think of April Fool’s Day, they tend to think about pranks that have already been done before. This can include things like hiding buckets of water above the door or hiding in somebody’s bedroom and scaring them.
However, if you were in Alaska in 1974 living in Sitka then you may have experienced something slightly different. On April 1st, the day was clear and beautiful with a cool sky. But it was not to last.
Concern began to spread through the residents of Sitka when they noticed that black smoke began to plume from the top of the mountain. The Coast Guard quickly scrambled together as a team and they began to investigate the source of this smoke. When they finally flew past the top of the mountain, they found a message spray-painted within the snow.
The message read APRIL FOOL, and was next to a big pile of tires that had been set alight. Oliver “Porky” Bickar stood proudly next to his creation with his friends smiling and waving at the pilot. What the Coast Guard thought of the pranksters in that moment has not been recorded.
The prank itself according to Bickar required extreme planning. It took three to four years to plan and required the perfect day so that it could be the most effective prank. Though the manpower to get all of those tires up there was huge and so he enlisted the help of a helicopter pilot.
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It was using the helicopter that Bickar was able to transport up the 70-something tires and the fuel, smoke bombs, and rags up the 976 meters (0.6 miles) that were necessary to begin the prank. This was no small task, and Bickar planned accordingly.
This is also not as careless as it sounds. Bickar did contact the Federal Aviation Administration to let them know of his plans and so as not to cause complete panic. They gave him the go-ahead and said that they would not interfere.
Bickar also contacted the local police but had apparently forgotten to tell the Coast Guard who responded as they normally would. And as a prank, it worked extraordinarily well, its uniqueness ensuring it made it to global headlines.
Reactions to the prank were mixed. Some residents saw the funny side while others were annoyed at Bicker for causing panic and stirring up trouble. A lawyer from Colorado who had witnessed an eruption before was recorded saying that Bickar had gone too far. The police departments and local radio stations said that their phone lines were ringing off the hook when they saw the smoke in the scare.
One of the best reactions to this prank actually came from Alaska Airlines. The news of the story reached the vice-president of the company Jimmy Johnson, who thought that it was so funny that he wanted to give it even more publicity. He instructed a departing plane from Sitka to fly over the mountain to give the passengers a unique and special view of the whole thing.
Over forty years have passed since the prank, and it is still regarded as one of the greatest practical jokes of all time. Bickar sadly passed away in 2003 but his legacy has lived on. He would be proud that it is still being talked about today.
The next time that you are thinking about committing a practical joke on April fools then you may need to up your game. There is a lot more than you can do rather than the basic things that you can see on the internet. Maybe you should be like Oliver Bickar and think outside of the box.
Just be sure to tell the Coast Guard this time.
Top Image: Mount Edgecumbe in Alaska: a volcano co-opted into an April Fools prank. Source: US Federal Aviation Administration / Public Domain.
By Kurt Readman