Blazing a Tradition

Interview footage by Jessica Hoffman, Produced by Jesse Hoff

Story by Jeremy Smith, Music courtesy of WIll Putman

It takes thousands of pallets, hundreds of volunteer hours and a spark of creativity to build the structures of Starvation Gulch. But it only takes a few hours for it to all go up in flames. Extreme Alaska set up a camera so you could watch every moment of this year's event through the magic of time lapse. Watch time blaze by as the fires burn, the streakers run and the tradition of Starvation Gulch lives on.

Imagine spending an entire day hoisting pallets into the towering shape of a rock or pyramid. And then watching it burn down to ashes just hours later. That may not sound like a memorable experience, but for more than fifty years that's what UAF students have been doing each fall for Starvation Gulch.

blaze1Lifeblood of the bonfire... pallets
Photo by Jessica Hoffman

Cody Rogers, the Assistant Director for Student Activities, said the 2009 registration process resembled a Black Friday sale. "All our spots filled up in 45 minutes. It was pretty much a rush for everybody." Alpha Phi Omega, the UAF Firefighters, the MBS dormitories, various UAF Engineering departments and the Edge Program (also known as "the freshmen") competed in the event.

With a spot secured, the builders needed to discover not only what they were making, but how to find the materials to make it with. The University does not provide any of the groups with the pallets that serve as the bonfire building blocks, however, local businesses will often come to the rescue. "I received about 5 or 6 phone calls from local businesses wanting students to come pick up pallets,” said Rogers. “I just passed the names along to students and it’s first come, first serve."

Even though the crowds seem happy to just warm themselves by the bonfires, there is actually a competition hidden among the flames. There are two categories that are judged once each team's creation is lit on fire: most creative and largest flame.

blaze2 Fire engine, pre-burn
Photo by Jessica Hoffman

There have been a number of creative structures over the years and it’s exciting for the onlookers to see what will be unveiled. "One year a group had a giant head of Einstein that they made out of paper-mâché. Another year there was a Rubik's cube that was painted... that was pretty awesome," said Rogers. "We'll see what happens this year."

The UAF Firefighters had a winning bonfire creation last year: a fire engine. For 2009 they decided to repeat the structure and even painted it to match the real thing. The Engineers were developing a secret and complicated trebuchet contraption which would ideally add extra height to their bonfire, securing them the largest flame award. The Omega's decided to recreate the UAF Tradition Stone on a much grander scale and the MBS dorms erected a set of towers representing each of the Moore, Bartlett and Skarland dormitories. Then there was the Edge Program.

blaze3Building the blaze
Photo by Jessica Hoffman

Tanner Hauer, the president of Lathrop dorm, explained how the freshmen were attempting to proceed. "First it was a pyramid, then a raised pyramid, then a candle, then the Eiffel tower... now it's a castle I think," Hauer said, gesturing towards the mound of pallets and swarming workers. Freshman Marcus Farqare laughed, and then added, "I think we'll just go with a big pile of wood... keep it simple." After settling on the castle idea, the two agreed that the Big Ass Trophy was their true goal.

The largest flame category is also known by its awe-inspiring moniker, the "Big Ass Trophy". Cody Rogers said that the student groups can't add accelerants, but since the fires are lit with fuel, that might help them get bigger. "But the height of your structure, and its airflow... that will help you get the largest flame."

Traditionally 500-600 people have attended Starvation Gulch activities and this year was no different. Once all of the structures were lit and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd began moving, it didn't really seem to matter which team would take home the prize. As the pallets and paint caught flame and the onlookers cheered, the monoliths that had testified to each team's ingenuity and stacking skills shot heated orange bursts towards the snowy sky. Each ignition was greeted with a roar from the assembly. Everyone seemed united in simply offering praise to the blaze.