by Dorthea H. Calverley (1973)
Dan Yaeger was the Peace River Country’s own daring, and often foolhardy, bush pilot. During his brief flying career he was altogether opposite to the disciplined Armed Forces and Commercial pilots of today. Alone, he flew and serviced his own small planes over a merciless land, under the worst possible circumstances. His record shows that he never lost a passenger. Only his early life as a pioneer rancher, trapper and guide enabled him to bring himself and several other men out alive when weather defied even his outstanding skill. In his thirty-three years he lived two lives, either of which was book-material. Both together make a story that will never be paralleled, because organized services have taken over the bush pilot’s role. Before they are forgotten, his feats should be recorded as part of Peace River folk history.
He was born Daniel Willard Martin on November 22, 1928 at Windfield, Alberta in the Foothill country. Danny grew up in the Doe River district north of Dawson Creek, a newly opened area to which his widowed mother came when her family was very young.
Dan’s stepfather, John Yaeger and the latter’s brother Wes had been in the North Rolla district of the Peace at least as early as 1917, long before the railroad. These were rugged pioneer days. The Yaeger brothers developed large horse and cattle ranches. Native feed had to be supplemented by sown crops. Wes Yaeger is recorded in 1917 as the first man to plough land. Before long the Yaeger brothers were sponsoring stampedes that became famous in the North Country.
Trapping was the moneymaking business of those days. Running a trap-line demanded survival knowledge and bush lore. The Yaeger brothers were experts.
Settlers were scouting the newly opened area for homestead sites as more and more adventurers were drawn to the “last frontier”. Sportsmen were coming in increasing numbers to hunt big game while surveyors and other similar parties also needed guides. The Yaeger brothers became noted riders and outfitters. Since they were “characters” as well, they became famous. Accounts of these resourceful men would make script material for Western stories and movies.
Even the women were exceptionally competent. When the first road was graded linking Pouce Coupe and Rolla to the Doe River and Carpio districts, Wes Yaeger took the contract. An ‘elevating’ grader required twenty horses — sixteen ahead in two eights abreast, and four behind with another driver to push and turn the big machine. Mrs. Wes Yaeger is remembered to have driven the front sixteen, no small feat for anyone. A pail of small stones beside the driver provided ammunition for a fast, accurate urge to a balky or lazy member of the lead team. Putting a road through bush country over roots and boulders would have tested most men before the days of diesel machines. Resourcefulness in repairing and servicing the equipment far from the cities demanded every bit of ingenuity a person had. In such an environment boys became men early — Danny earlier than most.
To the frontier youngster being able to ride a bronco or drive a four-horse team was much more interesting than riding miles to the country schoolhouse. He was one who believed that learning should be functional. In this, as in everything else, Dan made his own choice.
In contrast, his brother William accepted the demands of education and the disciplines of Navy life that led to a thirty-year career in the American Navy. In 1972, when he was ready to retire, he had risen to the rank of Commander of the experimental and exploratory battleship Rincon which he took three times on Antarctic secret missions. The other citations on his retirement commemorative plaque are mounted in columns, not as single items. As this is written in early 1973, Commander Martin has been called back for duty in waters off Vietnam.
There was something in the heredity of this San Juan Island family of Welsh extraction that urged both boys into challenging work at which they excelled. Dan’s mother, an indomitable pioneer senior citizen still living in Rolla, is a woman who reads avidly, both history and modern affairs and is intensely and optimistically interested in the world of today. One gets the impression that her boys came by their abilities honestly and were brought up to make the most of them, each on his own way. Added to ability, each brother had extraordinary good looks.
Some of Danny’s teachers are living in the area. While his lack of academic progress is still a cause of head shaking, all are agreed that two things stand out in their memories of the boy — his absolute lack of fear, and his determination to fly. Whether whatever causes a man to fear had been left out of his make-up, or whether in an overwhelming desire to prove himself he had disciplined himself not to show it, is something that only a psychologist could say.
We are indebted to Oliver Travers, a guide and outfitter at Hotchkins, Alberta for details of the early training that prepared Dan for his flying career. Travers met him at a rodeo in High Prairie in 1945. Dan was seventeen at the time. Travers was competing in his first rodeo. Dan had already been riding in Stampedes around Calgary and was an old hand at the business.
First he generously helped the newcomer, by insisting that Oliver use Dan’s saddle. “If you’re going to be a cowboy, use good rigging.” Bubbins Cox and Slim Spindiff were supplying the stock, and they were rough mounts. The morning of the show, Dan took the new rider’s part when the management was hustling him to mount faster. Then when they refused to add a return of the entry fee to the prize money, as was customary where there was a cowboy’s association; Dan organized a sit-down strike. He won the point in the interest of all future performers in the North.
Dan drew a big gray mare, “a terrible chute fighter”. After she wrecked two chutes, Dan said, “To Hell with her! I’ll ride her in the old way!” So she was taken into the middle of the arena and snubbed to a saddle horse. Dan mounted her there. Somehow he weathered the storm and won the bronco riding. Says Oliver, “I think this is when I started admiring his guts”.
In 1947 the Travers family moved to Cherry Point, quite close to Dan’s home in Doe River. There began a close association of six years of cow punching and rodeos, and three winters of trapping. “He taught me many things about survival, finding your direction and just plain bush lore”, writes Mr. Travers. “The fact that the compass points far east of the true North in this area can confuse any “greenhorn” lost in the bush.” It accounts also for Mr. Travers’ statement that “I am unable to read a compass”. However, taught by Dan, he can “use the North Star at night to give my direction for the coming day —go forty miles in any direction and come out on target”. Realizing the value of this and other bush skills, as more and more people take to the wilderness on business or pleasure, a Professor at a Western American college has seriously proposed that Mr. Travers teach a course in packing, bush lore, and wild life. One can foresee its being added to survival training for military personnel, geological surveyors, and road and pipeline workers — a safety legacy from Dan.
Still reminiscing Travers writes, “Dan was not a big man, only about a hundred and eighty pounds, but he was the strongest guy I ever saw. He could put a hindquarter of moose on each shoulder and walk for eight miles and never stop. Once I had one front quarter on my shoulder but it had me down more often than I had it up. “One thing I can’t do is pack anything on my shoulder”, I said. Dan just looked at me and said, “You probably could do better if you tried a little harder”. Later Dan applied the same psychology to men who gave up when they had crashed in plane accidents.
Not all of Dan’s survivals were plane crashes. One winter rabies was epidemic among northern wild life. The partners took a job poisoning coyotes, wolves and foxes with a ninety square mile area to cover. They had no line cabins. The mercury hit 50° and 60° below on several occasions. The men camped in a tarpaulin lean-to with a big fire in front. “Dan liked Western novels but he didn’t read too good so we would build up the fire and I would read to him, sometimes all night. We each had a dog team (in the early 50’s) but one night there was a terrible blizzard so we turned them all loose. When we woke up no dogs were in sight. They were all dead so we were on foot seventy-five miles from home.”
Sometimes they ran out of grub for three days at a time. On one occasion Dan shot a lynx just before dark. Travers had an aversion to “cat” so when a big white owl flew in and sat on a tree, he had drumsticks for supper. Dan’s ammunition would probable have minced the owl, for he always packed a .38 revolver in the bush. “He would tackle moose or bear with that thing. He always hand-loaded shells for it and they were always souped up. One day he said to me that he could get within ten feet of a live moose if the wind was blowing.”
“I think we waited half the winter for that darned wind to blow, but then we got very close to two moose, a cow and a bull. When the bull dropped he fell across Dan’s snowshoes so I didn’t doubt his word after that.”
“We walked about thirty miles a day, and every night Dan would talk about the plane he was going to buy. I didn’t think he would ever make it, as we didn’t earn too much money for grub let alone planes. We seen a lot more dinner times than we did see dinners”.
The market for furs dropped about this time. Dan met and married Molly and decided to settle down. They started raising cattle and even broke up a few acres of land across the Clear Water River. Then one day Travers picked up from the mail a radio the young couple had ordered “I had a terrible time getting there with it–had to swim my horse across the river and try to keep the radio dry. I got there about dinner. Dan was anxious to see if this machine would work so he hooked it up. The only station he could get was Grande Prairie. The rodeo was going on there. Dan missed the rodeo last year. He asked if he could borrow my saddle horse for Molly and he and I would catch some wild ones for us to ride…. I got bucked off three times in a row… I finally was on top of mine, so we started for the river. Riding a wild horse is one thing, but swimming him is another thing. My saddle horse which Molly was riding was a terrible swimmer, so Dan and Molly changed horses. Dan swam right across but those broncos Molly and I were on started swimming in circles.
Dan swam his horse back and changed horses again with Molly right in the middle of the river. I had heard the old saying ‘Never change horses in mid-stream’ but this was the real thing. We were in twenty feet of water. It was about three hundred yards wide and I can’t swim a stroke so was glad when Dan came back and got things straightened out.
“They made it to the rodeo the next day. He won first prize in the saddle bronco event, riding against professional cowboys. This with a few borrowed bucks was the down payment on his first plane. Neither Dan nor Molly ever returned to their ranch across the Clear, but many times I have seen Dan’s plane flying across the range he loved so well. He always said someday he would have a big ranch there.”
“Dan had many occupations; saw mill man, oil fielder, cat skinner, trapper, but first, last and always he was a cowboy–one of the better ones. I watched him get down on over one hundred bucking horses and only saw him bucked off once. I asked him what happened and he just said, ‘There was a lot of horse there’. He used to say, ‘There are horses that can throw me but they don’t run in herds.’”
“Dan liked to drink but I don’t think he was an alcoholic. He could quit the sauce cold for months. I never saw him drunk but once. But he never bought a bottle of whiskey all the time I knew him. He always bought a case–said it was handier that way.”
“I don’t know much about his flying career. He always kept me nervous on the ground. He didn’t know what fear was. I was with him when he crawled in a bear den and killed the bear with his hunting knife. I was with him when he called a bull moose at night and went to meet him and shoot him. He would ride any horse and fight anybody that thought he was tough so I kind of shied away from his flying. I watched him many times. He just took too many chances.”
The chances he took were not just to show off. One winter there were many poor families on the frontier. Dan undertook to provide them with free meat not sanctioned by the game warden. Although he met that official’s car one night in a snow ploughed one-lane road with banks six feet high in either side, he somehow talked his way out of prosecution. After all, it is said that he never charged a cent. Many people would have gone hungry that winter but for Dan. Such ad hoc interpretations of right and wrong vs. the law sometimes landed Dan in trouble with the police, now and again for things he didn’t do. Thus it depends on who is telling it and how true an assessment of Dan the man is made. As a bushman Travers sums up his intimate knowledge, “I have hunted with many seasoned Indian hunters and Dan didn’t have to take a back seat with any of them. He could look at a track and tell you where a moose would lay down.”
Once at least, even Dan could make a mistake. A wealth patron hired Dan to “pack him in” to some place he wanted to prospect. It was not a hunting trip but after they had pitched their lean-to’s about ten feet apart and built up a campfire, the client began asking about a “moose call”.
Dan obliged by doing one in his very best manner, and then decreed it was time to sleep. Almost at once there was a commotion in the bush. Out came an enormous bull moose, “one of the biggest I ever saw”, Dan said later. Probably their prone position made it seem more towering. Its head was lowered for battle. As it ran between the startled men, it scooped up the campfire in its antlers and tore off into the night. “I didn’t think there was a moose in miles,” Dan confessed when the thrilled client came out with the story of a lifetime. “I hadn’t seen a sign for days.”
Before he gave up ranching for flying he had became a skilled packer and trapper. He packed for the Geodetic Survey of Canada for four years, guided hunting parties, and trapped with Art Pollen in the Liard River country and also around Hay Lakes with his pal, Oliver Travers. He became a stunt rider and all-round rodeo winner in Alberta, British Columbia and the USA Northwest. Between season the handsome, untalkative youngster was at home in dude ranches and resorts, for he was a competent all-round ranch hand.
Dan’s first plane, bought with the proceeds of his Grande Prairie rodeo was a little Piper Cub. After a short course at Edmonton he lit out for the North. That was the beginning of a career that had the Department of Transport officials in periodic exasperation and desperation – -and Dan in more or less continual “hot water”. Unlike Wop May from whom he learned most of his skills, he had been born twenty-five years too late. The early bush pilots made their own sky trails and were answerable to no man.
World War II, for which Dan was too young, had its local aftermath — the Department of Transport and Search and Rescue operation dedicated to immediate rescue of a downed airman — at public expense.
As soon as there is an organization there are rules. One was that the pilot must file a flight plan. Dan piloted a plane as he rode a bronco, making on-the-spot decisions where and when the plane took him. Making a flight plan seemed as senseless to Dan, the rider, as making a map in advance of the path of a bronco. Usually he just didn’t bother. The new kind of airport officials disapproved, to put it mildly.
Yet Dan was often one of the first to volunteer on a search-and-rescue operation, and with a trained woodsman’s eye and knowledge of the terrain, he often was the first to spot a downed craft. Not that he had too much sympathy for such misadventures. His creed was, “If a pilot doesn’t know how to survive in the bush he has no business flying over it.” He did not meet his death in the bush.
As a flyer, his chosen base of operation was Fort Nelson, although all Northern bases knew his plane or those he piloted. When the oil boom broke he began servicing rigs. He even took “a flyer” at construction himself, but lost machines, caboose, and everything else in a fire. Like a rodeo cowboy he just “got up, dusted off his pants and got on again”.
In spare time he used his knowledge of the North, gained in guiding and trapping days, to take hunting parties out. That paid well, with lots of American oilmen’s money around, especially when in two and a half days he could take a party into the almost inaccessible mountain country to bag the coveted Dahl sheep–believed to be the first brought in to Fort Nelson. “Trophy heads, of near-record measurements, forty-two and a half inches in the curl.”
Dan flew only four years — two years on a private pilot’s license and two after a course at the Edmonton Aero Club on a commercial pilot’s license. In those years he cracked up five times, sometimes just damaging the propeller or wheels, sometimes the whole plane. More than once he was the subject of an intensive air search, but every time he walked to safety uninjured. Even in the last fatal crash he never did he lose a passenger.
His most celebrated exploit occurred in late September, 1959 as a result of a flight from Fort Simpson to Fort Nelson conveying John Jones, a workman with an injured foot. He was flying a pontoon-equipped Bellanca plane which he was to buy when he sold his smaller craft.
Some distance out of Fort Nelson they ran into heavy overcast and became lost. Yaeger radioed Fort Nelson for a course, but was advised that following a fire there the proper equipment had not been re-installed. They could not help him. He flew in trying to find a hole in the overcast, over a body of water for the pontoon. At about 9:20 p.m. on a September evening, he saw that he could not miss a patch of thick timber. The next day set off an eight-day, fourteen-plane, twenty-one-and-a-half-thousand square mile search, costing seventy thousand dollars.
During the search, the writer came to the coffee-counter at Wonowon. Having no car-radio, we inquired, “What is the news of the search?” Some men playing cribbage deliberately finished “pegging their hands”, and replied, “Oh, Danny will walk out all right [and bring his passenger with him. He always carries a gun and an axe, and he throws ’em out when he sees he’s going to crash. That’s all he need to survive.” And it was so.
This is what happened. In the fog, treetops were whipping at the undercarriage as they came in at one hundred and twenty miles an hour. For a hundred and fifty feet they ploughed through the timber, shearing off wings and undercarriage. At Danny’s direction the passenger threw out guns and some ammunition. The plane nosed over and came to rest up-ended against a tree. They had kicked out the windows and ran for their lives. In what seemed only seconds the gas tanks exploded with a flash and a roar. The men went back to try to salvage grub and clothing with little success. That night, in the chill and damp, the burning craft kept them warm for a while.
In the morning, Dan took his bearings, recognized country where he had trapped with Art Pollen, and set out in the direction of the Dunedin River. It took him four days, over fallen timber with no grub, and a lame man to help. As he said, “Once on the Dunedin I was home.”
They found Bill Hickathier’s old base cabin, in which were some rope, an axe, (Danny hadn’t retrieved his that time), some haywire and a saw. While Dan made a raft, Jones shot spruce hens, and one squirrel. There were few berries except cranberries at that time of the year. Worst of all, there was no coffee, and no smokes, — for seven days. Danny was “off spruce grouse” from then on!
They floated the raft down the Dunedin to the Liard, a crooked river which leads away from Fort Nelson where he last reported. For three days they didn’t see a soul until they reached Transway Indian Village close to the Northern BC boundary. There was no short-wave radio, but there was hospitality, food, bed and a shave! They were near exhaustion from fighting a mighty and treacherous river in a makeshift craft, and cold nights with some rain, (as the writer remembers them that autumn in those latitudes).
A student Anglican Missionary, Jack Norcross, literally a “Sky Pilot”, found them. He had spent every possible minute searching with his light plane, checking at all villages. He took them to Fort Nelson from which they were flown back to the scene of the crash for inspection and the recording of details. “Flight plans” could hardly have prevented this misadventure. It wasn’t Yaeger’s fault that the equipment was lacking which northern fliers depend upon at Fort Nelson. In any case he was not grounded for the episode.
In 1960 his plane flipped over at Cormack Lake, Hay River area. Dan and his passenger swam, poled and walked out unscathed. In the spring of 1961 he was down in the Nahanni. He and his passenger walked out again.
On one occasion when he had brought a passenger out under difficulties, his mother asked how he managed. The passenger was not incapable of walking, but exposure and delayed shock had, quite understandably, done its work. The man gave up the struggle.
Danny said he let the man rest a while. Meanwhile he busied himself with the axe, fashioned a good stout club. The man began to take interest in the project. “What is that for?” he inquired. Danny replied, matter-of-factly, “Well I’ll have to kill you. I wouldn’t leave a dog or a horse to die of starvation and exposure, and I’m going to walk out, of course.” The club gave him strength to go on, illustrating the fact that balky horse or balky man, Dan knew more than one way to get him to go. Dan’s Navy brother missed the spontaneous adventures that Dan took in his stride. For instance, it was understood that pilots did not knowingly take off with defective equipment. To Dan the life of a very sick Indian woman meant more than a set of rules. One cold, blizzardy night at Fort Nelson, word of such an emergency came in. Nobody could go. Danny’s plane’s tail landing gear was smashed. With haywire and ingenuity he fastened a scoop shovel on the rear and took off. When he landed the scoop shovel became fouled up in some of the fuselage. Because he could not repair the gear again to make a safe take-off in the snow, he set about tramping and shoveling out a runway, brought the sick woman out and saved her life.
His reward was a reprimand from the Department of Transport officers. A downed flyer was supposed to report that he was down and he should stay by his plane until someone came for him. Danny’s reply was not likely to endear him to officials. “Why should I do that? It would have taken you a week to find me!”
Once he came out a little differently when he was flying supplies for oilrigs. A boss sent to Fort Nelson for thirty-seven cases of beer for the men. Bad weather forced Danny down to stay overnight in an Indian camp. On arrival at his destination the beer was missing without a trace. The Indians had “inspected” the cargo. Danny might never lose a passenger, but he couldn’t hold his beer!
On another occasion, Dan was at Hay River. It was 50° below and a blizzard was whipping drifts across the winter road from the south. A Northern Freightways truck loaded with Xmas supplies was long overdue. Since all planes were grounded the pilots were having a party. A wireless communication confirmed that the truck had gone out but neither returned nor reported. The driver was Nibbs Fellers. Nibbs and Danny were friends. The wireless operator, probably with Dan in mind, ordered, “I ground ALL of you flyers. No one is to take a plane off the ground on a night like this.”
Presently Dan said he was going home, which he did. He gathered his heavy wool blankets, a shovel, tea, matches, kindling wood, tobacco and grub and rolled them into the bundle. In the bright, moonlit night he flew low over the winter road about fifty-two miles out. Suddenly he saw the cab of the truck. Flying low again he dropped the parcel within reach. The note said, “Make Camp. When the storm goes down I’ll come back.”
Dan flew back again to Hay River to rejoin the party. The exasperated official exploded, “Yaeger, I told you not to go!” “Whose plane am I flying?” Dan inquired coolly.
Next morning Yaeger brought Nibbs Fellers in. Fellers would certainly have perished. His gasoline was gone. Exploits like these made strong men weep unashamed when Danny’s time came — all too soon.
On Friday, October 6, 1961 he was on the Dawson Creek airport volunteering to search for three local men in a crash near Chetwynd in which two lost their lives.
On October 11, he came from Fort Nelson to pick up a passenger on Charlie Lake in his float-equipped Stinson. He decided to land on the Peace River near Clayhurst then hire a car to visit his sister at Doe River. His passenger and the ferry operator, William Billey, told what happened. He had landed once on the water but took off again for unexplained reasons. On the second approach the ferry operator said that the strut of a pontoon seemed to collapse and the plane heeled over a little. Suddenly it nosed under and the cockpit was half full of water. The passenger, cut and bruised and with an injured back, kicked out a window and crawled onto the wing. The fuselage was only partly submerged, but Danny was wedged in the pilot’s seat. It was an hour and a half before the floating craft was secured by a rope and winched to shore.
The inquest showed that Dan was dead when the plane went under, for there was no water in the lungs. Neither was there a heart attack. The only sign of the pilot’s foreknowledge of disaster were the skinned palms of the hands, still clamped on the controls. Nobody will ever know what actually happened. Some said that the river surface that day in a dead calm was a glassy mask which could confuse a pilot’s estimate of his altitude. The famous pilot, Grant McConachie, had a narrow escape in an experience of that kind.
Daniel Martin Yaeger is the name on the grave marker in Rolla cemetery. His wife and mother let him be commemorated by the surname he preferred.
Dan was the last of the legendary “bush pilots” in our area. He would have preferred not to come out alive, rather than lose a passenger. Perhaps he would have preferred to die in flight rather than make the choice–inevitably to be “broken” to the rigid, confining rules of modern safety standards.
His friend, Oliver Travers wrote his eulogy, which was published, but is recorded here with his permission.
Where all good cowboys go
He went out quick as a light
But he never liked things slow.
He liked fast planes, broncos and whiskey
But somehow they wouldn’t mix
That damn’d old Dan was always
Full of the damndest tricks.
He was always taking chances
And you know as well as I
If you’re staking your life on chances
Sooner or later you’re going to die.
He crashed up in the North land
When he was just learning to fly
But he came back to the old Peace —
Seemed he came back home to die.