Arctic Bush Flying and a Polar Bear Hunt Gone Wrong

Reposted by J. R. Mathison

May 2020

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Gordon Eastman was a wildlife photographer who also made movies of Alaskan wildlife and hunting. I do not know for sure his years of operation but I did see his work back in the 1950's. He had rented the local dance hall in Whitewood, South Dakota and set up folding chairs to make a theater to show his movies. As an early teenager, I was impressed!

Gordon financed his photography by showing his movies in the off season and guiding polar bear hunters and other hunters and fishermen in season.

NOTE: Two of Gordon's grandsons operate Eastmans' Publishing, Inc out of Powell, Wyoming and publish Eastmans' Hunting Journal and Eastmans' Bowhunting Journal while also producing hunting videos and DVD's.

Warren Johnson, mentioned in the stories below, left Spearfish, South Dakota for Alaska in July of 1959 and went to work for Gordon shortly after.

Warren graduated from Spearfish High School in 1952 and I graduated from Sturgis, South Dakota High School in 1958. The two towns are about twenty miles apart. Our paths did not cross before June 1962 when he returned to Speafish for a class reunion.

We met by accident at the Spearfish airport towards the end of June 1962 on a day too windy for a light plane to make a landing. In this case, the airplane was a Luscombe T-8F. Warren had made a couple passes at the runway but each time he slowed down enough to lower the tail, the airplane would again take to the air and he would have to catch it with power from the engine and go around again.

A friend and I were sitting idle and decided to run out to the runway and grab onto the airplane's wing tips when it came around again to hold it down on the ground.

It seemed like a good idea but my friend and I did not get ahold of our wingtip at the same time. This unbalanced the flight conditions and caused Warren to loose enough control which caused the airplane to bounce rather high with us two hanging on several feet above the ground. This caused panic on my part because I knew I could not stay hanging onto the wingtip if Warren was forced to go around for another pass. My friend and I were thankful we were not put to that test!

For the couple months that Warren was in the area, I did get to enjoy flying that beautiful Luscome a few times.

The first story below was written by Mike Eastman, Gordon's son.

For the life of me, I can not remember who wrote the second story and could not readily find his name in the text below. The story implies that the event took place in 1958 but in reality was in 1960. I heard the second story below first hand from Warren in 1962.

The third story below is a newspaper article which does not agree too well with the first two stories.

NOTE that this page is a republishing from the original sources. The source URL is given at the end of each story. Also note, there are pictures mentioned in the below text which I could not get. And - I made no attempt to correct grammar or spelling!


March 1960, Kodak Baby Brownie, Black and White print film, probably anscochrome?

The aircraft mentioned in the stories below is a Piper PA-18 Super Cub, a two place with tamden seating.

This is one that I flew back in the day. (Right -->)

These airplanes were mounted on skiis for operation off snow or ice and a belly tank was added for additional fuel.


Direct links to individual stories below

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

GO TO II. Cheating Death on the Arctic Ice Pack 1960

GO TO III. Joplin Globe Newspaper Archives, Mar 2, 1960, p. 5


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

Mike Eastman August 21, 2013 General 13 Comments 1,111 Views GordonEastman watching his friend and bush pilot, Warren Johnston, filling theSuper Cub up with gas. Notice he is straining the gas.

Landing with a hard jolt, the small, red Super Cub's left front tiresplits open from impacting a sharp, granite rock. Then, without notice, thesmall bush plane skids uncontrollably back and forth along the abandonedcanal road. Bec ause the left landing gear hub is now exposed to the rockyroad, it scrapes to a sudden stop; the nose of the plane dives downward andthe propeller tip bends as it digs into the road surface. When the dustclears Gordon Eastman and pil ot Warren Johnston were okay, but now they'restranded in the middle of hundreds of square miles in the vast McKenzieMountains in the Northwest Territories. With no radio, a bent prop and flattire the situation is dire; though this is n't the first time the duo hasfaced being stranded in the wilderness. Several years before, they foundthemselves floating on a slush ice keg in the Arctic Ocean after thefreezing waters swallowed their Super Cub. But that's a story f or anothertime.

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 inthe middle of the McKenzie Mountains to try and make it back to the smallvillage of Ros s River, Yukon Territory some hundreds of miles away?

Well, fixing the prop was just a matter of taking if off the plane andbeating it with a large rock until the tip was straight enough to work. Theblown tire was another story. When they hit the sharp rock it ripped alarge, lengthwi se split half the diameter of the tire. Luckily for them,Gordon always packed a Case three-bladed pocketknife in his front pantspocket. One of the blades was an awl punch used to drill holes in leather.They took the tire off the plan e and Gordon with awl in hand, punched smallholes along both sides of the slit. Then they gathered up willows from thenearby creek bank and packed them inside the rubber wheel. The flexibilityof the willow branches made it easier to maintain a round tire shape. Next,they took bootlaces and sewed the slit shut while ensuring the willowsinside maintained the tires roundness. Gordon and Warren at a camp on thecanal road to Yellowknife N.W.T. that was built in the 40's. After thewar, it was abandoned and never used to bring oil down to the UnitedStates. Gordon used it for a landing strip while hunting.

Slapping the willow-packed tire back on the Cub, Warren was ready toattempt a flight out to the nearest airstrip. Because of the tire andpropellers condition, weight was a critical factor, so they elected toleave Gordon behind in the Northwest Territories bush. Warren was to makethe flight out, repair the plane, and be back in a few days. With fingerscrossed, Warren taxied slowly down the road, lined up for takeoff, andjumped the little Super Cub into the mou ntain air. As Warren disappearedover the horizon I can't imagine what dad was thinking, as he stood therealone in uncharted lands hundreds of miles from civilization.

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

To this day in the town of White Horse, Yukon Territory, you'll stillfind old-timers telling the tale of Gordon and Warren using backcountryingenuity to make it back out of the bush.


II, Cheating Death on the Arctic Ice Pack

The year was 1957. It was the first time I traveled to the Arctic. My mentor, Lee Holen, had asked me to go along with him to fly cover for him while hunting Polar Bear. During this time period there were only a handful of A laskan Guides who hunted the Polar Bear on the frozen Arctic ice pack between Alaska and the Eastern providence of Russia.

I had been guiding and flying with Lee in the Wrangell Mountains the past fall season and I jumped at the chance to go guiding for the Polar Bear. Since I had heard many stories about these hunts. I was looking forward to an exciting adventure. In order to better understand and to give one a better picture of the adventure, I should first explain the lay of the land.

Polar Bears are a wandering animal. They travel wherever the food source takes them since they feed primarily on the Arctic Hair Seal. They naturally travel the cracks and open leads of the ice pack. The entire ocean is frozen in the area between Alaska and Russia, usually from October until June. Since it is dark most of the twenty-four hour day during October through January we dont attempt to hunt the Polar Bear until mid-February. The froze n ice pack is a jumble of pressure ridges and open leeds, from the size of a small crack up to open water several miles wide. It all depends on the ocean currents and the winds. One thing for sure, the ice pack is a moving, liv ing thing, always moving, always shifting, cracking and piling up somewhere. The noise the pack ice makes when moving is almost undescribable. One minute youll swear you hear a motor running, the next a mournful groan, or a woman screaming. The ice pack is one of the most awesome and frightful places to be standing on. Its taken time to get accustomed to all these noises and movement. A pressure ridge in the making is terrifying, especially if youre standing close to it and the ice starts piling up next to you.

Lee had planned on basing out of the village of Point Hope, Alaska, the Northernmost village in North America. It.s two hundred thirty miles from the village of Point Hope to the Russian coast. This was our hunting area. Thi s was the home of the Polar Bear.

During the years of 1957 to 1972 there were approximately thirty Alaska guides who hunted Polar Bear on this ice pack. The method used was a small Piper Super Cub aircraft, with the guides traveling in pairs for safety reaso ns. The thirty Guides consisted of fifteen teams of two aircraft each. The fifteen were based in villages along the Alaska coast, beginning about sixty miles North of Nome at Teller, Alaska, where two teams worked from. These t wo teams hunted in the area of Diomede Island and North. There were about nine teams (eighteen planes) based out of Kotzebue, Alaska, on Norton Sound. These guides hunted mostly on the Russian coast, from Kamen to Cape Schmidt. Lee and I were going to base out of Point Hope, Alaska, one hundred seventy miles Northwest of Kotzebue, Alaska. We were hunting the area West of Point Hope and Northwest along the Russian coast towards Wrangell Island.

These guides pioneered this hunting all on their own, flying out over the ice pack in search of the big white Bear, hoping to track one down so their wealthy client could shoot it as a trophy. I anticipated this to be the most exciting flying experience imaginable. I wasnt to be disappointed. We arrived at Point Hope on February 20, 1957. At the time, there were two hundred forty people living in this remote Eskimo village. There must have been fifty people who turned out to meet us when we landed our ski equipped Super Cubs right next to the village. One of those people was Amos Lane, a good friend of Lees. Since there are no hotels or restaurants in Point Hope, Lee had made arrangements with Amos to rent a small cabin, where we set up housekeeping. Our clients, which we had two riding with us, stayed with Allen Rock, who provided them with a room and meals.

We got the little Super Cubs parked next to the house and put them to bed. Putting a plane to bed in the Arctic, where its twenty to fifty below zero, is a chore that must be performed correctly if you want the Cub to perfo rm reliably. One must drain the oil while its hot and take the oil into the house. Take the battery out and keep it where its warm. When youre ready to go again one must pour the hot oil in the engine, put the warm bat tery in the plane and heat the engine with whats called a plumbers torch or a blow torch. In later years we starting using a thermax heater, a type of catalytic heater like a large hand warmer. These heaters would keep the engine warm all night, or about sixteen hours, on one quart of aviation or white gas. Of course, one must cover the engine with an insulated engine cover to hold in the heat. Without warming or heating the engine in some manne r it would not even turn over. As a matter of fact, you could do chin or pull-ups on the prop without it turning. Thirty weight motor oil will not pour out of a can at thirty below zero.

The village of Point Hope, Alaska, is situated on a spit of land on the most Northwesterly point of Alaska. When I first went there in 57, the people still lived a subsistence lifestyle. All the able-bodies men hunted or trapped every day the weather allowed. The most common animal taken was the hair seal4. The skin was sold to the native store or utilized for footwear or clothing. If it was sold, it was worth about twenty to thirty dollars. Th e Federal Government paid a three dollar bounty for killing a hair seal. The seal fat was used for fuel and burnt in a homemade stove. The fat burnt like coal. The meat was eaten or fed to the dog team. Each Eskimo family kept at least one dog team, from seven to eleven dogs. All travel during the frozen months was by dog team.

One must consider how difficult the life style is in such a village. Even drinking water presented a problem since everything is frozen. Ice must be chopped by hand with an ice chisel from the nearest freshwater lake, which was about three miles distant. The chunks of ice are hauled back to the village on a sled pulled by the dogs. The ice is dumped into a fifty-five gallon oil drum sitting in the corner of the room. As the ice melts, more is adde d each day, giving a constant supply of drinking water. Water used to wash ones body is from melted snow, which may or may not be completely clean and safe. Life in the Arctic was harsh and cruel. I could go on all day about th e conditions and lifestyle we lived while with the Eskimos, all of which would be completely foreign to most people.

At last the day arrived. I was to go on the Arctic ice pack following my mentor, Lee Holen searching for the Big White Bear. We warmed up the Super Cubs knocked the skis loose and took off West. The Super Cub aircraft is a two place tandem seating airplane. It has a high lift wing. It will fly at forty MPH and cruise at ninety MPH. It has a 150 or a 180 hp engine and burns about eight to ten gallons of fuel per hour. It will burn auto fuel, which was all that was available at the Point Hope native store, shipped in once per year in fifty-five gallon drums. The Super Cub will easily carry its own weight (about twelve hundred pounds). With the loads we were hau ling, it will land and take off on an area about five hundred feet in length. We carried a fuel supply of one hundred sixteen gallons of gas, thirty-six gallons in two wing tanks, sixty gallons in a belly pod tank and four five gallon cans in the rear of the plane. As soon as enough gas was burnt out to accommodate the twenty gallons we carried inside the plane, wed land and pour it into the wings. We had a total fuel supply of twelve and a half h ours duration of flying. During our later years of hunting, in the early seventies, we were flying sometimes ten and a half to eleven hours on each hunt, going almost to Wrangell Island off the Russian coast. As we got more exp erienced, we discovered that the largest big male Bears were found within twenty miles of the Russian coast, Northwest of Cape Schmidt. This time period was during the height of the cold war and flying into Russian airspace was , to say the least, risky business. Big problems were bound to arise, which they did in 1970, but thats one of my future stories.

The first couple of flights over the ice was a learning experience. It was all I was able to do to keep Lee in sight. My job was to follow him wherever he flew and simply be a safety plane in case of an incident or accident. Without the second plane, should something go wrong, you are in a world of hurt. Afoot in the Arctic ice pack, no doubt many miles from the shore or any establishment.

That first year with Lee, I learned a lot about the ice pack. Where one could land, reading the ice, judging how thick and safe it was, how to track those big Bears, how to judge the size of a Polar Bear. I gained a lot of k nowledge about white outs, Arctic mirages, gale force winds and pack ice movement. All these conditions had to be learned in order to survive flying over the pack ice. We were completely self dependent. There were no navigation al aids except for one ADF beacon at Kotzebue. We could talk to the lone FAA station in Kotzebue, Alaska. Occasionally, we could track a Russian beacon near Cape Schmidt. The DEW line sits at Cape Lisburne, Kotzebue and Tin City were no help to us renegade Polar Bear guides and hunters. They would barely help in a life and death emergency. We didnt get any assistance from the powerful radar sits and the most modern communications facilities in the world at that time.

These sits lined the entire coast of Alaska5. They were designed to warn the US of any violation of our airspace from Russia. The same type of sits were located all along the Russian coast, manned by Russia, to warn them of any US violating Russian airspace. I was once asked by a man who came Polar Bear hunting if I.d fly along the Russian coast and carry some special radio receivers in my Super Cub, but thats another story for another issu e.

We did have our HF radios and we could trail out our antennae wire behind our little Super Cubs and talk to Anchorage or maybe San Francisco on 5 MH. On one occasion a Polar Bear hunter got low on fuel and had to land out on the ice pack. We spent several days trying to find both the airplanes. It was my good friends who are now dead, Ralph Marshall and Bill Ellis. They spent six days living in their plane. We got an HF fix on their radio transmis sion from Hawaii and Kodiak and were able to fly in a search pattern where the Coast Guard HF fix indicated. We did find them. They were a bit beat up and half frozen. They had literally lived in those little Cubs for six days! Needless to say, they were glad to see us. They wanted to know what took us so long! Today, one simply flies to a GPS location. What a difference.

The next Polar Bear season, I couldnt go with Lee Polar Bear hunting. I had to stay on my mechanics job or lose it. Financial conditions prevented me from going with Lee on the 1958 Polar Bear season, so Lee took Warren J ohnson, a good friend of mine from the Dakotas. He also had a photographer along named Gordon Eastman, hailing from Washington State. I really hated to see them go. I went out to Lake Hood to Lees place, Alaska Floatplane Se rvices, and saw them off on February 15th, 1958. They had two Super Cubs on skis loaded to the gills, heading for Point Hope, about eight hundred miles Northwest of Anchorage.

Lee and Warren had taken a couple Polar Bears and things were going quite well until a warm front blew in from the Southeast. Usually, the Arctic weather at this time of the year is ten to thirty-five below zero with an occa sional period of forty-five below zero. It.s rare that these warm fronts occur. They create winds of twenty to thirty-five MPH and temperatures of twenty to thirty-five above zero, hence called warm fronts. Some warm fr onts cause extensive thawing of the snow and ice and the winds cause the entire pack ice to break into millions of pieces, especially along the Russian and Alaska coastline. During these times the winds along some capes get up to fifty MPH, which is a disaster to a Super Cub, which could be flying at thirty MPH ground speed in such conditions. The ice freezes much like a giant slushy. The ice may be sixteen to twenty inches of slush before a crust st arts freezing on the top layer. Sea ice won.t freeze until the water temperature is twenty-five to twenty-eight degrees, unlike fresh ice, which freezes a thin layer on the surface and then gets thicker as the temperature stays cold. Sea ice forms a thick slushy mass under the top thin frozen layer and as the temperature stays cold the slush keeps freezing thicker and thicker. The top hard surface of sea ice must be a minimum of eight inches to safel y hold up a Super Cub. Reading the ice is one of the things a Polar Bear guide must know or his career will be cut short.

Lee Holen taught me well on all the tricks of the trade, including reading the ice and predicting the weather. One has to imagine being out on the ice pack, three to four hundred miles from home closer to Russia or Wrangel l Island than Alaska. One mistake and history. Calibrating your fuel requirement wrong or track a Bear too long and too far could spell disaster. tracked Polar Bear many times one hundred fifty miles in a beeline. Sometimes we never did catch up to the bear.

That fateful day, Lee left to go out on the ice to look for a trophy Bear for a client from Columbia, MO, a fifty-eight year old sportsman who had hunted with Lee several times. We.ll call him George. Lee and George were in Lees Super Cub and Warren Johnson and Gordon Eastman were in the Super Cub Warren was flying. It was a mediocre day, high thin overcast, not an ideal day for finding a Bear track as the overcast made it difficult to follow t racks. Also, the high overcast meant a weather change, a warning, one we recognized, but sometimes we took a chance and went out anyway. I never did know exactly how much fuel Lee and Warren were carrying that day and I never k new exactly how far out they went. I do know they found a big set of Bear tracks and tracked the bear for several hours, finally catching up with him. The Bear kill went off without any problems (except for the Bear, which got killed, of course). They loaded the skin in a rubberized bag and loaded it in Lees cub and took off for Point Hope, Alaska.

It soon became obvious that the weather was going down. The temperature was thirty-five above zero, the East wind, a head wind, was up to thirty-five MPH. They were barely creeping over the ground and it was getting late, af ter 7:00pm. Darkness would set in shortly. During February, at this position, about two hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, the daylight hours are about thirteen hours a day, between 7:00am and 8:00pm. Later in March and Apr il there is eighteen and twenty hours of daylight. It became apparent that they were not going to reach the coast before they ran out of fuel, a bad miscalculation on Lees part and, of course, like a good, faithful cover saf ety pilot, Warren had followed Lee.

As darkness was setting in, Lee discussed their gas situation with Warren over the radio. It appeared that Warren had maybe a half hour more gas than Lee did. Lee told Warren that he was going to try and find a suitable land ing spot before it was too dark, as darkness was coming rapidly.

Ive tried in this story to draw you a mental picture of the ice pack under these warm front conditions. The entire ocean is a mass of slush, with occasional chunks of heavy, thick pack ice floating around in the slush. Th ese chunks of old ice could be from the size of a family room to several acres in size, or even several miles in size.

As Lee was lining up on a suitable looking piece of ice, he told Warren he would land first. If the ice was OK then they could then decide what to do next. There were two options to consider drain all the gas out of one plane and put it into the other plane, then pile all four people into one plane and try to make land, leaving one plane on the ice pack, probably never seeing it again. Option two, land and stay the night and try to go on in th e daylight. Neither of these options were good but they must land before their fuel ran completely out and it was completely dark. Staying on the ice pack all night on moving, shifting ice is very dangerous. Lee told me later t hat he was planning on landing and putting all the gas in one plane, increasing their chances of making land before they ran entirely out of fuel.

Lee was approaching his landing site with his landing lights on. He could see that it was young ice (thin ice). The ice was dark in color, what we call black ice. Its dark because it.s thin and the dark water shows up thr ough it. As the Super Cub touched down, Lee threw the door open and made ready to get out in case the plane sank through the ice. Of course, his worst fear came to bear as the Cub slowed down. It started to sink through the ice . Salt ice is rubbery and will give several inches before it actually breaks, but the ice just wasnt thick enough to hold up the little plane, which grosses out about sixteen hundred pounds with zero fuel and two people plus a bear hide. As the plane slowly sank, Lee and George jumped out and started climbing on the wing. The plane stopped sinking when the high wing came to rest on the ice. Lee and George were perched up on top of the wings. Lee w aved Warren off and he flew towards home with maybe fifteen to twenty minutes of fuel remaining. Of immediate concern to Lee was getting on to some thicker ice and off the plane, which might sink at any time. He told George he was going to break the top skylight out of the plane and retrieve whatever he could reach. He managed to get a sleeping bag, which was in a waterproof bag, one rifle and one stick of caribou sausage that he carried as emergency gear. The situation looked poor at best. Lee told me later that he felt really helpless, but knowing Lee and his determination, he wouldnt give up. They had one rifle, one stick of caribou sausage and a mummy type GI sleepi ng bag. The only good thing about the entire situation was it was thirty-six degrees above zero, NOT thirty-six below, as was the usual case.

In the meantime, Warren flew on East. It was now completely dark and the ice looked no better from what they could make out of it. They flew on about fifteen minutes. After watching Lee land on thin ice and sink, not knowing what Lees fate was going to be, they, too, had to make that dreaded decision to land before they ran completely out of fuel. If that happened, then they would not have a choice of landing areas.

After making several passes at likely looking landing spots, with the landing lights on, Warren decided the one he had lined up on now looked better than any he had looked at since leaving Lee. He lined up and touched the li ttle Cub down on the black ice. The airplane hadnt slid more than a couple hundred feet on its skis when itstarted sinking through the ice. Warren and Gordon bailed out and climbed onto the wing. Figuring this was the end, they waited for their fate. Warrens Cub also sank level with its high wing, the fuselage being completely under the slush ice.

Warrens situation was even worse the Lees since his Cub was now sinking in front and he and Gordon were crawling back towards the tail section in order to stay out of the slush and water. They were saying goodbye to each other as a seal popped his head up through the slush and thin ice, a bad omen. They didnt think the plane could possibly stay on top of the slush and thin ice much longer.

In the meantime, Lee had taken his leatherman type tool and the rifle barrel and pried the wing tanks out of the top of the Super Cub wing. He had plans to use the flat eighteen gallon metal tanks to scoot across the thin ice and slush, about a hundred yards, to a heavy piece of old ice which was drifting around in the slush. Thats exactly what Lee and George did, use the wing tanks to lay prone on and scoot across the thin ice. After reaching th e heavy ice, Lee felt a little better. At least he didnt have to worry about sinking. Their only worry now was how to make land. They both huddled into the mummy bag and each had a chunk of the caribou sausage for supper.

When it got light, Lee took stock of the situation and decided if he was going to survive, he had better start walking and trying to get to land, which he figured couldnt be more than thirty or forty miles away to the Eas t. The ice chunk they had reached jammed itself into other old ice and by jumping and detouring around, they could make progress towards land. Of course, Lee knew which way to walk since he knew it was an East wind that was blo wing. Even though it was overcast, one could tell in what general direction the sun was.

They walked until they were exhausted, then lay down and slept. They walked day and night, in the Arctic, on the ice and snow. Even when its dark one can see to walk, providing one does not have to negotiate open leeds and pressure ridges. Sometimes they had to wait until an open leed closed before they could continue on. Sometimes they had to walk parallel to a leed for up to four miles before finding a place they could safely cross, but always they headed East when possible.

Warren and Gordon were hanging onto the tail of their Cub, which was the only thing above the thin ice and slush. The next morning, to their relief, a big chunk of ice about room size bumped into the tail of the plane. They both immediately jumped onto the thick ice and said goodbye to the little Cub. After they had floated only a few hundred yards on the thick ice, they watched the tail of the Cub go under the slush. As it turned out, their chunk of ice bumped into a bigger piece, about an acre in size. Of course, they jumped onto this larger and safer piece of real estate. Here they set up housekeeping and made a makeshift ice house while waiting for rescue, which the y figured was now in progress.

Polar Bear guides of the Arctic were a close companionship group of guys. Even though we were all competitors, wed drop everything and help each other if the need arose. You never knew when you might be the one needing he lp. We depended on each other. The Arctic is so unforgiving and the environment so cruel. One wrong step and youre a goner. So as soon as Lee and Warren were reported missing, I got a call in Anchorage and immediately loaded up my plane and headed out for Point Hope. To heck with my job, this was a matter of life and death and I knew I could be of great assistance.

Rescue was in progress. There were only five teams of Polar Bear hunters hunting the Arctic during that time period but every team was out looking for Lee and Warren. It was during the 60s and early 70s that about fifteen teams of Bear hunters were operating in Western Arctic, which meant there wasnt enough planes available to do a good search. But all of us tried our best the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) had at least two planes out l ooking and the air rescue branch of the Air Force had two C-130s searching.

There is another legendary man living in the Arctic who was responsible for saving many lives. He was out searching for Lee and Warren, putting in ten hour flying days. His name was Warren Thompson, who for years served in the Civil Air Patrol. Warren worked at the FAA flight service station. He was an experienced Alaskan bush pilot who contributed thousands of hours searching for downed and overdue aircraft in the Arctic, including the Arctic ice pack.

It was almost a hopeless situation, trying to find two Super Cubs in a twenty-two thousand five hundred square mile area of the ice pack. They could have been anywhere in an area one hundred fifty miles square. Little did us rescuers know that Lee and his partner Warren were separated and their planes had sunk. Even if we located one team, we may not find the other. Day after day, we searched looking for those planes. What we didnt know was both planes had sunk and we had only people on the ice to find, an even more impossible feat. Finding a lone man or two out in that expanse of broken, floating ice with a big percentage of it actually open water and slush is a lmost impossible. Im surprised we didnt lose one of the search planes trying to work in such conditions. Lee told me that several times he heard planes and even saw a plane at least twice while he and George were walking off the ice.

About the fourth day, we were all getting desperate. Wed looked the entire area over at least twice with no sign of a plane down on the ice. We were all beginning to guess correctly that they had sunk through the ice. In th e meantime, Lee and George were making progress. On the sixth day they could see what they thought was Cape Thompson, about forty miles down the coast Southeast of Point Hope. Then again, it could be Cape Lisburne which is ab out forty miles Northeast of Point Hope. If one chose the wrong direction to walk when finally reaching shore, it could spell certain death. If Lee didnt identify the correct land mass, he could walk away from the village in stead of towards it.

On the eighth day Lee and George reached land during the evening. They were exhausted and the weather had turned cold and clear. It was about ten below zero. Since they went down eight days ago the weather had stayed warmer th an usual most of the time, above or near freezing. Otherwise, Lee and George may not have made it due to the extreme cold. Now the temperature was falling. They couldnt survive much longer without shelter and food, even th ough they were on solid land. Lee was undecided on which way to walk. There was a well used dog team sled trail on the beach. Lee decided to lay the sleeping bag right on the trail.

It was sometime during the night Lee said the dogs came upon them in their mummy bag. They woke to a dog licking them in the face. What a sight they were. It scared the Eskimo to death. He thought he was seeing ghosts. Of co urse, he saved Lee and Georges life. Lee told me later he probably wouldnt have made it through one more day. They were exhausted and couldnt walk too much longer. If they stopped they would freeze to death. Lee also t old me he hadnt made up his mind which way to walk when he reached the beach. He may have chosen the wrong direction and walked away from the nearest village, which was Kevalina, Alaska. The Eskimo (it escapes me now who the Eskimo was. Im sure I knew him but its been almost fifty years and I can.t remember his name) wrapped up Lee and George in caribou hide and headed for Kevalina, about twenty miles distant. Once they reached town and a ra dio, Lee gave his story to the rest of us, including the Air Rescue. They could at least zero in on an area to look for Warren and Gordon, who were at this time still floating around on a big piece of ice, adrift in a sea of sl ush. They had had no opportunity to reach big old ice. They were marooned on an acre of ice in a sea of slush, which was located in the Cape Thompson wind tunnel , which kept the ice broken up and constantly moving.

Warren told me several times planes flew over them, each time they simply flew on by. What a depressing feeling that must have been for them. Finally, one of the C-130s spotted them on their island of ice. The wind was stil l blowing about thirty MPH. The C-130 dropped a rubber raft and provisions, which promptly blew away in the wind. The plan was to drop a life raft and provisions, then orbit above them until a helicopter could be dispatched to pick them up. On the second try to airdrop, it worked. Warren inflated the raft, unpacked the warm clothing and food. It was just a matter of time, but what Warren didnt know was the helicopter had to come from Elmendorf Air Force base in Anchorage, about seven hundred and fifty miles away. They probably wouldnt get rescued until the next day.

The rescue went off without a hitch and this story had a happy ending except for the loss of two Super Cubs, lots of gear and one Polar Bear hide. There was no permanent damage. Lee told me he had stretched his luck and follow ed a huge Bear too far and too long, cutting into his going home fuel reserves. Plus they had encountered the Cape Thompson wind tunnel, which we later all learned to avoid.

The Cape Thompson wind tunnel has caught more than one team of Bear hunters. Usually, it was someone who had not been told anything about it, or a greenhorn out trying his luck at Polar Bear hunting. I can recall off hand th ree teams who got caught and ran low on fuel, either had to be rescued or crash landed on shore in fifty knot winds. Lee and Warren were the first to get caught in it. The Ralph Marshall, Bill Ellis team were found just a few m iles from where Lee had his problem. I was in on the Marshall/Ellis rescue. They had been waiting for rescue five days. The other team who got caught was a school teacher and PHS Doctor from Kotzebue. They barely made land but had to land near Cape Thompson, completely out of fuel. The wind was so strong it blew their plane away immediately after they touched down. That team burrowed into a snow drift. It saved their life but they were badly frozen w hen we found them. They didnt die but they had some permanent frostbite limb damage.

It was a cruel, unforgiving environment, the Arctic, and the ice pack. It was a special breed of guides who hunted those big white Bears between 1957 and 1972. That was the year the Polar Bear was declared a sea mammal and was no longer allowed to be killed except by the coastal Eskimo of the Arctic. It was an era that will never be duplicated. I.m proud to be a part of that gang. Its probably the most challenging and dangerous flying that one ca n do in civilian life.

During the seventeen years we hunted Polar Bear, there was only two fatalities, one out of Kotzebue and one out of Point Barrow. Both planes sank through the ice and the pilot of each drowned. Thousands of hours were flown b y several teams of hunters without a mishap. The average day on the ice hunting Bear was ten hours of actual flying time. I personally, in my seventeen years hunting Polar Bear, have had several close calls and narrow escapes a nd have left one Super Cub on the ice pack, never to be found.

Myself and my partner developed a system of instrument flight with Super Cubs. We did it first and to my knowledge we were the only team to practice instrument flight during those bad, white out days. That was the Polar Bear guides biggest fear getting caught on the ice pack in white out conditions, maybe three hundred fifty miles away from home. You had two choices head for home on instruments or camp out on the ice and wait for better co nditions. Not a good idea to say the least.

Ive been pursued by Russians when we ventured too close to the Russian coast, a hair raising experience to say the least but thats another story I promise to tell later. 1. Pressure Ridges when the entire Arctic O cean freezes over, it forms thousands of cracks that are caused by the ocean currents and winds. A pressure ridge is formed when two opposing ice fields come together. The force is so great that the ice just keeps m oving together, piling it up in pressure ridges. Some might be as high as fifty feet. Most are six to ten feet high as the force behind the movement is relieved the ice no longer piles up. 2. Leed an open cra ck in the ice pack formed by the ice movement, caused by the ocean current and winds. Some areas may pile up into pressure ridges while other areas are opening cracks from hairline size to miles wide. These are call ed leeds. 3. Cape Thompson wind tunnel an area between Kotzebue and Point Hope, Alaska, a large rocky cape several hundred feet high and about ten miles long. The area is notoriously bad for high winds. The day can be just fine, flying along the coast with very little wind and when one comes to Cape Thompson, you can look down at the ground. It will be blowing snow with winds up to fifty MPH. It happens on good days and is ex tremely windy on bad, overcast days. The winds are prevalent for about a twenty mile wide area and extend out over the ice pack for fifty miles. The closer one gets to the Cape, the stronger the winds. It.s a place all Polar Bear hunters avoid if possible. If the barometer was changing either up or down one better stay away from the Cape Thompson wind funnel. 4. Bounty During Alaska.s territorial days. From about 1920 u ntil we became a state in 1958, the commercial fishing industry ruled the territory with an iron hand. The commercial fishing industry lobbied Congress and convinced them to pass laws that benefitted their cause. Any that harmed a fish was fair game. This included the Bald Eagle, Dolly Varden Trout (they ate the eggs and smolt) and especially seals. The government passed a law to pay a bounty on all these species. The se al brought a $3.00 bounty from the government. The Eskimo only had to take the scalp of a seal to the local storekeeper to collect a bounty of $3.00. 5. During the cold war with Russia, the U.S. was very vulnerable to attack by bomber from the military air bases on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia. To warn the U.S. of a coming attack, the U.S. Air Force built a series of huge, powerful radar and communication sites completely around Alaska and Northwestern Canada called the DEW line, which stood for Defense Early Warning. These radar sites sit on mountain tops and were all in line of sight of each other. There were six of the se sites on the Alaska Peninsula. Each site had from thirty to two hundred military personnel manning them. Almost every site was a lonely outpost far from any settlement or town. Port Moller was such a site. The co ncrete fortress mysteriously loomed out of the fog out in the middle of nowhere. All these sites without exception had to be built and services by air. It was a long, lonely duty for the G.I.s who manned these si tes. The radar quickly became outdated when the intercontinental missile became a reality. A few of these grey ghosts still loom out on a lonely hilltop but most of them have been dismantled and buried or hauled awa y. A part of Alaska history.

References Visible links


III. Joplin Globe Newspaper Archives, Mar 2, 1960 Newspaper Article Text (OCR)

MESSAGE RECEIVED F MISSING NTER FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) - A bush pilotreported receiving a radip message Tuesday from one of two polar bearhunters missing since their plane was forced down on an ice floe m theArctic Ocean. Pilot Ne lson Walker radioed the Federal Aviation Agency atKotze-bue that he picked up the message while flying over the village ofNoatac. He said the pilot of the downed plane, Leroy Holen of Anchorage,was calling Point Hope and identifying himself. Kotzebue, Noatac and PointHope are in northwestern Alaska. With Holen when his plane was forced downFriday was (5orge Baumann, a building contractor from Nevada, Mo.Helicopter in Search. Four Air Force planes and a helico pter were takingpart in a search for the two men. The Air Force said weather in the areawas good. Two other members of the original four-man hunting party werepicked up from another ice floe Monday, Pilot Warren Johnson of Anchoragea nd Gordon Eastman of Omak, Wash., w?re taken to a hospital at Kotzebue.Both had frostbitten hands and feet but were expected'to recover. Eastmanwas released Tuesday. Johnson said the two planes ran short of fuel afterrunning into 10 5-mile-an-hour headwinds on the return trip. He said bothplanes went through the ice after landing on separate floes. He said he andEastman saw Holen and Baumann scramble from their plane \ onto the icebefore their plane j sank. i Th e hunters killed two large polar bears ontheir trip.

Joplin Globe Newspaper Archives, Mar 2, 1960, p. 5


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