The slight, frail, old man slowly pulled himself to his feet, hooked his cane on the edge of the table, and leaned forward against the podium. His face lined and wrinkled from years of sun and wind, he looked out at his audience through eyes that seemed to gaze back through the years, from a past unfamiliar to those around him. Almost nine decades of living had taken much of his strength, but his determination and love of life were evident. Some of us, the hardy few, never lose those qualities.When Walter ‘Yukon’ Yates began to speak, his audience sat in rapt silence, treated to the memories of a man who had done more in his lifetime than any ten in attendance, any twenty. The members of the Texas Outdoor Writers Association include some who have hunted and fished and camped all over the world, but none could claim to have enjoyed the lifetime of adventure represented in this one old face. We all have desires and dreams of fantastic escapades in far places. This man had spent a lifetime fulfilling his.Yates was born in Arkansas in 1924, but his family moved to Texas when he was ten. He grew up reading tales of adventure by Jack London and others, and hoped to one day live a life of excitement. London, without question, could have made his reputation on nothing but stories of Yates’ escapades.Joining the U.S. Marines a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Yates served in the South Pacific during World War II, and was wounded during the battle for Guadalcanal, but managed to survive the war. Afterward he learned to fly, and began a life of wandering that took him all over the world. Tolerant and encouraging, Yates’ wife, Tracy, mostly stayed at home and understood, through years of waiting for her vagabond husband to come home. For a while.Yates’ travels often took him into inhospitable lands where few had been before, and from which many of those had not returned. He spent years exploring the country above the Arctic Circle, prospecting for gold in Canada and Alaska, and pushing the limits of human endurance. He had a love for the lost places, the abandoned haunts where the dreams of others had lived, and died. He sought out, found, and embraced the solitude of the past, in remote log cabins and dugouts long forgotten by their builders.In many of those dusty, ancient shacks he found the leavings of previous occupants; a dented spoon, a rusted knife, cast-off clothing. Hanging from a nail in the wall of one cabin he found a worn coat, and in a pocket was a Christmas card dating from the 1930s. Forlorn past greetings from one ghost to another.Maybe those searches prompted Yates to leave civilization a hundred miles behind and build a log cabin in the Alaskan North Country, where he lived for a year, alone, and filmed his documentary, ‘Breakaway.’ The long winter nights must have moaned with the loneliness of isolation, but Yates was prepared, and weathered the solitary year in his usual, capable fashion.Bears sometimes came to the cabin looking for an easy meal, their noses to Yates’ windows, as he sat inside, his gun cocked and pointed at the intruder. Luckily, none ever really tried to get in. Luckily for the bears.During another period in his life, Yates used a helicopter to prospect for gold all over Alaska and Canada, and was on his way home from one three-month trip in British Columbia during the 1970s when his tail rotor malfunctioned. Only 700 feet above the ground at the time, he was unable to avoid a hard crash among the tall trees.The collision broke seven of Yates’ ribs, crushed a vertebra in his back, and generally ruined his day. The helicopter caught fire, and all his emergency food was destroyed. Unable to stand, he managed to build a shelter from one of the helicopter doors and some brush and logs. He lived on wild cranberries for two weeks while he waited for rescue, but at one point he caught a frog, of which he ate everything but the head.Sitting against a stump one day, Yates heard something coming, and looked up to see a large bear headed his way. He sat immobile while the bear came nose to nose with him, sniffing, engulfing him with fetid breath, before finally circling him and walking away.After four search planes had passed overhead without seeing him, Yates decided that, despite the risk of paralysis from his back injury or puncturing a lung with a broken rib, he had to drag part of the helicopter into the clearing where it could be spotted from the air. When rescuers finally arrived, one of them jokingly offered him $20,000 for his ‘cabin,’ the makeshift shelter he had built.Walter ‘Yukon’ Yates has spent his life living his dreams. In the process, he’s lived the dreams of many of the rest of us. Even now he continues to encourage others to take what they want from life. “You gotta want to do it,” he says. “It hurts, but you gotta want it.”We all dream of adventure. Yates has lived it. And he may not be done yet . . .Yates’ memoir, entitled ‘Breakaway,’ is available from his website, www.yukonyates.com.
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who hopes to spend a night or two in the cabin Yates built in Alaska. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org