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Spaghetti-O's vs A 30-30 At Fort Yukon

by Larry Welch (Cave Junction '61) |

Usually fire season in the Yukon starts off with small fires, as the fuel is still damp from winter snows, but it took the whole planeload of jumpers to man this one.

I was first on the jump list; therefore I was fire boss. I ordered retardant to be dropped on the head of the fire when it got to the mountaintop. Anyone who has ever held a burning match should know fire burns uphill much better and faster than down. I didn't think we had the manpower to stop the fire from going up, but I figured the retardant plus slow downhill burning would allow us to contain the blaze once it reached the ridge.

I put half the crew on either side of the fire to keep it from getting wider. It took us several days to dig the fire line and get control of the fire, but we got it under control. More fires were breaking out, so the jumpers were needed back for initial attack on new fires. Even though our fire was contained, there were still hot spots and small fires within our fire lines that had to be put out before it could be safely left. As fire boss, I had to stay, but the other jumpers got to go back.

The chopper that came to take out the jumpers brought in emergency fire fighters, natives hired just for this fire.

Jumpers out for a long time on the fire line usually got a fresh food drop once a week. This time we got a drop containing steaks, fresh bread, peanut butter, jelly and fresh fruit.

When we got word that the other jumpers were going to be pulled back, they saved what was left for me. I had been out on C rations for a week, and the native crew had just gotten there, so I kept the peanut butter, jelly and bread for myself. No one knew about my cache except for a young black bear that had been dodging me since I landed. I'd chase him away, but in thirty minutes he'd be back.

Now that the danger from the fire was gone, I moved my camp up above the fire to the ridge top. I moved for two reasons: one, I could see the crew's work, and two, I could get water from the ice and snow on the ridge top.

I laid out several black plastic tarps, built small side-hill rock dams on them, then dug out a reservoir under the downhill side of the plastic. I would shovel snow and ice onto the black plastic; it would slide down, hit the rock dam and be melted by the sun's energy stored in the black plastic solar collector. The water from the melted snow ran on down the black plastic and collected in the reservoir. Carrying the water downhill was much less work than hiking down to the stream at the bottom of the mountain and packing it back up to use on the fire's remaining stubborn hot spots.

I set up my fire fighters into two crews and one timekeeper. One lazy-looking young fat-assed native told me he was timekeeper. I'd already picked out the one I thought would best fit the job -- a 65 year-old Indian man who had started to work as soon as he got off the chopper. The first thing this young kid had done was take a coffee break. The kid was P.O.'ed. He said he only hired on because he thought he could be timekeeper. I told him a chopper would be back in two or three days, and if he didn't want to work, he could have a free ride home. I doubt he did much work, but he did stay out on the fire line, at least pretending to work.

The old man kept track of everyone's time, and always had a blazing fire and hot coffee ready when each crew came in. He got his sleep during the middle of the crew's work time. He was sleeping when someone rolled a couple of boulders down the hill through his tent. I didn't know what happened, but I had my suspicions.

The bear was getting braver and braver all the time. I caught him tearing up my shelter one time. I also woke several times to see his face looking at me from a foot or two away. Consciously, I wasn't worried because he never hesitated to run away if I acted aggressive.

I was shoveling snow when I heard something. I felt the ground tremble, and just as I turned to look, this huge black shadow blocked out the sun. I thought of sticking my sharp shovel where it would hurt Mr. Bear the most. Just as quickly, I realized the black thing that was now all over me was my black plastic tarp that had been blown by a gust of wind. The shaking and noise was a small earthquake, one of several that occurred that year. I never knew if the wind gust was associated with the quake or not.

I had to do something to keep my troops from warring with each other, and I also wasn't getting any good sleep because of Mr. Bear, so I moved the old Indian timekeeper up on the ridge to my camp. He kept time and watch while I slept, and I kept an eye out for him while he slept. We got the fire out without any other acts of aggression.

At the bottom of the mountain were blaze marks on the trees. There were no visible signs of a trail other than the blaze marks, and they were higher in the trees than a man could reach, so we knew it was a winter trail used when there were a few feet of snow on the ground.

We discovered that the trail led to Sam's Village some four miles away, so we packed out to the airstrip by the village.

I was given strict orders not to let the troops go into town, as the men in the village were gone on a hunting trip, and the government feared trouble would break out if these men went into an unprotected village.

Low rain clouds socked us in for a couple of days before a plane could get in to pick us up. There were two or three dozen natives on the crew and only one of me.

I went into town and solicited help from some of the native boys I'd made friends with on previous visits. The boys were to let me know when any of my crew went into the village and were to come running to get me if anyone in the village protested any of my crew's actions. Some of my crew had kinfolks in this village, and others hoped to try to create some, but even though several men did slip into the village, my young scouts told me no one protested any at all.

The plane came, and we were off to Fort Yukon. Several other jumpers had de-manned fires in the area and were also waiting to go back to Fairbanks as soon as there were enough of us to make a planeload.

I went to a roadhouse (combination bar, restaurant, hotel) to get a warm meal. On my way in, who should I meet but the native who had been ticked off about not being timekeeper. He stopped right in the middle of the doorway and said in a derogatory tone, "Where are you going, cowboy?"

I didn't break stride as I lowered my shoulder and hurled on past, saying, "In here, Indian." I didn't look back -- not that I was all that confident he didn't want to tangle with me, but I could see his reflection in a pane of glass as I walked on in. He turned, took one step, stopped, then turned again and left. I sat at a table with my back to the wall, so I could keep an eye on the entrance. I was relieved to see three other jumpers coming in, as I now had capable allies in case my Indian would-be-timekeeper should dream up some scheme for revenge and return.

One of my fellow jumpers was a Southern California boy. He had a can of Spaghetti-O's and was in the process of eating them with a plastic spoon, when in walked a young native man armed with a lever-action 30-30 rifle. Luckily, it wasn't my would-be- timekeeper.

The native man began to slap around a young native girl seated at the bar. In a heartbeat, our Southern Cal buddy was on his feet and standing between the two of them with a plastic spoon in one hand and a can of Spaghetti O's in the other. I'd personally seen this jumper in action on more than one occasion, and although he wasn't real large, it would take one hell of a man to tangle with him and enjoy it.

This self-appointed protector of young damsels had all the confidence in the world until the sound of that lever-action chambering a round filled his ears and the cold steel of a rifle barrel in his gut caused him to take a close look at the realization of mortality.

Uh, oh, Spaghetti-O's! Spoon, can and Spaghetti-O's filled the air. If I'd been in his boots, I'd probably have asked the Indian if he'd like me to hold her while he beat her about the head with his rifle. Our friend changed from John Wayne to counselor in less than the blink of an eye. The rifle bearer finally did calm down and leave.

Our California friend took some good-natured ribbing about "Uh-oh, Spaghetti-O's!" but everyone knew that they wouldn't have ventured to trade places with him at that moment.

Most of us at that age of our lives didn't mind a good clean fight. It was kind of like a football game or something, but these guys didn't seem to know the rules. None of us had any vested interest in Fort Yukon worth getting permanently damaged for, so we were glad when our plane got airborne and out of rifle range.