Story last updated at 4/2/2014 - 5:52 pm
You could call it the disaster that wasn't.
You might also call it Alaska's greatest prank.
If you're a little less kind, you might call it a tall tale that's grown a little too big.
Forty years ago this week, on April 1, 1974, Sitka residents looked out their windows and saw a thin stream of black smoke rising from the caldera of nearby Mt. Edgecumbe.
Some thought the long-dormant volcano was about to erupt. Others thought a plane had crashed into the mountain.
Thad Poulson, then the managing editor of the Daily Sitka Sentinel newspaper, thought it was a fizzle.
"The fake eruption, if that's what it was intended to be, was not convincing at all," he said. "I guess I had to be told later what the joke was."
Even if it wasn't impressive in person, the fake eruption made a great story. The next day, the Associated Press ran a short bulletin, "Sitkans Get April Fooled."
That bulletin, which described the stunt, went viral in a decade before going viral was invented.
Newspapers across the country picked up the story and demanded more details. As those details emerged, the story got better.
The volcano prank was the work of Oliver J. 'Porky' Bickar, a longtime Sitka resident with a well-known reputation for gags.
Bickar, a former logger, ran Porky's Equipment Inc., selling logging gear to the town's burgeoning timber industry. In his spare time, Porky and his friends operated a group called the "Dirty Dozen," which met at Revard's Restaurant and tried to one-up each other with pranks.
Sitka writer Chris Bernard covered the story behind the prank in a 2002 edition of the Sitka Weekend, a publication of the Sentinel.
"We'd planned it for three years, and just waited for an April Fool's Day when it was clear out and not raining like hell," Bickar told Bernard.
Since 1971, Bickar had stockpiled old tires, smoke bombs and kerosene, waiting for the perfect day.
"When I got up that morning and I could see the mountain, I said, 'I have to do it today,'" he recalled. "Patty (Bickar's wife) knew exactly what I was talking about. 'Well, just don't make an ass of yourself,' she said. She often said that to me."
Bickar and friends Harry Sulser, Ken Stedman and Larry Nelson soon ran into a problem - none of Sitka's helicopter pilots wanted to fly them to the volcano once they heard what was planned. Working their way down the phone book, they eventually contacted Temsco's Earl Walker in Petersburg, who agreed to fly them.
Using two trips to take 100 tires in sling loads, the helicopter reached the Edgecumbe caldera.
As the tire fire started to burn, Bickar spray-painted a 50-foot-tall message in the snow: APRIL FOOL.
On the way back, Walker received a radio message from air traffic controller Homer Sutter, who was in on the joke. "I'll bring you in as low and inconspicuously as possible...and, by the way, the son of a gun looks fantastic!"
Bickar had told the police department and air traffic controller what was planned, but he forgot to tell the Coast Guard, which operates an air station in Sitka.
Not long after the smoke started to rise, a Coast Guard helicopter flew to Edgecumbe's caldera and saw Bickar's message.
"We've been had," he reportedly radioed back.
"In the ensuing years, the story has gained kind of a mythic proportion," Poulson said.
The "Dirty Dozen" were no strangers to self-promotion. After the Associated Press bulletin, they sent photos of the prank to Alaska Magazine and other publications. Bickar did radio interviews and in 1975 was featured in an Alaska Airlines ad campaign promoting "some of the world's greatest brags."
Bickar's store sold jackets and T-shirts with emblems commemorating the prank, and it became a local legend. When the Internet arrived, Bickar's prank was perfect for viral legend.
"It's kind of such a simple concept that everyone can grasp," Poulson said.
Even if the actual execution didn't look like much on that day in April 1974, the prank lingers online and in Alaskans' memories.
"It's become a semi-tall tale," Poulson said. "They did do it, at great expense, but I think it's fair to say no one was in dread of a volcanic cloud or whatever the downside."
Mount Edgecumbe, 16 miles from Sitka and 3,182 feet tall, was named in 1775 by British Capt. James Cook. According to the Alaska Volcano Observatory, it last erupted about 2220 BC, plus or minus 100 years. The volcano is not considered an eruption threat, and the observatory does not actively monitor its activity.