Experience matters as students gather pallets for Starvation Gulch

Erin McGroarty / Sun Star Reporter
Sept. 20, 2011

Around 1 a.m. on the night of Sept. 15, Jesse Manchester (left) and Mickie Zakurdaew (right) load pallet after pallet into the back of Manchester's truck. This will be the first of many runs before the lighting of the fires on next Saturday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. Erin McGroarty/Sun Star

To many, Starvation Gulch may seem like just a giant bonfire. However, to Mickie Zakurdaew, an electrical engineering junior, and Jesse Manchester, a political science and foreign language senior, it is much more.

It represents an annual tradition that brings the student community together in a way that very few other campus events can. Manchester’s a veteran — this is his fifth year designing and helping the fraternity Alpha Phi Omega build their bonfire. Both men have years of experience collecting pallets for the fraternity.

“I love it,” Manchester said. “It’s such a blast, but there’s a lot that goes into it ahead of time.”
He sits in a large easy chair in the McIntosh lounge on the evening of Sept. 14th, and spells it out from the beginning. Each team signs up as soon as possible, its members already planning their design and strategy. The teams are responsible for designing their structure as well as finding all of the wooden pallets necessary for the structure. This is the part that takes the longest — even the smallest structure can take up to 400 wooden pallets, which all must be found, collected and stored by the respective teams.
“Last year we had to find 800 of those suckers,” Zackurdaew said. This year they chose to go with less, allowing them to shorten their late night tours of industrial Fairbanks in search of abandoned pallets.
“The tradition of the giant bonfire started back in 1923, 88 years ago to be exact, in the middle of the Gold Rush when people loved burning things,” said Cody Rogers, UAF Traditions board advisor and Student Activities Office coordinator.
Starvation Gulch became a tradition to welcome the incoming freshman class each year and figuratively “pass the torch of knowledge” down to the new students. The tradition used to include building a miniature town and burning it to the ground. That soon became dangerous and the tradition switched over to more controlled fires. After the tragic bonfire collapse that killed twelve students at Texas A&M University in November 1999, UAF decided to up its bonfire regulations to ensure the safety of the students as they partook in this time-honored tradition. Since then, each fire structure may not exceed 20 feet tall and 50 feet wide.
“That doesn’t change the potential size of the flame, though,” Zakurdaew said. The APO group teamed together to win the “Big Ass” Trophy four years in a row.
“Yes, it’s actually called that,” Manchester said with a grin. This trophy is awarded to the team that has the tallest flame. The size of the actual structure is irrelevant. The measurement is taken from the top of the structure to the tip of the flame.
The design of the structure contributes a lot to other awards. Along with the Big Ass Trophy, there is also a creativity award, which APO also won in previous years. Although they are slightly behind on the pallet collection schedule, the APO group feels confident about this year’s competition and hope to see lots of students there.

Friday, Sept. 24

  • Alumni Night at the Pub –  8p.m.
  • Residence Life’s Safety Dance –  10 p.m. – 2 a.m.
  • SRC Late Nighter – 10p.m. – 12a.m.
Saturday, Sept. 25
  • Bonfire Building in the Taku parking lot – 10a.m. to 3p.m.
  • Nearly Naked Fun Run – 6 p.m.
  • Safety Block Party by the UAF Police Department and Fire Department – 5 – 8p.m.
  • Blue vs. Gold hockey game – 7 p.m.
  • The bonfires will start at 10p.m.

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