Home / General / First Hunting Expedition into the McKenzie Mountains N.W.T. 1965

First Hunting Expedition into the McKenzie Mountains N.W.T. 1965

Gordon Eastman watching his friend and bush pilot, Warren Johnston, filling the Super Cub up with gas. Notice he is straining the gas.
Gordon Eastman watching his friend and bush pilot, Warren Johnston, filling the Super Cub up with gas. Notice he is straining the gas.

Landing with a hard jolt, the small, red Super Cub’s left front tire splits open from impacting a sharp, granite rock. Then, without notice, the small bush plane skids uncontrollably back and forth along the abandoned canal road. Because the left landing gear hub is now exposed to the rocky road, it scrapes to a sudden stop; the nose of the plane dives downward and the propeller tip bends as it digs into the road surface. When the dust clears Gordon Eastman and pilot Warren Johnston were okay, but now they’re stranded in the middle of hundreds of square miles in the vast McKenzie Mountains in the Northwest Territories. With no radio, a bent prop and flat tire the situation is dire; though this isn’t the first time the duo has faced being stranded in the wilderness. Several years before, they found themselves floating on a slush ice keg in the Arctic Ocean after the freezing waters swallowed their Super Cub. But that’s a story for another time.

With no communication and the outside world not knowing your location – you’re on your own. So how would you fix a bent prop and a blown tire in the middle of the McKenzie Mountains to try and make it back to the small village of Ross River, Yukon Territory some hundreds of miles away?

Well, fixing the prop was just a matter of taking if off the plane and beating it with a large rock until the tip was straight enough to work. The blown tire was another story. When they hit the sharp rock it ripped a large, lengthwise split half the diameter of the tire. Luckily for them, Gordon always packed a Case three-bladed pocketknife in his front pants pocket. One of the blades was an awl punch used to drill holes in leather. They took the tire off the plane and Gordon with awl in hand, punched small holes along both sides of the slit. Then they gathered up willows from the nearby creek bank and packed them inside the rubber wheel. The flexibility of the willow branches made it easier to maintain a round tire shape. Next, they took bootlaces and sewed the slit shut while ensuring the willows inside maintained the tires roundness.

Gordon and Warren at a camp on the canal road to Yellowknife N.W.T. that was built in the 40’s. After the war, it was abandoned and never used to bring oil down to the United States. Gordon used it for a landing strip while hunting.
Gordon and Warren at a camp on the canal road to Yellowknife N.W.T. that was built in the 40’s. After the war, it was abandoned and never used to bring oil down to the United States. Gordon used it for a landing strip while hunting.

Slapping the willow-packed tire back on the Cub, Warren was ready to attempt a flight out to the nearest airstrip. Because of the tire and propellers condition, weight was a critical factor, so they elected to leave Gordon behind in the Northwest Territories bush. Warren was to make the flight out, repair the plane, and be back in a few days. With fingers crossed, Warren taxied slowly down the road, lined up for takeoff, and jumped the little Super Cub into the mountain air. As Warren disappeared over the horizon I can’t imagine what dad was thinking, as he stood there alone in uncharted lands hundreds of miles from civilization.

Lady Luck was with Warren during his flight to Ross River. A new tire and prop were quickly mounted and a few days later he was back with Gordon continuing their exploratory hunt.

To this day in the town of White Horse, Yukon Territory, you’ll still find old-timers telling the tale of Gordon and Warren using backcountry ingenuity to make it back out of the bush.

About Mike Eastman

Mike Eastman

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13 comments

  1. Very cool Guy! That would have scared the crap out of most guys and to think of repairing that tire that way was awesome.

  2. Great story. I lived to watch his films when I was very young. The one where they walk up on the end of a rainbow has always stuck with me.

  3. My former boss and President of Era Helicopters, Wilbur O’Brien, flew for your father, Gordon, when he worked in Canada, before Era. I believe it was on the making of one of your dad’s movies about returning wolves to the wild. If not, it was something similar. I got to see the movie and saw Wilbur flying a boat made from a moose hide. Forgive me if the facts are a little shaky. It’s been a long time ago. Wilbur still emails and is retired in Anchorage, Alaska.

    • That was Savage Wild film. He used someone that had a Ranger helicopter to fly the family into the bush. I was not on that trip I was in Viet Nam on my second tour. I think it was 1969. Mike Eastman

  4. Kevin Schwinkendorf

    This is a great story about American ingenuity, courage, and true grit. I would never have even thought of using willow branches for that, and I’m an engineer – I guess I would have been stranded!

  5. Wow the great ingenuity of things from nature willows branches and bootlaces saved their lives. Way cool story. Thanks guy.

  6. I was fortunate to know gorden Eastman . he loved to show films of his adventures , and the one I really enjoyed was his polar bear hunt. his parents or grandparents owned the eastmans jewlery shop in omak w.a. I consider your shows one of tops,keep up the good work wished I was not so crippledup I would love to hunt in Wyoming for a big buck.

  7. I saw your dads film, The Savage Wild for the first time in 1988, I was a teenager, and my dad was very fascinated by the wolves. We lived in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge in a cabin on a lake. We didn’t raise full wolves, but we did raise half wolf hybrids. Did your dad ever fly? I ask, as it seems he spent alot of time in the wilderness. My whole family is into airplanes, so we found the flying scenes in Savage Wild quite entertaining. Interestingly, my mother was from Whitehorse, YT, and she recognized some of the folks in your dads film.

  8. I flew with Sonny “Warren” every day on the ranch in Gustave So, Dak, back in the summer of 1956, hE IS ONE OUTSTANDING PILOT, I CAN VOUGE FOR THAT

  9. My first camera was one Mr. Eastman left for my father after this trip. Unfortunately it was later stolen but we did get some good pictures from it. This story is a good example of why I tried to stick to traveling by horse. Had a few hairy trips flying out of there.

  10. Thanks for the story! Warren doesn’t talk much about his adventures. Your dad was a cool guy that had a great story to tell and told it very well. Loved the polar bear and the narrated slide shows. Thank you!!

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