Note: Walter passed away on March 2, 2015 at age 90.
Q. Tell us about the focus of your new book, “Breakaway”.
Focus: We are still the same people that started this country – for my own satisfaction, I set out in the harsh conditions of wilderness Alaska just to prove it could still be done. I love to explore places that are not covered with other people’s footprints. The book reflected all the many things I have done with my life. I built the cabin and lived off the land for 1 year, ALONE!
I hope this book will help others to get a new outlook on their life.
My main point: You have to want to do it! Never give up.
Q. I had a mining claim in California for a number of years and did pretty well with a metal detector. With the price of gold these days this precious metal is even in more demand. Did you ever have any luck gold mining in the Yukon Territory? And tell us how you looked for gold in those days?
After seeing others’ prosperity from gold, I just had to try it. The price of gold was steadily going up, but that is not what drove me. It was the nostalgia, mystery, and history of old time prospection–under the most difficult conditions, struggling as they did years ago, all driven by the dream of The Motherload. Maybe 1 out of 100 actually found gold. I was driven by the many stories of these old timers.
Being a pilot, it was obvious to me, a helicopter was the way to go. I returned to Texas and went after a helicopter rating, working my way up to a commercial helicopter rating. I was able to prospect very remote areas with a helicopter in one day that would have taken old timers a whole season to do.
I never found the elusive Motherload, but I did very well for a “green horn”.
I can tell you it was the greatest thing I ever did, all that exploring many lost mines and ghost towns-just think about that! I went back in time with modern means and relived the life of an Old Sourdough! My joy knew no bounds.
Q. Most people don’t survive helicopter crashes much less crashes in the middle of the wilderness where one has to survive for 14 days as you did before being rescued in British Colombia is 1978. Tell us about the crash and how you ultimately survived before being rescued for so long.
I survived the crash by will power-I just refused to die. I prayed a lot and considered it a miracle that I did. Having spent the summer running up and down mountains, I was in top physical shape and that helped me survive-with a broken back and 7 broken ribs, I had difficulty moving around. I just had to crawl around and could not stand.
Can you just imagine how a man could feel laying there beside the wreckage, and see a rescue plane go by and not see you? Well, they passed by me so close, I could see the number on the plane, but did not see me. They passed by 4 times, you talk about the lows a man could sink into knowing they would probably never come again. It is difficult to describe. Most people give up about living-that’s where my will power and will the live takes over. Through I did not give up, I did accept the fact that I might die.
Your thoughts go back-your family, your kids, you relive those times as time begins to fly, you pray some more and vow to never give up.
You find strength to move a 200 lbs piece of the tail section that did not burn, and move it to a clearing several yards away.
Maybe if they come back, I will be seen. It took 2 days to move inches at a time-thinking a broken rib will penetrate your liver, but it no longer matters this is your last chance. I just had to refuse to accept fate as it stares you in the face-Don’t ever give up.
On the 14th day, they came by one more time. I was lying in my shelter at 10:30 in the morning (I had build a make shift shelter, using the blown off door as a roof), and they came over me just a few hundred feet above me.
I have trouble explaining how I felt at that moment, I was shouting to the Lord-Thank you God!
I am saved, I kept saying it over and over-tears flowing down my face. All of the sudden, I felt weak and slumped down and felt I did not have the power to move after this time I could relax, but I had used all my power to stay alive. Now I was limp as a kitten.
I could live, I would be with my loved ones again! My prayers were answered! Don’t know how long I lay there-soon a helicopter was hovering above me-I was on my way up! I could let go! I was saved!
Q. When you were 55 years of age in 1975 you decided to move to Alaska and live off of the land in a log cabin you built yourself. What made you do this – and what was the hardest part of living alone in the wilderness – especially during the dark cold Alaskan winter?
After reading so many books about living in the North Country, I just had to try it myself. I got the urge at the time I was single from my 1st wife-I felt I needed something and maybe I would find it up there and I did.
My father had taught me at an early age, to cut lumber and build log houses-I had the skill and ability so I did it. The hardest part is the cold. I had built a cabin-well & tight, but even my coffee pot water would freeze. Many times the temp, would drop to more than 40 below.
I was well prepared for it-I had been convinced about this. Being alone in the tough, you make an effort not to think about it. When you would get out-just think about now and not tomorrow by keeping busy.
I had a radio and kept busy talking to people in Morse code from all over the world. Don’t ever think about that dreaded cabin fever.
Q. There is certainly a lot of freedom in piloting your own plane – what did you enjoy most about being a private pilot?
Well it goes without saying, I love to fly-but flying around Alaska is different and a challenge. I visited so much of Alaska and the Yukon Territory, and became a bush pilot for a while.
I just did seat of pants flying-finding a spot to land an airplane on, catch fish and enjoy the quiet. You would have to be in a sound proof room to experience it. Quiet does make sound like you hear the blood rushing through your head.
I know now how an eagle feels, drifting over the rivers and mountains. How can I tell you how this is? Its an experience I will never forget. Being a private pilot, both fixed wing & helicopter is like a dream. Up there I was as free as the eagle, and passed by and shared the air with them.
Just flying through country that is so remote, that any direction I flew, I was seeing landscape that may not have ever seen a man. Just being able to do it again would be my greatest dream.
Q. Out of all your achievements and adventures in your career, what are you most proud of and why?
I am proud of the things I have done and thankful for the ability God gave me to do it. Somewhere along the way God picked a soul to do different things-along with the help of my mother, he gave me this. I have used it.
Q. Can you give us a description of a specific humorous moment (story, happening or other) from some of your travels and adventures?
I stood and watched one day as a mama bear was teaching her cubs to hunt for food.
I was about 100 yards away on a little hill just above them. They were at the edge of a river that spilled over some huge rocks, and salmon were passing up the river. The mama bear would suddenly plunge her head into the water and come up with a fish. The cubs would try the same, but miss the fish. When this happened, the mama would slap the club and knock it rolling-then try again.
At first, I thought they were just playing, but she was really trying to them to fish. I had to laugh at their antics-almost human like.
Q. Describe some of the current or more recent projects you’ve worked on.
I love to build things. Since returning from the North Country, I have build & flown 2 helicopters and a two-place airplane. Right now, I am re-building a 1952 English sports car called a MG. I have also build an electric truck.
Q. Since it was the recent 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and you joined the U.S. Marine Corps one week before this tragic event – where were you when you heard the news and what was your immediate reaction at that time?
When I heard the news, I was sitting in the rec room in the marine barracks reading the funny papers in San Diego, California. I realized real quick, there was nothing funny about this soul shaking news!
At age ten his family moved off the mountain and later moved to Texas. Walter loved to read adventure stories and dreamed of the day he would live some of his own. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17, one week before Pearl Harbor thrust the U.S. into World War II. He served in the South Pacific and was wounded on the island of Guadalcanal.
After learning to fly, Walter’s adventures led him all over the world. His love of the wilderness drew him to the North Country where he built a log cabin 100 miles from the nearest neighbor and lived off the land for an entire year in isolation while filming the documentary Breakaway.
Tragedy nearly ended his adventurous life when his helicopter crashed and burned in British Columbia. Badly injured, he lay there for 14 days before his rescue by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The story made international news.
After his recovery, Walter spent several years gold mining in the Yukon Territory. Most notable is the season he spent exploring ghost towns and deserted gold mines with his helicopter.
Walter Yates has built several boats, two helicopters, and an airplane. As a real estate developer he established many residential neighborhoods, including the fly-in subdivision called Breakaway Park in Cedar Park, Texas where residents keep their planes in their backyards.
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