Pioneer Potluck: About Ben’s boat wreck at Big Lake

Year: 1972 — Big Lake, Alaska


This is one of my favorite stories about one of my favorite friends, Ben Burcham — he died in 1986 and he will always be missed.

Ben and his wife Nadene and son, Robbie, moved to Alaska from Lubbock, Texas in the late 1960s to cash in the oil pipeline. Ben was an excellent welder. He and Robbie adapted well to the work and fun in Alaska. Poor Nadene tagged along so she would not miss anything. Her job was to scream and scold! They all had the deep Texas accent. The jovial Ben, with his ever and always stories, sent smiles to everyone he talked with.

Ben built flat-bottom river boats in his “exter” time. We spent a lot of time at Big Lake in his boat, water skiing (not me!) picnicking and running around the lake visiting with all the other boaters on the lake.

We spent a long week cruising around the lake and it was time for us to go home to Eagle River.

Robbie, Ben’s youngest 16-year-old son, was bugging Ben to let him load the boat on the trailer.

“Wall, I-uh, guess ya’ ain’t gonna larn no younger,” Ben said, continuing with instruction on how you load a boat on a trailer. “Now, son, ya’ circle round and line yr-self up with this here trailer hitch, give her a little goose, then shut her down and she’ll glide right in thar on that thar trailer. You be careful son.”

Ben climbed on the trailer hitch, hooked up to the old-old “yallar” school bus that was Ben and Nadene’s motor home, to get things ready for Robbie to glide the boat onto the trailer. Robbie carefully circled around, lined up the boat, Ben guiding him with one hand, hanging on the boat trailer with the other hand. Robbie glided into position, getting ready to “give her a little goose.” Ben yelled “yar a little crook-it.” Robbie thinks he said “back off” and in his confusion of trying to please his Dad, instead of pulling the throttle back, he pushed the throttle full forward!

The boat jumped out of the water, up onto the boat trailer, slightly sideways to the right, hit the back of Ben’s old yellar bus, glanced off and got wedged “catty-wompus” between the yellar bus and the trailer tire. The boat motor roared wide open. Robbie finally got the motor shut down. We heard Robbie screaming at the top of his lungs. “I kilt ma’ Dad! I kilt ma’ Dad! OH! NO! What did I do? I kilt him – I kilt him!”

Then he started sobbing uncontrollably with his head on the steering wheel of the boat.

Nadene was in the bus, getting things locked down and ready to move out. She heard the loud ruckus and the boat slam into the back of the bus, jolting it forward. She came screaming out of the bus, scolding, “Wat ya’ all a-doin? Ya’ jest knocked me off ma’ feet… Robbie! Shut Up! How did ya’ DO that?”

Robbie looked at his Mom and started screaming “I kilt Dad – I just kilt Dad!” Nadene took off screaming around the back of the boat. “Whar is he, whar is he?” We were getting ready to get in our motor home just as all this took place and witnessed the boat flying through the air. We took off running for the back of the bus and trailer. Then I stopped, frozen in place — I did not want to see a dead body, especially Ben’s!

Nadene started screaming “Ben! Ben! Whar’ ya’ at? Ben! Ben!” Nadine was screaming over and over at the top of her lungs, bent over looking everywhere for Ben.

A voice came from under the bus, “SHUT UP WOMAN! Get me outta’ here! Shut UP Nadene!” We ran over and dropped down on our knees and looked under the bus at Ben screaming again, “Shut up Nadene!” Robbie heard his dad’s voice and leaned over the boat and threw up!

All of us on our knees, down between the trailer and the bus, grabbed Ben’s hand and started pulling him out. He was wedged under the bus, next to the exhaust pipe. As we were crawling backwards, I stated loudly that “I think he’s OK.” Ben crawled out, rolled over and sat up. “Hell, Yes, I’m OK! I jest need to kick start ma’ heart, and then I ma’ gonna’ kick that kid so hard he will be a wearin’ his ear on his butt! Robbie, what ya trin’ to do, kill off yr’ole Dad?” Robbie turned totally to jelly, blubbering and crying, white as a sheet, trying to climb out of the boat. He was saying over and over, “I’m sorry Dad, I’m sorry Dad. I thought I kilt ya… Are ya’ OK?”

Ben looked at the white-faced, rubber-legged Robbie, “Wall, ya’ know what? I bet I aint’ as scared as you are – huh?” Robbie grabbed his dad and gave him a big hug and started crying all over again.

Ben had seen the boat come flying at him, he ducked just at the boat hit the trailer, knocking him to the ground so hard it wedged him under the bus. Everyone was standing around in shock, when Ben said to Nadene, “Dang, woman, I gotta’ lose some weight. I got stuck tighter-n-wedge under there – NADENE! STOP crying – I’m OK!”

The stress level dropped and they proceeded to get the boat unwedged. It was sitting tilted sideways between the bus and the trailer. One of the many bystanders by then, suggested they just unhook the boat from the bus and let if fall. Ben was not too keen on that, because there was already some damage to the boat, but that is what they finally had to do. Then they pulled the boat backwards into position on the trailer and secured it with ropes and tie downs.

Poor Robbie stopped going with his dad and his boat, and shortly after that, Ben and Nadene split up and she went back to Texas. She said there was too much excitement in Alaska and if she was gonna’ have a fatal heart attack, she wanted to be at home in Texas!

The Pioneer Potluck series is written by 50-year resident of Alaska Ann Berg of Nikiski. Ann shares her collections of recipes from family and friends. She has gathered recipes for more that 50 years. Some are her own creation. Her love of recipes and food came from her mother, a selftaught wonderful cook. She hopes you enjoy the recipes and that the stories will bring a smile to your day. Grannie Annie can be reached at


Moose and mushroom stir fry

1 cup water chestnuts — the sliced ones

1 cup sliced celery

1 cup diced green or red bell pepper

1 cup sliced onions

1/2 pound of fresh sliced mushrooms — and if you happen to find Morels this time of year, they are excellent in this recipe!

3 pounds of moose sirloin or beef if you prefer, cut in thin strips — partially freeze for easy cutting

1/2 tsp ground ginger or (preferably) 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger

1 tbsp sugar

A splash of sherry or beef broth

Corn oil or olive oil

Purchased stir fry sauce or soy sauce

This should be stir fried in a wok. However, I do not own one anymore, so use my cast iron skillet. Heat a small amount of oil and add ginger and vegetable one at a time and quickly sauté. Transfer to bowl and keep warm. Add a splash of sherry, although not necessary, reduces the amount of oil you use. I use beef broth.

Sauté the meat last and when brown return the vegetable to the pan and add the stir fry or the soy sauce. Serve over fried or fluffy white rice or soft noodles.

Smoked salmon with wild rice salad

Our friend Judy makes a recipe similar to this.

1 pound of smoked salmon, diced

1 each, yellow and red bell pepper diced

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup wild rice

1 cup brown rice

Rinse the rice and cook as directed on package. Drain off any liquid left and cool slightly in large bowl. Stir together the following:


2 tbsp red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp garlic salt

1/4 tsp marjoram

1/4 tsp black pepper

1 tsp soy sauce

1/2 tsp grated lemon peel

4 green onions sliced fine

1 large clove of garlic, minced

Stir together and pour over warm rice. Chill. Before serving add peppers, salmon and walnuts. Serve on individual lettuce lines plates. 4–6 servings.

Alaskan Rhubarb Pineapple Crunch

Into a 9 x 13 glass dish, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add cut rhubarb, enough to fill the dish half full.


1 – 16oz can of well-drained crushed pineapple.

Sprinkle with:

1 cup brown sugar

½ cup broken walnut pieces

1 small box of raspberry or strawberry Jell-O

Dot the top with butter and sprinkle ½ box of dry white cake mix. Do not stir!

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes–one hour

Let set about and hour and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Strawberry Rhubarb Up-Side-Down Cake

So very good with vanilla bean ice cream.

In a 9 x 13 glass dish, place ½ stick melted butter. Two cups of cut rhubarb and two cups of homegrown Alaska strawberries. Sprinkle evenly with 1 ½ cups of brown sugar. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl:

¼ cup shortening or butter

¼ cups vegetable oil

1 ½ cups of brown sugar

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla

Cream shortening and oil and brown sugar. Add the egg and the vanilla. Cream until fluffy.

While the above is mixing in a smaller bowl combine:

1 tsp baking soda

¼ tsp salt

2 cups flour

Stir into the cream mixture alternately with

1 cup of buttermilk or sour milk

(Make sour milk by adding one tsp vinegar in one cup milk)

Fold in 1 cup chopped walnut.

Spoon on top of strawberry-rhubarb and bake at 350 degrees for one hour and 15 minutes,until the middle is done and the juices are bubbling around the outside.