More than four decades ago, without maps or radio contact, Dawn and Gordon Bartsch eased down the biggest airplane that had ever landed in a lonely stretch of the Arctic Circle.
Gordon recalled how he had tried to question the local constable about whether to bring the DC-3, the 64-foot, 28-passenger workhorse plane of the time, into the roadless native village in the Canadian tundra, Old Crow, Yukon Territory. The people there wanted the mail service and fresh vegetables the transport could provide. If you can drive your pickup on this ground at 60 mph, Gordon said, we should be able to land.
The villagers watched as the plane rumbled onto a river sandbar. It was bouncing so much that the pilots were having a hard time braking, yet the people had crowded at the end of the sandbar.
“We were trying to stop it, and these people kept coming closer and closer as we were rushing toward them,” Dawn recalled in “Flying the Frontiers,” an aviation history. “Boy, they had a lot more faith in us than we did. ... They figured that's where the airplane had to stop, so they stood there. They didn't realize that we just managed to stop there.”
The close call was just one of many for the Sisters couple who have spent a lifetime going into uncharted territory.
Dawn Bartsch did so first, when in 1950 she became one of the few women in Canada at that time with a commercial pilot license.
Later, Dawn and Gordon forged careers flying into the far north, an expanse still so remote that no maps existed charting the mountains and rivers of the region.
A decade ago the couple remained active pilots, participating in round-the-world races.
And this year, at ages 79 and 80, respectively, Dawn and Gordon decided it was time to stop flying and sold their last airplane. But together, they are working on a book about their years in the air.
“What year did we retire?” Dawn asked her husband, trying to respond to a question.
They laughed. “We haven't yet,” he replied.
Learning to fly
Amelia Earhart may have blazed the way, but that doesn't mean it was easy for a woman in the 1950s to get into aviation.
“I'd wanted to be a pilot since I could talk, I guess,” Dawn said. “High school counselors told me I couldn't do that, that I should be a nurse. I said, ‘Tough, I'm going to be one.' ”
She applied to McGill University's aviation program, only to be rejected based on gender. So she found a flight school willing to take her in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The teacher there, seeing her aptitude and dedication, battled the government inspector who at first refused to give Dawn the test. The inspector later told the teacher that Dawn flew so well he couldn't refuse her a license.
The company that is now Air Canada hired Dawn's entire class to become pilots. But when it realized she was a Dawn and not a Don, it said it could only offer her a flight attendant job. Instead, she took a series of flight instructor gigs.
Finally, a large flying club in Calgary, Alberta, hired Dawn as its flight instructor. It was there she met Gordon Bartsch.
Gordon said he had been doing janitorial work at the Calgary airport in exchange for flying lessons. He eventually earned his commercial pilot license and landed a cargo-hauling job.
Gordon admits that when he first heard about Dawn, he had serious reservations. But he quickly changed his mind.
“She had gotten a job in the hangar next door,” Gordon recalled. “I said, ‘A girl in my flying club? Never.' ”
“I decided to go check her out,” he continued. “I opened the door, and three steps in I knew where I was heading in life.”
They casually dated but were separated by diverging careers. They didn't reunite until opportunity arose in Canada's empty north.
Navigating the bush
By the late 1950s, Dawn had moved to Dawson City, Yukon. Dawn, in partnership with her father and a pilot named Ron Connelly, had decided to create her own flying opportunities in the town of 800 with their own business.
At this point Dawn knew how to land planes on wheels, floats and skis. The oil exploration boom was on, she said, and the industry needed supplies and fuel flown into the Arctic Circle.
It soon became apparent, Dawn said, that the operation needed a bigger airplane. Her old friend Gordon, now in Vancouver, was flying DC-3s for what's now Air Canada on national and international routes. The sturdy, roomy aircraft seemed just the sort that might be able to handle the tricky terrain of the Arctic.
The two got in touch and agreed that Gordon would join the business.
Dawn learned to fly the DC-3, and soon the duo were pilot and co-pilot, navigating what at that point was, on paper, a big white space.
“We were supporting the camps, hauling fuel in 45-gallon drums,” Dawn said. “There were no airports. We were landing on river sandbars and frozen lakes. We got pretty good at landing on sandbars.”
They tried to scout areas ahead of time in a smaller airplane. But sometimes they had to turn around, because they didn't always know if landing spots were suitable or if weather had changed.
“Navigation was making your own maps and dead reckoning,” Gordon said.
At times, weather stranded them out in the bush. One outing left them in the backwoods for a week. They always carried sleeping bags and some basic provisions. But the plane had no heat, and when weather dropped well below zero they had to find other shelter.
“We had a couple scary moments in the DC-3,” Gordon said.
“A couple?” Dawn asked, smiling at her husband.
When Dawn flew some of the smaller planes alone, she would always try to make it back to one of the villages that was staffed with a nurse. As a woman alone, it wasn't proper to stay the night in most places in that part of the country.
In addition to serving oil exploration, they also began flying to native villages. Many villagers still lived as they had for centuries, eating dried meat and fruit in cold months and hoping supplies lasted through the long winter.
“It was the first time they had mail service and groceries,” Gordon said. “We changed the culture and way of life with the DC-3.”
After the better part of a year together in the north, the two decided they should be partners inside and outside the business. They married in 1962.
The Bartsches left professional flying in the early 1970s for warmer climes. They followed relatives to Hawaii, where they pursued one of Gordon's other dreams: opening a steakhouse.
The business took off in Honolulu, so they expanded to Kona, a district on another island in the chain.
“Then we just had to buy an airplane so we could get back and forth between the restaurants,” Dawn said, laughing.
They spent 30 years in Hawaii, and in the 1990s sold the restaurants and once again focused on flying. The Bartsches got involved in long-distance tours, including several that took them around the world.
The first one they did was in 1992, when they flew the length of Russia. They took a massive box of airplane parts with them. They never needed the parts and gave nearly all of them away, as others on the trip hadn't come nearly as prepared.
“We learned in the Yukon: There are places you don't go unless you're self-contained,” Gordon said.
The move to Central Oregon happened in 2003. The couple said they wanted to return to the mainland, but weren't prepared to embrace again the dark winters of the north.
This June, however, the duo journeyed back to the Yukon for the first time in 10 years. The commissioner of the province inducted them into its Transportation Hall of Fame for their work flying in the bush.
They now spend time with Gordon's children and grandchildren from a previous marriage and are working on the book. Gordon writes in longhand, and Dawn types it up.
The Arctic Circle is now well-mapped, accessible by GPS satellites. But it wasn't long ago, Gordon said, when it was the frontier.
“We want to save the era for posterity,” he said.