Fred Rungee: Firefighter, Cabin Builder, Friend & Giver Of Ice Cream

Respected, Hard Working, Funny, Talented... Fred Rungee Was One Of A Kind July 29th, 2020:  Several days ago, State Forestry workers...

Respected, Hard Working, Funny, Talented... Fred Rungee Was One Of A Kind

July 29th, 2020: 
Several days ago, State Forestry workers cut and piled a big stack of firewood at Tazlina Rest Area, for free pickup by local people. When the Country Journal ran a photo of two of them, Autumn Leeman, who took the photo, wrote: "The guys owe us ice cream since they got their pic in the paper!" 

Ice cream, firefighters and good will. They're are all tightly bound together in the Copper River Valley. And that's because of Fred Rungee.

Fred Rungee was a Connecticut man who worked as a smokejumper in World War II before coming to Alaska. He was an old-style frontiersman, good with the double-bit axe. He carried a 60 pound pack, a model 70 Winchester hunting rifle, and worked for BLM in Glennallen, in charge of fighting fires in the Copper Valley.

Beloved by kids in the various villages, young firefighters, and just about anybody who ever met or talked with him, Fred was known for his love of ice cream.

For Fred Rungee, life just didn't have meaning without a big bowl of ice cream. It was, for him, a firefighting tradition – eating ice cream. So it is no surprise that ice cream still plays a role in Copper Valley firefighters' daily lives, and that somehow – in honor of Fred Rungee – young firefighters in the valley are still sharing ice cream on a summer day.

In many ways, Fred Rungee was the MacGyver of Alaskan firefighting, capable of using the simplest tools in his never-ending efforts to save his beloved valley from going up in flames. In this land full of black spruce that are topped with witches' brooms and sticky sap as flammable as napalm, apparently all Fred ever really needed was his Boy Scout knife.

His friend Tom Sadowski, wrote: "In one incident, he chanced upon a slow moving fire while in the back country in Alaska on a dirt bike in the vicinity of the Klutina 'road.' Unable to get help and refusing to leave a potentially disastrous fire, he took a good deal of time and effort to cut a line around the fire - with his pocket knife."

Fred Rungee lived in Alaska for more than 70 years, and retired to near Slana in 1978, building a cabin several miles off the road. He packed in a huge stove, and even his piano, back to the cabin. People he knew (and Fred Rungee knew quite a lot of people) prided themselves in hiking to the cabin to visit.

Tom Sadowski wrote about Fred Rungee:

New recruits assigned to his district were sometime suspicious of his delightful demeanor as they felt no one man could be that nice. He had courtesy to spare and his own brand of wilderness grace. Newcomers might have tested him but his niceness was invariable and unassailable. Fred Rungee would win people over and then they would start being nice –or more agreeable than they had been. Some even competed to be nicer than Fred but that top spot of human decency had already been claimed through a lifetime of practice –a lifestyle of generosity and a lifelong commitment to peace and harmony.

Rungee never discounted people. It didn’t matter if they were spurned by society and semiconscious in some substance induced stupor, he always reached out to help. Fred was a model to all he met. Never preaching, he taught human decency by example. He also taught piano and hockey to young Alaskans and befriended so many local Alaskan Natives that he was named an honorary member of the Mentasta Tribe. His quiet notoriety was widespread as the State of Alaska honored Fred with “Fred Rungee Day”.

He could play Rachmaninoff on his Alaska wilderness piano, recite Southey, and cook dinner for twenty. A skilled story teller and humorist, he could tell first-person bear attack stories and tales that few residents knew. His spontaneity transformed dinners into parties; he was fairly adept at throwing serving spoons into large bowls of mashed potatoes from across the room. He would put joy into conversation and enthusiasm into the tired but his trademark gesture was the promotion and consumption of ice cream which was always shared with friends, any time of the day, during warmish summers and brutal Alaska winters.

(Remembrances and photo, courtesy Tom Sadowski)  

When he was 93 years old, on March 27th, 2015, the Copper River Valley's greatest firefighter passed away.

Fred Rungee, Master Firefighter, Woodsman, Friend To All – And Lover Of Ice Cream. (Photo, Tom Sadowski)

Story Update: "Uncanny"

Letter From Tom Sadowski, August 10th, 2020

Fred had an uncanny ability to produce ice cream in the most unusual places. You would be two miles off the road in the middle of summer mopping up some forest fire and he would appear. After an hour or two helping out, you would all sit down for a break and Fred would pull a half gallon of perfectly frozen ice cream out of his pack, with spoons and share it with everyone. 

Sometimes the ice cream came out of the trunk of that old car he drove around we all called the Rungee Mobile. This would be out by Slana or Lake Mentasta – did he have a freezer in there or what? You could understand producing ice cream in the winter on a hike but having it at his cabin on Carlson Lake where there was no electricity in the middle of summer -????


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