LORE, LEGENDS & LIES

of Big Santa Anita Canyon


THE 'COON TREE FIRE

By Billy Orville Taylor
 It's quiet during the middle of the week around the pack station at Chantry Flat.  Not much going on in the way of customers or visitors.  On this warm afternoon Bill Adams and I were just a-settin' and a-rockin' on the porch drinkin' soda pop.

Bill and Lila Adams owned the pack station from 1939 'til they sold it to their nephew Dennis and his wife Jody in 1984.  Bill still helps out now and then if Dennis and Jody need a little extra help.

Bill was tellin' the story of the 'coon tree fire.  He mentioned it was started by a couple of good ol' boys.  The best he could recollect they were from one of the southern states, but not sure which.  By golly, that grabbed my attention.  Those fellows sounded like a couple of harebrained neighbors of my kin when I last visited way down south.  So, it seemed to me I should relate the story to y'all.

To set the stage for this poignant drama, I should explain the layout of the canyon circa the 1940s.  This is necessary for the new comers to our canyon (Less than 50 years).  The Winter Creek Trail Camp was in a shady glen in the upper reaches of Big Santa Anita Canyon.  It was a beautiful site with the stream, large alders, oak, bay and tall green grass.  There were many camp areas with fire pits, wood burning camp stoves, tables and flat places for tents or sleeping bags.  This trail camp was used for many years by campers and picnickers alike.  A very popular spot during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

This episode of the lore, legend and lies of Big Santa Anita Canyon took place around 1950.  This was before that camp was destroyed by the construction of the step dams during the '50s and '60s.

That's another story that I will relate another time.

The names of these good ol' boys has been lost to antiquity, if 50 some years ago can be called antiquity.  To some of us it seems more like last week.  Time flies when you've romped through your middle earlies and have had a collision with codgerhood.  We'll name them after a couple of my cousins for the sake of this tale.  The first will be called Billy Bob and the second will be Willy Boy.  He was given that name so he would not be confused with his older sister, Willy Girl.  It was rumored these two were fetched up so far back in the woods their Pa had to bring sunlight home in a bucket.  However, that rumor was never confirmed.

 On this warm summer day our two friends were about to pull the tremolo stop and add a little color to the doings around the trail camp.

They had been doing a little fishin' in the stream for a couple of days.  Quite successfully I might add.  The only fly in the ointment had been a skirmish or two with Mr. Raccoon.  Now, Mr. Raccoon loved fish and liked everything else in the food cache our friends had in their possession.  On this soon to become famous morning they spied Mr. Raccoon returning late from a night of foraging or more likely having been roused from a deep sleep by a two or four legged critter.  Anyway, Mr. Raccoon disappeared into a hole at the base of a large ol' oak tree.

Well!  Billy and Willy hadn't seen the likes of a sight like that since they left the piney woods for the golden state.  Everything they owned was tied on the top of their Ford sedan.

They each had the same idea at the same time.  Reaching back to the days of their early fetching up, when they were little cornbread crunchers, they remembered what Pa had said on the subject.  "The way to remove Mr. 'coon from an ol' oak tree was to smoke 'um out!"

The reasons for wanting the raccoon were never made clear.  Perhaps 'coon casserole, ‘coon soup, ‘coon roast or just to get even for all the pilfering our furry bandit faced friend had done.  The reason will never be known.

'Coon removal, as documented in the text of the, Raccoon Recovery Manual, that was used in Basic Critter 101, instructs that burning objects be placed at the base of the 'coon tree in question.  This will create smoke and fumes which will, as stated in the text, drive out said raccoon.

In the south this technique is an accepted display of pyrotechnical hunting technology.  Also in the south, it rains every week or so during the summer and the humidity is in the neighborhood of 110%.  The temperature is usually hot enough to melt grits.  Some of my kin refer to this weather as, "Continued mild."  However, trees will hardly burn there as they are so damp.

However,  the Winter Creek Trail Camp weather was as dry as a valedictorian's mouth on commencement day.  It hadn't rained since forever ago.

Our two itinerant wanna be 'coon catchers raided a trash barrel finding enough combustible material to proceeded with the plan to smoke out Mr. Raccoon.  They stuffed some of this material into the hole in the old oak.  They touched it off with a match thus creating a vast amount of smoke as planned.

Now, our friends were not alone at the trail camp on this lazy summer day.  As usual, this pleasant, picturesque, pastoral, picnic place was predominately packed with a plethora of people pursuing personal pleasures.  The assembled hikers, picnickers, youngun's, and the general populace was as thick as hair on a dog's back.

 At the first sight and smell of smoke the emotional stability of the gathered unraveled like a hand made genuine authentic Navajo blanket machine woven in China.  Everyone ran in a different direction to do something appropriate.  Some even had the smarts to run to the smoking 'coon tree and pull out the burning trash and stomp out the fire.

This should have ended the whole fiasco.

Right? . . .  Wrong!

Someone observed the inside of the ol' oak was ablaze.  The tree was very hollow, all the way to the top.  The raccoon knew this and was aware of the various exits.  One of which it utilized to make its getaway for parts unknown during the fire drill.

It was as clear as a shower door at the Mustang Ranch to this ol' raccoon that this was man's folly and if it were to maintain its reputation for dignity and decorum the tourist should be left to deal with their own disasters.

One of the tourists realized this was serious, found the nearest call box on the canyon magneto emergency telephone line and announced to all and sundry, up and down the canyon, the woods were aflame at the Winter Creek Trail Camp.

This news created as much excitement as a microwave cookoff at a pacemaker convention.

Ken Forden was then a volunteer for the Forest Service and is still involved as a volunteer after all these years.  He informed me that when he arrived on the scene there was smoke emitting from a knot hole atop the ol' oak 40 feet from the ground level.  Volunteers, rangers, fire fighters and the general public made preparations to extinguish the fire before it spread to the surrounding forest.

In those bygone days, fires were pursued the old fashioned way, by hand from the ground.  There were no helicopters or water bombers, etc.  Ken said forestry had purchased engine driven water pumps the year before and they were stored in the bottom half of the emergency telephone buildings along with other tools for fire fighting.

The first plan was to lay hose line from the tree to the stream where the pump would be located.  Plan two was to cut down the ol' oak tree, break it open and douse the fire.  Should work out as smooth as glass.

Right? . . .  Wrong!

All was placed in readiness and the pump was started.  A stream of water shot from the nozzle.  The hose nozzle was pointed up inside the tree.  The fire fighting was under way at last.  The spectators greeted this action with at-a-boys, whistles and applause.

The opening inside the tree was not straight.  It had numerous curves and ledges deflecting the stream of high pressure water.  Hot water, hot coals, hot ashes, etc., fell down inside the tree on the hands holding the nozzle.  This required a new game of fast hand switching to hold the nozzle.  This nozzle hand switching game continued for a few minutes.

In the meantime, a couple of Forestry volunteers, we’ll call ‘em Paul B. and Babe Blue impersonators, stood to the side with saw and ax in hand poised to execute plan two.  However, it appeared P-2 would not be needed.

Right? . . .  Wrong!
 Just as progress was being made on the fire with white smoke/steam emitting from the forty foot knot hole, as if the signal to inform that a new Pope had been selected, the blast of water was reduced to a dribble.  The crowd received this turn of events with a disappointing grown, hisses and a boo or two.

All attention was drawn to the source.  The pump engine was going like gang busters, but no water.  As mentioned, there hadn't been any rain for many months and the stream was reduced to a trickle.  The pool in which the pump’s suction pipe had been dropped was as empty as an old maid's arms.

The pump crew, as well as everyone else in the area, became a dam building crew in order to capture every drop of water available.  The nozzle crew looked to the stream and then to Paul B. and Babe, with ax and saw, ready to move in with P-2.  The fire in the tree had started again.  The white smoke was changing to dark at the forty foot level.  Another ballot would be needed for the Pope selection.

It was later rumored the crowd was about to lay side bets on P-1 or P-2, with odds.  This rumor was later denied by a man in a checkered suit wearing spats and a skimmer.  He was holding dollar bills in one hand and slips of paper with names and numbers in the other.

Within minutes enough water had filled the pool and the pump was again started.  Paul and Babe backed off.  The water blasted from the nozzle and the hot hand game started a new.  The odds on P-1 dropped to even.

This sequence was repeated many times over the next number of hours.  It appeared for a time that P-1 was about as efficient as a screen door on a submarine.  However, success was at hand and the fire was finally extinguished without the aid of Paul B. and Babe.  All was returning to normal.

The pump and hose were stored.  The tools were put away.  The crowd went on about it's business of enjoying the canyon.  The volunteers returned to their duties.  There was no report as to the activities or location of Mr. Raccoon.

The unit ranger used the quiet time to discuss the finer points and procedures for 'coon hunting with Billy Bob and Willy Boy.  They just stood there listenin’, lookin’ down, holding their hands behind their backs, screwing first one foot, then the other into the ground.

The man in the spats and skimmer was giving two to one they would not mention raccoons or oak trees to family or friends for a long, long time.

The old Winter Creek Trail Camp was destroyed when the step dams were installed.  It was later replaced by Hoegee's Trail Camp. The ol' 'coon tree is still there by the side of the Lower Winter Creek Trail.  To this day, when us old timers pass that tree we still look up to check for smoke at the forty foot level!

Not much happens in Big Santa Anita Canyon on lazy summer afternoons.

Right? . . .  Wrong!

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