Author details Bush pilot's life

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Cleo McMahan has survived some close calls in his long career as an Alaska Bush pilot, bounty hunter, trapper and big game guide. McMahan, 88, is featured in a new book, "Papa was a Bush Pilot," chronicling 60 years of adventures in Alaska's wilds.

McMahan and his daughter, the book's author Sally McMahan Pollen, will be in Juneau on Thursday to show slides and talk about the new publication. The free presentation will begin at 7 p.m. at the downtown library.

"He's still a bush pilot. He's retired for sure, but he still flies both of my younger brother's planes," said Pollen, adding that her brothers fly with their dad.

Pollen said her father was an avid photographer and she drew extensively on his collection of color slides while writing and producing the book. Some date back to 1939, the year McMahan left his family's Kansas farm and steamed into Seward on the SS Yukon.

McMahan said he paid $44 for a steerage class ticket to Seward and then took the train to Anchorage. He was 27 when he arrived, with $37 to his name.

He lived in Fairbanks for a few years, and in the early 1940s bought an airplane with a friend, beginning a lifelong love of flying. He went through 10 planes over the years, included two Cessna 180s that he crashed.

McMahan married in the mid 1940s and homesteaded on Meier's Lake in the Copper River Basin, near Gukona. Pollen said she and her family spent summers on the lake and moved into Gukona for the winter so the kids could attend school. Her dad trapped in the winter and spent summers flying, guiding hunters and running an air taxi service.

Walter Sperl of Juneau hunted with McMahan, and later with his sons, on at least 20 trips over the past 40 years. He called McMahan a legend.

"He's one of the few old master guides left in Alaska," Sperl said. "He's been flying about 50 years up there in that country, summer and winter."

McMahan also hunted wolves in the days when the government offered a $50 bounty on each animal. He shot them from the air while flying, taking care not to hit the propeller.

Pollen collected a host of stories from her father for the book, as well as tales about McMahan from family and friends. The book contains more than 100 photographs, including Alaska Natives of the Copper River area and life in Interior Alaska half a century ago.

Pollen said she's gotten to know her father better in the past year and a half writing the book than she had in the previous 50 years.

Pollen published the book herself, and enjoyed having complete control of the project. She's created

a Web site for the project,, and she's also producing a CD and CD-ROM of the book that will be out next month. The disc includes a recording of the book, including McMahan telling stories, plus text and pictures that can be viewed on a computer.

The presentation Thursday will include book signing, but the focus will be the slide show.

"My father will answer questions, too. It's not a suit-and-tie formal thing at all, he's still very informal," she said.

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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