By Alicia Dietrich
Walter “Yukon” Yates, 86, recently published the autobiography Breakaway, which documents his life as an Alaskan explorer, bush pilot, gold miner, airplane and airport builder, helicopter crash survivor, World War II veteran, documentary filmmaker, grizzly bear hostage, and all-around adventurer.
Yates’s story was detailed by filmmaker Warren Skaaren (1946–1990) in the documentary of the same name. Breakaway (1978) was the first film that Skaaren wrote and directed, and materials related to the film can be found in the Skaaren archive at the Ransom Center. Skaaren later worked on scripts for such films as Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Beetlejuice (1988), Days of Thunder (1990), and Batman (1989).
The archive includes correspondence between Yates and Skaaren as they scripted and planned the documentary and negotiated business terms, Skaaren’s notes on the film, promotional materials, photos, and fan letters.
Born in 1924, Walter Yates spent his early years on Burny Mountain (now called Yates Mountain) in Arkansas, living in a log house built by his father. At age 10 his family moved off the mountain and later moved to Texas. Yates 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 Yates learned to fly, his 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 in 1978. Badly injured, he lay there for 14 days before being rescued by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The story made international news.
After his recovery, Yates spent several years gold mining in the Yukon Territory.
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. He lives there today with his wife, Tracy.
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