A HANDCRAFTED LIFE
The Oliver Cameron Legacy By Margaret Mills
CHAPTER 1 – Beginning
The wolves were howling off to the north again. It was late February, 1991, and 69-year-old Oliver Cameron could hear them through the log walls of his dwelling, a 10 X 12-foot structure dug about four feet into the ground, the walls built up another three feet with stacked logs. It was a snug, warm shelter, with just room enough for his bed, a workbench and the stove. The walls were hung with tools, handmade by Oliver. The floor was covered with wood chips and sawdust.
A pilot friend, Jack Hadden, had flown over that morning to check on the two isolated home sites— Oliver’s plus Dennis and Jill Hannan’s a half mile distant— and reported via radio an old wolf had been hanging around the nearest town, Minchumina, killing puppies. No one had an opportunity to shoot it yet. While Oliver duly reported these wolf activities in a letter to his daughter, Dorene, they did not alarm him. Just now evening chores were his main focus: he needed to get in more snow to melt for water, cut up the firewood he and his dog, Pack, had gotten in the day before, and to bring in another piece of frozen moose meat to cut up for kauk and to dry behind the stove he had fashioned from a five-gallon metal can. The weather was warming up – it might reach 30° in a day or two – so the meat would be soft enough to work without warming in the house first.
His foot was better. The previous fall, while hunting, he had injured his foot and had to hobble about with a cane. He was starting to recover when his feet got tangled with the cane and he fell, severely straining his leg muscle and fracturing a rib. Regular soaking of his foot, which tended to swell if he did too much, and taking it easy over the winter had improved things, but he still was not walking far. A bit later in the afternoon he planned to take a little stroll—not more than a mile, yet—and probably end his jaunt at his neighbor’s house. While Jill’s husband Dennis was away working to earn some cash to tide them over the year, Oliver kept a protective watch over her and their two young boys. He had spent some time babysitting just that morning so she could get a much needed run with her dogs and sled. She too, was recovering from back and hip problems caused by an old ankle injury and exacerbated by too much lifting.
He and the boys were working on a mountain banjo, fashioned from pieces Oliver had cut from spare bits of wood he had. Now that the banjo was starting to take shape, the boys were getting excited, and all of them were curious to see how it sounded when finished.
At 2:00 Oliver set aside his letter writing and turned on the radio to listen to news of “Desert Storm,” just days from a cease-fire. Oliver might be isolated, 30 miles from the nearest airstrip and 150 miles from the nearest city, Fairbanks, but he kept as informed and up-to-date as possible. Mail was flown in on a frequent if somewhat erratic schedule. He had radio contact with the handful of neighbors in the vicinity, and listened to the news. Even so, it was a very isolated existence.
How—and more importantly, why—did a nearly 70-year-old man in mediocre health come to be living alone in the unpopulated interior of Alaska? Oliver’s own words sum up his mindset:
I am not much a part of our culture and don’t practice the careless ways they have adopted to any great extent. I have to do what is necessary to survive with the means of the energy, perspective, and materials available. – Oliver Cameron
This is his conviction in his later years, but how did he arrive at this place, both geographically and spiritually? What is Oliver’s story?
Since we must begin Oliver’s story somewhere, let us begin with a young couple born in the British Isles. James Cameron was born in the parish of Ardnamurchan, Argyll, Scotland in 1815. Ardnamurchan is a 50-square-mile peninsula in the Scottish highlands, noted for its beautiful, wild, undisturbed nature. Even now the population is sparse, consisting mostly of fishing villages and sheep crofts. James left this rural highland area to travel to the United States in1852, sailing from Glasgow, Scotland, to New York.
Annie Bennett was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England in July of 1830. She came to the United States as a teenage girl and married James Cameron in Oshkosh, Wisconsin around 1860.
Another tributary to Oliver’s life involves an area that later became the State of Montana. The year 1862 was a pivotal year both for the land that the United States had acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and for the Cameron family. In that year, while Montana was still part of an area known as the Idaho Territory, President Lincoln signed the Free Homestead Act, opening much of the Midwest and West for settlement. The Act encouraged westward migration and the settlement and farming of vast tracts of land in the United States. It allowed those with grit and determination an opportunity to acquire their own homes, farms and ranches, and would be a major influence in the Cameron family for three generations.
Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20th of that year, the Act provided settlers 160 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders paid a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land. After six months of residency, homesteaders also had the option of purchasing the land from the government for $1.25 per acre. By 1900, 80 million acres of public land had been distributed. 1
As significant as it was, however, the Homestead Act was not the top news in 1862. The overriding issue for President Abraham Lincoln and the rest of the country was the progress of the Civil War, then in its early days. President Lincoln had been elected in November of 1860; Fort Sumter fired upon in April of 1861. By 1862, the country had already experienced the first Battle of Bull Run, and the Union was not doing well. The few Union victories of 1862 were concentrated in the west and orchestrated by General Ulysses S. Grant, in contrast to the eastern campaign under General George B. McClellan.
During these early days, President Lincoln called for volunteers to fight for the Union. While the vast majority of enlisted volunteers were young men, many teenage boys and older men also signed up. James Cameron, the middle-aged Scottish immigrant who had arrived in the United States just ten years earlier, was one of them. He marched off to war, leaving his pregnant wife Annie in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
It is difficult to trace James Cameron’s military career in the Union army. However, with a pregnant wife in Wisconsin, it is reasonable to speculate that he joined an infantry regiment either in Wisconsin or in one of the neighboring states. Illinois, Iowa and Indiana were heavily represented in the western campaign, eventually forming the bulk of the Army of the Tennessee under General Grant.
In 1862, Grant was the only general actually moving forward and winning battles, beginning with forts Henry and Donelson in February of 1862. If we assume James was with this portion of the army, he might well have participated in the Battle of Shiloh in April, then continued with other Midwestern regiments through the siege of Corinth, Mississippi under General Henry W. Halleck, who led the army before Grant was given total command.
By July of 1862, this portion of the army had fought their way through to Memphis, Tennessee. It was about this time that James was killed, leaving Annie alone to raise their infant son, John James Cameron.
Oliver Cameron was uncertain how they managed in those early days:
“I think that his mother had some kind of a stipend, some income from some property which they owned in Scotland, but that’s all I know about it.”
However, according to other family sources, Annie Cameron refused aid from her husband’s family in Scotland, and returned their letters unopened. An account by Oliver’s cousin, Barbara Silver, gives additional details:
My Great Grandmother, Annie, was born blind but at age 6 gained her sight. She never attended school, but her brother taught her to read the papers. She and her siblings came to America when she was 18 years old.
When my Great Grandfather, her husband, James Cameron, was killed in the Civil War, she refused help from his family in Scotland and made her way as a washer woman. In the 1870 Census, it indicated that her mother Mary may have had a disability, as well.
Annie’s husband James had been married before and had three children from that union. Annie never was asked to care for the step children, but raised the son born to her shortly after her husband, James Cameron, was killed and buried in a trench reportedly in Memphis, Tennessee. 2
John James grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he enjoyed skating and iceboating on Lake Winnebago in winter, and sailing in summer. In his home town he also encountered a young woman of French descent, Rose Alexia Bryse, whom he bragged was the prettiest girl in a town of pretty girls. They married in 1883 and resided briefly in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where they started their family. Sadly, their first child, Chester, died in infancy. The next child, daughter Rose, was born in 1885.
The provisions of the Homestead Act made Montana an appealing destination for many young people who were just starting out, and for older folks as well. The Territory of Montana had been carved out of Idaho Territory in 1884, and was growing. By 1889 it would become a state.
When Rose was five months old the family, including Grandmother Annie, pulled up stakes in Wisconsin and moved to Big Timber, Montana. According to Rose, they endured a “terrible hard winter” that year. Local ranchers lost many cattle, and John James found work skinning cattle that had died in the cold.
A short time later they acquired land on the Sweetgrass River near Big Timber. They lived in a big log house for several years. Most of their 12 children were born there, including Ed, their fourth, born on March 2, 1891.
Grandmother Annie, meanwhile, staked out her own homestead adjoining her son’s ranch and lived there alone. Around 1894 John James sold his ranch and moved onto her property. A couple of years later the whole family moved into town and bought a store.
In 1900 John James moved the family and again tried his hand at ranching, on a ranch along Cottonwood Creek, twelve miles west of Lewistown. Later they moved to another ranch along the same creek. The last of their children, Helen, was born in 1904, and Grandmother Annie died that same year.
Ed didn’t share a lot of information about family history or his own youth, but Oliver managed to learn that his grandfather, John James, apparently was not easy to live with—at least, not for young Ed. Oliver speculated that John James, as a boy and as the only child of a slain Civil War soldier and a widowed mother, may have grown up “spoiled.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, Ed quarreled with John James, borrowed thirty dollars, and left home. He was just fourteen years old. Since he’d been raised in rural Montana, he was well equipped to work as a ranch hand, even at such a young age. According to Oliver, it was not uncommon for teenage boys to be on their own and doing a man’s work in that time and place.
After the Civil War, a man named T. C. Power began a number of entrepreneurial enterprises in Montana, later becoming the first senator from the state. One of his investments was a large cattle ranch near the Judith River. To manage the enterprise, he contracted with a ranch manager named John Norris. They named the ranch the P-N Ranch, for Power-Norris.
The P-N Ranch is about a hundred miles due north of Lewistown, Montana. One of the oldest of Montana’s ranches, it continues as a working ranch of historical importance into the present day. Ed eventually made his way to this large corporate ranch to work as a cowboy. By 1916, when he was in his mid-twenties, he was riding line and cooking for roundups.
According to his daughter-in-law, Eula Mae Cameron:
[Ed] told tales of the big Montana round-ups where his contributing art was cooking over campfires and preparing food in a cook tent or from the back of a supply wagon. “Cookie” was a very important part of the operation, and it behooved the Boss to provide a cook that was good. Dad’s pancakes and “mush” were still top-notch when we were sampling them.
In an interview with his daughter, Dorene, Oliver related a bit about life on a big ranch. “Back then there were no fences. The cattle were free to roam in a specified area and were contained by men on horseback riding around the cattle to drive the strays back into their grazing area.”
It seems Ed was the quintessential cowboy, and not one to back away from a confrontation, as Oliver revealed in this story:
This is of a time when the neighboring homesteader saw an opportunity to take advantage of the well-traveled dirt road across his ranch. Ranchers had been using the road many years to move cattle. The only other way to get across was to go a long distance around the ranch. The rancher let it be known that they could no longer take cattle across his property unless they paid for use of the trail. But the trail had been used for so long that the other ranchers believed that it had become a public right of way, which he could not close off.
Dad and his brother-in-law Johnnie Sanford were driving a herd of cattle down this road one day. Johnnie traveled ahead on his horse to make sure that the gates along the side of the road were all closed so that the cattle wouldn’t stray. Dad, coming up behind, encountered the hostile rancher and one of his ranch hands, both carrying pitchforks. The ranch hand walked out in front of Dad’s horse, the rancher approached from the side.
He told Dad, “You will need to take your cattle around. This is my property and is not open for travel.”
Dad was strong, quick and agile. He also was very good at managing horses. He had his horse trained so that he could dismount from either side. Most horsemen dismount only from the left. Dad quickly slipped off the horse on the far side, which was not expected. He slipped under the horse’s neck and knocked the ranch hand to the ground. In the next instant, he knocked out the rancher.
When Johnnie returned over the rise shortly thereafter, he saw a commotion and spurred his horse ahead. As he approached, he saw both men sprawled unconscious on the ground along with their pitchforks.
Johnnie asked, “Are you having problems?”
Dad answered, “No, there is no problem.”
The novelist Zane Grey, who wrote epic western fiction, traveled extensively to research his books. It is not surprising that he might stop by the P-N Ranch:
One of the highlights of those days to Dad was the time Zane Grey came by the ranch to soak up authentic flavor for his novels. I can’t remember which of his novels he was writing then but forever after, Dad was a Zane Grey reader. –Eula Mae Cameron
Ed took note when a young woman named Pansy Viola Wood came to work at the P-N as a domestic. Her family had relocated to Montana from Minnesota when she was a young teenager. By the time she met Ed, she was in her late teens or early twenties.
While Ed had received a third grade education before striking out on his own, Pansy had spent more time in school and with an aunt “back east,” and been educated in some of the finer things of life, such as how to keep house properly and set a table.
Needless to say, the smart, self-made cowboy and the refined young woman gravitated toward one another. We know little of Ed and Pansy’s courtship, except that Ed made her a leather braided bridle and quirt during his spare time while riding line in the winter. According to Eula Mae Cameron, both Ed and Pansy were horse lovers. Much of their courtship took place on horseback, so this was certainly an appropriate gift. In 1917 they married in Hilger, Montana, where John James and some of the children were running the post office.
That was another pivotal year for Montana as well. There had been a huge influx of settlers and homesteaders into the state during the years when John James and Rose were working their ranch, but 1917 saw the beginning of a drought that convinced many of the state’s farmers to move on in search of better farming and living conditions. Records suggest that 65,000 of the nearly 100,000 homesteaders left the state between 1918 and 1925. This pushed Montana’s economy into a depression well before the Great Depression began in 1929.
Many relocated to Washington, Oregon and California. John James, Rose and their younger children moved from Hilger, Montana to Blaine, Washington.
Blaine is a small town in the extreme northwestern corner of Washington State. The northern edge of the city limits lies along the Canadian border. The town, established during a short-lived gold rush on the Fraser River in British Columbia in 1858, was incorporated about 1890. By the early 20th century, the town had five fish canneries, including the large, well-known Alaska Packers Association facility. Employment was also available in timber and agriculture. John James found a job in the lumber industry, and worked and prospered in Blaine for several years.
Meanwhile, Ed was finding that work as a lineman and cook for the P-N did not pay enough to fulfill the dream of owning his own ranch. The newlyweds shortly joined the rest of the family in Blaine. Ed found work on a ranch, and still hoped to buy land of his own. However, finances were still an issue for the growing young family, so he later went to work for a small sawmill near Bellingham.
As was common for the times, Ed and Pansy had begun their family shortly after their 1917 marriage. Tragically, their first child, a son, did not survive. Their second child, Oliver E. Cameron, was born July 15, 1921 in Blaine.
Oliver related that he had health problems as a baby:
I almost died when very young, perhaps less than a year. I had dysentery along with many other babies at that time. I don’t know what disease it was and there was no cure known. Because antibiotics and sulfa drugs weren’t developed yet at that time, the doctor told my folks that the only hope for saving me was to not feed me for a week or so, to only give me water. My impression is that I was a nursing infant at the time.
After about a week, Mom couldn’t stand doing this to her baby and nursed me just a little bit. The dysentery started again, which prolonged the time for which I couldn’t be fed. Amazingly, I survived and recovered on my own. There were a lot of infants dying from this. After that, I was put on a bottle.
To the east, near the little town of Snoqualmie, Washington, the Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company began operations around 1917, and was soon acquired by the lumber baron Frederick Weyerhaeuser. It was the second all-electric sawmill in the nation, and would continue to be a major employer and provider of lumber products for nearly a century.
Responding to a company advertisement, Ed wrote and applied for the position of sawyer—a highly skilled job that paid well—and got the job. He moved his family, which now included Oliver’s younger brother Keith, to Snoqualmie Falls.
A company town for mill workers had been built across the river from the town of Snoqualmie. It included such amenities as a hotel, a community center, a 50-bed hospital, a barber shop, and rental housing of various sizes. The Cameron family began their life there in a four-room house, graduated to a five and then a six room house as the family grew, and eventually moved into the largest of them all, the original farmhouse in a location known as “The Orchard.” The location had once been an actual orchard, and fruit trees still adorned some of the back yards.
According to the Snoqualmie Valley Historical Society, there were two mills. The main band saw at Mill #1 could handle logs up to eleven feet in diameter. Mill workers routinely processed the large-diameter old growth timber of the Northwest forests, a difficult and often dangerous activity.
Ed had one of the most demanding and intricate jobs in the mill, that of the gang rip saw operator. The gang rip saw consisted of several blades moving in various directions to cut the big logs into lumber. According to Oliver,
He had a bunch of levers there that would move each saw in relation to the others. He had to be watching all the time for things like barbed wire that had grown into the tree, or stones that the spraying hadn’t gotten rid of. He could tell by the sound of things if he was just cutting wood, or if he could hear it cutting something else, he would back off and look to see. That was a job that required a lot of constant concentration. He worked eight hour days. The mill worked three shifts.
Ed remained a man of toughness and action. With his extensive background as a Montana cowboy, he was not afraid to deal with a threatening situation as needed. Oliver obviously admired these traits in his father:
A relatively new employee was running the machine after Dad, and one day felt like Dad was pushing him. He couldn’t keep up with Dad. That whole mill was designed to operate at a certain pace. That fellow wasn’t up to the job yet or wasn’t able to do the job, and this slowed down the whole mill. This fellow one day got angry and picked up a two-by-four to hit him. Dad saw him coming, jumped him, knocked him down and took the board away from him.
There was a rule at the mill that whenever there was a fight, both men would be immediately fired. Dad, knowing this, gathered up his things and turned off his saw, shutting the entire mill down. He walked up to the mill office, which was quite a ways, and asked for his paycheck. The foreman immediately started looking to see why the mill was shut down.
After hearing the story, he said, “Why don’t you just go back to work?”
While Ed was getting established in Snoqualmie Falls, his parents moved to Bellingham, Washington, about 110 miles to the west. Ed’s father was now in his sixties, but the two men were still estranged.
Oliver relates that the only time Ed went to visit his parents was at his mother’s request. She was ill and wanted to see her son, “Eddy,” and his family:
Dad loaded up the family and took some extra gas cans and tied them on the running board. He took off after work and drove all night until he used up all of the gas. Then we had to wait by a service station until it opened to buy more gas.
After we got there we stayed with Dad’s brother-in-law and sister. They had two kids that were older than us….Grandpa didn’t want to be around Dad. He wanted to see us kids.
Those cousins took a couple of us to the cigar store that Grandpa owned. He was a big man, rather portly. There was a cigar store Indian [carved wooden statue] out in front of the place. He [Grandpa] gave us a couple pieces of candy.
Rose Alexia Cameron died in Bellingham in 1932. John James went to live with Ed’s sister, Esther, in San Diego, California. He died in 1933.
Health problems seemed to plague Ed’s family. Pansy developed tuberculosis when her children were still very young. She did recover, after spending some time away from the family to rest, but by
Oliver’s account she was never again in good health. Her frequent pregnancies may have contributed to her frailty. Oliver himself had a bout with polio when he was about six, leaving him with one leg shorter than the other.
He was eight years old when the Depression began in 1929. Fortunately, the mill continued to operate, but with the economic hard times and his growing family, Ed was never able to save much money. There would eventually be six children: Oliver, Keith, Phillip, Adrian “Carol,” Jessie Mae, and Dean “Del.”
Although Ed was never able to buy his dream ranch, he was able to acquire about six acres of “stump land” when Weyerhaeuser made logged-off land available to their employees at prices they could afford. Oliver recalls Ed paying something like twenty dollars down and one dollar per month to purchase his home site. This was bare ground, or rather ground with large stumps still dotting it.
In those days, loggers would use springboards to enable them to cut a tree well above ground level, leaving behind a stump as high as ten feet. The owners of such “stump farms” would salvage the wood for building material, such as hand-split cedar shakes, and for firewood.
Oliver began what was in effect a long apprenticeship in how to convert raw land into a functioning homesite:
I spent many hours of my youth working with Dad to build up our place on this land. Dad would give a task and, being a quiet, calm man, would leave me on my own to figure out how to do it. If more explanation were needed, Dad would give it. I learned to dynamite out the stumps for farmland; I built a belt saw to cut firewood from an old car engine. The flywheel was crafted from the wheel rims. I loved the intrigue of this type of work.
He worked closely with his father, learning the details of engine repair and craftsmanship simply by being with his father as the family worked to build and maintain their home:
I remember helping Dad build a chicken coop. across that alley behind the houses, he built that chicken coop back there. Of course, that was still during hard times. There was a row of garages that went with each set of houses…I remember going there and helping Dad or watching him work on the car. The engines didn’t last long like now. If it lasted 20,000 miles you were doing good. Anyway, Dad was something of a mechanic too. I remember when I was little, him being under there, and [me] handing him the tools.
Even when Oliver was not shadowing his father, he was alert, observing and learning from the activities going on around him:
When I started school at six years old, before I had polio, there were a couple of carpenters building houses at the end of the row of houses that I had to go by. I saw what they did on my way to school and then when I came home again. I watched them laying joists, subfloors, putting up the walls. And that’s when I learned to build houses. When they went home, I would go over there and pick up the nails laying around on the ground so I would have nails.
In addition to acquiring his “real” education by observing the work of the men around him, Oliver began collecting tools and working with them while still a young boy. This fascination with tools, their design and manufacture, would become a major focus of Oliver’s life. Even at this early age he was exhibiting the innate engineering and design talents that would mark his life:
When we were at the 5-room house, I was wandering out in the trees out back. I came across a broken crosscut saw. I brought the longer piece home. The loggers would leave files sticking in a stump. So, I had a collection of files. I just about wore the teeth down on that saw learning to sharpen it.
A nearby commercial dairy farm, Meadowbrook, had a well-equipped blacksmith shop. The blacksmith took time to contribute to young Oliver’s education. Oliver tells of making his own knife blade from a bit of soft iron from an abandoned car top:
Of course it was just very mild steel, maybe not even steel. So, naturally it wouldn’t hold an edge, so I asked my dad about it.
He said, “Take it over to the blacksmith at Meadowbrook,” so I took that knife and was standing inside the door watching the blacksmith working, with the forge going, and he asked me if I wanted something. I showed him my knife and told him the problem, and he asked what I had made it out of, and I told him.
He wasn’t encouraging, but said, “Let’s give it a try, maybe we’ll luck out.”
He heated and cut the blade. When he pulled it out…he touched it with a file, and then he took a little time and explained to me the difference in iron, in that steel is iron with a certain amount of carbon worked into it, and this piece had practically no carbon in it, so he said there was not a whole lot that could be done about it.
That was when I was six year old, I guess, and I remembered what he told me….
He did remember, and later applied his knowledge to a broken piece of saw:
Anyway, I started fooling with tempering it. In those days most men knew quite a bit about that sort of thing; they grew up on homesteads and so forth. My dad gave me a few pointers. He said get it red hot, but don’t let it start shooting sparks out of it, because that’s burning out the carbon. Then plunge it, and then you have to heat it up again, but not so hot this time; heat it until it’s maybe a dull cherry red and plunge it, and that will draw the hardness out of it. So I tried it again, and heated it just a little hotter and let it cool, and I did have a workable piece of equipment. And that’s pretty much the way I learned.
At this point, Oliver was in second or third grade. Unsupervised, he heated his saw project with a blowtorch propped in a stack of bricks to create a small furnace.
Of course, Oliver participated in all aspects of life on a small farm. He helped with everything from washing dishes to chopping firewood and tending the farm animals. While he resented his mother’s insistence on formal table settings, and the extra dishwashing it created, he recalled milking cows in a slightly more favorable light:
As soon as I was old enough I would milk the cows because Dad was usually working nights. It took me twice as long as Dad to milk. We got beet pulp from the beet factory. That was part of the mash we fed the cows. One cow got into the barn and ate a bunch of that beet pulp and foundered itself. I went down in the morning to milk, and it was laying down all bloated.
I woke Dad up, and with a pocket knife he measured from the spine, and from the hip he measured with his hand. He jabbed the thin blade in and gas came out. Pretty soon, the cow got up and I milked it….
Overnight they would lay with their tail in the gutter, and wanted to slap it around, so we would tie the tail to the far side to control it. Down on the creek Dad built a milk house. We could set a can of milk in the creek or in the milk house shaded by the trees.
We put the milk in big pans and they went on shelves so the cream could rise. I would strain the milk into those pans and then skim the cream off the other pans. The milk would sour quicker than the cream. I would scoop the cream up and take it to the house, and Mom or whoever would make butter out of it, and then [with] the clabbered milk we would make cottage cheese. We always had more than we could use. The clabbered milk went to the chickens. Sometimes we would make cheese.
He also learned to garden and to harvest wild food from the Pacific Northwest forests. This included grass and clover for a bunch of angora rabbits the family owned for a time. Being the eldest child with parents who were overworked and in poor health, he took on many of the child-rearing duties, such as waking up his siblings, getting them ready for school, and preparing their breakfast and school lunches.
By his own account, Oliver himself only went to school out of obedience to his folks. He was aware that his education was important to them, and something for which they sacrificed. Nevertheless, he felt there was little benefit to formal education, and did not put his full effort into getting good grades:
I didn’t like school anyway. It didn’t make much sense to me. Dad didn’t have that kind of education and yet during the Depression the neighbors came and asked him how to do things. A lot of it was just stupidity as far as I was concerned. I learned what I wanted to learn from it.
Oliver remained true to his penchant for self-directed learning. Later in life he would confess:
Reading has been my whiskey. It’s not just any kind of reading; it’s been reading all kinds of things. That, and then the influence of my father, who was a very adaptable person, and growing up during the Depression when he had the initiative and the know-how to get hold of a piece of property, unimproved stump land, and turn it into a home….
In addition to doing chores and homework, Oliver held various part-time jobs before he graduated from high school. He worked at the traditional jobs that were open to teens in that time and place. He picked fruit; he worked at a garage pumping gas. The latter job enabled him to buy his first car, which he cut down and turned into a pickup. This in turn opened the way for additional entrepreneurial pursuits:
Then I cut shakes, shingles. I would go out where they had logged out and find a cedar long butt or big stump and cut it into shingle bolts or shake bolts and sell it to a shingle mill. I would cut firewood out like that too, and sell it by the cord.
His last summer in high school, Oliver got a job as a section hand with the Northern Pacific Railroad:
We had a gas car, a little spider-like thing that runs on the rails. It has a couple of ties so that you could pick it up and turn it around to get it off the tracks to let the train go by. If we were working in a place where we couldn’t see the train coming, we had something like a cap gun cap that we would sit on top of the track so that when the train hit it, it would make an explosion that would let us know the train was coming.
The wooden tracks would get rotten and have to get replaced. That was one of the biggest jobs. We’d dig out right under the tie and put the new one in, and then pry it up against the rail, and then shovel gravel under it so that it was tight against the rail. There was a little plate on top of each tie for the rails to sit on with holes in them for spikes. A spiking hammer has a small head and is double-ended, so you have to be pretty accurate with it. I was good at that. I got to drive the spikes. That was just because I was raised using tools.
There was a little gap left between the ends of the rails. In the summer they expand and when cold, they contract. There is nothing to hold them, nothing to keep the rail from moving forward or sliding down hill. There is a kind of a C clamp you put on one side and pull it up on the other, then clinch it down on the rail to keep it from moving downhill. The rails manage to creep downhill anyway, so you would have to cut a half a rail or so off so that the rails wouldn’t expand and buckle. That was another of our jobs.
I enjoyed that job! Hard work!
Graduation day came. Oliver wryly suspected he was given his diploma to get him out of the school system, in which he obviously had little interest. True or not, Oliver was now a high school graduate and quickly made his way to full-time work in the wider world. He had a little time to experience life as a young man in Washington State before events in that wider world spun his life in a different direction.
He worked a handful of odd jobs, then moved about seventy-five miles due west of his Snoqualmie home to Bremerton, Washington, where he took a job at the Bremerton Concrete Works:
My first job there was running a machine that made concrete blocks. You had a form and you filled it with green cement, and then it had to be tamped. That machine I was operating tamped the pasty cement. It wasn’t really runny.
And then they got an order for guard rail posts. They were about 14 inches in diameter and seven or eight feet long. They weighed about 55 pounds green. I would grab one, bend my knees, pull up towards my chest, flex my legs. I had good legs. Someone would kick the pallet out from underneath, and I would set it down.
While working another machine, Oliver experienced an industrial accident that gave him a bit of empathy for the blind. Although his injury fortunately resolved itself after a few days, he never forgot the experience:
I was operating a batch plant filling ready mix trucks. The cement came up a conveyor on sacks and spilled off the conveyor into a chute that brought them to a platform, right handy there. The hopper above that mixer was a scales. You pull a lever, and a certain amount of gravel would go in, and pull another and sand would go in, and pull another and water would quirt into that hopper, then you would reach around to your side, take your sharp trowel, and slash the cement sack. You grabbed both ends, picked it up, turned around, and tipped the thing over and pull the two ends together so that the cement dumped into the hopper.
Trucks are waiting, so you are in a hurry. I reached around and cut a bag open and stuck my trowel in my holster. Then leaned over to pick that thing up and here come another bag of cement down and hit the open end of my opened sack and made a geyser of cement, right in my face.
The cement is really finely ground. It felt smooth and didn’t hurt, but as soon as it started mixing with my tears, that was something else again.
I felt my way down and went into the office. They kept a first aid kit there with a little eye cup. I tried to wash my eyes out. Somebody took me to a doctor. They irrigated my eyes again. Then they bandaged my eyes so that the light couldn’t get in. I had to have that bandage for two or three days. Even after that, it took quite a long time before my eyes quit being sensitive to light. Of course, it was not hopeless for me. I knew that I would be able to see OK, but it sure gave me a feeling for what blind people have to do.
He quit soon after, feeling that the pace and pressure of the work were too much. He went from Bremerton to the Olympic Peninsula to be part of a firefighting crew on the Dosewallips River, where he was more in his element. Even his early childhood efforts to learn saw sharpening came in handy:
They had been fighting that fire for a couple of days before I got there. We were making a fireline around part of it. We were using a Pulaski, and they had a box of files in the cook tent. I put three or four of them in my pocket. There were some fallers falling snags. I was sharpening my Pulaski. Those fallers saw me sharpening that, and they wanted me to sharpen their axes, so I did.
Oliver and another young man were left to monitor the fire after the worst was over. They spent their days hiking mountain trails searching for and extinguishing “hot spots.”
During this time Oliver also worked for the Service Fuel Company, which sold firewood and coal. They used a large buzz saw to cut firewood. Oliver described the system:
The buzz saw had a 1-cylinder engine, a putt-putt…The way you started it was by giving those flywheels a good pull against the compression. I wasn’t very heavy, probably 155 pounds, but just heavy enough to pull the flywheel over to get the thing going. When the piston goes down, some gases go in. When it comes back up, it compresses that gas and then a spark explodes. When we pulled the flywheel it would start it running. Running that big buzz saw was one of the biggest jobs I had there.
He also shoveled coal to sell to homeowners by the sackful. This job ended when a relative of the owner wanted the position.
But by then the world was at war.
1Act of May 20, 1862 (Homestead Act), Public Law 37-64, 05/20/1862; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.
2Ancestry.com by TANDBSILVER, Barbara Silver re: Anne Bennett 1830-1904. Used by permission.
CHAPTER 2 – The War
Oliver had barely finished high school when the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and he had just turned 20 when the Japanese bombed the U.S. Pacific Fleet on December 7, 1941. As Tom Brokaw wrote in The Greatest Generation, “When Pearl Harbor made it irrefutably clear that America was not a fortress, this generation was summoned to the parade ground and told to train for war” 1
As a man who was young, single, and fit, Oliver was a perfect candidate to serve his country in the military. As soon as he heard the news on the radio, he knew without a doubt he would be drafted, and accepted that fact unflinchingly. The expected notice came in 1942.
He reported to Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington for his physical exam. Since he’d had some previous radio experience and was interested in the field, he was sent to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for training to become a radio operator on a B-24 (heavy bomber).
The Sioux Falls school was brand new, built in 1942, and relatively small, with only 40 training aircraft at the field. On the B-24 the radioman also doubled as a gunner, so Oliver was sent to gunnery school at Davis-Monthan Army Air Field near Tucson, Arizona when he finished his radio training.
Oliver described some of his gunnery training:
We had some simulated training thing there that you sat in just like you was sitting in an airplane. There was a screen and planes would be coming at you. You had guns there to shoot those planes down. They had some small training planes that had a gun in them. We would ride in the back of that, shooting. A bigger plane would fly dragging a target that we would practice shooting at. From there I was a flight radio instructor for a little while, then they found crews for us.
The sturdy B-24 bomber had a range of 2,000 miles, flew 300 miles per hour, and carried 9,000 pounds of bombs. Its ten crewmembers wore electrically-heated gloves, suits and boots, which did not always function correctly. For these young men, all in their late teens and early twenties like Oliver, crewing a B-24 bomber was a high-stress assignment. Not only were their working conditions inside the B-24 cramped and uncomfortable, but the life expectancy of the crews and planes was short—about 35 bombing missions.
In mid-1943, as Oliver was completing his training to crew a B-24, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was still allied with Adolph Hitler in prosecuting total war against the United States and the other Allies. That same summer President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. General George Marshall, meeting in Casablanca, decided to invade Italy. By mid-August Mussolini had fallen, generals Patton and Montgomery had taken Sicily, and the Italians had surrendered. The Allies were ready to move on to the mainland.
However, although the Italians had officially surrendered, the Germans still had control of most of the country. The conflict to claim it was long, difficult, and bloody as the Allied soldiers fought their way up toward Rome from the southern tip of Italy. This Allied toehold in southern Italy provided a base from which to bomb the Balkans and parts of Europe formerly out of reach. The Allies hurriedly put together the B-24 bomb crews needed to take advantage of this opportunity. The 449th Heavy Bombardment Group was formed in November of 1943 in southern Italy, and Oliver, newly qualified as a radioman and gunner, was assigned to a crew.
Oliver, who had spent his entire life in the State of Washington, had recently seen some of South Dakota and Arizona courtesy of the military. Now his horizons would broaden considerably, beginning with a trip to Florida.
Oliver and his crew began the journey to Italy from Florida in a B-24 that had auxiliary fuel tanks in the bomb bay and on the wings, but even so, having enough fuel to reach their next stop was sometimes a near thing. A strong headwind on their way to Brazil made fuel tight, but they landed safely. They were stuck in Brazil for a week by bad weather over the Atlantic. It was Christmas the week they were grounded in Brazil. Some of the men “appropriated” a turkey and they celebrated the holiday.
“They were pretty good at that snitching business,” Oliver said in later years.
When more B-24’s arrived, and the weather cleared, they flew on to Africa. The trip was not uneventful. Once, Oliver was sitting at his radio operator’s position when the plane hit a vacuum pocket and suddenly dropped 1,000 feet straight down. He could see lightning skittering over the outside of the plane, and the noise forced him to remove his radio headset.
There was only a dirt runway in Dakar, Senegal, but the group managed to land safely, although Oliver witnessed planes sliding off the runway and having to be towed back on.
From Senegal, they flew on across the Sahara Desert where Oliver—born and raised in the wet Pacific Northwest— saw nothing but sand and sand dunes as far as he could see. They landed at Algiers, in northern Africa, and waited for the whole group to assemble, and then flew on across the Mediterranean Sea to southern Italy and the town of Grottaglie.
During the first part of World War II, Grottaglie, Italy, and the nearby airport remained under the control of the Italians. Later in the War, the German Luftwaffe took it over; as a result, the British Royal Air Force bombed it heavily. After the Allies invaded southern Italy in 1943, they rehabilitated the bombed-out airfield and used it as a base for heavy bombers. The 449th with their B-24 Liberators was one of the groups that made use of the airfield beginning in January of 1944.
Oliver was among those first to land and set up camp on the bombed-out airfield outside Grottaglie, which lies in the heel of the Italian “boot”:
The air strip was patched up, but the hangar was bombed up, lots of tin hanging on it. We got there ahead of our supply ship – no tents, short on grub. We were sleeping in the hangar. Some of the fellows got a bushel of tangerines. Everybody ate too many of them, except me. I knew what would happen. All night long you would hear the tin rattling, somebody going out to relieve himself. Finally we had tents. We set up the tent for each crew. It was chilly weather, not really comfortable. Chappy and Swede, the engineer and assistant flight engineer, made a stove to burn flight fuel. Other guys copied, but didn’t really know what they were doing. Some of them burned down their tents.
Oliver and his fellow airmen made trips into town for food, drink, and recreation. There he befriended a shoemaker, his wife, their daughter (whose husband was in the Italian army), and her small child.
Each squadron in the 449th consisted of six planes. Oliver had originally been assigned to the 717th squadron, but he and some other men were transferred to the 719th, which had suffered heavy losses. There he remained until he finished his time.
Oliver’s plane was called Dragon Lady #2. The original Dragon Lady was salvaged as scrap after hitting a brick wall while landing. (Fortunately, nobody on the crew had been injured.)
In 475 days of combat the 449th lost 103 bombers, 383 airmen were killed, 363 were taken prisoner, and 159 were shot down behind enemy lines and evaded capture.4
On April 4, 1944 the 719th was ordered on a bombing mission to Bucharest, Romania. The squadron consisted of Dragon Lady, Consolidated Mess, Dixie Bell, Paper Doll, Born to Lose, and one unnamed plane. It was a whole wing mission, so other groups were to rendezvous with them. The mission was called off when it was discovered that vital information about the mission had been leaked, but somehow Oliver’s group, with his six-plane squadron bringing up the rear, was not notified and went on alone. They were met by German fighters with belly tanks. When the Germans spotted the Allied planes, they dropped their belly tanks and attacked. Oliver, acting as gunner, started firing as soon as they were within range. His pilot could see the tracers were falling short and called Oliver on the radio to tell him to raise his sights. Oliver complied, and downed the enemy plane. When it was over, their plane had quite a few holes, Oliver had used up all of his ammunition, and he had held the trigger down too long and burned out one of his barrels. Of their squadron, only Dragon Lady returned from the mission. The other five were shot down, their crews killed in action or taken prisoner.
Dragon Lady flew a couple more bombing missions once new crews and aircraft had replaced those lost over Bucharest.
Then, on April 12, 1944, the 449th, part of the Heavy Bombardment Group’s 47th Wing, was ordered on a mission over Austria.
They were to attack an aircraft factory at Winer Neustadt. They were successful in dropping the bombs, but then came the counterattack. The Allies used a variety of techniques during their bomb run to confuse the enemy fighter planes and the heavy artillery on the ground. One of these tactics was the use of “window” or “chaff,” shredded foil that interfered with the enemy radar. This worked a few times, Oliver recalled, but eventually someone down there “smartened up.”
Unfortunately, the enemy got wise to their “chaff” while Dragon Lady’s bomb bay doors were open, since they had just dropped their bombs on the target. They took a burst of flak just under the open bomb bay doors. This damaged the hydraulic system so the doors would not close, nor could they lower the flaps or landing gear. Dragon Lady fell out of formation.
They flew out of the flak area, but two ME-109 planes attacked them, one of which was shot down by one of Dragon Lady’s waist gunners. However, the enemy gun range was longer than that of their 50 caliber machine guns, and the remaining enemy fighter took out Dragon Lady’s other engine. At 16,000 feet their pilot, Jack, banked the plane steeply and aimed for some hills while trailing smoke from two engines.
They flew into some clouds.
In his book, Of Men and Wings, D. William Shepherd describes what the other squadron members witnessed:
Three 449th B-24s fell victim to the aggressive enemy fighter attacks. Ship #10 [Dragon Lady], manned by Olson’s crew flying in position ‘A-1-5’, “started losing altitude”—probably due to flak damage—as the formation made the rally. The enemy fighters immediately pounced upon the stricken aircraft which had the #4 engine feathered and one wing covered with oil. Ship #10 was “last seen making for clouds just beyond target, time 1207 hours.” 6
The sight of Dragon Lady flying into the clouds and trailing smoke was the last the crews in the flight group would hear or know of Oliver’s crew for several weeks.
Once in the cloud cover, the pilot pulled the plane up so abruptly the crew was pushed back hard in their seats. It was a rough, but cautionary maneuver. He didn’t know how high those hills hidden by the clouds were.
Their goal was to get across the river on the north side of Croatia and crash land in Yugoslavia. If they could escape capture by the Germans, there were partisan groups in Yugoslavia who might help them.
Dragon Lady and crew did make it to Yugoslavian territory, but just barely. Oliver described details of the crash landing:
We had one inboard engine wind-milling, which sets up a lot of drag. With the bomb bay door open creating more drag, we were going down. We clipped the trees on the north side of the river, crossed the river and set it down in a pasture. That open bomb bay plowed up a lot of sod and rolled it up into the bomb bay. That probably saved us. We hit a little something or other and the plane nosed up.
At the moment of impact, Oliver was busily destroying codes and other sensitive material. A large black box came down on him, knocking him out. Deren (the bombardier) and another crewman had taken his place at the radioman’s table, and were trapped as it got crushed in the crash.
Oliver had fallen over onto one of the men at the table as he lost consciousness. When he came to, Deren was struggling to get him off his lap. Oliver used his unauthorized pocket knife to free Deren’s foot from the splintered remains of the table, but the navigator remained trapped. Meanwhile, the pilot and copilot had simply unbuckled their seatbelts and climbed out through a nearby crack that had opened up as the plane rolled up onto the nose turret.
I went to check on another man. He was an older man who kept fighting me and hollering that both of his legs were broke, but the way he was kicking, I knew they weren’t broken. I felt under the table to see how tight he was caught, and it wasn’t real tight. The co-pilot came around and I turned it over to him. He went around to all the first aid kits to find morphine that was supposed to be in each one, but they had all been emptied. He still gave him a shot from one of the empty vials and the navigator, named Bush, calmed right down.
Oliver had been on the verge of knocking Bush out to get him out of the plane and save both their lives. The shock of the crash had affected his mind, and he continued to insist he was in great pain.
The pilots and crew rushed to get their injured comrades out of the plane, assess their injuries, and administer what first aid they could. They worked as quickly as possible because one of the engines was on fire and the remaining fuel in the wing tanks could have exploded at any moment.
The greatest fear of downed airmen was that they would fall into the hands of the Germans, who would either take them as prisoners of war or execute them on the spot. Instead, three local men appeared. After speaking with the crewmen, they went to a nearby house and returned with two jacks to help free the second man at the radio table.
At that time, two groups of resistance fighters were rescuing downed American fliers—at grave risk to themselves. The Germans had instituted a policy of killing 100 Yugoslavs for every German soldier killed, and had been known to wipe out entire villages for hiding Allied airmen, or even on suspicion of doing so.
The anti-communist, anti-fascist Serbian Chetniks hid and aided several hundred fliers, but the pro-Communist Partisans, mostly Croats, rescued the majority of them. They moved the men by way of an “underground railway” to various pick-up points in Yugoslavia, to be transported back to their bases in Italy.
Either way, the experiences of fliers rescued in Yugoslavia were much the same: They were welcomed and aided by strong, sturdy rural village people who hid them in their own homes, haylofts and forests, and fed them from their own meager food supplies. It was fortunate that Dragon Lady had made it across the border and that the crew had fallen into friendly hands. Had they crash-landed in Austria, there would have been little hope that they would have evaded capture.
That night, at the farmhouse where the crew had taken refuge, someone with medical experience examined them. Oliver, with a head injury and with one leg bruised from hip to knee, was in the worst shape.
In the morning, two Yugoslavian political leaders appeared, along with nearly thirty Partisans. The ten crewmen joined the group and began a long journey deep into enemy-held Yugoslavia, all the while avoiding encounters with the Germans. Moving from hiding place to hiding place, the Partisans ferried the crew 380 miles south toward safety at a British mission in the central part of the country.
“Before we got there we had a few interesting experiences,” Oliver recalled. At about one o’clock the next morning, after a few hours of sleep, the crewmen began walking with the group of Partisans down a little valley toward the railroad and a major river.
Oliver, following instructions, squatted in the brush near a German pill box (a hexagonal concrete guard post with small openings through which to shoot). These structures were arranged facing each other, but not close enough to hit each other when guards were shooting. A trip wire was strung through the brush that would alert the men in the pill box to unauthorized intruders, such as Oliver’s group.
A Partisan touched Oliver’s shoulder, and they crept to the trip wire. Partisans on either side of the wire carefully lifted Oliver’s feet one at a time, setting them over the wire.
There were about fifty in the group, including downed airmen and the thirty Partisans. Negotiating trip wires on each side of a railway line, then being shuttled across the wide river in a little boat ten men at a time, took hours, and they were eager to get out of the exposed valley and into the comparative safety of the forest before it got light.
They reached the forest, exhausted, and made themselves as comfortable as possible, finding what shelter they could from the winter wind. Oliver rested fitfully, sleeping a little, moving around a bit, and then taking another nap. His strongest wish was for a handkerchief to keep his neck warm in the bitter wind. After his return to safety he was never again without one. At full daylight they resumed their journey, heading deeper into the mountains.
On the second day they took the navigator, Bush, to an underground hospital because he was still in shock and unable to keep up. Meanwhile, another downed flyer joined the group. The new man had been a tail gunner on a B-17. He told Oliver that the plane had come down “windmilling like a maple leaf,” and had landed softly enough that he simply walked away from it. A few days later, Oliver’s remaining crew plus the new man separated from the larger group, guided by an English-speaking Partisan who had spent time logging in Oregon.
Oliver’s skill and hardiness as a “country boy” served him well as they trekked across rugged terrain. Along the way he witnessed the suffering of the local populace, and also the enduring hostility between the Croatian Partisans and the Serbian Chetniks:
We were headed up into those mountains. There was a river coming down from those mountains…the river was in a pretty deep chasm there. There was another trail following along up the river, but there was another group of Yugoslavs. They had always been fighting each other….The other group was on the other side of the river.
These fellows were really hard up. There weren’t enough shoes, coats, guns to go around. These fellows would run up to the front lines barefoot. There was snow on the ground. There was a partner up there about the same size, and they would take his shoes and gun and then he would run back, leaving blood in the snow.
The trail where they had encountered the Chetniks went down a steep hill and then across a cable bridge. At this point Oliver’s crew caught up to a pack train. One of the horses, in poor condition and carrying a forty-pound load, could not go down the trail onto the bridge—its legs would not hold. They unloaded the horse, and Oliver picked up one of the sacks, carrying it to the bridge, and then going back for the other sack. While he was doing that, the others coaxed the horse onto the bridge.
When Oliver returned with the second sack, they were trying to get the horse across the swaying cable bridge, but it would only go a few steps. They urged the horse forward, but the handler was unable to hold him when, part-way across, the animal reared up, and fell over the cable onto rocks forty feet below. The handler had to shoot the horse.
One night they stayed in a barn, and on another they crowded into a house with several other men. Oliver noted the industry and strength of the local people, as well as certain cultural differences.
One evening, before dark, the group came to a two-story farmhouse with a huge masonry chimney. Their hosts were two middle-aged women and an older man. Oliver, stepping inside, spotted the nearly empty wood box and began cutting firewood, but when the old man started for the barn, Oliver followed him.
A horse stood in a stall with an empty manger. The old man motioned for Oliver to give the horse some hay, but the horse was so close to the side of the stall he couldn’t reach the manger. Seeing this, the old man smacked the horse on the rump and it shifted enough that Oliver could feed it. Oliver noted that the man had asthma and apparently appreciated not having to load the hay.
The next morning, up before everyone else, Oliver heard a noise in the kitchen. It was one of the women fixing breakfast, but the old man was getting ready to wash his face. Oliver watched, amused, as he took a mouthful of water from a dipper, squirted water into his hands, then wiped it on his face, around his head and ears, did it a second time and was done, a real spit bath.
Oliver had resumed his firewood task when he saw one of the other women going into the barn. Preparing to haul manure, she hitched the horse—the one Oliver had fed the night before—to a little low sled called a stonebolt. Oliver grabbed a fork and helped her load manure, but was once again impressed with Yugoslavian strength, as he was barely able to keep up. When that chore was finished, Oliver went in and ate breakfast with the crew.
Another incident where Oliver’s farm-boy stamina proved useful occurred as his group was following a trail that came out of a patch of timber into a meadow. They spotted a man walking in the timber on the far side. Apparently the guide needed to connect with him and receive instructions before they could continue. The guide called to the other man, who was about fifty yards away, but he didn’t hear. Oliver sprinted across the meadow, running wide so as not to startle the man, and got his attention for their guide.
The fliers wore flight boots which included inserts that had electric wires for heat. These boots were designed for sitting for hours in cold airplanes at high altitude, not for hiking across rugged mountain terrain. Oliver was the only member of the crew who had brought his ordinary GI shoes on the flight.
With the best of intentions, the Partisans checked the men’s feet and brought them shoes made of half-tanned leather. Unfortunately, most of them were too small. Deren, in particular, had big feet, so Oliver gave him his shoes and put on a pair of the rough, ill-fitting shoes provided by the Partisans. He modified them to be wearable, but that still meant blisters.
The group continued on for twenty-eight days. By the time they reached the British mission, they were half-starved. Their hosts along the way had heroically and generously shared their own meagre rations, but the men sometimes resorted to eating grass to stretch the food. This poor diet affected Oliver’s digestion for the rest of his life. The men at the mission were also short on supplies, except for hot tea.
After a few days, the crewmen were taken to an airfield after dark. They waited for a plane, but the one that came was not allowed to land. Apparently it was not safe.
The next night they did board a cargo plane, possibly a C-47, for a flight to Bari, Italy. Bari was the headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service and the American Office of Strategic Services. Both groups were orchestrating espionage and information gathering from that corner of Europe.
“Going Home” Photo of downed US Airmen being flown from Yugoslavia to Bari, Italy on a C-47.
Before they took off, the men were asked to leave their outer clothes. They flew out stripped to their shorts and wrapped in blankets. Clothing was also in short supply and those remaining behind needed it.
In Bari, back in uniform, they attended a ceremony in which medals were handed out. Oliver was not much impressed:
Deren, when they gave the medals out, said I was the only one who deserved the Distinguished Flying Cross. They said it was just because I had let Deren have my shoes. They didn’t know I had stayed in a burning airplane to get a couple of other fellows loose.
We didn’t take those medals very seriously. When you are saving your own hide, you don’t need a medal for that!
1Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (Random House, NY, 1998), xi
2National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Public Domain
3449th Bomb Group Association: http://449th.org/grottagliefield.ph.
4The Planes of the 449th Bomb Group In World War II (449th Bomb Group Association, 2001). Excerpt via personal communication, 11/2012.
5 Grottaglie and Home, A History of the 449th Bomb Group (Book III) (449th Bomb Group Association, 1989), 115
6 D. William Shepherd, personal communication
Richard Osborne, World War II Sites in the United States: A Tour Guide and Directory (Indianapolis, IN, Reibel-Roque, 2002), 188
Stephen Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy beaches to the bulge to the Surrender of Germany (New York, NY, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1997), 294-295
Mark Arnold-Forester, The World at War (London, UK, Pimlico, 2001), 126
April 12: Wiener Neustadt, Austria
The deep-penetration, strategic-bombing offensive continued unabated on April 12 as the 449th mounted the maximum effort that had been anticipated for the past several days—the attack on the aircraft factory at Wiener Neustadt. By the end of the day, three of the crews that were at the 0530 morning briefing would be listed on the Group records as MIAs.
The principle target of the day for the 47th Wing was the “WIENER-NEUSTADT AIRCRAFT ASSEMBLY PLANT WERK ONE.” The 5th Wing and the 304th Wing would strike similar aircraft-plant targets at Fishamend and Bad Voslau. While these three wings were concentrating on the aircraft production facilities in Austria, the 49th and 55th Wings would strike the enemy airdrome at Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
For its part in the day’s operations, the 47th Wing would send all four groups to Wiener-Neustadt in two waves. The lead wave of the 376th and 98th Groups was loaded with 500-pound, GP bombs. The second wave of the 450th and 449th was loaded with 100-pound, clustered, fragmentation bombs.
The Luftwaffe was estimated to be capable of sending as many as 300 fighters to oppose the attack on Wiener Neustadt. To help deal with this enemy fighter force, escort on the route to the target would be provided by one group of Lightnings. At the IP (Initial Point), [i.e. The starting point for a bombing run.] the 449th formation would be met by a group of Thunderbolts which would provide cover over the target and along the route back.
Photographic reconnaissance conducted on February 28 and March 8 showed that some eighty-three heavy guns were located around the target area. The lead aircraft in each attack unit loaded three cartons of “window”, a radar countermeasure also known as “chaff”, that was to be dispensed from the IP to the target in an effort to confuse any radar-directed anti-aircraft batteries. [“Window” often consisted of shredded tinfoil.]
Swan’s crew, in ship #55, led the 449th combat formation into the air at 0747 hours. By 0830, the Group had thirty-six B-24s airborne and headed for rendezvous with the other three groups. Shortly after making the rendezvous, ship #42 turned back because of “a very sick gunner.” The formation headed northward across the Adriatic. A malfunctioning supercharger forced ship #27 to drop out of the formation and make an early return before reaching the Yugoslavian coast.
From the coast of Yugoslavia, the planned route would have taken the 449th just west of Mostar. For some unexplained reason the 449th formation drifted well to the right of the briefed course. This variation in course almost resulted in disaster for Brown’s crew aboard ship #33 when the formation came within range of the flak defenses of Mostar. The “moderate to intense, accurate, and heavy” flak ruptured one of the gas cells in the left wing of ship #33, and severed the gas lines between the booster pumps. It took a good ten minutes for Lt. Brown and his crew to realize they had no choice but to drop out of formation and head back to Grottaglie.
The P-38 escorts joined the formation at 1105 hours to take the bombers to the IP. As the formation approached the IP, the P-38s handed the escort job over to the arriving P-47s. Flak bursts began to appear in the sky ahead. As bomb-bay doors opened, the waist gunners in the lead aircraft of each unit began to dispense window, the radar countermeasure. With “moderate to intense” flak bursting around them, the thirty-three aircraft flew over the target, and dropped 52.05 tons of 100-pound, GP bombs at1207 hours from 22,000 to 24,600 feet.
The landing ground and the airdrome were observed to be well covered by bomb bursts. Dense smoke covered the whole target area with “columns of it rising to 10,000 feet.” Flames and at least one large secondary explosion were observed as the hangars just to the right of the aiming point were squarely hit by the bomb pattern. Coming off the target, the formation rallied to the left. While one group of enemy fighters decoyed the escorts away from the bombers, another group succeeded in closing with the 449th formation. Three 449th B-24s fell victim to the aggressive enemy fighter attacks. Ship #10 [the Dragon Lady], manned by Olson’s crew flying in position ‘A-1-5’, “started losing altitude”—probably due to flak damage—as the formation made the rally. The enemy fighters immediately pounced upon the stricken aircraft which had the #4 engine feathered and one wing covered with oil. Ship #10 was “last seen making for clouds just beyond target, time 1207 hours.”
D. William Shepherd, personal communication
Narrative Report No. 43 Date: 12 April 1944. 449th Bomb Group Mission Report.
The average estimate of enemy fighter planes seen was 25 to 30 ME-109s and FW-190s, the number of the latter varying from 2 to 6 planes. Most of our aircraft reported attacks by 6 to 10 fighters. Six of our aircraft, however, reported attacks by 15 to as many as 30 fighters.
All but one of the ships reporting the larger number of attackers stated the attacks were en mass towards the nose, one reporting two waves of 12 to 15 each. Several reported that decoys drew off the P-38 escorts and then mass attacks abreast were made out of the sun from 12 to 2 o’clock. Those reporting the smaller number of planes likewise reported many of the attacks towards the nose from 10 to 1 o’clock with the attackers coming in abreast. Most of the other of these smaller attacks were at the tail from 6 o’clock level. Practically all of the attacks were very aggressive and were pressed right thru the formation. The formation was under attack for about 15 to 30 minutes from the time our aircraft started their rally.
CHAPTER 3 – Transition
Oliver and the rest of the crew of Dragon Lady waited in Bari for a backhaul on an empty C-47 freight plane. They had not yet completed the required number of missions to finish their tour of duty, but the military reassigned them on account of their twenty-eight days in Yugoslavia.
After a couple of days they caught a flight to Casablanca. Then they continued on to bases in Newfoundland, New York City, and Salt Lake City, where they went their separate ways.
Meanwhile Ed and Pansy, Oliver’s parents, had moved to Nampa, Idaho, a town of about 12,000 some twenty miles west of Boise, after Ed had quit his sawmill job in Snoqualmie, Washington. Ed purchased a truck and established a trash-hauling route in Nampa, and also hauled and sold firewood from a sawmill in the nearby town of Emmett. They endured a very difficult and stressful April while Oliver was missing in action in April of 1944.
By around the first of June 1944 Oliver had been assigned to a base in Galveston, Texas. Initially he served as an instructor, most likely once again in radio operations, but soon the military sent him for a short course to learn how to operate the radio in a B-29. Meanwhile the defense plants continued to develop and turn out improved aircraft at a steady clip, and the B-32 soon superseded the B-29.
Oliver never flew a training flight in the B-29, but he did qualify for service aboard the B-32, a new low-altitude bomber that flew below radar. His time in Galveston was short, although he did find time to swim at the beach and get stung by a sting ray, an injury that was very painful and took “a long time” to heal.
While the war was stressful and difficult for everyone, the anxiety must have been enormous for a family with four sons of military age. Oliver had been called up first, in 1942. Keith had asthma and was exempt. The next brother, Phillip, enlisted in February, 1943, and was a co-pilot on B-17s flying out of England. He only made a few flights before the end of the war, and returned home safely.
Carol enlisted in March, 1944 at the age of 18, and was assigned to the 78th Infantry Division, 309th Infantry Regiment. The unit left for Europe in October and arrived in Germany in mid-December, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge—the last major Nazi offensive against the Allies in World War II.
The division breached the Siegfried Line1 near the Hürtgen Forest in late December and continued to fight their way into the heart of Germany, capturing the huge Schwammenauel Dam and then—famously— The Lundendorff railroad bridge at Remagen, allowing the Allies to cross the Rhine River, an unexpected advantage since the Germans were blowing up all the bridges across the Rhine. Books, and even a movie, have been written about this event, which was a great boost to the Allied effort to win the war. Thus, Oliver’s brother’s Division, the 78th, became the first infantry division to cross the Rhine—an achievement that signaled the final stage in the defeat of the Nazis. The Remagen Bridge was captured by the Americans on March 7, 1945. Carol was killed two days later, on March 9, when the Germans began a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to retake the bridge. He is buried in Belgium.2
By that time Oliver had been assigned to Mountain Home Air Force Base. Since the base was only sixty miles from Nampa, he was able to spend his weekends with his parents and his siblings Keith, Jessie and Dell. (Phillip was still in England.)
Keith introduced Oliver to his circle of friends, among them a young woman by the name of Lorene Flynn. She also had family in the area, and was studying elementary education at Northwest Nazarene College, a local private school.
Like many of his fellow returning soldiers, Oliver married right away. He and Lorene—all his life he would call her Rene (pronounced “REE-Nee”)—married on June 14, 1945, while he was still in the service. They bought a small trailer house, parked it on a big farm off-base, and began their married life.
The B-32, for which Oliver had trained, flew its first combat mission a couple of weeks later. However, the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Japan’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945, before Oliver could again see combat. The war was winding down. Oliver spent his final days in the service as a flight radio instructor.
The military began releasing soldiers on a point system that favored those who had served overseas the longest. In spite of the fact that Oliver’s overseas tour had been very intense, he had only been abroad for six months. As a result, he had to wait longer than some others.
Never one to sit still, he quickly found work. One of his first off-base jobs during this time was on the South Fork of the Boise River, about 20 miles northeast of Mountain Home, where the Anderson Ranch Dam was under construction. On his days off, Oliver would drive out to the site and help clear sagebrush and rocks.
He finally received his discharge on October 18, 1945. After collecting $250 in separation pay, Oliver was free—finally—to return to civilian life.
He and millions of other newly released soldiers then began the process of adjusting to peacetime. Horrific wartime experiences fueled their drive and passion to put the nightmares behind them and move forward with building homes, families, and careers. As Tom Brokaw noted in The Greatest Generation, this group of young men and women would become one of the most innovative and productive in American history.
The United States made efforts to honor and assist returning veterans. Many of them took advantage of The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, to go to college—an opportunity undreamed of before the war. The government also offered GI Loans for business startups or home purchases.
Oliver, the independent self-starter who considered himself done with formal education when he graduated from high school, declined the educational benefits of the GI Bill. As a child of the Great Depression, he also avoided excessive debt. Even when it became the norm to borrow for a new house or car, he stayed true to his principles.
Although it was a great relief and a source of hope to get back to “real life” and to be among friends and family after the war, Oliver found that it was hard to find work in western Idaho. He and Rene moved from Mountain Home to Nampa, where he picked up whatever temporary jobs he could find, such as dismantling old railroad cars. While he had this job in the railroad yard, he and Rene lived in a rooming house on the north side of Nampa.
He did tap into his GI benefits in order to purchase a former military truck. He cut the chassis just ahead of the transfer case, lengthened the frame by 34 inches, and built wooden bunks—metal frames for holding a load—on the bed for hauling logs.
He started getting jobs, but not everything went as planned.
“That’s when I got caught in the avalanche and come pretty near getting squashed.”
It was spring; the snow on the ground was thawing, creating runoff and making the steep roads in the Idaho mountains nearly impassable. Oliver got a job hauling logs to a sawmill in the mountains outside of Idaho City. The trucks had to be pulled up high on the mountain to the loading site with a caterpillar tractor due to the poor condition of the switchback roads, and driven back down to the sawmill.
Oliver had just made new bunks and had cables attached to hold up the side stakes of the bunks. The first layer of logs—the deck load—needed to be tight, but the loader put in a log that didn’t fit, so they dropped another log onto it to force it in place, which broke the cable clamp loose from the bunk stake. To compensate for that, and to secure the load, Oliver ran a chain from the trailer hitch around the outside log, effectively tying the load to the truck, a big mistake.
As Oliver started to drive away to take his load down the mountain to the sawmill, the water- saturated road started to give way, and Oliver’s load slid off. This was a big enough calamity, but since Oliver had tied the truck to the corner log, the falling load of logs pulled the end of the truck around. The truck started rolling sideways. As the truck rolled down an embankment toward another road just below, the cab protector was smashed down, the cab door was thrown open and Oliver went flying. He landed hard on his neck and shoulder, doubling him up, and then proceeded to roll down the hill just behind the truck. The truck landed on its wheels on the lower road, Oliver came down beside it, lying in line with the front axle. Looking up, he realized the truck was teetering precariously, and the wheel was positioned to land right on his chest. He rolled over once more; the wheel came down right beside him.
The other men got Oliver off the mountain by way of an old army ambulance that had been converted to a grease truck. Because of the deep snow, they had to pull the old ambulance with a caterpillar tractor—presumably the same one they’d used to pull the trucks up the road in the first place. At the foot of the mountain they transferred him into a crew member’s new car for the ride to the hospital in Boise.
Medical personnel set Oliver’s dislocated shoulder, but the X-rays were taken with Oliver lying flat and they failed to show the serious damage to his spine. He returned home after a few days.
By that time Oliver and Rene had moved into a house that belonged to Rene’s grandmother, at 204 Juniper Street in Nampa—an address that would figure in Cameron family life for many years to come. A nurse friend who lived nearby became concerned because Oliver was exhausted and only wanted to sleep all the time.
He was also having trouble holding himself upright. He saw another doctor, who X-rayed him from the side and discovered damage to four vertebrae in Oliver’s back. The new doctor put him in a body cast, and told him his working days were over. He later replaced the cast with a brace on Oliver’s back, with straps to hold him up.
Meanwhile, friends had towed Oliver’s truck home for him. In spite of what the doctor had told him, he promptly tried to go back to work. Very soon he discovered that the brace was inadequate to hold him upright while driving, so he set about to remedy that.
He went into his shop and got a piece of rod, bending it down his left front side across his abdomen and up the other front side. He fitted this with a strap across the back to hold himself in place and discovered he could sit up and drive this way. He continued hauling logs for another two weeks.
He was, however, still under the doctor’s care. When he had an appointment, he planned his day to get back to Nampa early, change out of his telltale work clothes and put on the “official” brace. This continued until one day there was not enough time to change and he realized he was fed up with the subterfuge—“monkey business,” he called it.
He was sitting in the waiting room in his work clothes when the doctor came by and did a double-take. The doctor’s face got “kind of cloudy,” Oliver recalled, and when he was called into the examining room, the doctor kicked the door shut and began to berate Oliver for working and for not wearing his brace.
Oliver had a hard time keeping his face straight, but began unbuttoning his shirt to show the angry doctor his do-it-yourself brace. The doctor took more X-rays, reported Oliver was healing faster than expected, and that they should “get a patent on that thing.” Oliver wore his homemade brace for another nine months.
Oliver continued hauling logs for a time, mostly in the forested mountains north or east of their home base in Nampa.
Meanwhile, tragedy again struck Oliver’s family. His brother Keith suffered severe burns in an explosion while working in the basement of a Nampa hospital. He died of his injuries a few days later, on July 18, 1947. Oliver had lost his nearest brother and friend.
As they dealt with this devastating blow, Oliver and Rene continued to pursue their dream of a home and family. But as the peacetime economy swung into motion, GM and Ford began manufacturing trucks that were larger and hauled more logs on less gas than Oliver could with his converted military truck. That made it harder and harder for him to compete.
Rene gave birth to a son, Richard, on August 5, 1948 in Nampa. Six weeks later the little family moved to Smith’s Ferry, a tiny community in the mountains seventy miles north of Nampa. There Oliver found work hauling logs for the owner of a small sawmill.
Oliver and Rene prepared for the move by storing their belongings in a small rental unit on an alley, for which they paid $10 per month. On weekends they returned to Nampa to wash clothes and to retrieve stored food items.
In Smith’s Ferry they shared housing with the sawmill owner. When that living situation became too cramped, Oliver built an eight by twenty foot house on a trailer and moved it up into some trees across the tracks from the owner’s home.
In this peaceful, private location there was a small fenced play area for Richard, and Rene could wash clothes in a washing machine outside. Oliver rigged the washing machine’s electric pump to pressurize water that Rene had heated in a Jiffy electric heater, creating the luxury of a hot after-work shower for Oliver.3
Oliver and Rene were cozy in their little trailer in the woods, but steady long-term sawmill and logging work was scarce. Of course Oliver had other skills, but he was always wondering where his next job might turn up. In November of 1949, while he was helping a young friend and his wife move, a stranger asked if he knew a carpenter. Oliver replied he was a carpenter, and the man asked if he could come to work. Oliver told him he could start as soon as he finished moving his friend. The man handed him a big roll of blueprints. He had just been hired to oversee building a large shop for a road building company.
He had men working there that could have done the job, but they weren’t carpenters. We built a light plant [to provide electricity and light for a construction site] the first thing. It had 4 generators in it. The lumber was cold and would split if a nail was driven into it. We used the electricity to drill holes instead.
The shop was big. It had a frame on each side with a couple of railroad wheels on a rail on each side so that a beam could roll across. There was a big I-beam so that you could pick up the engine out of a [Caterpillar tractor] and move it or whatever you wanted to do.
Oliver and Rene were living in beautiful country, and their housing arrangements, while not plush, were adequate for their small family. Both had grown up living close to the land and eating homegrown vegetables, meat, and fruit supplemented with fish, berries, and edible wild plants. They bought a few items from the store and had fresh milk delivered by truck every other day from the larger town of Cascade. If Rene failed to show up for the milk delivery, the driver left it in a designated spot.
Oliver also hunted to supplement their diet. In his younger years he’d learned how to butcher and process deer, rabbit, pheasant, quail, and the occasional elk or bear.
In early 1950 Oliver and Rene welcomed daughter Dorene, but not without some suspense and drama. Near the end of the pregnancy Oliver’s mother had insisted that Rene stay with family in Nampa. Richard stayed with Oliver’s parents Pansy and Ed and siblings Jessie and Dell in the nearby town of Tamarack.
Oliver missed the first call warning him of Dorene’s impending arrival—he’d been out skiing. Dorene complicated things, though, and slowed the process down so Oliver still arrived in time. The baby lay in an awkward position, hand by head. This resulted in some tense moments. At one point, the doctor told Oliver he might not be able to save both mother and baby, and asked him to choose. Oliver, with one young child at home, of course chose his wife. Fortunately, the doctor was able to turn the baby and delivered her breach.
Oliver continued with his carpentry. When the crew finished building the shop, he stayed on as a “grease monkey,” working on heavy equipment. However, he was under pressure to join a union. Rather than join what he believed to be a corrupt organization, he quit.
Once more out of work, Oliver fell back on his logging skills, purchasing a chainsaw and getting work falling and bucking (cutting into lengths for hauling) timber near Warm Lake, Idaho.
Oliver and his family moved to a comfortable camp spot at Warm Lake in the mountains of northern Idaho that had a beautiful view and was surrounded by pine forests, resorts and ranches. They lived in a large tent that had lumber walls four feet up and a wooden floor covered with linoleum.
Since Oliver was fast and was paid by the number of board feet he cut, the money was good—while it lasted. He got one more job in that area cutting a patch of timber. When that job was finished, there was no more work. “That’s when I started thinking about going to Alaska.”
In his accounts, Oliver mentions little about his religious upbringing, but his mother, Pansy, apparently took faith seriously. She had prayed for healing while she was sick with tuberculosis, and she believed that God had answered her prayers. That was a turning point in the family’s spiritual life. She’d become a regular churchgoer, and Ed had joined her.
Oliver was a spiritual man and still attended church with his family, but he found much to question in traditional Christianity as practiced around him. Nevertheless, his belief in God and in divine guidance played a huge role in the decisions he made—and in the resulting impacts on his family. With the war behind him, a scarcity of steady, well-paying jobs in Idaho, and a wife and family to support, he began seeking God’s direction:
I had been reading a religious book. He [the author] gave an itemized statement of how we could know what we were supposed to do as Christians. One of those things was if a subject came up that hadn’t been a special interest before and then every little bit it would come up again, we should pay special attention to it.
I read an article about Alaska and then just about every piece of paper I picked up, there was something about Alaska. Also, I wanted to get some property of my own, and that looked like a possibility of doing it, and so I decided to see if I could.
Under the Homestead Act of 1862, farmers who would live on the land, farm it, and build certain improvements could acquire title to 160 acres of land, or—with an act added in 1898—80 acres in Alaska. This is what seemed to offer a way into land ownership to Oliver, as it had to his forefathers.
Under the provisions of the Act, millions of Americans had settled large areas of the West and Midwest. By 1934, 1.6 million homesteads had been granted, some 270 million acres—about one-tenth of all federally-owned land in the United States.4
As he conducted his research in 1950, Oliver found that most of the usable land in the West and Midwest had already been claimed. However, land was still available in Alaska.
The United States had expressed interest in acquiring Alaska as early as the 1840’s, but had shelved the idea until after the Civil War.
The Russians had offered to sell the territory to the United States in 1859, hoping that its presence in the region would offset the plans of Russia’s greatest regional rival, Great Britain. However, the American Civil War was a more pressing concern in Washington, and no deal was reached.
Russia continued to see an opportunity to weaken British power by causing British Columbia to be surrounded or annexed by American territory. In early March, 1867, following the Union victory in the Civil War, the Tsar instructed the Russian minister to the United States to resume negotiations with Secretary of State William Seward.
After an all-night session, the negotiations concluded with the signing of a treaty on March 30, 1867. The purchase price was set at $7.2 million, or about two cents per acre. (In 2014 dollars, $119 million or eight cents an acre.)
Although the public had mixed feelings and referred to the agreement as “Seward’s Folly,” President Andrew Johnson agreed to the plan. Congress approved the treaty for the transfer by a wide margin and paid Russia, in gold. The transfer ceremony took place in Sitka in October, 1867.5
When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement as Secretary of State, Seward replied “The purchase of Alaska—but it will take the people a generation to find it out.” 6
Later changes to the 1898 act extending the Homestead Act to Alaska Territory increased the amount of land that could be claimed from 80 to 160 acres, allowed claimants to file for five-acre homesites, and created a special program for returning veterans who wanted to farm in Alaska.7
Another incentive was the newly opened Alaska Highway. Built during World War II to aid the war effort, the road, mostly gravel, had a reputation as a rough and challenging drive. Still, it made a way for those with a sense of adventure and pioneer spirit to travel north.
The changes to the Homestead Act and the newly-opened land route gave Oliver incentives for moving to Alaska, and he decided to relocate. He and his young family were still living at Warm Lake, Idaho at the time.
However, Rene’s enthusiasm lagged behind his. She was enjoying their life in Idaho, and she loved being close to her mother, Oliver’s family, and her friends. She also had two small children to think about. Her parents even drove up from Nampa in a futile attempt to talk Oliver out of his scheme.
He remained adamant, and eventually the family reconciled themselves to the inevitable, dried their tears, and turned their attention to preparations for the trip. Oliver purchased a trailer and a Pontiac coupe with a gas-guzzling Buick engine that was heavy enough to pull it, and by August of 1951 they were ready to roll.
After one more round of tearful goodbyes, they headed for Edmonton, Alberta, the only route from Idaho to the beginning of the Alaska Highway. Oliver apparently took the highway in stride. After all, he had long experience in driving trucks on the narrow, winding roads of Idaho’s mountain country.
The beauty and variety of the scenery—farms, mountains, glaciers, rolling planes, and rivers—offset the length of the trip and the challenging conditions. Neither Oliver nor Rene, in their accounts, remarked much on the notorious roughness of the road.
The family camped in a tent at night, unless they had put in so many hours driving that they simply slept in the car. Every afternoon, preschoolers Richard and Dorene napped foot to foot in the back seat.
The Cameron family arrived in Fairbanks just after Labor Day, 1951.
1The original Siegfried Line was a line of defensive forts and tank defenses built by Germany in northern France during World War I. In English, “Siegfried line” more commonly refers to the similar World War II defense line that was built during the 1930s. It stretched more than 390 miles and consisted of more than 18,000 bunkers, tunnels and tank traps. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siegfried_Line
2The 78th Division Veteran’s Association Lightning Division, “History of the 78th Lightning Division.” http://www.78thdivision.org/
3Details about daily life during Oliver and Rene’s early married years are taken from “More Than a Story,” a personal account by Rene Cameron.
4Potter, Lee Ann and Wynell Schamel. “The Homestead Act of 1862.” Social Education61, 6 (October 1997): 359-364. . http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act/
5Wikipedia: Alaska Purchase. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_purchase
6Wikipedia: William H. Seward. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Seward#Territorial_expansion
7Bureau of Land Management: Important Homestead Laws for Alaska http://www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/cultural/ak_history/homesteading/AK_Homestead_Laws.html
8Wikipedia: Northwest Staging Route. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_Staging_Route
9Wikipedia: The Alaska Highway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_highway
The Alaska Highway
As early as the 1930’s, the United States had considered a highway through British Columbia and Yukon Territory to link Alaska with the Lower 48 states. However, insufficient support in Congress had stalled the proposal. The Canadian government was also reluctant to undertake the effort and expense of a road that, in their view, would benefit only a few thousand residents of the northwestern part of the country.
Those attitudes changed on December 7, 1941 when the Imperial Japanese Navy carried out a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The strike dramatically revealed both the aggressive intentions of the Japanese and the extreme vulnerability of the West Coast of the United States. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on the Empire of Japan the next day, marking America’s entry into World War II.
American lines of communication with Alaska by sea were also seriously threatened, and alternative routes had to be opened. Canada and the United States, through the Permanent Joint Board on Defense, had decided in the autumn of 1940 that a string of airfields and radio ranging stations should be constructed or upgraded between the city of Edmonton in central Alberta and the Alaska-Yukon border, at Canadian expense. The Canadian government announced completion of the project late in 1941.8
It soon became clear that it was in the best interests of international defense to upgrade the primitive airfields, and to connect them with a service road that would also offer a means for transporting essential supplies to the Alaskan outposts. On February 7, 1942 President Roosevelt directed the Army Corps of Engineers to begin the construction of the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska—a distance of 1,500 miles—and to complete it before the next winter.
Canada agreed to allow construction, with the understanding that the United States would bear the full cost and would turn the road and other facilities within its territory over to Canadian authority after the end of the war.
Through much of early 1942 the Japanese won battle after battle and took one South Pacific island after another. On February 23 a Japanese submarine shelled an oil refinery in Santa Barbara, California. Concerns about an attack and invasion along the West Coast skyrocketed.
Then, on June 3-4, 1942 Japanese forces attacked the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and nearby Fort Mears in the eastern Aleutian Islands, with some loss of American lives. Two days later they invaded and occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska at the other end of the island chain.
The outermost island of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands lay only a few hundred miles from Japanese soil, and an invasion via the island chain would have met little resistance. Alaska had a small population and only a few thousand troops with a few planes on scattered bases—a totally inadequate force for such a huge landmass.
The Army threw thousands of engineers and enlisted men into the Alaska Highway project, mostly young men with little experience in heavy-equipment operation, road building, and arctic conditions. They faced rugged terrain, heavily forested mountains, boggy muskeg, melting permafrost, isolation, and hordes of hungry mosquitoes.
Nevertheless, to their great credit, they completed the job by the end of October, 1942, and the highway was dedicated on November 20, 1942. The successful completion of the road gave a much-needed boost to the morale of the American public.
By that time the tide of the war in the Pacific had begun to turn, easing some of the pressure regarding the defense of the West Coast. The military used the road in conjunction with the Northwest Staging Route, a series of airports built to ferry planes to Russia to aid in the war effort.
The United States turned the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway over to the Canadian government on April 1, 1946, and the road opened for general public use in 1948.9
CHAPTER 4 – Fairbanks
Delta Junction was the Alaska Highway’s official endpoint, but not the Cameron’s. From there they followed the Richardson Highway on to Fairbanks.
In 1951 Fairbanks had a population of around 6,000. Established in 1901 when gold was discovered nearby, it was a gold rush town for several years. By World War I the easily available gold had played out, and the town experienced a “bust” as folks left to seek gold and jobs elsewhere. Enlistments for the First World War and the 1919 flu epidemic further depleted the population. By 1923 there were only about 1,000 residents in Fairbanks and the surrounding area from a high of 18,500 during the height of the gold rush.
This was followed by another “boom” when the federal government completed the Alaskan Railroad in 1923. During this time the introduction of dredge mining enabled miners to extract the more difficult-to-reach gold deposits and required large-scale operations rather than the independent prospectors of the earlier boom. The possibility of steady employment for miners brought new growth. With the price of gold rising during the Depression, the town continued to thrive. The establishment of the University of Alaska at nearby College, which opened its doors in 1922, also stabilized the population.
Ladd Field, now Fort Wainwright, brought another increase in population and employment to Fairbanks. Begun in 1939 as a cold weather experimental station, it became an air base when the war began and part of the Northwest Staging Route and Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease operation, moving planes to Russia for use in the war effort against Germany.
By 1951, when the Cameron’s arrived, Ladd Field had transitioned from war-time operations to a training center:
The troops participated in large-scale winter exercises, while at the same time guarding against the Cold War threat of Soviet aggression. The terrain, climate, and over 870,000 acres of available training land make it an ideal location for conducting training from the squad through joint task force level.1
The first order of business for Oliver was to find work and shelter for his family before winter set in. They immediately set up their tent, and Oliver fell back on his mechanical skills and experience to land a job in a garage as a mechanic. Someone had homesteaded a parcel of land, and then subdivided it into one acre plots. Oliver purchased an acre for $108, paying half down and making payments on the balance. He moved his family into an old farmhouse temporarily while he built a road into the property and relocated the tent onto the acre.
A local doctor, Dr. Fitz, and his wife were leaving to visit the Lower 48 and asked the Camerons to house-sit in their absence. The doctor owned a farm about eleven miles out of Fairbanks on the Steese Highway. Oliver and Rene’s duties included hauling coal dust to spray over the fields. This warmed the fields so planting could be done earlier in the spring. The main crop was potatoes, but other root crops were also grown. By early spring Oliver was able to cut logs and build a small log cabin on his own property.
While work, shelter and food were a main focus, Oliver and Rene were also taking in their new environment, awed by such things as the almost nightly displays of the northern lights, which Rene described as “a multicolored ribbon in the wind.”
The army base in Fairbanks, Ladd Field, was releasing excess material as they demobilized after the war. The base was shifting to Cold War involvement, but in the transition many people were leaving Fairbanks and there was much surplus military equipment available cheap. While staying at the doctor’s place, Oliver purchased a one-and-a-half ton military truck for about $100.
In partnership with two young men from France, adventurers attempting to travel as far north as possible and then drive to South America, Oliver began cutting and selling firewood, hauling it with the old military truck:
In the winter time when there was the most demand for firewood, there was a lot of snow and drifting. The Steese Highway was open most of the time, but the Chena Hot Springs – they weren’t so good about keeping that open. With that 4X, when I chained up, I could plow through a lot of snow. That’s the way I was making a living.
The family had the beginnings of a cabin on their own land, but they had furnishings and other belongings back in Idaho. By April of 1952 the Fitz’s were returning and Oliver and Rene also realized they needed to make a trip back to Idaho. The Frenchmen, whose plans to travel from the far north to South America were waylaid when they found it necessary to make a trip home to France, also had to drive back down the Alaskan Highway. Oliver did not want to take his car out because he wanted to get a pickup in Idaho to bring his stuff back, so they worked out a deal: Oliver would pay for gas and Lorene would do the cooking if they could ride along in the Frenchmen’s Jeep station wagon.
On this trip they drove straight through, stopping only to eat, fill the gas tank and other essentials. Lorene cooked quick, simple meals of oatmeal and pancakes tail-gate style.
Back in Idaho, Oliver spent some time working in a sawmill at Tamarack, Idaho to build up his financial reserves before buying a pickup and trailer and loading up their household goods. Oliver made his second trip up the Alaskan Highway in September of 1952 with his two small children, his sister, Jessie—who was looking for work and hoped her prospects were better in Alaska—and Rene, four months pregnant with their third child.
They again camped along the way or slept in the car with the occasional treat of a stay in a roadhouse along the way. Oliver did all the driving as Rene’s license was expired and she planned to wait to get a new Alaskan license. Much to their amusement they later discovered Oliver drove the whole way on an expired license himself.
Back in Fairbanks, their log house was not quite ready for occupancy, so they again stayed with the doctor for a couple of weeks until the floor was laid and the walls were chinked.
Dorene and Richard Cameron 1952, Fairbanks, AK.
By October, before it got really cold, the little house was ready for occupancy with rugs on the bedroom floors and a good heating stove. The cabin measured 20 by 24 feet with a living room-kitchen and two bedrooms.
Sister Jessie found work at the Fairbanks hospital, where Gerald Jon, third and youngest of the Cameron children, made his appearance on February 27, 1953. Jessie worked long enough to save up some money before returning to Idaho.
Oliver, Rene, Dorene, Gerald and Richard Cameron, Fairbanks, 1953.
They raised a big garden, and had plenty of potatoes from their job with the doctor. Oliver dug a cellar for the vegetables they grew which included cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, radishes, lettuce, turnips and rutabagas. Lorene made sauerkraut. They harvested local high-bush cranberries, free for the picking. Meat included everything from rabbits Oliver shot, to caribou and occasionally even black bear.
Cameron family, Fairbanks, circa 1953.
Their neighborhood in Fairbanks was close-knit and friendly, with frequent birthday parties and other social occasions. Neighbors were ready to help one another as needed. Oliver once took a hive of bees as payment for work done for a neighbor. One morning the hive split and swarmed, and Oliver was able to capture the second swarm in a homemade hive box. They got other needed equipment, such as honey jars, from a family cutting back on their honey business and borrowed an extractor when the time came to harvest. That year, with their two hives, they got about 90 pounds of honey.
Oliver built a dug-out garage behind the house to shelter their car and pickup. He built a workbench inside and replaced the tarp with tight wooden doors. A kerosene heater helped keep the cold at bay, but the combination of unventilated workshop, tight doors and heater nearly led to disaster.
One afternoon Oliver came into the house staggering, and collapsed on the couch, telling Rene that his head was spinning and he had rubbery arms and legs. When she offered to get a neighbor to take him to the doctor, he told her he didn’t feel up to the trip. While sleeping made him feel a bit better, he was not able to do much for the next three days.
When their friend Dr. Fitz dropped by, he listened to their story and informed them that Oliver had nearly killed himself with the fumes from the kerosene heater in the garage. Those tight wooden doors did not allow for enough ventilation.
He recovered, however, and continued to find work where he could. When hard physical labor and heavy lifting began to bother his back, Oliver turned to watch and clock repair for a time, but found the income insufficient.
While food was plentiful in their neighborhood, water had to be imported from a local spring at a place called Fox. Oliver’s ingenuity provided a workable means of hauling and storing the water for his family, using two fifty-five gallon barrels.
While we were there I cut the 5 gallon can off about in the middle, set it down on that 55 gallon barrel…the barrel had two bung holes. I bought a gate valve spout for the bottom bung hole, the top (smaller) bung whole I would open a little to let the air in when draining water out. The drum sat on its side in the back of the coup and we drove to the public spring at Fox to fill it up.
The family attended the Nazarene Church in Fairbanks where Dr. and Mrs. Fitz also attended. Rene was active in church affairs, singing in the choir and playing piano.
Dr. and Mrs. Fitz, Lorene and Oliver, Richard, Dorene and Gerald circa 1955.
In 1955 when baby Gerald was about two years old, Dr. Fitz offered Oliver part ownership of the farm. He had put in a lot of hours helping Dr. Fitz and had been instrumental in several farm improvements. Oliver, to Rene’s disappointment, hesitated. He was hearing a different call:
I was reading the Bible one morning before going to work. The pages just faded out. Instead there was a map there in the Bible, and there was a bright light shining right from where we were to Kotzebue. I’m not especially superstitious. I knew at that time and still know that there are two sources of influence. They can be God or can be Satan. I wanted more evidence before I took that too seriously. It was completely out of the realm of possibility as far as I was concerned.
While not initially convinced, Oliver began to see signs that it might, after all, be possible to move. In the summer of 1955 a friend offered to buy their house, if they ever wanted to sell.
Then, with the military still downsizing Ladd Field a lot of military people were leaving good pieces of equipment behind, which Oliver took off their hands. Also, a place Oliver worked as a mechanic for a time went “belly up” and paid him in equipment instead of cash. From these sources he had acquired a big electric welder, a generator, a buzz saw and other useful items. Even though he was not advertising things for sale, people began showing up on his doorstep offering to buy various pieces of equipment.
They pared down to bare necessities, since all would have to be flown into Kotzebue, giving away household items – and wedding gifts, to Rene’s dismay – they had brought up the Alaska Highway. After selling their house, car and pickup, they purchased a tent and moved onto the Fitz’s farm for a few weeks. While camped there they took time out for Dorene to have her tonsils removed, a short stay in the local hospital, and then they were ready to go.
“So we bought tickets and went to Kotzebue, just barely taking what I thought we had to have.”
1 “FortWainwright” http://fairbanks-alaska.com/fort-wainwright.htm
CHAPTER 5 – Kotzebue
Kotzebue lies about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle and a little over 400 air miles northwest of Fairbanks. It is accessible only by plane, or seasonally by boat. It is situated on a narrow spit of land that has long been a popular gathering and meeting place for native peoples, since it lies near the confluence of three major rivers: the Kobuk, the Noatak and the Selawik. The Kobuk River would figure prominently in the life of the Cameron family for years to come.
Kotzebue is the largest of the 11 communities in Northwest Arctic Alaska.
When the Camerons arrived in 1955, its population stood at 1,000, primarily Inupiat Eskimos. The Camerons shared the plane to Kotzebue with a large tour group. The tourists had priority at the only local restaurant, so the Camerons had to wait. They were stuck on the beach with their belongings until Chester Savok and his wife noticed them. This native couple was hired by Wien Airlines to dress in their finest parkas and greet tourists as they landed.
Chester Savok and his wife, Kotzebue. Photos from Cameron family collection.
Once the visitors had left for their tour of the village, the Savoks took Oliver and his family under their wing. They gave them a ride into town in the “tour bus,” a pickup truck with benches along the sides of the bed for seating, and then helped them unload their gear and set up their tent near their own house.
The next day Oliver and Rene introduced themselves at the local Friends Church mission. The pastors, Harold and Hulda Beck, invited them to move onto the mission property while Oliver looked for work. The summer sun shone day and night, giving them plenty of daylight to move their tent and belongings.
Harold and Hulda Beck, Pastor of Friends Church, 1956.
Oliver had included a 15 HP outboard motor in the supplies he brought with him. He soon built a boat, covering it with canvas and marine paint. With the aid of the little motor he was able to get firewood.
Oliver’s canvas boat.
Oliver favored living off the land as much as possible, so he also set a net in order to take advantage of local salmon to supplement their food supply. This helped a lot, since the move had consumed much of the family’s funds.
They camped for the rest of the summer, with Rene helping at the Friends Church and the children attending Vacation Bible School.
In his search for work, Oliver became acquainted with a prospector by the name of Gene Joiner. He had staked claims on a large jade deposit at the end of the Brooks Range about 150 miles east of Kotzebue, and was known locally as the “Jade King.”
In 2004 June Allen wrote of the area:
There are no highways that reach into the far northwest region of Alaska’s arctic [sic]. Even air travel is restricted to small planes. There are few visitors to the little Eskimo villages along the Kobuk River, a sizeable stream that winds its way along a 200-mile route from its headwaters in the Brooks Range to Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea.
The river keeps well above the Arctic Circle en route. It rolls through a landscape of birch, spruce, poplar and willow and then courses through rolling tundra as it nears its ocean destination. The Kobuk is busy with local boat and barge traffic in the short ice-free summer months and with snow machines in the winter….
There are no contemporary hiking trails or campgrounds along the river’s route, but there are small Eskimo villages…this remote Kobuk Valley has been home to people for perhaps 12,000 years!
She goes on to say that anthropologists from the University of Alaska began researching the people and the area in the 1930s. They’d heard stories about a mountain of jade, which turned out to be true.
Gene came to Oliver and asked if he could weld a sled that was capable of hauling a twenty-ton block of jade across the tundra from the mountain to the Kobuk River. From there it would be floated on a barge into Kotzebue. Tundra might appear flat and featureless, but it is actually pockmarked with rises, hillocks and mounds and crisscrossed with gullies and ravines. On two previous attempts, both his Caterpillar dozer and his sled had broken down attempting to traverse the difficult terrain. It took Oliver a week to design and weld an appropriate sled for the job. For the Jade King, the third attempt was a charm. The Nome Nugget, “Alaska’s oldest newspaper,” reported:
A huge block of genuine jade weighing more than 20 tons reached the arctic port of Kotzebue last week after a five year 200 mile trip from the mine at Jade Mountain. The owner, Imperial Jade Company of Kotzebue, who operates the mine, has kept the huge block of gemstone intact as it is by far the largest piece of fine jade ever found. Although containing approximately 4,000,000 ring sets, the block will not be used for this purpose. Imperial Jade, which exports jade to all parts of the world, feels that its size and quality would ruin the jade jewelry market for all time. This block, maximum measurements 5 X 5 X 16 feet, will be sold for the purpose of carving into an outstanding monument. For the time being it will be kept in storage by Gene Joiner at Kotzebue. At the time of this writing, it still sits in Kotzebue.2
This block seems to have become the stuff of legend. Joiner had a contract with a buyer, a well-known political figure, but the deal fell through. As the world traveler and writer Gail Howard reported on her 1956 trip to Kotzebue:
…on the edge of town lay a huge boulder of pure jade just sitting there in the middle of nowhere. The jade was meant to be carved into a life-size statue of Eva Peron. But when Juan Peron was overthrown by a military coup in 1955, the plan for the statue and the jade were abandoned. I’ve often wondered if that huge hunk of jade weighing tons, carelessly covered in a white shroud, is still there, and if not, what happened to it.3
Gail Howard on the Juan Peron jade block, 19564
Oliver continued to work with Gene for a time, cutting jade, fixing mining equipment and even repairing an airplane to sell. At one point they flew to the mining town of Candle for ten days, a 45-minute flight from Kotzebue. Gene was a daring pilot and known for his failure to file flight plans. They had some close calls, at one point getting home with a mere three quarts of gas in the plane’s tank.
As summer turned to fall and the weather became too cold for their tent, the Camerons rented a small two-room house owned by Irving Smith and located next to his on the beach. It was neat and clean and they were cozy there, with oil heat and a two-burner Coleman stove for cooking. Oliver attached railings to a large tool chest for toddler Gerald’s bed. The older children slept in a bunk bed. Closets were neatly covered with curtains, clothes were folded in wooden Blazo boxes under the beds. The small windows were kept covered with blinds to conserve heat during the short winter days.
Dressed in warm hooded parkas with ruffs and mittens, the Cameron kids played happily outdoors with large groups of local children. Their wooden box full of toys also drew the neighbor children into their small house, where two-and-a-half year old Gerald was a favorite of everyone.
Gerald in parka made by Rene, Kotzebue.
Rene joined the Mother’s Club in order to make friends among the native women. They taught her how to remove the sinew from the muscles alongside caribou backbones by pulling apart the fibrous strands and twisting them together to make strong, durable thread, and then how to sew sealskins and furs.
They also taught her how to create mukluks, mittens and jackets. They used caribou leg skins for the upper parts of mukluks, and made the soles out of the tough and durable skin of the bearded seal (ugruk). At the very top they added a drawstring to keep the snow out.
Rene learned to size the mukluks so that there would be room for a layer of dry grass, a felt liner, and two or three pairs of socks that she knitted herself. Everybody also had a pair of rubber boots for wet weather, and Oliver had hip boots as well.
Rene also had a treadle sewing machine that she used to make clothing for her family. She melted snow to wash clothes on a scrub board.
Rene in fur parka. 1956.
As the holiday season approached, the family made their Christmas tree out of stacked Blazo boxes.5 They began receiving packages of clothing and food that had been collected for them by their church in Fairbanks. Rene was able to add luxuries like pasta to their diet of caribou and fish, as well as other treats.
Much to Rene’s (and the children’s) delight, the holidays also saw a flood of gifts and toys from family and friends in faraway Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and California. By that time Oliver had acquired three sled dogs, and made use of them in hauling packages from the airport.
Holiday celebrations at the Friends Church lasted a full week. Residents gathered every evening for several hours.
Christmas dinner in Kotzebue. 1955.
Many went home about 9 p.m., but a smaller group stayed on into the wee hours to play games called qitik. These included contests to see who could kick a ball the highest, as well as games of strength of the finger, arm and leg. On New Year’s Eve they rang the church bell for 45 minutes, and some of the men soaked caribou skins in gasoline and burned them outdoors.
Christmas in Kotzebue, 1955.
Rene and the children enjoyed the festivities. They also participated in the local community and church programs, which included lots of food, entertainment and gift-giving and also offered them a good introduction to the local culture.
Christmas at Kotzebue, 1955. Dorene, Gerald, Richard.
Oliver, however, kept his distance. He was growing less comfortable with many of the traditional teachings of the Protestant churches around him. It also bothered him that the missionaries to the native Alaskans maintained a higher standard of living than their parishioners, and seemed to have a condescending attitude toward them.
During that first winter the town magistrate, George Francis, asked the Camerons to house-sit for a week. They were treated to a large, modern house with a pantry full of “luxury” foods like those they had left behind in Idaho. A tall floor-standing cuckoo clock, with a little bird that popped out to mark the time, left a lasting impression on the children.
At the end of the week they moved back to their snug little house, but not for long. One frightening night, Oliver woke to a scream coming from their landlord’s house next door, where his grown son was staying. The son was quite drunk and had trapped his girlfriend’s head between the door and doorframe as she attempted to get away from him. Oliver ran over and ordered the man to stop. When he refused, Oliver jerked the door open and freed the woman. The drunk then took a swing at Oliver, so Oliver punched him all the way back to the back room, knocking him out.
Oliver reported the incident to the magistrate. He also apologized to their landlord and his wife. Their son was a well-known troublemaker, so they didn’t press charges. However, the son insisted the Camerons be evicted from the cabin, and the parents, wishing to keep peace in their family, asked them to move out. They found another place to live. Sometime after this event, by March of 1956, they were running low on funds for heating oil. Oliver had some work prospects, but these were limited by his refusal to take a job that would take work away from a local Eskimo.
Oliver’s desire to live off the land, to avoid a conventional lifestyle, and his growing distance from orthodox Christianity led to increased tension between him and Rene, who retained the beliefs and values with which she was raised.
Their situation was looking dire when they were invited to set up camp on the shore of Hotham Inlet at a place called Iqalluligagaruk, meaning “creek with fish,” about thirty miles northeast of Kotzebue. There they could live in their tent on the shore for a few weeks and burn wood for heat, saving the expense of heating oil. Several other families were already there and would provide help and company. Oliver was eager to try his hand at ice fishing, and this looked like a solution to their problems as well as a step toward Oliver’s goal of a more sustainable, living-off-the-land lifestyle.
Oliver with his dog team, 1956.
The day of the move to fish camp came. The temperature stood at 20 degrees below zero. Oliver had gone ahead with his slow, three-dog team while Rene carefully bundled the three children into their warm winter clothing—pants, shirts, sweaters, wool socks, mukluks, parkas, mittens, caps, scarves and hoods—and then left them to wait on their friend’s sled in sleeping bags while she donned similar clothing.
While she was dressing, their friend began to hook up his 20 dogs. Sled dogs become extremely excited when they think they will go for a run, yapping and jumping at the end of their chain while waiting for their turn to be placed into the harnessed string of dogs. Suddenly, the friend was unable to hold the dogs any longer, and the team took off without Rene, but with her three children still on the sled.
Nearly distraught that her children were on a 30-mile dog team trip in intense cold with neither parent, she waylaid a neighbor and convinced him to hook up his own team. She and the neighbor followed in hot pursuit. By the time they caught up to them at the first stop, John Nelson’s cabin, she was thoroughly chilled. The children, however, were fine—warm, filled with hot chocolate, and playing with other kids.
They reached their destination without further incident and set up their tent. Their 10 by 12-foot tent was very tight for a family of five and their winter gear. The beds were in the back end of the tent, with the stove and a Blazo-box table in the front. They sat on logs to cook and eat, and spent as much time outdoors as possible to avoid the cramped conditions.
In spite of the cold and the uncomfortable tent, the Camerons were privileged to have been initiated into a fishing haven. Hotham Inlet, locally known as Kobuk Lake, was famous for spring ice-fishing. The people would cut holes in the ice and jig for sheefish, often using homemade ivory lures.
The fish were fat, had delicious white meat, and ranged from six to eighteen pounds. Large schools of them moved around under the ice. If one of those swarms passed your chosen spot, you could catch incredible numbers of fish, one after another. This happened to Oliver. One day he surprised his family by coming home with 132 fish.
Sheefish catch, ca. 1956.
Oliver was in his element, but Rene struggled to care for herself and her family in the primitive conditions. They burned wood for heat and basic cooking, but their stove had no oven and she was unable to bake the breads and biscuits she was used to serving. Fish and rabbits were plentiful—they were even used as dog food—but other foods were in short supply. In the six weeks they spent in fish camp, she lost fifteen pounds.
Richard was now old enough for school, and Rene (who had a degree in teaching) had taken on the responsibility of his education, continuing his studies through homeschool lessons while they were in fish camp and away from the local school in Kotzebue. Oliver would hitch up his small dog team and make runs to the post office in Kotzebue, bringing new lessons that had come in the mail. When Rene made reading flash cards for Richard, preschooler Dorene learned along with him, gaining skills that impressed the teacher later back in Kotzebue when she herself began classes.
When summer came, the family broke camp and moved back to Kotzebue for the summer of 1956, setting up a green army tent east of the village on the tundra. Oliver worked that summer for a company called Bullock’s, a tug and barge business.
Since Kotzebue doesn’t have a natural harbor, the boats that brought supplies from Seattle during the ice-free summer months had to anchor fifteen miles out. Bullock’s lightered [A lighter is a large flat-bottomed barge used to transport goods from cargo ships.] the year’s supplies to the beach, where crews of casual laborers unloaded them for transfer to a nearby warehouse.
Supplies for each village were stored in separate areas of the warehouse. As water levels permitted, smaller tugs and barges took the supplies upriver to their assigned villages. Once the warehouse was empty, Oliver again found himself without work. He decided to move his family back to fish camp. By late September they had settled into a white army tent on the beach at Iqalluligagaruk.
Eager to live both sustainably and comfortably off what the land could provide, Oliver set about to improve his family’s living conditions. He built a new stove, complete with an oven, out of a 55-gallon oil drum. Rene made good use of it, keeping her family supplied with hot bread, pies and muffins. It was now summer, so their diet included berries with their fish and rabbit, supplemented by potatoes from Dr. and Mrs. Fitz in Fairbanks and goodie boxes from relatives in Idaho. It took a lot of time to cook hot meals, but the five families in camp shared the work and food, creating close bonds and good memories.
They spent the pleasant fall days hauling wood, picking berries and checking nets for fish. One day they found eight varieties of fish in the net: tomcod, trout, sheefish, northern pike, flounder and three varieties of whitefish.
They washed clothes on the beach with a tub and scrub board, and hung them to dry on tent lines or bushes. Baths for the children involved a small tub near the stove; however, this once resulted in a bad burn when someone got too close to the hot metal. Rene made a hat for Oliver from rabbit skin, and the northern lights regularly put on a show for them.
With winter coming on, Oliver decided to build suitable shelter for his family and stay near the fish camp.
While the children worked on their lessons with Rene, Oliver got started on a winter house. He leveled off a 13 by 15-foot site about half a mile behind the beach and began digging. Richard, who was only eight but bright and curious—he liked to peruse the thick Sears mail-order catalogue in his spare time—also worked on the house. He helped Oliver build and still kept up with his schoolwork.
By the first of October Oliver was working on the house every day, but the weather was getting colder. The snow became deep and the wind blew through the trees surrounding the white tent. Soon the lake was frozen over and they were keeping the fire going all night to stay warm. Oliver or Rene would get up a couple of times a night, open the draft on the stove to let it burn hot, fill it with wood, and go back to bed. Rene tried to keep the children to a minimal school schedule, but the family’s main focus was on finishing and moving into warmer quarters.
In keeping with his desire to draw on the wisdom of the local peoples who knew how to survive in the harsh climate, Oliver had chosen to build a style of house called an ivrulik—Eskimo for “wintering place.” He put four corner posts in the ground, connected at the top with stout horizontal poles. From the top corners, other poles slanted upward to a center post with split logs around a square center opening, which became a skylight in the roof. For the walls, he leaned small poles against the horizontals, six to eight inches apart. He also framed in a couple of windows.
He covered this simple framework with three layers of heavy polyethylene sheeting, rectangular slabs of moss, and a final layer of dirt. Since the poles were at a slant, gravity held the moss in place. The end result was a very tight, warm structure.
On moving day, it took several trips to get all of their belongings from the tent up to the new house. They put spruce boughs on the floor, and from time to time the children went out to gather fresh boughs to keep it clean.
Gerald, Dorene and Richard by house at Iqaluligagaruk.
As Christmas drew near, food boxes from their church in Fairbanks again supplemented their menu. Meanwhile, in Kotzebue, another big, week-long Christmas celebration was planned.
They were settled into their snug, but isolated, ivrulik when Oliver made a trip to Kotzebue for supplies and more schoolbooks. While he was there, some friends strongly urged him to bring the family to town to participate in the festivities. At first he was reluctant, since it was a big job to move the family in the cold at the darkest time of year, and he had just finished the tight little house with a view toward staying in it the entire winter. However, a couple of other men offered to help, and he bowed to peer pressure and his family’s longing for social connections. Rather than move to town just for the holidays, then move back, Oliver and Rene decided to spend the rest of the winter in Kotzebue.
On moving day, Oliver and Rene sent the children ahead with friends, and followed with their own sled. Oliver had arranged for seven dogs to pull his sled. At first the borrowed dogs did not work well together as a team, but eventually the family all made it safely to Kotzebue.
They stayed about a month with the Don Roberts family, who had a beautiful Christmas tree that the whole family enjoyed. By January, 1957, they had moved into a small trailer house behind the mission. They bought an oil heater for warmth, and re-enrolled the children in the Kotzebue school.
Cameron family, Christmas in Kotzebue, 1956.
Later that winter they moved into a snug, two-room cabin owned by the town magistrate, George Francis, exchanging work for rent. This was not the large house they had once house-sat, but a smaller cabin built for George’s wife that was meant to be used during the summer fishing season.
The house was made of lumber, and was well insulated. It had a large enclosed porch, or arctic entry, that operated as a heat seal. It kept the warm air in when they opened the interior door, and also served as a place to brush off snow before entering the main living space and as storage for mukluks and parkas.
Rene and Oliver’s double bed was to the left of the entry. The bunk bed stood across the room, with the kitchen area in the corner behind it. The oil stove was along the back wall, near the doorway into the second room. That room contained the owner’s belongings and was not used by the Cameron family.
In another corner under the only window was a desk where they read and did paper work. Like most in the village, they used a Coleman pressure lantern for light. Oliver improved the situation by adding a large front window to the main room.
Dorene turned seven in February. Since space was limited for a birthday party, they invited only a few friends, not realizing the local culture did not recognize “by invitation only.” When thirty people showed up for the party, they quickly adjusted and made room, playing games and eating lots of cake and Jell-O. Everyone had a good time.
Dorene’s 7th birthday party. Kotzebue, 1957.
As the winter progressed, however, they again faced hardship as Oliver could not find work. One morning the family woke up to find only bread and oatmeal for breakfast, and nothing in the house for lunch. With impeccable timing, a neighbor came across the street to tell Oliver the electrician’s helper at the school had not reported for work, and that the contractor needed help immediately. Oliver went to work as a temporary substitute. Once he knew that he had the position, he went to the store and bought groceries for his family, on credit. He stayed on the job for six weeks.
Their house faced west, which meant that snow from the big east wind storms drifted around the front porch and entryway. The drifts were high enough the children could use cardboard as sleds and slide off the house and into the street. At that time the streets were not plowed during the winter, and the only traffic was foot traffic and dog teams.
By May it appeared that the winter storms were over, so Oliver headed back to their ivrulik at fish camp to retrieve their personal items. He planned a three day trip by dog sled, leaving Rene and the children snug in the house.
It proved to be an exhausting trip for Oliver. At nearly every step of the thirty miles, he broke through the softening snow to his knees. Meanwhile, a late storm nearly trapped Rene and the children in the house. Fortunately the owners, who lived next door, came to the rescue and helped clear the drifting snow away from the entry.
Gerald in doorway, Kotzebue, 1957.
That summer Oliver and his Eskimo friend Charlie Jones used a homemade sawmill to make lumber, fighting the mosquitoes when they went across the lake and into the timber to collect the logs. Charlie used his share of the lumber to build a boat, while Oliver built a house in front of John Nelson’s place on the beach.
While we were living there, I made a little house and had made a cache out of opened out barrels….That house was just barely big enough, because that was all the lumber I had. I built a lean-to onto the back, and a skylight in the top of the lean-to. If the dogs started barking, I could stand up on the bed and open the skylight to see what was going on.
Oliver knew there were huge ice floes when the ice began to break up in late spring. The jumbled ice was sometimes forced up onto the beach, clearing everything in its path, so he set the house on skids in the hope that it would just move with the ice.
A Kotzebue house that was almost hit by ice during spring breakup.
The Cameron house on skids, Kotzebue.
He laid vinyl over the lumber floor, and Rene hung curtains at the windows and over the cupboards. The children’s bunk bed and little Gerald’s own short bed were in the front room. Oliver and Rene slept in the added lean-to, which also served as the laundry room.
Oliver seems to have continued to work periodically for the tug and barge company during this period, and maybe did a little jade cutting. He also put his truck driving skills to use when the Territory of Alaska began a significant upgrade of the Ralph Wien Memorial Airport, replacing the runway, adding a taxiway and an aircraft parking apron, and building an entrance road.6
They started to build the Ralph Wien Memorial Airport. Before that they had just used a little dirt strip behind the town. I got a job driving truck on that airport. They had done what I was doing with my truck: took a little truck and made a big truck out of it. Of course, when you do it, some parts aren’t designed for it. The axles in the drive wheels were one of those parts….There were three other drivers who were breaking axles because they didn’t understand how to drive without putting on too much pressure, but since I had had one of those trucks, I understood how to drive….
Finally, the boss got put out and said, “The next guy that breaks an axle gets his check.”
Well, I was the next guy. I dumped my load and drove up to the shop and fixed my own axle. The boss didn’t say anything. He needed me.
Meanwhile, Alaska was changing. World War II and the following Cold War had revealed the territory’s strategic importance, and its vast natural resources were becoming apparent. By 1958, after much controversy and delay, Alaska was moving toward statehood.
In keeping with the times, the City of Kotzebue incorporated in 1958, organizing with a mayor, city manager and seven-member city council. Most of the new government leaders were Alaskan natives, but Oliver was also elected to the city council. Since he had received more votes than any other candidate, it was assumed that he would be the council president. However, he declined that position, choosing instead to be secretary.
Since this type of government was new to most of the residents, they related to the new council as they had to their more familiar tribal leadership. They considered Oliver a chief, and came to him to resolve all kinds of disputes. He often had to refer them to the appropriate authorities, such as the local magistrate.
In the fall of 1958, as representatives were being chosen for the first Alaskan State Legislature, Oliver was asked to run as representative from Kotzebue. He was honored, but declined. Statehood was officially granted in January, 1959.
About this time Oliver, in keeping with his goal of a self-sufficient lifestyle, began to think about another major move, even further into the wilderness, up the Kobuk River to the village of Shungnak.
1 June Allen. SitNews, “A Legendary Mountain of Jade,” October 5, 2004. http://www.sitnews.us/JuneAllen/AlaskaJade/100504_jade_mountain.html
2The Nome Nugget. Source: Lorene Cameron, More Than A Story.
3Gail Howard. Gail Howard’s Territory of Alaska Travel Adventures Before Alaska Was a State. http://alaskatraveladventures.org/
4Gail Howard. Gail Howard’s Territory of Alaska Travel Adventures Before Alaska Was a State http://alaskatraveladventures.org/alaska-photos/index.html. Used by permission.
5”Blazo” was Chevron’s brand of white gasoline. Two square five-gallon cans were packaged in light wooden boxes, which were themselves very handy.
6The Ralph Wien Memorial Airport Terminal Area/Land Use plan of 1983: Airport history. Thanks to ARLIS Reference Services, Alaska Resources Library & Information Services, Anchorage, AK.
CHAPTER 6 – Shungnak
Shungnak is a small Inupiaq village that lies about 150 air miles up the Kobuk River from Kotzebue. In 1958 it had a population of about 150. Oliver learned from a traveling nurse that there were no empty houses in the village, but this did not deter him. He believed that he and his family were meant to move there, so he continued making plans.
First, though, he needed a boat. One day his lumber-cutting partner, Charlie Jones, came by and offered to exchange the boat he had built from his share of their lumber for Oliver’s small house on skids. The boat was 30 feet long and had a cabin, about right for the trip. Oliver put a sliding door on the cabin to retain the heat from their cook stove.
Charlie and Lena Jones and family, 1958.
From Cameron family photos.
While it might be 150 air miles from Kotzebue to Shungnak, the distance by water is much longer. The first stretch is across the wide expanse of Hotham Inlet (known locally as Kobuk Lake) to one of the channels of the Kobuk River, where the depth ranges up to 90 feet. The river then meanders for another 225 miles as it passes through the villages of Noorvik, Kiana and Ambler. With each mile the water becomes progressively shallower, the bottom rockier and less forgiving. In a low water year, an inexperienced boatman should carry an extra propeller, or travel with a guide.
Cameron family leaving for Shungnak, 1958.
Things began to come together when Oliver discovered that Gordon Mitchell, a Friends Church pastor, also wanted to make the trip. The two joined forces, and by early September the pastor had acquired a similar boat.
First they had to wait while the wind died down on the inlet. Oliver slept in the boat in the lagoon behind Kotzebue, while Rene looked after the children on land, staying in a friend’s house. On September 12th it finally became calm and they were able to launch out onto the inlet, now as smooth as glass. There was a welcome absence of mosquitoes out on the lake, and a view of the Noatak Mountains in the distance. As they were leaving Hotham Inlet, Charlie Jones gave them caribou meat. Later, when they briefly stopped by Pipespit just outside of Kotzebue and saw Lena Satterlee, she gave those roasted ducks and turnips for their first meal.
They had been joined by Louie Commack and his boat, and the three traveled single file, tied together by a long rope, the Cameron boat in the middle. They camped overnight at a friend’s tent site near the mouth of the Kobuk River.
The first camp on the way to Shungnak, September, 1958.
The next morning, as they started up river, they had to break through ice and go single file. Louie’s boat turned off at a fork in the river, and Oliver and Gordon proceeded to Noorvik. After having lunch with friends, Oliver and Gordon continued on to Kiana in their boats. They stopped there for a couple of nights, attending church and visiting with friends. They also took on supplies, extra gas, and gifts of food from local people—cranberries, dried fish, caribou meat, and oranges.
The stretch of river from Kiana to Shungnak was uninhabited except for scattered fish camps and the brand new village of Ambler. Scraggly black spruce gave way to occasional patches of straight, white spruce that dotted the tundra landscape and grew taller with each mile. The Jade Mountains stood out as a beckoning landmark on the left, and the more subdued Waring Mountains slowly rose on the right.
The trip was leisurely, the current about three miles per hour, and they often spent time eating and visiting with their traveling companions. The weather remained cool but pleasant. Dressed warmly, the Camerons enjoyed the changing scenery, the clear skies, and the fall colors.
When they camped along the river, Oliver staked his dogs on shore. The children slept inside the boat cabin, while Oliver and Rene slept on the top of the cabin or on the boat deck in sleeping bags that zipped together.
Sometime after they left Kiana a boat that was coming downriver crossed in front of them and then headed for the beach. This was the river signal for ‘stop and talk.’ It turned out that the Shungnak Friends Church had sent the boat’s pilot, Homer Cleveland, to guide them the rest of the way up the river. The travelers were pleased with this thoughtful, welcoming gesture.
They all camped out that night, and from then on Homer hitched his boat to theirs and towed it in order to make better time against the current. It began to rain, so they all donned more clothing. They reached the new village of Ambler by dark, and stopped for the night. They had been on the water for five days, and were125 miles out from Kotzebue.
The first five families had moved to the brand new settlement of Ambler just a few short weeks before Oliver and Rene began their trip. They were working on their cabins in the daytime, and passing the nights in tents on the opposite side of the river. They invited the party to join them for dinner.
At some point in the evening the villagers suggested, in their humble and indirect way, that the travelers were welcome to spend the night in their tents. Unfortunately, Oliver and Rene misunderstood their lack of a specific invitation, and as a result spent a cold, damp night on the top of the boat cabin. They later learned they could have been warm and dry if they had only indicated which tent they wished to use.
Leaving the fledgling Ambler village in the morning, the caravan next stopped at Homer’s fish camp at Black River, where he had left his family. After drying their damp clothing and enjoying a meal of duck soup and blueberries, the travelers were back on the river. In late afternoon they caught a glimpse of a schoolhouse on a hill—their first view of Shungnak.
In spite of being told there were no empty houses in Shungnak, Oliver had arranged to rent a cabin. Their new landlord, local resident Tommy Lee, had built a fire and warmed it up. The weary family moved right in.
The 14 x 16 foot cabin was perched on the bank of the river, downhill from the schoolhouse. It had two windows that overlooked the river. The cabin was furnished with a table and some wooden Blazo boxes that served as nightstands and bookshelves. A large cook stove with an oven sat in the middle of the room, and Oliver and Rene’s bed was to one side. The two older children slept in sleeping bags on caribou skins on the floor; Gerald slept in a box that Oliver built for him.
Oliver later built closets with curtains at the foot of the bed. The house was cold at first, but Oliver put logs and dirt around the base of the house to keep the cold air from coming up through the flooring. That made the cabin warmer.
Smoke rising in cold, still air. Shungnak, winter 1959.
By this time Richard was in fifth grade and Dorene was in fourth. They followed a trail up the hill to the school, and when it began snowing in October, they could slide swiftly back down, right into their own front yard.
Richard and Dorene, Shungnak, AK, 1959.
Rene repurposed a fur coat to make the parka for Dorene.
Shortly after their arrival in Shungnak, the pilot of the mail plane pilot alerted the village to the location of a herd of caribou. A group of local men invited Oliver to go hunting with them. They traveled by dog team about four miles beyond the village, and then staked down their dogs to keep them from chasing the caribou.
Some of the men went behind the caribou and drove them past the others, who shot as many as they could. After gutting the animals, the men broke for a lunch of dried fish and tea. Then they divided the carcasses among themselves and sorted their shares into piles. Each of the eight men got four-and-a-half caribou.
Oliver brought one home that night, to the family’s delight, and spent another day or so processing and hauling home the rest of his share. Now they had meat for the winter. They saved the blood and innards for the dogs, giving them a change from the fish and cornmeal that Rene usually fed them.
The family quickly settled into household routines. Oliver hunted and maintained the cabin. Every few days he took his dog team to the wood-cutting area, about eight miles away, and brought back loads of firewood. He used his chain saw to cut down white spruce, birch, and sometimes alder. Once he had the logs home, he’d cut them to stove length with a bow saw.
Image: Public Domain. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bow_Saw_ (PSF).jpg
Pipes from the river led through the Camerons’ yard up the hill to the school and teachers’ quarters. Every few weeks the school custodian would pump river water up to the school. Early that winter the pipes froze and burst, flooding the Cameron’s yard with water and forming a sheet of ice. Fortunately the house was untouched, and sawdust from Oliver’s firewood cutting soon covered the ice and eliminated the slipping hazard.
Rene did the cooking and kept the house in order. She also packed in a supply of water from the river every three days. On laundry days she would haul the water the night before, so that it would begin heating as soon as Oliver started the fire the next morning. Once breakfast was over and the children were off to school, she would agitate the clothes in a tub with a “stomper” (a vintage laundry tool), scrub them on a washboard, rinse them, and hang them to dry around the cabin and over the stove.
After a few weeks, the teacher invited her to come up on Saturdays to share her electric washer. Rene hung her laundry to dry there, too, and went back up the hill on Sunday to collect her dry clothing. This also gave her some social time with her neighbors, and ended the physical drudgery as well as the nuisance of damp clothes hung all over her small cabin.
One time Rene accepted an invitation to play a bowling game at the school. She had fun, but it seemed a frivolous activity to her in view of all the work that needed to be done, and she never went again. But as was her habit, she was active in the local Friends Church, teaching Sunday school, playing the organ, and singing for services.
Rene once used her toothache kit to ease the pain of a local grandmother with a bad tooth, until the woman could get to the dentist in Kotzebue. In typical Inupaiq fashion, the woman later gave Rene a pair of fur mittens made from a wolf head.
Rene in Shungnak, wearing her wolf-head mittens, 1959.
The Cameron house, with games, toys and playmates, was again a magnet for local children. Rene was pleased that her kids had a lot of visitors. She preferred to have them home, where she could monitor language and behavior and not be worried about where they were. Nevertheless, despite her best efforts, they had their share of adventures.
The Cameron children with two village girls at
Dorene’s birthday party, February 1959, Shungnak.
One time Richard was invited to go fishing for an evening by one of Oliver and Rene’s friends. He was a reliable man in his forties who had lived there all his life, so they felt safe in granting permission. Richard grabbed a wash basin for his expected catch.
When he had not returned by midnight, Rene woke Oliver. He didn’t share her alarm, and advised her to be patient. Rene paced for a time inside the cabin, then in the front yard. Eventually she returned to bed, but was still awake at 5 a.m. when she heard the sound of a motor and ran out to meet the errant fishermen.
The friend, sensing Rene’s anxiety, recounted their leisurely and uneventful trip, which included an early morning breakfast with his sister. Richard was grinning ear to ear, and his basin was full of fish—he’d caught 26 grayling.
University of Washington, Freshwater and Marine Image Bank
Shungnak received mail by air once a week. The mail plane landed on a gravel bar in the summer, and on the river ice in winter. For three weeks during December there were no mail deliveries at all, due to low visibility. Finally a pilot who was familiar with the terrain came in, bringing Christmas packages and orders. However, to everyone’s great disappointment, the airline had forgotten to put the first class mail aboard.
The villagers in Shungnak celebrated Christmas as thoroughly as did the folks in Kotzebue, and people from the upstream village of Kobuk traveled thirty miles by dogsled to join the festivities, which centered on the school and the church. Santa made an appearance at the children’s school program, and friends, the teacher, and the Red Cross provided a variety of gifts for children and adults.
Children in Friends Church Christmas program, Shungnak, 1958. Richard, second from right.
The church had its own program the following night, Christmas Eve, with another play and more gifts. The Camerons continued the celebration after returning home, opening gifts around a small tree that stood on a box by the stove. They returned to church the next day for a feast of caribou soup, bread, berries, and greens followed by “Eskimo” ice cream, Jell-O, crackers and candy. There were additional services at the church every night that week, culminating in a two-hour service to see in the New Year.
Christmas at Shungnak, Dorene, Gerald and Richard, 1958.
In the spring of 1959, as the ice began to break up and move out, Shungnak went on flood watch. There was always a chance that backups caused by ice jams would flood the houses nearest the river, but fortunately the Camerons escaped that calamity. By that time, however, the strain of the cold, hard work, and lack of income had begun to take a toll on both Oliver and Rene.
Rene had been having a troublesome pain in her left breast. Around April, Oliver began to have digestive problems and to pass blood. Since he was not able to eat regular food, Rene made bowls of Jell-O and put them out in the ice that still covered their yard, so that they would set.
Oliver and Rene endured that way until concerned relatives sent funds for them to return to Kotzebue to see the doctor. It took them a week to get everything in order and say goodbye to their friends. Everything took longer because of their health issues—doing laundry, packing, cleaning house, mixing gas, organizing the boat, loading the dogs. Friends helped, and eventually they got started on a summer afternoon, a bit later than planned.
Since they were still too inexperienced to navigate the difficult Kobuk River by themselves, Arthur Douglas, a relative of Tommy Douglas, the founder of Ambler, agreed to guide them as far as Ambler. Some friends in Fairbanks, though of course unaware of their emergency trip, had providentially sent a food box containing numerous items that made their travels easier: bacon, cake mixes, canned vegetables, canned meats, soups, dried fruit and candy.
Around 11:30 that evening, under perpetual daylight, Arthur guided them to the beach at Ambler and set up beds for them in Tommy Douglas’s house. Here they spent the weekend while locals helped Oliver do some remodeling on the boat. Richard came down with diarrhea, an uncomfortable and unwelcome complication.
Once they had finished the repairs, they continued downriver. Since they were now on their own, it was a challenge to stay in safe water. Oliver studied the surface of the water, trying to discern the channel, but missed it more than once. Finally, they found themselves stuck with the boat completely grounded.
Oliver got out of the boat to search for the channel. Rene attempted to wade with him, but didn’t have hip boots and had to give it up. Finally, Oliver levered the overloaded boat into water deep enough that he could lower the motor and continue downriver, proceeding slowly.
When they reached Kiana, about two-thirds of the way to Kotzebue, they were greeted warmly by friends. Not knowing that another family had started cooking for them the moment their boat was spotted on the river, they accepted a dinner invitation from their first greeters, and were a bit embarrassed when they got the second invitation. Likewise they were offered warm beds in several homes.
Here, too, someone gave Rene the solution to Richard’s intestinal problems: a teaspoon of pepper. That stopped the diarrhea. Oliver used this remedy for years afterward, making the dose more palatable by coating the pepper in jam before swallowing it.
The villagers gave them gifts of soap, mittens, warm bread and cash for the children before they got underway again. Now that they were in reliably deep water, the rest of the trip was uneventful. They set up their tent on the beach at Kotzebue near the location of their former house, which Charlie Jones had taken in trade for the boat and since moved.
They reunited with old friends and met a new couple, Donna and Wilfred Zibell. Wilfred had been sent by the Wycliffe Institute with the goal of translating the Bible into the Inuit language. Oliver had spent some of his spare time in Shungnak paraphrasing the Gospel of Mark for the local people, so the two had common interests. They spent many hours visiting.
They also visited the clinic, but Oliver continued to bleed and the doctor could not find the source of Rene’s pain. They decided to return to Idaho for further medical care.
They flew to Fairbanks in the fall of 1959. The children, who had spent several years living in Kotzebue and the small villages along the Kobuk River, found the city unsettling. They experienced a degree of culture shock as they dealt with the bustle of the busy airport and the unfamiliar sensation of traveling in a car.
When they arrived in Nampa, Idaho, they found that their friends from Fairbanks, Dr. and Mrs. Fitz, were leaving Idaho for a few months. The Fitzes gave the Camerons the use of their house on Chestnut Street, where they stayed for the winter. Richard enrolled in sixth grade; Dorene, in fifth. The school was only two or three blocks away. Dorene recalls that the classroom was crowded, and that she had to share a desk with another student.
Oliver, Rene, Dorene, Gerald, Richard Cameron in Idaho, 1959
When the holiday season rolled round, Oliver—reacting to the materialism and excess he perceived around him—decided it was frivolous and irresponsible to buy a Christmas tree while others were in need. He headed downtown to donate the $10 price of tree to the Salvation Army, but while he was away someone gave a tree to his family, along with a pile of gifts and food. The timing of these benevolences made a lasting impression on the children.
Oliver remained unemployed that winter while both he and Rene were recovering. With proper treatment and rest, Oliver’s stomach improved. He moved the family north to New Meadows, where they stayed with his parents, Ed and Pansy, for the 1960-61 school year. Rene enjoyed being near family in the relatively stress-free environment of New Meadows, and regained her health. She took substitute-teaching jobs and also worked in the local post office.
Oliver himself went back to Shungnak, where he stayed with Bob Lee, who had been a good friend there previously. Sometime during that winter he unwittingly damaged his lungs while retrieving some caribou carcasses with his dog team. He had cached the caribou meat on high ground in the low mountains north of Shungnak. He went alone, following a trail made by the Inuit. It was getting late by the time he reached his cache, so instead of going back down the slow, gentle slope he had climbed, he tied the meat to his sled and went down the steep face of the hill. This put him traveling rugged terrain for some distance and Oliver was overheated by the time he got to the river, not realizing it was -65°. He had pushed the hood of his parka back for ventilation and by the time he got home he had frosted his trachea. The effects of that mishap would plague him for the rest of his life, causing breathing problems in cold weather.
Oliver in Shungnak on his own. Neighbor children in background.
When Ed Cameron’s health began to fail in the spring of 1961, Oliver returned to Idaho. He helped with his father’s school maintenance job in New Meadows, and later moved to the town of Old Meadows to care for the school there as well. When the elder Camerons moved to Payette, Idaho, Oliver and his family rented their home in New Meadows for 1962-63.
Oliver continued to split his time between Idaho and Alaska. At one point during these years he stayed in Fairbanks, where he helped a friend build and sell dogsleds. He also returned to Shungnak, learning more about sled-building, hunting, and skills for living off the land. Finally, he began contracting construction jobs during the summer in Kotzebue in order to earn enough money to bring Rene and the children home. Searching for a homesite for his family, Oliver was drawn to the still-new village of Ambler. He was able to claim a five-acre parcel just outside the village, and spent the winter of 1962-63 cutting logs for the house he planned to build. By the summer of 1963 it was time to reunite the family.
CHAPTER 7 – Ambler
The village of Ambler is situated at the confluence of the Ambler and Kobuk Rivers about 130 air miles east of Kotzebue. When the Cameron family stopped there for the night in the fall of 1958, the first settlers in the brand new community had just moved down from the upriver villages of Shungnak and Kobuk. That very night the Camerons first encountered the founder and leader of Ambler, Tommy Douglas. The Douglas and Cameron families became close friends in the years following.
Tommy Douglas, a local Inupaiq, was a smart man who learned quickly, a visionary, who had seen firsthand the changes taking place in the native culture over the past decades. The Inupiaqs who lived in the region were gradually shifting from migratory hunting and moving seasonally from location to location, to a more settled lifestyle with the coming of white people in the 1900s. They had a school and village at Shungnak, but Tommy could see there were not enough resources for a growing population. The area where the Ambler settlement arose was a place lush with wildlife, fish, and spruce trees. Like Oliver, Tommy sought an area where he and others could live sustainably with as little dependence as possible on imported supplies. Also like Oliver, he was a deeply spiritual man who believed in divine direction and purpose.
Tommy, who was illiterate as were many natives of his generation, gave his account of the founding of Ambler to the schoolteacher, James Davis, who then composed the following letter to his own wife in Tommy’s name:
Dear Mrs. Davis,
I know you will be surprised and perhaps a little shocked to receive a letter from a stranger whom you have never yet seen, but your husband persuaded me to believe that you would enjoy reading a few thoughts which I have expressed to him just today. You may blame him for any ill effects, and this unexpected letter from an Eskimo Indian Chief (sic).
I met your husband last fall but our association has been definitely interrupted by my being away from Ambler most of the winter. I recently returned from attending Bible School at Noorvik, an Eskimo village toward Kotzebue from here.
I would like you to know that I appreciate the fact that Mr. Davis has come to us. I know it is the Lord’s doings. He it is that has sent him this way.
About five years ago I was in a religious meeting and the missionary entreated me to become a Christian. Two years he tried in vain to win my heart for Christ. In the spring of ’57 I decided to go to an altar of prayer and yield my heart and life to God, but on the way down I slipped out an exit door instead.
I cannot say how much the missionary suffered in disappointment, but my heart certainly remained heavy, my conscience made itself miserably felt and, in spite of my stubborn refusal to take Christ as my Savior and let Him come into my heart, my soul continued weeping and yearning for God.
The twenty-second of June of ’57, I met a prospector from Fairbanks. He needed a guide to conduct him through the country around Noatak. I was happy to accept the position. He chartered one of the Wien Alaska Airline planes, and, along with his nineteen-year-old son, we took off on the twenty-third of June.
About thirty-five minutes we were in the air prior to an impact by very rough winds which persisted in blowing us downward. Wien’s pilot tried in vain to gain altitude and explained that he could not turn back because of proximity of mountains on either side.
For the next fifteen minutes we three wondered if this was truly to be the end for us. It was journey’s end for the pilot and he burned with his plane, but the son, sitting in back with the luggage, was not hurt. He carried his father, and responding to my calls, came back to help me. I had lacerations on my head and face. My right arm was broken. My pelvic bones were broken in three places. My lower body was crushed and my left leg was torn from its socket joint. There seemingly was nothing to hold my hips together and I was temporarily paralyzed from my waist down.
My rubber overshoes having burned, flames were now consuming my feet. I saw them eat the flesh from the bones of my right foot while the twisted wreckage held it in such a vise-like grip that I simply could not free myself. I can never forget the protrusion of my blackened toe bones.
Finally, in desperation, and with the added impetus afforded by the surging heat and flames, I told him to pull me from my foot which was so inextricably caught.
He got a rope around my leg, and wrenching my body with rough determination, complete abandon, and an all-exacting tug, pulled me free. My foot came too, but by that time it was so charred that amputation had no alternative.
Bleeding and mutilated to the extent of human endurance, my clothes mostly torn and burned from my body with no way of getting word to anyone, all of whom were beyond the radius of an unknown number of miles of untraveled terrain, without even the comfort of God in my heart, you can well imagine the thought playing upon my mind as I lay pressed in the raw, upon the bosom of Mother Earth for eighteen solid hours awaiting a faintly possible rescue.
I knew this was also the bitter end for me. The pilot, an admirable and much loved young white man who had married a beautiful Eskimo girl, had met a comparably brief though violent death in the chaos of the wreckage and flames. Mine was to be more lengthily drawn out affair permeated with the excruciating pain of a depraved heart, physical distortion and fire.
But I knew I was receiving only what I deserved. I was getting what I had been asking for. No more justice was being measured out to me who was ignoring the sacrifice of God. The poet Robert Service said, “The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” I think I got the idea.
I thought of my darling wife, Elsie. I own a saw mill and I wondered, what shall I do about that now? I thought of the missionary and the bitterness was intensified for having spurned God’s call to my heart. I came to tears and to prayer. As I prayed I looked up toward Heaven. I believe I was looking into the face of Jesus. I asked Him please to spare my life, return me to my parents, and I promised to become a Christian and always serve the Lord.
Somehow, the Lord relieved me from all sense of pain and a helicopter picked us up and took us to Kobuk. Wien Alaska Airlines flew us from there to Kotzebue from where we were flown to Fairbanks and the doctors.
The doctors said that I could not possibly live, but I encouraged them saying, “Oh yes, I am going to live.” It is still a mystery to the doctors that blood poisoning did not claim my life, but all I would say is that it is no mystery to God.
While recuperating in the hospital, the thought kept impressing itself upon me that I must move from Shungnak to Ambler.
Now, there was no Ambler then, no houses nor anything but a bleak, wild and desolate place in a wooded area where two rivers joined. I did not understand at first why the thought kept reoccurring to me, but I soon realized it was God talking to my heart.
I continued on at Shungnak until early summer of ’58, then I located at Ambler.
A hard winter ensued and I prayed for my Lord about it all. Immediately caribou, moose, ptarmigan and wild game in abundance began crowding upon Ambler. Fresh fish and food was supplied without measure.
When folks at Shungnak saw this phenomenon at Ambler, they too began moving down. I could not, at first, persuade them to come with me, but physical sustenance became a deciding factor.
Today, not counting the pastor or the teacher, there are eleven families permanently settled here, and we are expecting more to move down from Shungnak this summer.
We built the church house during the summer of ’59. That fall, school materials began coming in along with Mrs. Ross who was supposed to start the school. (I kept praying for my Lord, even while Mrs. Ross was here, “I need a Christian teacher for the children.”) Mrs. Ross never started the school. She went up to Kobuk and taught there instead.
This year there was more than one teacher who was supposed to start the school here. Some of them came, looked the prospect over, and presto, they were gone. In the interim my prayer for a Christian teacher did not cease. At last, in a most obvious answer to sincere prayer, we have Mr. Davis as our teacher. I believe God sent Mr. Davis this way to be a Christian influence upon our children. I know God is working out His will and our children will be more prone to believe and will better learn what it is to be a Christian.
I do hope and pray that this Godly set-up will affect more Christian families to make their home in our new village.
We hope to have a landing field; we hope to have a post office, and to have a Bible school here someday soon. Mrs. Davis, you have been reading a true story, but it did not come from the pages of a “True Story Magazine.” This is a story which helps to explain why Mr. Davis is in Ambler today. It can also help to explain our jubilation upon your arrival next fall.
I think you will like the river, the trees, and the clean lines of our village. It is especially lovely here in the summer time. We shall try to make your stay as pleasant as we know how.
Seeing what the Lord has done already, I anticipate with high hopes what He will do in the immediate future.
I shall keep on praying for my Lord.
Very truly yours,
By James W. Davis
Oliver had claimed his five-acre homesite near Ambler under a 1927 revision of the Homestead Act of 1862, which had played a large role in the lives of his parents and grandparents. Among other stipulations, he was required to build a dwelling and reside on the property for five years. He got credit for some of the time he had spent in military service.
Ambler, AK 1964. From Betty Jo Goddard photos
In the summer of 1963 he sent word to Rene, in Idaho, that he’d had their land surveyed in Ambler and had cut, peeled and seasoned enough logs to build a home. He sent money and told Rene that she and the kids could move to Ambler as soon as his summer job in Kotzebue ended. Rene sent some of their belongings to Kotzebue, put some in storage in Nampa, took the rest to the dump. She closed up the house in New Meadows in August and flew to Kotzebue with Dorene and Gerald.
Richard, then 15, had made the trip in advance of the rest of the family. Oliver had gotten him a job helping to build a warehouse for Hanson’s General Store in Kotzebue. Both Oliver and Rene were a bit nervous about having him fly alone, but Rene had arranged assistance for him at each break in the journey. A relative in Seattle met him for the three-hour layover, and a friend met him at the airport in Fairbanks and provided overnight accommodations. While en route, the flight attendant gave Richard a tour of the cockpit, where he saw the gauges and visited with the pilots.
Meanwhile Oliver was busy trying to line up a boat. The big one that they had used to come downriver four years earlier had been battered beyond use by a storm, and he hadn’t had time to build a new one. He ended up buying a somewhat smaller double-ended lifeboat of the type that had formerly been used on whaling ships.
When the family arrived in Kotzebue, the children spent many boring hours cleaning the sand out of the inside of the boat. They also stuffed cotton caulking between the boards, punching it in with a chisel. Oliver then launched the boat, let it sink, and left it until the wooden boards had soaked and swollen enough that the cracks between them were tight.
Oliver used his fifteen-horsepower motor along with a borrowed thirty-five-horsepower to make the trip upriver. It was a challenge to fit the belongings that had been mailed from Idaho, his own things, and his tools into the smaller boat, but eventually he squeezed everything in, and the family started upriver to their new homesite. The trip was slow. It took a long time to move this wide, loaded boat up the river with such small outboards.
The September weather was beautiful but was already cold enough that they had to break ice at one point. Then, on the last night of the trip, it snowed. The two boys, who were wearing only rubber boots and socks, chilled their feet badly enough that Gerald’s toes tingled for days afterward.
About two-thirds of the way to Ambler the Camerons were met by a friend and were able to shift some of their load to his boat. When they arrived in Ambler, they ate a hot meal with friends before motoring the last few hundred yards to their homesite. A crowd of other villagers helped unload the boat. Oliver quickly erected their wall tent and set up the wood stove.
Rene was pleased with the location Oliver had chosen for their new home. The new homesite was outside the village, but within easy walking distance. Situated on a high bluff right on the river, on the north edge of Ambler, the Cameron lot bordered that of a local native, Tommy Lee, who had been their landlord in Shungnak in 1958. A creek ran through the property, and there were a few trees and plenty of grass, while farther back from the river there was a patch of open tundra and beyond that were scattered dead trees from a fire that had passed through a few years previously.
The family was back together, Rene approved of the location, but the differences in values and beliefs between Oliver and his wife continued to widen. They worked together over the next few years to build a home and raise their children to adulthood, but their conflicting worldviews would continue escalating tension in the marriage.
Now, the first order of business was to build a cache to keep belongings dry and out of reach of porcupines, squirrels, and stray dogs. With the help of the children, Oliver accomplished this in a few days. This was a hastily-erected cache, and a couple years later, Oliver replaced it with another more substantial one.
Building the second cache about 1965. From Cameron family photos.
Within weeks of the Camerons’ arrival in Ambler, the overnight temperatures dropped so low that the tent was cold even in the daytime, when the wood stove was going. Rene had struggled to keep warm on the trip upriver even with a bearskin covering, and now she wasn’t sleeping well. After she mentioned this to one of the Ambler women, the community invited the family to stay in one of the Sunday School rooms at the church. Even though it was not very well insulated, it was still significantly warmer than the tent, and they now had a small kitchen area and room for proper beds.
Ambler Friends Church.
The children helped Oliver with the house, and also began their studies. Ricky and Dorene were enrolled in correspondence courses from the University of Nebraska, while Gary went to the village school just up the hill from the church. This was the first year the newly-built school was in use. The teachers were Dan and Joyce Denslow.
With all these events taking place, Oliver had not been able to hunt that fall, so the Camerons were trading for meat. One day someone came by with a sled loaded with food, including meat, berries, dried fish, and even some store-bought treats as a thank-you to Rene for playing the organ for church services.
When everything was safely stored, Oliver began digging a square pit and leveling the ground for their new dwelling, another semi-subterranean sod house. Freeze-up had already begun, so it was a challenge to level the ground at the bottom of the pit and put down the main floor supports before the dirt froze. Every day he and the children would break through a crust of frozen dirt with a pick to continue the work. Sometimes they covered it with sod in an attempt to keep it from freezing overnight.
Once the floor was roughed in, the next step was to dig holes and set vertical tree trunks in them to support the horizontal members that would define the basic shape of the walls and roof. They then leaned split lumber against the framework at an angle to form the walls, and laid sawn planks on top to form a sloping ceiling.
Finally, they covered the entire structure with a layer of sturdy plastic sheeting known as Visqueen, covered that with blocks of moss for insulation, and backfilled the walls with dirt. The plastic was the key to this type of structure: It kept warm air inside the house, and kept bits of moss and dirt from falling inside.
Main door of first Cameron house, spring, 1968, Ambler.
The family was still living in the church when they heard of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.
By December 5th, the house was ready. With the help of friends, a dogsled, and an early model snowmachine, the Camerons hauled their belongings to the new house. It was snug and warm: with or without a fire, and no matter the outside temperature, the Camerons no longer suffered the inconvenience of having their water buckets freeze at night.
The Cameron family in their new home, Christmas 1964.
Oliver had built a portable sawmill with a table-sized blade and a 10-horsepower engine. After the family moved into the new sod home, he continued to improve it, milling lumber to cover the subfloor and finishing the counters and tabletop. After a few months they were able to order vinyl as a final touch for the floor, counters, table, and cover for the water barrel.
Oliver and children with sawmill, Ambler.
The house was 20 by 24-feet, and comparable to other houses in use throughout the village. Oliver partitioned the back half with curtains, and divided it into two bedrooms—one for himself and Rene, and the other for Dorene. There was storage in a closet, in boxes underneath the beds, and on shelves above them. The boys slept in the front of the house, which also served as the kitchen and living room.
Gerald’s bed was to the right of the main door. Oliver built a desk and furnished it with a captain’s chair for his own use, setting it to one side in the living room area. Richard’s bed did double duty as the couch. Oliver built a study desk and two chairs for the children next to the couch/bed, and hung a kerosene Aladdin lamp over it. Its light was easier on the eyes than that from their Coleman gasoline lantern.
Richard, Gerald and Dorene studying with kerosene lamp.
The wood stove, which Richard had made out of oil barrel steel, stood in the middle of the living area. It had a cast iron top and even a built-in oven that Rene learned to regulate for baking bread or roasting fish. She could also open or close the oven door as needed in order to maintain a comfortable temperature in the small house.
Rene at stove Richard built, Ambler.
Oliver built an unheated “arctic entry” that created a covered space between the front door of the house and an exterior door. This formed a heat seal and offered space for brushing off snow and for storing boots and parkas. The door of the house itself was covered with caribou skin for insulation.
Once the house was finished, the family settled into a routine. Richard and Dorene studied every morning from 5:30 until breakfast and then again until noon, overseen by Rene. They both earned their high school diplomas by way of University of Nebraska correspondence courses, while Gerald attended classes at the village school.
In December of 1963, Tommy Douglas came to Oliver with a proposal. He wanted to use some of the money he’d received from the insurance company after the accident to start a store, with the idea of providing necessities to the villagers at lower prices. He hoped the Cameron family would operate the store out of their house and be responsible for clerking and ordering supplies. They would be providing a service to the community, and receive discounts on their own groceries. Oliver said that he would think it over.
When Oliver finally agreed, Tommy placed a large order with a firm in Seattle for basic staples—flour, tallow, sugar, tea and coffee, soap, canned milk, oats, rice—and ordered gasoline for boats and kerosene for lamps from the regional supplier in Kotzebue. He also began preparing his own large boat, the Bucky B, to transport the goods upriver once they arrived in Kotzebue.
Once the first barge had arrived in Kotzebue from Seattle and the last of the river ice had flushed out of Kobuk Lake, Oliver and Tommy made the trip down to the coast and brought the goods back to Ambler.
As Oliver and Tommy had agreed, they operated the store out of the Cameron house. Oliver also built a makeshift warehouse in the back yard by laying boards on some 55-gallon drums, where the goods could be stacked and covered with a tent. Oliver also built display shelves in his front room.
The store officially opened in July of 1964. Oliver was in charge of ordering, Dorene and Gerald brought supplies in from the warehouse and helped stock the shelves, Rene worked the cash register, and Richard kept the books. They established store hours in order to protect the children’s study time, but the villagers tended to come to the store whenever they needed something. Rene served tea or coffee, so store visits often became social visits as well.
As the business grew, Oliver began ordering items beyond the basics, such as whole cloves, cinnamon bark, and a variety of teas. He used the money earned from the first order to get additional stock by air from Anchorage and Fairbanks—such things as lamps, boots, dogsled gear, harness material, nets, rope, and some clothing. He kept the markup as low as possible for staples, but charged a little more for non-essential items. He never offered credit. Word quickly spread about the store’s low prices, and customers from Shungnak and Kobuk began boating or dog-teaming downriver to buy supplies.
Once, when Oliver became frustrated with empty candy wrappers littering the yard, he refused to sell any more candy, telling customers that when they began properly disposing of the wrappers, he would stock the candy again. It wasn’t long before they complied and he resumed candy sales.
Later, the store was moved from the Camerons’ home to another location, and more warehouses were built for storage. For a time Rene clerked at the new location in the afternoons.
Maude and Jacob Cleveland in store, 1963. From Cameron family photos.
On March 27, 1964, the family heard the river ice crack and knew that something unusual must have happened. Later they heard radio reports of the Good Friday Earthquake that had stricken south central Alaska. The epicenter was located in Prince William Sound, 78 miles east of Anchorage. The shaking lasted for more than four minutes and caused tsunamis, rockslides, widespread property damage, and the deaths of 139 people. With a moment magnitude of 9.2, it was and remains the most powerful temblor ever recorded in the northern hemisphere, and the second strongest in world history. Ambler, however, is nearly 500 miles from Anchorage. Those affected by the earthquake dealt with the aftermath, but life for the Cameron family went on much as usual.
Oliver and his family didn’t get much in the way of wages for their work in the store, though they got a break on groceries, so by the summer of 1965 it was time for Oliver to return to work in Kotzebue. This time he had been hired to build a church for the Episcopalians. Once the materials had arrived from Seattle by barge and he had checked the order, he studied the blueprints and then led a crew of men as they built the square log structure.
Episcopal Church Oliver built.
Oliver’s plan was to make the trip to Kotzebue with Richard, who would be working with him on the project, but Rene wanted the whole family to go. She argued that Oliver and Richard would need a cook and a laundress, and besides, the trip down the river in early summer would be lovely and relaxing.
Oliver’s position was that the river wasn’t the problem—it was the broad expanse of Kobuk Lake. Their boat was simply too small for the whole family to make the crossing safely.
Rene persisted. Richard was now 17 years old and would soon be leaving for college, and she wanted to spend as much time together as a family as possible. She was aware of the danger, but hoped that the lake would be calm. In the end, Oliver relented. Rene set about washing clothes and blankets, baking cookies and bread, and preparing the Ambler house for their absence.
On the day of their departure, they closed up the house and loaded the boat motor fuel, clothing, bedding, food, and dogs. By the time they were packed it was six o’clock in the evening. This did not deter them from leaving as they were eager to be on their way and the daylight would last for many hours yet. It was high summer, and the sun was still well above the northwestern horizon when they reached the encampment of archeological workers at Onion Portage at nine. They spent the night in the tent of a friend who was working on the world-class dig.
In the morning they enjoyed a hot breakfast of pancakes, meat, and coffee. Rene prepared a hot drink for the children consisting of water, sugar, and canned milk. Oliver accepted a friend’s loan of an extra 15-horsepower motor, promising to send it back on the first barge from Kotzebue.
At noon they stopped at an island where the mosquitoes were not too bad. The stop allowed them all to get out and stretch their legs, something the children especially enjoyed. Rene prepared a lunch of boiled meat, homemade bread, cookies, Jell-O and tea. Even in June it was cool enough at night to set Jell-O. Then they continued on and camped for the night on another island.
The next day they stopped and did some shopping and visiting in the village of Kiana, but then Oliver decided to push on to Kobuk Lake. He was becoming more and more anxious about the crossing, even though some of the villagers reported that the weather was calm.
He described what happened next in an interview with Ole Wik.1 (The Droop Snoot was what Oliver called their boat. He’d designed and built it with an innovative but peculiar keel line at the front end.)
There’s a little channel that takes off from the delta of the Kobuk and goes north through York’s lagoon on Kobuk Lake. I have forgotten the name. It was late in the day and was kind of windy, so I went that way. There’s a little lake at the end of the channel, just before you get into the lagoon. We camped there and waited for the weather to calm down.
The next forenoon it started to get a little better, so we went out to the entrance to the lagoon and waited a little bit. The weather seemed to be improving, so I took a chance on it, intending to get across the lake as quick as we could.
We started to go across the lake, intending to get on the south side of the lake that’s under the shelter of those hills over there, a little ways before Pipe Spit. But as you know, Kotzebue weather can change very rapidly. The wind came up from behind….
The waves were big. I had Droop Snoot, and it was loaded. The Droop Snoot was not an open water boat, and I knew it. I hadn’t built it for that purpose.
Anyway, the wind came up from behind us, so I started quartering across to the north side of the lake. I was heading for a little lake just west of Iqaluligagaruk. It’s almost a part of Kobuk Lake, except that there was a gravel beach separating it, and there was a tiny little channel that was just wide enough so you could run a boat through and get into still water behind the beach.
Richard was up in the front of the boat, and the rest were under a tarp in the middle of the boat. The waves were running along even with the gunwales. Once in a while a bigger waver would slop over into the boat. I was watching the waves very closely as we came to them. As I was coming to a bigger wave, I’d turn the boat so it wouldn’t plow into it, but quarter over it. Then I’d swing back north until there was another big wave.
I was just crabbing that way until we got to that little lake. The wind was against the beach and the waves were big, and I had to guess where that channel was and hope that it had not filled in with gravel.
I hit it OK, but the side of the boat rode up on the side of the channel. The water was knee deep at the edge, but the channel was deeper. I jumped out without even shutting the engine off and got the boat going and into the lake. We went around to the southeast edge of the lake, where it was out of the wind, and set up a tent.
When we got inside I was exhausted, just drained. I sat there and rested a little bit, just glad to be out of the wind and waves. So was Richard. He had been bailing the front of the boat while I bailed in back, with one hand. He would sometimes look at me as if worried, and I’d give him the OK sign and he’d go back to bailing. I don’t know what memories he has of that experience, but mine are vivid.
Afterward John Nelson told me that an old fellow had a boat. He always had a strip of canvas, maybe 5’ wide, fastened to the gunwales of his boat, on each side. In that kind of situation, he would throw that canvas out and let it float up on either side. A big wave would then lift the canvas, and the water wouldn’t come into the boat. I never tried that, but that was my last trip with Droop Snoot on Kobuk Lake.
According to Rene’s account, Oliver was white with fear. Neither she nor Gerald could swim, and none of them would have had a chance in such cold water so far from shore.
The wind continued to blow for the next six days, making it impossible to make the crossing to the Kotzebue side of the lake. There wasn’t much work that they could do beyond feeding the dogs and gathering firewood. Oliver worked on a dog harness, Rene knitted, and they did a lot of reading. The children braved the cold and played on the beach. Nobody had anticipated such an extended delay, and before long they’d nearly run out of food.
On the seventh day, with the wind still blowing and the lake still rough, Oliver decided that they would load up all of their gear and the dogs, launch the boat into the lake, and pull it along the beach by hand. He tied one towrope to the boat near the bow and another at the stern. By taking in or letting out the front rope, they could steer the boat so that it would travel parallel to the beach about 12 feet out from the shore.
They walked along in this way for several hours, taking turns pulling on the ropes. The only break in the monotony was when they were following a set of fresh bear tracks for a time.
Around two p.m., they saw a tent on the beach ahead. When they got there, they were pleased to find that it belonged to friend of theirs from Kotzebue, John Nelson. He was as surprised to see them as they were to see him. At first he thought that they had walked all the way from Ambler, but in fact they had “lined” the boat about ten miles.
They used the Nelsons’ tent to change into dry clothes, and then enjoyed a hot meal of baked sheefish, biscuits and coffee. Then they transferred their belongings to John’s large boat, tied the Droop Snoot behind, and crossed the lake to Pipe Spit and the home of Pete and Lena Satterlee. There they picked up the key to their rented cabin from Pete and Lena, and continued onto Kotzebue. By evening they were settled in. The next day was Monday, and Oliver and Richard reported for work as scheduled.
Oliver and Lorene had been close friends with the Pete and Lena Satterlee since the 1950s when the Camerons first came to Kotzebue. The Satterlees’ main home was on Pipe Spit, and they also owned a cabin in Kotzebue that the Camerons used when working. Pete was Norwegian—many Norwegian sailors came to Alaska and stayed— Lena was part native and part Norwegian. The Cameron family routinely stopped to see Pete and Lena whenever they passed that way, and over the years they became quite good friends. Pete had given Dorene a gold nugget and built Richard a model of a Norwegian sailing ship, both much-cherished possessions.
When the family returned to Ambler that fall, they found that the store was doing well. Oliver offered to buy it from Tommy. However, Tommy had other plans, so Oliver turned it back over to him and his family.
The summer of 1966 saw Oliver heading to Kotzebue for another summer of work. He would be in charge of building the parsonage to go with the Episcopalian church he and his crew had built the summer before. This time he and his family made the trip on the Bucky B with Tommy Douglas when he made his first run to pick up his barge order for the store in late June.
The Bucky B.
The Bucky B on the Kobuk River.
The boat had in inboard engine and was much larger than the usual skiffs that were in use on the Kobuk River. There was room to walk around on the deck, and it was comfortable inside. It was late June, and they stopped the first night at the edge of the river to catch a few hours of sleep.
Tommy crawled into his bunk, but the Camerons went ashore to gather birch bark from the trees near the river. They wanted to take a supply to a friend who made baskets to sell to tourists. They’d find a suitable tree, score the bark with a knife above and below the area to be removed, cut a vertical line between those score marks, loosen the outer bark, and peel it off in sheets as large as possible.
Though this left dark scars on the trunk that contrasted sharply with the remaining white bark, the trees were otherwise unharmed. Oliver also selected one straight, knot-free birch and cut out a length of the trunk for making frames for snowshoes.
The next day they continued on to the Kobuk delta. It was past midnight and the wind was blowing at 15 miles per hour, but they knew that if anything, it would be even stronger once the sun began beating down on the land. The Bucky B plowed right through the waves, although the dogs howled at the choppy ride.
It was nearly 5 a.m. by the time they arrived at Pipe Spit to pick up the key to their rental house in Kotzebue. Pete and Lena had been sleeping, so Oliver and Rene only talked with them for a few minutes before hurrying on their way. They assumed they’d have plenty of time to visit over the summer.
But as it happened, Pete only slept for another hour and then walked out onto the tundra to hunt ducks. Lena stayed home, nursing a sore back, but became alarmed when he did not return by dusk.
She searched for hours until she thought she heard his voice calling her. Moving in that direction, she came upon his body stretched on the ground. He had been dead for some time, likely of a heart attack or similar “medical event.”
Lena flagged down a passing tugboat and went to Kotzebue to get help. Oliver later helped move the body to town as the Satterlee family gathered for the funeral. Pete was buried near his cabin on the spit.
Oliver, Gerald and Dorene with widowed Lena Satterlee at Pipe Spit cabin, September, 1967.
Once Oliver and his family got settled in Kotzebue, he turned his attention to building the parsonage. However, shipping a prefabricated cedar home from Seattle was not always a straightforward business. First of all, the barge was late, and when it did arrive there were delays in moving all of the components onto the building site. The work still couldn’t begin until the inspector had checked the building package, and he was also delayed.
Oliver decided to build a boat while he was waiting for everything to fall into place. The warehouse for Hansen’s Store was partially empty, awaiting the year’s shipment, and he got permission to use a portion of it as a workshop. He designed a boat that would be big enough to cross Kobuk Lake with no problems. It was 32 feet long by eight feet wide, and was covered with several layers of fiberglass and paint. He and the children worked on it daily.
It was a thrill when they launched the boat, mounted a brand new 45-hp outboard, and took their first ride. By the time they headed back upriver at the end of summer, Oliver had added a cabin and had purchased a catalytic heater to keep it warm on the long trip. He also added a more sophisticated steering system.
Cameron’s travel boat, built in 1966. Noorvik, July, 1968.
Fishing boat Oliver built after Droop Snoot. Kobuk River.
Oliver in fishing boat with sheefish. 1969.
Cameron travel boat in the background.
The family returned to Kotzebue in the summer of 1966, but things began to change over the next couple of years. Richard headed for Fairbanks and the University of Alaska, and his absence was keenly felt.
The Cameron family, 1966.
Richard leaving for Fairbanks, 1966.
Dorene studied alone at the desk—most of the time—that Oliver had built for them until Gerald finished attending the Ambler elementary school and joined her for high school home study through the University of Nebraska.
Dorene studying in woodpile.
Cameron family, Christmas 1967. Richard home for Christmas.
Oliver also continued to study and refine his own philosophy of life. One of his dreams was to establish a Bible School in Ambler in order to share his religious beliefs with others. For her part, Rene had long dreamed of a better house, and in 1966 they began building a new, larger home farther from the crumbling riverbank.
The new house in progress, Amber, spring of 1968
The closer this new house came to completion, the more restive Oliver became. Even though the old house was dangerously near the unstable river bank, something about moving into the new place troubled him. Perhaps he felt the house was too big, taking too many resources. In the end, in spite of his wife’s hopeful dreams, he chose to follow his own inner beacon. God’s plan, he announced, was that the new house was not for the family to live in after all, but was meant to be used as the Bible school.
For Rene, this was the last straw. Oliver had become ever more determined to leave a small footprint on the earth, to use a minimal amount of resources to survive. Rene was a woman who valued nice things and a comfortable home. Oliver had moved away from an orthodox Christian belief system, fashioning his own philosophy based on his interpretation of the Bible, while Rene remained solidly evangelical Protestant in her beliefs. One thing that helped her endure the hardships and deprivation of life in Northern Alaska was her belief that she had been called there to minister her faith to the local natives. Oliver also felt a sense of divine purpose, but their understanding of that purpose had diverged substantially. These interpersonal tensions resulting from their differing values and religious beliefs, along with the demands of their strenuous lifestyle, had undermined both her physical and emotional health, stressing her to the breaking point.
She returned to Idaho in late summer, 1969. By that time Dorene had finished her high school studies; she remained in Ambler with Oliver. Gerald went with Rene to Nampa and enrolled in a private Christian high school.
Oliver and Rene divorced in 1970.
1Ole Wik and Oliver first met when Ole came to Alaska about 1963. An engineer and surveyor who had turned down a scholarship for graduate school to live in Alaska, Ole built a sod house with friends in Ambler.
Onion Portage is the site of a world-class archeological dig about 12 air miles west of Ambler on the north side of the Kobuk River. The Camerons passed it every time they went downriver, often stopping to visit with friends who worked on the project. The American archeologist J. Louis Giddings located the site on his first visit to the Kobuk River Valley in 1940. He was the first to use dendrochronology (the study of tree growth rings to determine timing of events and changes in the environment) to date Arctic artifacts, and he applied this technique to the discoveries at Onion Portage.
Onion Portage takes its name from “Paatitaaq” meaning “wild onion” and referring to the abundance of onions that grow at the site. The “portage” part of the name refers to the loop of the Kobuk River that, at this point, creates a long peninsula between two sections of the river. Travelers would cut across the peninsula from one portion of the river to the other to save going around the long bend, or oxbow. “Portage” is used to mean the transporting of goods or boats between two bodies of water, or of the route itself. In this case it refers to the route, used by both people and wildlife. The native peoples congregated there specifically because of the abundance of wildlife. Fishing was good with lots of sheefish and several species of salmon. Caribou used the portage on their migrations north in the spring and south in the fall, making it an ideal location for the native hunters to intercept them as they crossed the river. Due to the abundance of resources, the site has been one of continuous human occupation for more than 10,000 years. This makes it a remarkable archeological resource.
When Dr. Giddings first identified it as of possible interest for research, a few house pits were excavated, but work was interrupted by World War II and Dr. Giddings’ other projects. In 1961 he returned to the site and identified multiple occupational layers, perfectly preserved and going down several feet. In the course of his investigation he discovered thousands of wooden, bone, and stone artifacts. The collection of this data has had far-reaching implications for the entire region, shedding light on native populations and habits over thousands of years.
In 1964, the year after the Camerons moved to Ambler, Dr. Giddings began a major excavation of the site. A cabin was constructed for him by some local Ambler residents, which continues to stand. Tragically, Dr. Giddings was in a car accident in Rhode Island and died in December of 1964. He was only 55 years old.
The site continues to be significant for the study of Arctic history. The National Park Service owns the five-acre homesite and the cabin which is not open to the public, but is kept in honor of Dr. Giddings and his work. In 1972 the Onion Portage Archeological District was declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.1
1https://www.nps.gov/kova/blogs/peeling-back-the-layers-at-onion-portage.htm The National Park Service: Peeling Back the Layers at Onion Portage, Jan Hardes, September 12, 2013.
CHAPTER 8 – Leaving Ambler
The decade of the seventies was a time of transition and change for Oliver, now in his fifties. When Rene left, Oliver liquidated their major assets, except for the land and improvements, and gave Rene the cash to help her establish a new home. Dorene and Oliver continued to live for some months in the original house built in 1963 even though high water and spring ice melts were eroding the nearby river bank, endangering the house. (In later years it would crumble over the edge and into the river.) This was the threat that had inspired the building of the new, larger house further from the river bank.
Dorene remembers the year 1969 -1970 saw an influx of “white people from outside,” as newcomers came to live in Ambler and the surrounding area. One new couple was Bob Schiro and his girlfriend Judy Galblum. Richard was away at college and Rene had taken Gary with her to Idaho, but this void in Oliver and Dorene’s lives was partially filled by the new arrivals. Oliver welcomed these newcomers to the area and helped them in whatever way he could to adjust to a strange place.
Dad and I had a house full of company for at least half of the nights that year. It was great fun for both of us to hear the tales of these many newcomers. Most of them were there because they knew someone who came before them…Each built some kind of a home to live in quickly before winter came in early October. Dad had long conversations about building methods and survival techniques in this remote area of the earth. He lent tools, boats, nets and whatever else we could spare to help them get started, as well as his knowledge.
In 1977 a study was published about the native lifestyle along the upper Kobuk River. Headed by Dr. Richard Nelson under contract with the National Park Service and Brown University, the study, titled Kuuvanmiit Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century, includes information on this influx of settlers:
All of the Kobuk River villages have small numbers of non-Native residents. These are primarily schoolteachers and church leaders, who remain in the area for only a few years…Over the past two decades, however, a permanent subcommunity of non-Natives has established itself in the upper Kobuk River Valley, particularly in the village of Ambler….In 1975 there were twenty-nine permanent non-Native residents in the upper Kobuk region. Of these, sixteen were living in Ambler….All of the settlers obtain most of their staple foods by subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering….The non-Native settlers in the Kobuk River Valley represent a unique and interesting phenomenon. Like modern pioneers elsewhere in Alaska, they have adopted a subsistence lifeway in a remote area of the state. But they are much different in having partially assimilated the indigenous Native culture. In this sense they are most akin to the early American pioneers, who lived among the Indians and became very much like them. Opportunities for this kind of cultural hybridization in North America have been pushed to the northern fringe of the continent, where the last living indigenous cultures are to be found. The Kobuk settlers thus represent a final remnant of the American pioneer tradition.1
While Oliver was among the early settlers noted in the study, and a great resource for the newcomers of the early seventies, his own position in Ambler was shifting. Not only had his household changed so that he was no longer the head of a household in the village, but the community had started to change as well. When the Camerons first arrived in Ambler they were welcomed in the old traditional Inuit manner: newcomers were celebrated, honored and welcomed. Even during the years Oliver and Rene were raising their children, however, local culture began interacting more with the world at large, and racial tensions and conflict began to escalate. Oliver, by the time he was on his own at the homestead, had begun to reassess his role in the community and his place in the world.
When the opportunity arose in early 1970, he sold the buildings and the best three acres of the land, dividing the proceeds between Rene, Richard, and Gary. The new house the Cameron family had built that Oliver dreamed of turning into a Bible school, went to new owners. While the Cameron family never lived in their new structure, it was inhabited until early in the new millennium and may have been one of the longest-used sod houses in the area.
Dorene and Oliver moved into a tent on the remaining two acres. They spent that spring and summer cutting poles to build a new sod house. Their neighbors, Bob and Judy, helped with hauling and peeling the poles. Oliver, however, had a father’s heart. While Dorene’s presence must have been a comfort, she had experienced little of the wider world. That summer he recommended she leave Ambler to broaden her education. She had saved money from her summers of working for the owners of the Hansen Store in Kotzebue, so could afford a ticket to Idaho. She lived a short time with her mother in Nampa, then rented a nearby apartment with her brother Richard and took classes in nursing while he finished his degree at Northwest Nazarene College (Rene’s alma mater). Richard then began his working life, eventually establishing his own construction business.
Dorene and Grandma Dora Dutro, 1972, Nampa, Idaho.
Oliver, meanwhile, finished the small sod house they had begun and lived in it that winter and the next. While Oliver had neither sought nor welcomed any of these developments, his new freedom from family obligations now gave him time to pursue and refine what was the core of his identity and sense of self-worth: religion and his philosophy of life.
During his years as a husband and father he had broken further from Rene’s and his parents’ concepts of Christianity. All during the children’s growing up years he spent time talking with his children and his friends, explaining his views. Religion was his favorite topic, one his children perhaps—occasionally—grew weary of hearing. The traditional religious points of view did not make sense to him and he put great time and effort into developing a belief system that did. He also, from the time the children were small, put his thoughts on paper, usually in letters to family and friends. Eventually these morphed into a booklet. Dorene assisted in getting each new version of the booklet printed, and these writings became a catalyst for conversations with new acquaintances, leading to deeper friendships and ongoing talks and visits. Living alone he began writing in earnest, putting together a manuscript that would become the full-length book, Thoughts Born of Turmoil.
All the while he continued to develop his skills in living a sustainable, handcrafted lifestyle based on local materials and resources.
When Gary turned eighteen and moved back to Ambler with a girlfriend for a brief time in the seventies, Oliver deeded him a parcel of the reduced homestead. When Gary moved onto that property, Oliver built himself a small log cabin and, over time, added several caches. He lived in that cabin the remaining years of his stay in Ambler. Gary’s friend did not adjust well to the pioneer lifestyle and they parted ways. Gary, after returning to Idaho, eventually met Leona Ireland. They married in the mid-seventies and had three children, Melinda, Benjamin and Luke.
Gary and Leona with Margaret Mills and son John, Idaho, 1973.
Gary with daughter Melinda, about 1976 Idaho.
From Mills family photos.
Oliver was active and single, so it was only natural that he made new friends, including women. One of these was Thelma Clark, whom he had initially known while living in Meadows and New Meadows, Idaho in the early sixties, when the Camerons lived and worked there. She was now a widow in poor health, and they renewed their acquaintance. Oliver went to visit her in Idaho in early 1973 and both believed he helped restore her health, possibly saving her life. As Oliver was flying out to see Thelma, Dorene was flying in to return to Alaska from her time in Idaho, their paths crossing briefly in Fairbanks. Thelma returned with Oliver to Ambler in the spring of 1973. She was a welcome addition to the community, a spunky woman who adjusted easily to the homestead lifestyle. However, she would lose income from her late husband if she remarried, something she could not afford. Neither was she comfortable staying with Oliver unmarried, so she returned to Idaho within a few months. Dorene had lived next door in Gary’s former house while Thelma was there, but moved in with Oliver after she left to save heating both houses.
Oliver and Dorene at cabin and cache Ambler circa 1973.
Oliver’s home and caches in Ambler, circa 1974.
Neighbors Bob and Judy had left for a time, and he came back alone in 1974. He and Dorene became a couple. Bob and Dorene lived about a half-mile from Oliver, and continued a close relationship, socializing with friends or working to gather fish or butcher caribou meat.
While Oliver struggled with serious health issues during the late seventies and early eighties, he stayed very active in the community, creating bonds with neighbors in Ambler that lasted his lifetime. When Bob and Dorene moved to Homer, Alaska in 1979, Oliver missed them, but continued to maintain old friendships and build new ones with his neighbors.
Introduced through a friend, Oliver began writing to a young divorced woman in New York, Carol Schlentner, who longed to return to Alaska. In June of 1980 he wrote to Dorene from the tiny Alaskan community of Manley Hot Springs, about 150 miles by road west of Fairbanks:
She has a girl 8 and one 2 years old and has been living in N.Y. with her folks. She wrote… wanting to correspond with someone from up here, so I wrote to her. She is really unhappy where she is and wants to get back out in the bush again up here somewhere. To make a long story short, she and the girls are coming to Fairbanks while I’m over there.
Sympathetic to her unhappiness, Oliver had arranged for her and the girls, Tonya and Paula, to fly to Alaska. Oliver moved with her onto property that Carol owned near Manley Hot Springs and helped her build a semi-subterranean sod house. They finished the project in about a month. They became good friends during this time, and Oliver and the little girls bonded.
Carol Schlentner’s place, Manley Hot Springs, 1980.
Carol Schlentner and daughters Tonya and Paula by their sod house, Manley Hot Springs, ca. 1980. Image: Curt Madison
Oliver returned home to Ambler later that year, but by now there was less and less to hold him there, with Rene gone and the children living their own lives. Then, in 1981, Gary wrote asking if he could sell the lot in Ambler that Oliver had deeded to him. He was hoping to cash it out in order to finance a new business venture, but withdrew his request when Oliver pointed out that the deed had been a gift.
That incident brought some things into focus for Oliver. In September 1981, he wrote Dorene:
In my own affairs, I seem to be at a crossroad again. A number of things cause me to feel and think that this place has accomplished its purpose in my life and it may be time to make a move.
This piece of ground has provided me with some valuable experience and relationships, but has never been something I’ve felt real satisfaction in. It was a compromise for Rene’s sake….It was probably the right thing to do at the time, but now I feel done with it.
Gary wanting to sell would indicate it isn’t so needed by him anymore, and the population explosion here and the influx of people I don’t relate to seems to me like it can only make the racial problems and tensions worse. And I’m tired, tired, tired of all this tension.
The tensions were created when the native population began to change due to exposure to outside forces: television was introduced; the Native Corporations were established. Land ownership—a new concept for the Inuit—became an issue. Dorene relates that they were told they could not cut firewood near the village any longer since the land now belonged to a Native Group. There were angry meetings held over that as well as fishing and hunting issues, with the local river watched to be sure some folks did not take too many fish. Hunting, which the natives and locals had done as needed and the opportunity arose, taking caribou, ducks, beavers, wolverines and other animals, now found themselves dealing with hunting seasons, laws and boundaries that were annoying and irritating to those used to a subsistence lifestyle. While the natives traditionally made good use of the animals they hunted for food, clothing and other needs, often using every part of the animal, they now were frustrated in their attempts to live a traditional, efficient lifestyle while simultaneously offended by such insults as a single hunter killing 100 caribou to sell their jawbones to the University of Alaska for a research project.
Oliver not only was stressed by tensions and angry community meetings, he worried about “worst case” scenarios as well. One concern was that a crisis or economic collapse in the outside world might cut Ambler off from air flights and outside food sources upon which most villagers were now dependent, leaving the possibility that outsiders, even long-term residents such as himself, might be treated badly. Ambler had ceased to feel like a secure haven to Oliver.
In his letter asking about the sale of the lot, Gary had included some information on land that the Bureau of Land Management was going to open to entry as homesites, headquarters sites, and trade and manufacturing sites in the area west of McKinley Park and south of Tanana. This caused Oliver to chuckle to Dorene:
“It was almost as if he was selling me out here and telling me I could go somewhere else.”
Oliver’s first impulse was to dismiss the idea, but then he began to consider the possibilities:
It seems foolish to consider starting over again somewhere else. But every move I’ve made since leaving Idaho has had some foolishness about it. It seems to me the course I’ve been following isn’t complete yet….I have a lot to do yet in applying what I’ve learned and learning more to live in relationship to the natural environment in such a way as to gain the most personal development and integrity out of it. Now I have no family ties to consider and no excuse for not doing as seems right even though I’m more aware of the problems than I was when I had less experience of such moves. Being aware of them also means I’ve had more experience with which to face them.
He systematically worked his way through other options. For example, living near Bob and Dorene at Homer was a possibility, and he would enjoy their company, but that area did not appeal to him. What did appeal to him was developing another homestead in one of the newly opened areas – the last land to be offered for homesteading in the United States. There were two tracts, but Oliver quickly centered his attention on the area west of McKinley Park.
He began to make his plans.
1Anderson; Bane; Nelson; Anderson; Sheldon. Kuuvanmiit Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century. National Park Service Department of the Interior. 1977. PP 582-586
CHAPTER 9 – Making the Move
Oliver had decided to leave Ambler, but there was much to do and many decisions yet to be made. He wasn’t always sure of his direction.
In the meantime, he continued to work on Thoughts Born of Turmoil, the manifesto of his philosophical beliefs, and also had preliminary booklets printed to address a growing demand. He was also beginning to get interest in his writings and philosophy from further afield. On September 11, 1981 he wrote:
I have requests for copies of the book that I can’t respond to now. It would be a big help to be able to get some copies made up….As it is there have been copies sent or carried to Norway, Sweden and England besides the ones I’ve gotten a chance to Xerox for people around here.
Also I have invitations to visit those countries from young (middle age 30s) people who are interested in the theories I have about the significance of our lives and the events that effect them [sic]. There seems to be a greater degree of frustration and anxiety, and more awareness of social problems and world conditions among them than I’m used to finding in most young people here.
These people included a couple who became a significant connection to Norway for Oliver. Rein and Heidi Dammann had arrived in Ambler a few months earlier in the winter of 1980 – 81, and—as did so many—became acquainted with Oliver. They shared many of Oliver’s interests, including ancient building techniques and a sustainable wilderness lifestyle. They were expecting their son at the time, and left in June for Anchorage so Heidi could have the baby, but they returned to Ambler in the fall before moving back to Norway.
Oliver, meanwhile, continued research to narrow down relocation sites. On October 19, 1981 he wrote Dorene:
Have sent for more information about open entry land…If it looks feasible what I have in mind is to locate a site on the Tanana drainage next spring (I would like to be able to get to Fairbanks without flying if I want to.) Then build a warehouse or cache and possibly a small house there next summer. Come back to Ambler in the fall and if meat is scarce in the site area maybe hunt here and dry it up again. Then take or send the equipment I want from here to the new place….
It would be nice to fix up a place so I feel good about it, using a minimum of tools and supplies. It has been on the back of my mind to do such a venture and write about it as a vehicle for some how to do it articles and also for some philosophical comments. Right now it makes me feel tired just to think about it, but it is one step at a time…
A few months later he took a trip to Fairbanks and stayed with a friend who lived nearby. In February, 1982 he wrote:
I’m still thinking about the Minchumina area…Have been to BLM and also gotten some information from people familiar with the area. The area is not all that ideal, in some ways. It’s not close to the river for one thing, and relatively inaccessible. As of now the nearest mail is 30 miles away….Am still debating about trying to go for a look before breakup or not. All things considered that seems the most reasonable course. After the weather warms up somewhat I may be able to do that. Sometimes I wonder what I’m thinking about in this move….So as usual it’s questions and feeling my way.
Carol was no longer living at Manley Hot Springs, so Oliver arranged to stay on her property, initially in a tent. His plan was to stay at Manley and build a boat, then go up the Kantisha River into the settlement area, scouting potential home sites. He was staying there in July of 1982 when he wrote:
It looks more and more like I’ll be here at least part of the winter. Carol left the propane lights for me to use.
In the same letter he mentions progress on a boat:
I’ve been sanding the kaynoe1 frame but it is starting to rain so came in and built a fire, warmed up some fish and vegetables, and ate them…. The frame is complete and the corners partly sanded off. I guess I’ll give it a coat of pine tar before covering it. It’s been such a job making it I want it to last awhile.
Dorene with son Perry visiting Manley Hot Springs, 1982. Cameron family photos.
Oliver and Perry, Manley Hot Springs, 1982.
Besides talk of food, shelter, and family news, Oliver’s letters during this period revolve around the two main topics of a new home site and finishing his book, but a third idea was stirring: Norway. He writes:
Rain and Heidi sent me a book “Inshore Craft of Norway.” I find it fascinating. It has methods I’ve been interested in for a long time.
While the kaynoe was a smaller boat he finished over the summer, his plan was to build a large, flat bottom boat to use in exploration. In late September of 1982 in a letter to Dorene he discusses collecting material for a new boat and making a pattern. His plan was to dig spruce roots for part of the project as well as plane lumber and build some of the frames.
Oliver’s focus that fall and winter in Manley was finding a source of meat. While not too concerned— he noted there were plenty of rabbits around—he did consider returning to Ambler to gather meat and visit old friends. The end of September—the day of the first real snow—he moved into the house he and Carol had built in 1980. Before winter truly set in he had made some progress on the next boat. In October, 1982 he wrote:
We had a late fall so I got the stove finished before it got too cold and still have time to dig the stumps I wanted for the natural crooks for boat frames.
By November he was writing Dorene to dissuade her from trying to ship meat to him. The situation had resolved with the help of friends and his catch of a large salmon and a large shee fish. He had also acquired bits of moose from various sources as well as an ice chest full of eggs—twenty dozen. The good news was he had some protein on hand; the bad news was the weather was affecting his lungs. The effects of having frozen his lungs on the caribou hunt in Shungnak continued to plague him. Medicating himself was always a balancing act. He had been prescribed prednisone, a corticosteroid, for his breathing problems. Steroids reduce inflammation, but also suppress the immune system. He had felt well enough at the end of fall to taper off the prednisone, but now faced the possibility he might need to increase it again to deal with the cold weather.
Since he was taking it easy to try and get his breathing problems under control, he made use of the time to edit his book manuscript again. By the time he was through he was feeling good about the book and wondering if it was time to get it typed up properly and have it printed. Since he continued to receive requests for copies of his writing, he was becoming more and more eager to get the finished book into print and available to those who wanted it.
Time moved on, the seasons changed, and Oliver spent much of the summer and fall of 1983 in Ambler, helping Bob and Dorene, and sorting out his own place.
Oliver in Ambler helping haul house logs, summer 1983.
Oliver in Ambler, fall 1983
He returned to Manley, then immediately took a trip to Fairbanks with a friend. When he got home he wrote Dorene on November 10, 1983:
While in Fairbanks I spent most of the money I’ve accumulated. A lot of it to go ahead with the printing of the book. So in about a month I should have it. That only covers printing and cutting on 200 copies but getting the camera work and layout done is the big expense. It won’t cost much to get more copies made now.
This was the first printing of Thoughts Born of Turmoil. It was a landmark accomplishment, and producing it gave Oliver a sense of closure. While there would be further edits and subsequent printings, Oliver was now able to focus exclusively on the move, and he was looking forward to the future:
It feels good to be back here. [Manley Hot Springs] The break has been made and I feel like I’m on course again. It was good to be there [Ambler] but I never felt really relaxed or settled. Of course I’m not really settled here either but still I feel a lot more settled inside. Having the decision about the printing made and about moving has relieved a lot of questions and I feel freer to look to what’s next.
While some financial pressure was relieved when he became old enough to draw social security in 1983 at age 62, Oliver was still plagued with poor health. He admitted to having pneumonia after his return to Manley from Fairbanks as well as being bothered with aching joints and a chronic lack of energy. In spite of these issues, he continued to look forward to the next phase of his life:
There are 2 parcels of federal open to entry land now (and the 3rd will be open in a couple of months) out between Wien Lake and Lake Minchumina. Having purty [sic] well broke away from Ambler, I’m feeling an urge to get on to something else.
Oliver at Manley Hot Springs circa 1983. From Curt Madison photos.
Health issues and the daily demands of life in Alaska continued to slow Oliver’s progress. By February of 1984 he was talking about flying over the homesite area rather than making the exploratory trip by boat.
Also in early 1984, Professor Rudy Krejci, the Czechoslovakian-American philosopher and professor who founded the Philosophy and Humanities Program at the University of Alaska, called on Oliver. He had read Thoughts Born of Turmoil and was mentioning the book in his lectures. Due to his influence the book was stocked in the University bookstore. On June 7, 1984 Oliver wrote:
Rudy Krejci, the U of A Philosophy teacher, took 12 books last time and sent word he wanted more, so I took 40 and he took them all.
And later, on August 9, he wrote:
I’ve been invited to give a lecture to a philosophy class at the University some time in November. I might try, if I don’t get cold feet. I’m curious to see if I can do it. Talking informally is one thing, but this kind of business – I don’t know.
Oliver did give the talk at the University. Oliver’s letters indicate he spoke at an informal gathering of students three mornings in a row, then another gathering one evening to students and adults. Oliver was relieved he was not required to create a formal lecture, and declined Professor Krejci’s invitation to become a regular speaker.
Another, more sinister event, took place around the time the Professor was interviewing Oliver. On May 24, 1984, a twenty-five year old drifter, Michael Silka, put Manley Hot Springs in the news and the history books by murdering seven people at the boat ramp along the Tanana River. It was believed he had also killed a man before coming to Manley, and later that day also killed an Alaskan State Trooper in a shoot-out with authorities. Oliver had spoken casually to Michael earlier in the day. That evening, May 24, 1984, he wrote to Dorene:
This is a somber town now. Besides the seven people the fellow killed here he had already killed a man and possibly two more before coming here. Then he killed a State trooper before they shot and killed him 20 miles or so upriver from here. They figure he threw the bodies into the river but they haven’t found any of them yet.
“The carnage chilled the soul of Manley Hot Springs,”2 the New York Times wrote late in the fall of that year. The surviving residents would feel the emotional, social, and even economic effects of the shadow cast by the murders for years to come.
However, Oliver and his fellow Manley neighbors tried to move on, making plans, gathering berries and catching fish for the winter. In September of 1984 he wrote:
It looks like I’ll probably be here another summer and possibly the next winter. I’m hoping I can finish up some small projects this winter and get them out of the way so I can be free to concentrate on building the river boat next summer. I didn’t get much done on it this year.
He also continued working on his writing, ordering another 500 copies of Thoughts Born of Turmoil printed and calculating ways to reduce publishing costs if the demand was high enough to warrant more copies made.
During the fall of 1984 he was working on building a warehouse or storage building for the Manley property. On September 12 he wrote:
I’m getting so I hedge on all my plans, knowing how easy it is to think in terms of the energy I once had. The days get away without enough done it seems like, then I have to rethink my options. But all in all I do get things done even tho [sic] not as quickly as I would like.
Later that fall Oliver wrote that he was glad to have the storage shed finished, even though taking time to build it cut into the time he had planned to use to build the boat. He calculated that even if he could move to a new home site the next summer, he would need the Manley place for storage for a year or two longer.
Life continued in this vein for a bit longer. Oliver spent his days gathering food, tending to the details of life, making trips to visit his children, and fighting health problems. Eventually he followed through and hired a friend to fly him over the settlement area he had in mind, and decided a location on the edge of the Kuskokwim foothills appealed to him. Oliver went back to work on the boat, intending to travel first by river and then go overland to the new site.
However, health problems forced him to spend more time “Outside,” often in California, for treatment, time got away, and before he knew, it was 1986. In July of 1986 he learned the government planned to close the settlement area in October of that year. Running out of options and time, he got another friend to fly him to a location on a small lake near Minchumina. Another family living near the lake, Dennis and Jill Hannan, advised him against trying to get to his chosen site near the Kuskokwim foothills. A site about a half mile from their home had been staked by an earlier settler and given up. Oliver later explained to Ole Wik:
I found a tree, a witness tree with the lid to a glass jar nailed to the tree and a glass jar screwed into it with a paper inside. These people had staked out a trade and manufacturing site, but their time to do something to hold the ground was long past, but anyway I wrote to them and told them that I was over-staking part of their claim, and that since they had not been back to do any improvements or shown any more interest, I was assuming they were through with it. That was the case, and they were good about it; they knew I’d appreciate an answer, and sent me a nice letter saying that they’d realized that it was more than they could handle at the time, so they’d given up on it.
It was late August, 1986. He had finally found an acceptable homesite and was ready to begin creating the fully handcrafted life he had long envisioned.
1Kaynoe: A canoe-kayak hybrid style boat Oliver designed and built himself, that combined elements of both a canoe and a kayak.
CHAPTER 10 – Getting Settled
A little over two years later, in 1988, Oliver sat in his snug cabin writing a letter to Dorene. Engrossed in his writing, and sitting in the well-insulated cabin that retained the heat, he failed to notice the fire dying down until it was nearly out. When he did notice, he added more wood, and then checked the outside temperature: -40°. He resumed writing, telling Dorene the coldest he had seen at his new home was -45°. It did not usually get that low at this new location, unlike Shungnak and Ambler where such temperatures were the norm, but later that winter it would drop to -60°.
This was unusual, even in the interior of Alaska. The 1988-89 winter would long be remembered for the record-breaking cold over most of Alaska, except the Aleutian Islands and the Southeastern section. An unusual combination of high pressure systems and other weather quirks resulted in widespread sub-zero weather, with Fairbanks experiencing temperatures lower than -40° for six days in a row. Then, in January, a pressure system moved in from the North Slope and the weather got worse. According to the Anchorage Daily News, “…records toppled at every weather station west of a line from Manley Hot Springs to Lake Minchumina.” 1 Oliver, with his snug cabin and his new, efficient handmade stove, survived the unusual cold just fine.
Oliver Cameron, at home. Cameron family photos.
The original little five-gallon can stove he had used his first winter in the lakeside cabin had burned out. When the heavy winter hit, he had just finished a new stove, and was working on a small camp stove made from stainless steel stove pipe that would be used for heat in a tent on his camping trips.
Stove made from five-gallon can. From Cameron family photos.
It was just after Thanksgiving and Oliver was tentatively planning a trip to California for a visit with Dorene and her family in June or July to allow for more activities with his grandchildren during summer vacation and warm weather. A friend had heard on the radio that Santa’s Travel Agency in North Pole, Alaska was advertising a special on round-trip tickets to anywhere in the lower United States. The tickets only cost $368 and were good for a year, but he needed to purchase one before December 31.
Oliver had not heard about the tickets earlier because he only listened to the radio for the news and for Trapline Chatter—a message service of radio station KJNP of North Pole, Alaska, which provides communication to people in the villages and in the Bush who have no quick means of reaching family and friends. A message might be a birthday or anniversary greeting, or news of a package sent, or a visitor arriving. Oliver had recently caught up on family news via a Trapline Chatter message. Now he was responding with a letter, a slower form of communication as he had to wait for someone available to take the letter to the nearest post office. This letter was going out with a friend on his way to Fairbanks in a few days.
During these cold winter months Oliver worked on indoor projects. He often used the term “chink-time” for projects he could do in odd moments. He was working on the little camp stove, and was thinking of making a belt loom for a friend who was learning to weave. He had collected about half the needed skins for a rabbit-skin blanket, commenting that he had “’bout cleaned out the rabbit population in the area.” The rabbits, of course, were eaten as a fresh source of protein in addition to lending their skins to the blanket. When such game was unavailable Oliver was forced to eat groceries shipped in from outside, to the detriment of his digestive system. He fared best on his subsistence diet of wild meat and fish supplemented by local berries and greens from his garden.
Over the past couple of years he had developed a good relationship with his nearest neighbors, Jill and Dennis Hannan and their little boys, Shaun and Stormy. Oliver was helping Jill learn Morse Code. Oliver believed she was far enough along to pass the ham radio license exam, but she felt shaky and wanted to continue studying until she was more confident. In a few weeks, after the holidays, Jill would make her annual trip to Fairbanks to sell furs trapped by her husband, Dennis, and get supplies. Oliver hoped she would take the exam then. Dennis would stay home with their two boys while she was in town as he hated both “going to town” and shopping. It was an arrangement that suited the couple, allowing Jill to indulge her love of shopping and her need to socialize.
Duane and Jill, Stormy and Shaun Hannan
Right from the start the Hannans had aided Oliver in his quest to set up a new homesite in the remote area. It had been so late in the year when he finally picked the site that he had resigned himself to living in a tent for the winter. Instead, the Hannans got busy and helped him dig out a ten by twelve foot square about four feet into the ground for a small cabin, stacking up the log walls an additional three feet and adding a roof, Visqueen, and sod to give him better shelter for the winter. This was intended to be a temporary cabin until he could get one built that would meet the BLM requirements to “prove up” on his claim. Contrary to his expectations, the cabin did meet the requirements for the BLM, and he continued to live there for several years.
Oliver’s cabin, 1990’s.
When spring had come that first year, Oliver began adding other structures to the site such as a cache and a dog house. Eventually he put in a garden and fenced it, although he tended to raise plants that were unusual in a garden—a “self-starting” garden, Jill called it. He grew what many considered weeds: alfalfa, coltsfoot, chickweed, sour dock, lambs quarters. Oliver had discovered the health benefits of these plants, and their natural tendency to reseed themselves saved him energy that was better spent elsewhere. The Hannans, meanwhile, stuck to more traditional crops like carrots and lettuce.
By now life had settled into a routine, but Oliver was not relaxing, even cabin-bound during an Arctic winter. He remained as industrious as ever, saying he felt under pressure to get some things done before the warm weather arrived, including more writing. His book, Thoughts Born of Turmoil, was published, but he was thinking of revising it to reach a wider audience. He wrote Dorene: “There seems to be a lot of people feeling insecure, unsettled and worried, and maybe some of the thoughts I write about may be an encouragement to a few people.”
In spite of hopes and plans, Oliver was both impatient and discouraged during his third winter in the small cabin. By spring he would have spent about two-and-a-half years at the site, but progress toward a truly comfortable home was painfully slow. Occasionally he had doubts: what was he doing trying to start over at his age? In another two-and-a-half years he would be 70. He should have had a place fixed up so he could relax a bit and just tend to the daily routine. Then he reminded himself that life wasn’t meant to be easy, that he was still learning and growing and this project was part of a larger plan for his life. “A rocking chair,” he wrote Dorene, “would just be a short ride to the “gate” for me, and I’m glad for this place and opportunity, most of the time.” He would be less gloomy, he added, when spring came and he could be more active, but it was still winter and the snow was more than knee-deep.
His old snowshoes were not suitable for the deeper, softer snow he now encountered. He had recently begun crafting a new pair that would work better at his current location. First, however, he had to make a rip saw. The design of a rip saw was something he had spent many years perfecting. He believed he had now made the saw the best it could be, and enjoyed working with it. After the snowshoes, he planned to cut boards for a new boat.
Oliver’s rip saw and sheath. Photos by Curt Madison.
As winter gave way to spring of 1989, Oliver had more messages via Trapline Chatter, and worried about the reliability of his mail system that depended on sending letters out by whoever happened by. He thought perhaps he should start keeping a written record of letters sent and received. He fretted that a letter might have been lost, or perhaps Dorene’s reply was held up in Nenana, the nearest town connected to the outside world by road.
The winter went by with more events to keep Oliver engaged: A contractor who had been hired to rebuild the air-strip at Minchumina tried to haul his equipment in overland during the winter while the ground was frozen. The route went by Oliver’s lake, and about seven miles past his house the lead caterpillar went through the ice and into several feet of water which then froze solid. They waited until the weather warmed up, then pulled the cat out. When the construction company had supplies and fuel flown in, Oliver took the opportunity to send mail out with the pilot.
The correspondence school supervisor, who visited on a regular schedule (Shaun and Stormy were homeschooled) had failed to show during the worst of the winter, and Oliver and the Hannans were anticipating her soon arrival. As the winter wore on, Oliver kept busy with his projects. He finished the stainless steel camp stove—as well as a new tent—with a view toward camping trips to gather food. The weather had warmed up, but that turned the trails into a slushy mess, so Oliver still stayed close to the cabin and finished preparations for his food-gathering trip, planned for later in the spring.
The new tent was made from two fire-resistant nylon pup tents Oliver had purchased the summer before, taken apart and reassembled into a larger six by eight-foot wall tent. It weighed only a little over three pounds and folded compactly into his sled.
During this time a newspaper reporter contacted Oliver requesting an interview. Oliver’s first response was that he “wasn’t interested in that sort of thing.” Still, he and the Hannans shared reading material, and one day at their place he checked out the reporter’s style by reading one of his articles in North and News about a family living a subsistence lifestyle. Oliver reconsidered the reporter’s offer, realizing there was the issue of “influence.” Might his story do some good by reaching a wider audience? He often wondered about this when his need for privacy conflicted with the calling he felt to influence and educate others.
By mid-February, 1989, the weather was warmer, although Oliver still needed firewood. He was feeling better, and was not so stiff when he went out walking.
First 50 years I lived rather carelessly and took my body more or less for granted. Now for 20 years I’ve been reaping the consequences, but hope to regain good health again. I’ve been studying and trying to do what I can see to do toward that end, and I have hope.
When the Minchumina area was opened for homesteading in 1982, hundreds came to stake claims, but only a few remained. In addition to mail and Trapline Chatter, the three closest neighbors who had stayed in the area kept in touch by CB radio. Every evening at the same time the households turned on their CBs and chatted about daily events. Those keeping tabs on one another were Oliver, Dennis and Jill Hannan, and Duane and Rena Ose. The land set aside for homesteading by the Bureau of Land Management, the 30,000 acre Lake Minchumina Land Settlement Area, was near the edge of Denali Park. Oliver and the Hannans were along a lake about a half mile from one another. Duane Ose had staked his claim on a hilltop with a view of Mt. Denali (Mt. McKinley) about eight miles away on another small lake. While Duane and Rena Ose started out in a dugout cabin much like Oliver’s, they were building a three-story log house, much to Oliver’s chagrin. Oliver, a minimalist, believed in leaving a much smaller footprint on the land. Duane seems to have found Oliver a bit eccentric as well, but they remained respectful and friendly, Oliver staying with the Oses at various times over the years as well as talking on the CB every night.
Duane Ose’s log house. Cameron family photos.
Oliver’s homesite. From Cameron family photos.
By spring Oliver grew impatient with saving up rabbit skins and made a small blanket from what he had. He planned to add to it later. By June his alfalfa seed was up about three inches. He wrote:
Dennis sowed some kind of grass seed on his house and of course chickweed came with it so I transplanted some to my garden. There is some pigweed growing with the alfalfa so eventually I’ll have pigweed & chickweed mostly in my garden. Would like to plant some chives next year, too.
In August Oliver went to Fairbanks, primarily for medical treatment. Upon his return he wrote:
Am sure glad to be home again, and getting rested up a bit. The trip to the big city was a hustle, bustle experience with very little time to relax. But I did get most of what I went for done—two hernias patched— year’s supply of medicine and some other supplies and the rest of the stuff I really wanted brought out from Manley.
He felt he finally was completely relocated from his former home in Manley Hot Springs. As he healed from his surgery, he also kept busy, cutting the alfalfa which was now about a foot high,
and spreading it on a tarp to dry. He continued to make plans for his camping trip to hunt and gather food and hoped to pick a couple gallons of blueberries before he left. Some of the supplies acquired in Fairbanks included a 55-gallon plastic garbage can to be put in the ground and used for storage of berries, oil, and other perishable foods. He had also brought back items to keep his radio and CB working, and a scope mount for his .270 rifle. With the addition of a flashlight attached to the gun, this would enhance his ability to view and discourage predators around camp at night.
Oliver continued to refine his communication system. While the radio connections were now satisfactory, and he was reasonably confident he could get a message out in case of an emergency, the mail delivery still left something to be desired. While in Fairbanks he arranged with pilot and guide Jack Hayden to deliver his mail in the summer, and air-drop it in the winter. This seemed a more reliable system to Oliver, and from then on he had his mail forwarded to Jack’s address in Minchumina.
Another thing he did while in Fairbanks was answer a personals ad he found in a friend’s Ruralite magazine, connecting with a woman of his age in Oregon. She had responded, but he maintained he wasn’t expecting much beyond friendship. He had a hard time imagining someone able to share his lifestyle, and felt wary of the complications of close relationships.
Dorene had sent him mixed vegetables, but he finally gave up trying to eat them when they caused too much digestive upset. It was late fall and he had had to increase his prednisone medication (for his lungs), something he hoped to reduce again in the near future. Instead of the mixed vegetables, he ate willow leaves he had collected and dried the spring before, mixed with his own dried greens, as well as imported green beans and celery. He planned to preserve more willow leaves as well as chickweed from his garden. The young willow leaves, called “sura,” are about ten times richer in Vitamin C than oranges.
The willows that the Eskimos on the Kobuk like —sura—are strong tasting here. The moose seem to especially like them and the tips of all of them are eaten off….The felty leaf willows and another one similar to it are the best tasting here. I’ve been taking about one-quarter of the leaves for each bush I pick.
Oliver stored his dried willow leaves in seal oil. This was a technique borrowed from the Inupiaq and was a very good way to preserve the nutrients in the greens and vegetables. To keep it fresh, the oil was stored in a cool, dark place which also helped preserve the leaves and vegetables. The oil prevented air from reaching the plant material and destroying the Vitamin C. Other oil-soluble vitamins, like A, D, or E would be infused into the oil and ingested when the oil was eaten. This system preserved the vitamin content of the willow leaves, or any other edible plants, for quite a long time.
Oliver had also located a large patch of bluebells near his home and would include those in his diet.
Bluebells. Photo from public domain.
1989-90 was an “old-fashioned” winter for Oliver, although there was no repeat of the unusual cold of the previous year. From his November 5, 1989 letter:
We have had snow, snow, snow and more snow, more than we have had since I’ve been here. Where the wind has packed it or blown it away the lakes are frozen, but the swamps are still just slush under the snow.
By the year’s end Jill had returned from Fairbanks with the flu, which Oliver caught and was having trouble getting over. He finally consulted his handbook, Folk Medicine & Arthritis by Dr. Jarvis, and decided he was short on iodine. He remedied that, and soon felt better.
Once again confined to the cabin by winter weather, he began work on various indoor projects including cleaning and organizing. He got an old bicycle with a bicycle generator kit set up and was able to generate enough power by cycling to run his radio, or a flashlight, or a small light for reading.
Earlier in the year Oliver reported seeing a marten—a long slender-bodied weasel about the size of a mink— chasing a rabbit. Now, by mid-winter the martens had decimated the rabbits around his house and Oliver was left wondering how to snare enough to enlarge his rabbit-skin blanket.
A marten. Photo Public Domain.
Spending more time indoors during that winter, he began building a ten-foot long “touring” sled since the make-shift sleds he had available were not suitable for a longer trip. The sled took up a lot of room in the little house, but he made good progress on it, finishing it before the winter was over. Oliver hoped to travel to Lake Minchumina, using his current dog to help pull the sled. He had continued to keep an eye on the “cat trail” left by the contractor working on the Lake Minchumina air-strip project. The trail seemed adequate for Oliver’s purpose. His mail had been piling up at Lake Minchumina since November, and by March he was more than ready to make a trip to town, snaring rabbits along the way. Dennis, his trapper neighbor, had told him where the rabbits were located. He planned to take Jill and the young boys along as Dennis was off on a job earning money for the family and Oliver did not want to leave them alone. Before they could make the trip, however, the “cat train”—the heavy equipment used by the construction company—came along and then broke down (again), requiring a pilot to fly supplies out for repairs; the pilot also brought Oliver’s mail. The equipment was repaired and moved on out, but tore up the trail in the process making it impassable for Oliver and his sled. Besides, the main point in the trip to Lake Minchumina had been the mail, now no longer an issue. He, Jill, and the boys were “all dressed up with no place to go,” so they turned their attention in the opposite direction. About ten miles away was a family with children the same age as Shaun and Stormy. In fact, Stormy and Tara, one of the children, had birthdays two days apart, so they went for a birthday party and stayed three days. The women were able to visit, the children played together, and Oliver hunted rabbits.
Oliver kept busy, but occasionally he had time to reflect. That winter he wrote Dorene:
I hardly ever think back or ahead, but once in awhile something like your birthday will bring a flash of recognition of the panorama of our past history and it seems like some sort of dream. I don’t really know how to describe the feeling it brings. It’s as if I suddenly became conscious, then you children came and each went off on your own life course like a shooting star, and now all of sudden, I’m an old man getting near the end of my stay here….Then I come back to the present reality of my life, the day to day plodding along whittling away at the accomplishment of long range goals while mostly preoccupied with the daily chores of living….
Oliver was 68 and more than twenty years from the end of his stay here. As the decade of the 1990’s opened, new opportunities for growth and adventure would present themselves in unexpected ways.
CHAPTER 11 – Routine Interrupted
By the early 1990s Oliver had his home, equipment, and time well-organized. In December of 1989 he had written:
Little by little I’m getting things sorted out and stored so I can see what I’ve got and find it when I need it. Sure is a good feeling to need something and know right where it is.
He had worked hard to create a space and routine where he was comfortable and felt like life was finally under control, as he flourished under conditions of predictability. He confessed that stress built up and he lost his perspective if too much was thrown at him too quickly. He could achieve this state of equilibrium at home by the lake, but going “Outside,” as Alaskans termed trips beyond the state’s borders, presented some challenges.
Travel to other states for medical treatment and to see family was a necessary part of his life, however. In the late summer of 1990, for example, he spent time with family and friends, visiting Idaho, California, and Oregon. He connected with all three of his children, and the grandchildren, but by the time he got home to Alaska he was definitely worse for the wear and dreading ever leaving again.
The homeward bound trip that year included a long, exhausting flight from Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah, then on to Fairbanks with a wait to catch the train to Nenana. There was more delay as he waited to arrange a private flight to his home on the lake. His special diet, under these circumstances, was difficult to maintain.
When I don’t eat I don’t need so much medicine,[prednisone] but was having a difficult time getting even that much and got infection in the scar tissue in my right main bronchial tube. But then I found I could take the medicine with kaopectate and get by so lived on that and vinegar and honey in water till I got home.
His first three days at home were spent sleeping and medicating himself. His digestive system was still not functioning well, but the bronchial infection cleared up and he was finally able to take a walk when it quit raining. He complained that one leg was slightly paralyzed from the medication, but walking helped.
Still not back to feeling like doing much, but better, other than my leg. Now that I can rest a little more it shouldn’t be long till I’ll feel more like doing things….As I get older I’m less able to adjust to having the stability of routine and being in a situation where I know what is going on, what needs doing, when, and how to go about it, disrupted.
He unpacked, harvested some of his garden, and made plans to pick cranberries and go moose hunting.
Traveling to Idaho, Oregon, and California was a challenge for him, but Oliver had a longstanding invitation from his friends Rein and Heidi Dammann to visit Norway, a more daunting proposal. Occasionally, when his energy was up and he felt well enough, he actually considered making the trip, but something always came up. Once, just as he was thinking seriously of going, Rein wrote that he was coming to Alaska to do some writing, so Oliver put the idea aside for yet another year.
Then, in January of 1993, Oliver made one of his regular trips to visit his son, Gary, in Oregon. Dorene and Bob were living near San Francisco, and after concluding his visit with Gary, Leona, and the children, Oliver planned to fly to San Francisco. Dorene had casually renewed the idea of the trip to Norway in a phone conversation with him, but Oliver felt it was not a convenient time—at first. He was feeling concerned about his homesite, pressured to get back to keep the snow from caving in his tent cache roof, when suddenly, with no preamble, he decided to fly from San Francisco to Norway for a week. Oliver made his decision on a Sunday in mid-January, leaving him five days to get ready.
Oliver, his family, and his friends swung into action. Rein and Heidi Dammann prepared and were eagerly awaiting him at their home near Oslo. Dorene had earlier contacted Keith and Anore Jones, and their daughter Willow—old friends from Ambler who had relocated to a ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in California—to find a traveling companion for Oliver, in case he did decide to go. Anore opted in, and there ensued a mad rush to get an emergency passport for her and arrange all their travel plans in order to leave on Thursday, January 21, 1993.
After Oliver and Anore had successfully boarded the plane and both realized they were actually on their way, Anore recalled they turned to each other and shared a “what have we done?” look. “Oliver’s comment was, ‘I didn’t want to go to Norway, but I felt it was my duty,’” she wrote. He wanted to share his book, Thoughts Born of Turmoil, with people he knew in Norway, with a special focus on Rein’s father, Erik Dammann, who had read the book twice and was eager to discuss it.
Norway is a Northern European country on the northwestern edge of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Sweden lies to the east with Finland and Russia bordering the northeast. A portion of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Norwegian Sea, is along the western coast. The country is a little larger than the state of New Mexico and is on the same latitude as Alaska. However, a warm extension of the Gulf Stream, the Norwegian Current, makes the climate much more temperate. While it is one of the least populated countries in Europe, it is well-known for scenic forests, mountains, lakes, fjords, and the midnight sun. The capital, Oslo, is in the more heavily populated southern part of the country.
Oliver and Anore had an eleven hour flight to Oslo. The first leg took them across the United States to New York where Oliver’s worn mink trapper’s hat got them curious looks at the JFK Airport. Oliver had dried some hamburger to take on the flight, along with celery sticks, sardines and Anore’s homemade corn pone.
After a stop in Copenhagen, they arrived in Oslo and were met at the airport by Rein and his two sons, Narvaq, 11, and Dyer Oliver, age five.
Oliver had first become acquainted with Rein and Heidi when they stayed in Ambler for several months during 1980-81. In 1980 the couple was making plans to spend time in Alaska to live among the Inupiaq, when Heidi became pregnant with Narvaq. They went anyway, Heidi five-and-a-half months pregnant, her condition unexpectedly opening doors for them into the Inupiaq society.
Rein and Heidi Dammann had lived with indigenous peoples around the world, both as a couple and on their own. Rein, at 13, lived with his parents on the Samoan Islands in the Pacific. Later he would work on a boat out of Norway through Panama up to Canada, and then hike to Alaska. He also lived with Native Americans in the United States. Heidi had gone to Calcutta at the age of 22, exploring the poorest sections of the city to understand life there. She worked on a coconut plantation on Malakula, the second largest island in the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. She also spent time in the bush in New Zealand.
During their stay in Ambler, Oliver became their mentor and close friend. From him they acquired new information and skills on hunting, the work involved in surviving in the Arctic, and how to make the tools, clothing, and other objects they needed for everyday life. Most importantly, for them personally and for a future business venture, Oliver taught them lessons gleaned from the Native culture on how to incorporate an awareness of nature and the caring way the Inupiaq treat each other into their own lives.
Now, Oliver was about to enter the Dammanns’ world and experience Norwegian culture for the first—but not last—time. Of course it was winter in Norway, and Oliver and Anore’s first glimpses were of bays with partially frozen water. Snow and ice covered everything. It was cold, but not the bitter cold of the Alaskan Arctic. They saw a lot of birch trees, as well as spruce, pine, maple, and oak. Up a hill in a well-to-do area, Rein had built a new house on land his father and grandfather had owned. Further up the hill was a wide band of forest that enclosed much of Oslo and was used by the public for skiing, walking, riding horses, camping and other outdoor activities.
Oliver and Anore entered Rein and Heidi’s house onto a landing where coats and boots were stashed, stairs leading either upstairs to four bedrooms and a bath, or downstairs to the living room and kitchen area. The house was heated by radiant heat: electrical wires embedded in the six-inch concrete slab floor. There was a wood stove as backup. Oliver and Anore were used to a warmer house than the Norwegians preferred, so Oliver was given the responsibility of keeping the wood stove burning at their comfort level.
The long trip and jet lag had taken a toll, but they were able to sleep in the next day before going to visit the Kon Tiki Museum. Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and writer, had built the balsa raft Kon Tiki to demonstrate that early peoples could have traveled from South America to the Polynesian Islands. He successfully completed that voyage in 1947 and the raft itself was on display in the museum, along with a later one, Ra II, built of papyrus reeds, which Heyerdahl sailed from Bolivia to Morocco in 1970.
Norwegians are understandably proud of their famous explorer, but additionally Rein and Heidi had a personal relationship with him based on their mutual interest in indigenous peoples and their cultures.
A few days later, the Sunday after their arrival, Anore took a train ride into the mountains to visit another friend and a camp for troubled youth. Oliver preferred to stay behind to rest and enjoy the quiet and long talks with Rein and Heidi. When Anore returned on Thursday, both Oliver and Anore helped Heidi start some beef drying on the wood stove— one of the skills the Dammanns hoped to learn from Oliver while he was visiting. Also, Heidi had caribou skins she wanted to tan and turn into mukluks under Oliver’s guidance. That evening The Dammanns, Oliver, and Anore also visited a couple, Helge and Anne Ingstad, who lived up the hill right against the band of forest. At this time Helge was 93 and Anne was 75. Their house was built on land given to them by the government in recognition of their work in anthropology and archelogy. In 1960 Helge discovered signs of a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Anne led teams to excavate the site during the 1960s, revealing an 11th century Norse settlement, proving the Norse had settled in what they called Vinland long before Columbus. It remains one of the most important archeological sites in the world.
Rein and Heidi had long been acquainted with the couple, and had arranged for Oliver and Anore to spend an evening visiting with them, their son-in-law, Edvin, and a granddaughter.
Edvin and another younger daughter were also there tonight as we sat around the table with hot drinks and cookies, surrounded by statues, paintings, a whole wall of books (some 250 years old), a grand piano, stuffed arctic animals, and other artifacts from Alaska. We visited in English and listened to them talk Norwegian. Helge told us about the year he had lived with the Inuit of Anaktuvika Pass in 1949-50, and ate their food and hunted with them. He had brought a generator to run his tape recorder and had recorded many tapes of their songs. Edvin played some for us and the quality after all these years was very good. –Anore Jones, 1993.
Helge Ingstad, Oliver Cameron, Anore Jones, 1993. Photo from Heidi Dammann
By now Heidi was campaigning to persuade Oliver to stay another week, and he was considering it. He was making each of her boys a tool kit to hang from the belt, as they were intrigued by the one he wore, and he wanted time to complete that project and others. On Saturday they went to see the Sami exhibit at the Folk Museum in Oslo. The Sami, or Lapplanders, are the indigenous people of Scandinavia.
Oliver studied the stick framework of the Kota, or tent, and especially the sleds, built like a boat, that the reindeer pulled. He was frustrated because they never displayed both ends of the same belt, so you couldn’t figure how their clever and beautifully decorated antler belt buckles worked. Even worse, they never showed the tools, the key to all these ingenious handmade items of a simple life. Oliver noticed that the model of a sod house had the door hinges put on backwards so the door couldn’t possibly shut. He pointed it out to us and we recognized right away. Then he showed the mistake to the museum attendant who refused to agree, apparently incapable of perceiving these exhibits as actually functioning…Anore Jones, 1993
Their next visit was to Rein’s parents, Erik and Regnhild Dammann, a two-hour trip by bus, ferry, and tram. Erik, an author, environmentalist, and government scholar, had written several books, including The Future in Our Hands, on simple living and fighting pollution, concerns which he held in common with Oliver. Oliver and Anore were treated to a lunch laden with traditional Norwegian dishes, including cheeses, salamis, salted meats, lox, and pickled herring. After lunch Oliver and Erik were able to spend time discussing Oliver’s writing and philosophy while Heidi and Anore took a walk to the shoreline and enjoyed the view of Oslo from there. Anore learned that just across the fjord was the summer house of Roald Amundsen—another famous Norwegian explorer—which was kept just the way he left it in June of 1928 when he disappeared on a rescue mission. Amundsen was known for being the first explorer to reach both the North and South Poles.
Between visiting and exploring the area, it was soon time for another meal.
Oliver had his own food as usual and some mention was made that he could eat the reindeer if it wasn’t cooked up in wheat-based gravy. Heidi got up and brought a plate with neat slices of reindeer kauk, which looked way better to me than the cooked meat. Both Oliver and I enjoyed the kauk although it was far too unorthodox for our hosts to accept at all. –Anore Jones, 1993
Oliver did elect to stay an extra week, and the arrangements were made. They finished drying the meat for Heidi and got started on the mukluks. By the time the second week had flown by, they had finished their projects including the mukluks and the boys’ tool pouches. On Tuesday, February 9th, Oliver and Anore boarded the plane for the long flight back to California.
By the end of February, back in his sod house on the lake, Oliver wrote that he had gradually gotten everything put away, and the familiar routine once again set up.
It looked like an early spring.
CHAPTER 12 – Grizzly
Oliver’s life was enmeshed with the Alaskan wilderness, making him responsible for his own survival, a challenge he heartily embraced. Not only did he strive for self-sufficiency in designing and building his own home and caches, custom-crafting his own tools, and gathering and preserving his own food, but he was also liable for his own physical safety. He was prepared to deal with common medical emergencies and accidents, of course, but the land itself presented some unique perils.
The cold, like the subzero conditions that had damaged his lungs in the 1960s, was a constant hazard in the winter with frostbite and hypothermia a real risk. Snow blindness often caught newcomers by surprise, when the sunlight reflected off the snow and burned the unprotected eyes of the unwary. Oliver—neither newcomer nor unwary—was careful to wear dark glasses or snow goggles at all times, but even he experienced temporary injury to his eyes once or twice. Just a short walk along a trail behind his house with no goggles once resulted in signs of injury including tearing and a gritty feeling in his eyes. He had to stay out of the sun a couple of days to allow his eyes to heal.
Thin ice hidden under a layer of snow was a hazard for travelers who could break through into the icy water beneath. Getting wet in such extreme cold was more than uncomfortable, it could be life-threatening.
And there was the wildlife: Bear or moose might charge, wolves roamed singly or in packs, and smaller animals might be rabid and aggressive. Oliver never had to shoot a wolf or a charging moose, but he did kill bears in the wild, as well as rabid foxes. The bears he killed were black bears, which were more common than grizzly. While Oliver killed moose and caribou for food, he only killed black bears that were a threat to his home or himself, as he did not find bear meat appealing. However, if he did have to kill one, he used the meat for food as well as the skin for coverings and clothing.
Those who were successful at Arctic living learned to be aware of their surroundings at all times. Oliver always carried his rifle slung in such a way that he could quickly bring it to his shoulder in case of a surprise encounter. He never stepped outside his door without a rifle in hand, not even to get a few sticks of firewood. He once stepped into his covered entryway, heard a noise over his head, and looked to see a bear watching him from the top of his house, a few feet away. Judged to be a threat, that bear was quickly dispatched.
A black bear at Oliver’s homesite. By Heidi Dammann, 2010.
Oliver, when out and about, was always alert and thinking about safety. By now, in his seventies, vigilance had become second nature. The guns he carried were maintained with equal vigilance.
Oliver’s guns. Cameron family photos
Oliver with gun. Cameron family photos.
In 1993 he wanted to exchange the .44 magnum revolver he usually carried for a rifle as he was concerned about possible damage to his ears with the revolver, which had a louder report. He began work on a 6.5 Carcano carbine. This was a rifle developed for the Italian military in 1890 by Salvatore Carcano. Most Italian troops used it during the First World War and it even saw some use during the Second World War.1
He made some major modifications to the Carcano. In a February 25, 1993 letter he wrote:
Been working on the 6.5 mm rifle. About ready to try the other barrel I put in it. If it shoots well I would like to order some bullets and cartridge cases for it. It wasn’t much trouble putting the barrel on and headspacing2 it but will be more time consuming fixing sights for it and trying it out. Will have to hand load some cartridges for it.
He seems to have set the rifle aside for a time, but circumstances made him take another look and try further modifications. On May 8, 1993 he wrote:
With my back on the bum again and bear out of hibernation I’ve been thinking about the 6.5 rifle again. I cut another ½ inch off the muzzle of the original barrel. The end of the bore looks better now so will put it back on the rifle and see how it shoots tomorrow….
He still couldn’t get the rifle to shoot right—it kept “keyholing”3— and set it aside, feeling, at one point, that it was beyond hope. However, he soon reconsidered, writing on May 10, 1993:
That darn little gun just won’t give me any peace. I’m going to have to do a lot of walking as long as I’m in this area. And I won’t walk without a gun. The .270 is light and handy compared to what it was but is still heavy and bulky compared to the 6.5…. Of course the .270 is a lot more potent but the smaller gun is at least the equivalent of a 30-30 and that should be good enough especially at short range. With my ability so marginal I surely would like to have the small gun to carry around. The trouble with it is that the bore is oversize and that made a sloppy fit for the rifling tool so the rifling is shallow and uneven. The only 6.5 commercially made gun now days is a magnum so the 6.5 mm bullets on the market have heavy jackets to hold up under the magnum pressures. The combination of heavy jacket that doesn’t swell at the base easily and the loose fit in the bore that doesn’t give enough resistance for the gas pressure to swell the base of the bullet enough to make a tight uniform fit means that as the bullet leaves the end of the barrel gas escapes unevenly around a lopsided base. That causes the bullet to tumble or at least wobble in flight.
This morning it occurred to me that if I cut the jacket off the base of the bullet so the lead was exposed it would probably swell the base of the bullet enough to fit the bore. Evidently it does because the cutoff bullets shoot a lot better...
Eventually Oliver got all the bugs worked out, noting on May 20, 1993:
I finally have the 6.5 mm rifle so it is usable. It has taken a lot longer and more monkeying around with than I expected. But now that it is ready to use and I have a good way to carry it on a waist belt it makes a tremendous difference in my life. It gives me the freedom to go. The .270 is enough larger and heavier so it wasn’t possible to carry it any distance and the black powder.44 revolver is just too small to really trust altho [sic] better than nothing. I would depend on the pepper sprayer in most situations if I didn’t want meat. But I can only use it if the wind will blow it away from me. And in a cross wind the range at which it is effective would let a dangerous animal get too close for comfort. So one big drawback to bush foot travel has been eliminated.
Oliver with rifle. Photo courtesy Devta Khalsa, Ole Wik.
Oliver, on guard against dangerous wildlife, stayed unmolested. Ironically, the greatest damage done—not to him, but to his property—by a wild animal happened when he was not around to protect his belongings.
As the 90s wore on, Oliver and the Hannans made more frequent trips Outside, as Alaskans referred to trips beyond Alaskan borders, usually meaning the “Lower 48” states. Oliver usually went for medical reasons or to visit family, the Hannans for education for their boys, and for work. In early 1995 Oliver made another trip to Norway, he and Rein designing tools, including a small double-bit axe they worked on in a small shop Rein had built behind his house.
Back home a few weeks later, Oliver began work on a cache on stilts and temporarily moved his supplies and food into storage at ground level, but then an urgent medical situation arose that required treatment Outside. In fact, he stayed with Dorene and Bob at their home in San Geronimo, California for several months. He had a serious skin infection on one leg, and he also had back surgery during that time. This long, unexpected delay and the coming of spring made him worry about flooding to his unattended cabin, but friends and neighbors helped out and moved his gear into temporary storage for him, also at ground level. Unfortunately, these temporary moves of Oliver’s personal property left his things vulnerable when a marauding male grizzly came through his and the Hannans’ homesteads— both vacant—in July.
Grizzly bear. Morguefile.com
The grizzly hit both places hard, not only finding and devouring, or wasting food, but wantonly destroying material and belongings. For example, the grizzly randomly tore holes in the Hannans’ canoes. In September, when both the Hannans and Oliver returned, they were met with a huge mess.
Oliver arrived home about September 7, 1995, and a week later, September 14, 1995, he wrote:
There is no way to describe the mess that grizzly bear left. It was here in July so after he left the small critters and weather have taken over. A couple of solar panels, 2 CBs & other radios, a year’s supply of food for me and the dog, batteries (flashlite) [sic] and other things that are destroyed are not really serious loses. It didn’t get into the house and cache. It got into the lower part of the barn and messed things up but no great loss there. But it is going to be a big job cleaning things up and salvaging what I can….
Two things made for a lot of the loss. 1 – I took a lot of things out of the cache and put them in the warehouse when I started to rebuild it. 2 – I had Dennis and Jill put a lot of what was in the house out there also. But the house is basically o.k. Roof tore up a bit but all the layers of brush-sod-dirt discouraged it. It must have thought it was a beaver house! All my basic tools are o.k. except dirty. Nails scattered all over and rope in a mess with electric wire etc. but salvageable.
The main thing is I need more energy. It wouldn’t be so much to take care of if I could work like I used to. Dennis & Jill have a lot to do to get there [sic] place in shape again before winter so I don’t expect much help from them.
Oliver, still weak from his medical treatment, tried to pace himself sorting, cleaning, and repairing. Overwhelmed, he resigned himself to the fact that he could only get done what he could get done. As it turned out, he had more help than he expected. On September 25th he wrote:
Saturday the Hannan family came over. In the forenoon they helped clean up the yard. Dennis dug a pit to bury plastic and metal in. Burned a lot of cardboard and paper. In the afternoon Dennis & Jill worked on the cache. About 5:30 or 6 Jill fell and cut a big gash in the base of her thumb. The next day Dennis and Shaun finished the job.
The day after that Dennis shot a large bull moose across the lake, so Oliver hunted around to see if his dehydrator had survived and was in working condition. He found the dehydrator trays in a hole filled with water out in the woods about 40 or 50 yards behind the house. The grizzly had tried to bury them, but one end of a tray was sticking out of the ground and Oliver spotted it. Most of them were all right, and Oliver thought he could straighten and repair others.
As Oliver dug his favorite books out of the mud and dried them, he pondered how better to fortify himself against this sort of attack. “…I now have a good idea about what I need to do to protect things from big bears,” he wrote. He considered ordering a different gun, a short-barrel shotgun, as he did not trust the Carcano 6.5 to be powerful enough to effectively deal with a grizzly.
Eventually the two homesteads were set enough to rights that Oliver and the Hannans could resume their normal lives, but the grizzly was never far from their thoughts from then on, nor was that the last they saw of the animal.
Oliver would not have been able to live where he did if he allowed fears and concerns about the wildlife and other dangers—even large grizzlies—to take up too much of his thoughts. By the next April, 1996, Oliver was thinking less about marauding bears and more about designing a new type of snowshoe. On April 25, 1996 he recorded:
The snow in this area is of a different quality from over at Ambler, maybe not so much wind or laid down in bigger flakes or something. We never get the real hard solid crusts in spring. Can almost walk on it, but sink in a bit and break thru [sic] often. “Thud.” Something my system don’t take without some strong complaint. So I started making a pair of beavertail snowshoes….In case you’ve never heard of beavertail snowshoes, I haven’t either, but figured there should be some so made them. They are smaller than bearpaws and different shape [with] upturned tail so I can back up.
Oliver’s sketch of beavertail snowshoe
When the weather cooled off and solidified the snow, Oliver tested his new snowshoes and found them acceptable. He thought he would probably get a lot of use out of them that spring, and had modified the straps on the snowshoes so he could just slip into them with his rubber boots and save himself from having to twist around to buckle heel straps.
A mild earthquake around this time reminded Oliver that his dwelling, built a decade earlier, needed some upgrades and repairs. The back wall was no longer securely supporting the roof and there were a few other things in urgent need of attention. It was time, perhaps, to think of building a new house. At this point, he thought he would build a new house in a different location, continuing to live in the old house during construction. It would be too complicated to tear the current house down, then try to rebuild on the same location. “And seems like trying to fix this one up is impractical. Too much of it is rotten,” he wrote. This decision, however, was not set in stone, and Oliver spent the next few months vacillating between trying to choose a new location and wanting to tear down and rebuild on the same spot, either building a small structure to camp in while he built, or putting up a tent.
Oliver spent much time being physically active, but his health and age required that he pace himself. Reading had long been a favorite activity, and he balanced physical work with reading breaks. This particular spring, Oliver’s reading tastes ranged from pragmatic manuals on herbs to more challenging volumes on psychology. “I’m reading Fritz Kunkel,” he wrote. “It is a more practical psychology than Freud, Adler, and Jung, it seems to me.”
By the end of the month he had collected enough logs to frame his new house and had most of them hauled in and stored. His plan was to get a few more for a porch, and then to cut some cottonwood trees for a puncheon (split log) floor. The house would be twelve feet square at the top with a shed roof, and about fourteen feet square at the bottom. He hoped to get the large logs cut before the sap was up, and to haul them while there was still snow.
“The new beavertail snowshoes and axe [a single-bit axe he had modified to be easier to handle] have paid for themselves, already,” he added.
Oliver planned to spend some time on the lake, so asked his pilot friend, George Hobson, to locate an aluminum canoe for him. This was a reluctant concession to his physical health and age. He was now nearly 75.
Buying a canoe is like buying metal roofing for the cache, another defeat. But I can’t see any way to build a boat in the near future. I would like to be able to go out a ways to get water when the lake is low.
By early May, 1996, Oliver was peeling the poles he had collected for his house. On May 4th he wrote, “…peeled several logs and poles—set up a higher [saw]horse so logs are waist high—back thinks lower is stupid.”
The May weather was cool with some rain and occasional sleet, although the mosquitoes were starting to make an appearance. Oliver and his dog, Pack, also spotted ducks and robins. A couple of spruce hens showed up in the yard, and they saw a fox running through the timber. Oliver worked away at his logs, peeling them and making a tripod against which to lean them. He alternated times of exertion peeling logs and some smaller poles with a couple of hours reading the philosophy of Fritz Kunkel, or just resting on a comfortable log and petting Pack.
Oliver was still debating just how to go about building the new house:
Have been toying with the idea of building down by the lake. Plenty of good building material handy. Would be OK for winter time when no mosquitos, but on main bear trail, again no problem in winter. Am thinking about a small place to live in while working on a new house on this site. If Rein comes and I have material ready it might be possible to tear this down and rebuild before winter. But I’m not counting on it.
Toward the end of May he was close to having the necessary materials gathered.
All the wall poles are cut and peeled and 30 roof poles. Need about 15 more. I want this house skookum (Chinook Jargon for “strong,” or “powerful”). Bear-earthquake-snow load resistant. And so water will drain away from the doorway. I’m so slow, but will have them cut in about a week I hope. That doesn’t include poles for making the skirt to cover the dirt wall inside or for a porch.
Around this time he also got a message from Dorene that Rein and his son, Narvaq, were indeed coming for a visit. With assistance on the way, Oliver thought he would build his new house on a different site. If he tried to rebuild on the present site, he reasoned, his tools would be disorganized, he would have to make a tent camp which would make it difficult to cook for his guests, and he was concerned they would not get done before winter. However, it was two months before Rein was due to arrive, and a few days after this decision he was rethinking it again. He actually liked his present location; he was uncertain about his ability to clear ground for a new structure; he was reluctant to relocate the building materials he had stockpiled.
Finally, to avoid the tent scenario, Oliver cleared ground to build a smaller structure to stay in while he rebuilt the house. One concern about living in a tent was wildlife.
It seems like more bears have been coming around in recent years and I don’t want to have a tent camp for them and squirrels to mess up…Won’t hurt to have an extra little house that might be used as a cellar or sauna or emergency place to go in case of fire. May start on it and see how hard it will be for me…
Pack injured himself and Oliver had to suture the dog’s wound. While Pack was still recuperating, a black bear came around, boldly exploring the stairs to the house. Oliver went outside to see about it, keeping Pack inside since he did not want the dog running and opening up his stitches. When Oliver returned, Pack was eagerly waiting by the door and escaped, running after the bear, which was already leaving. Pack soon returned unscathed with his stitches still holding.
By early June Oliver was working diligently on clearing the ground for the smaller house.
There are seven dead birch trees and a couple of spruce to move off the house site. Chopped around the roots and tipped the spruce trees over without too much work. I thought the birch stumps with the tops all rotted away would be easy, but no, those roots are still fairly sound! Whew. I can still swing a Pulaski like a young man, but seems like I spend more time taking five than swinging it. Anyway, the largest one is out. The rest may be easier.
By the end of June Oliver had the trees cleared and the sod off the building site, but then it was time to pick willow leaves to dry for his winter food supply. In order to stay safe in the bush, he had to reload ammunition for his 6.5 Carcano, which he still preferred to carry due to its light weight. Unfortunately, the bullets, cases, and reloading equipment had been tossed in buckets after he picked them out of the mess the grizzly had made the previous summer. Knowing it would be a long process, Oliver set to work sorting the supplies and equipment he needed and managed to get some cartridges reloaded for the rifle. As soon as he was adequately armed he spent three days picking willow leaves.
Then it began to rain. This was a good thing in a couple of ways. It lessened the chance of wildfire, which was an annual threat for Oliver in his location. This particular year, 1996, there had only been relatively small fires in the vicinity and, while he got a little smoke, he considered himself fortunate. Secondly, it allowed Oliver an opportunity to continue developing his rain water collection system. With the advent of the rain, Oliver quit picking willow leaves and focused on collecting rain water.
Then, ominously, he wrote: “For several nights something came around about one or two a.m.”
He was alerted to this intruder by Pack’s barking. He suspected a black bear or fox, but could never catch sight of the creature. In late June one night he grabbed his rifle in exasperation and ran outside with no overshoes, glasses, or hat in order to discover the source of the commotion.
Pack ran around the east end of the house and barked at something then quickly came back and went toward the outhouse and barked. I followed and saw a huge grizzly bear going into the brush. I sent a few bullets zinging thru [sic] the brush in its general direction to let it know what I thought.
It did not return the next night, but Oliver noted it was behaving in a disturbingly familiar fashion:
I suspected it was the same bear that tore things up last year. Went over to Hannans’ and it followed the same pattern as last year. Tried to get in the cache where it got a lot of food last year, but Dennis fixed it different and it didn’t get in this time. Tore a few sticks off but no damage. It broke down the retaining wall and uncovered the same corner of their house that it did last year, but didn’t get any poles loose, just let rain in.
A couple of nights later Pack was still wanting to get out late at night to investigate. Oliver suspected there was either a small animal, probably a marten, coming around, or the grizzly—or Pack, in typical dog fashion, just wanted to go check on things. Oliver entertained a hope that the bear was becoming wary of human habitations and would move on to other locales. He did not want to kill the bear. A huge dead grizzly was more than he was prepared to deal with, especially in summer without the advantage of cold weather to freeze the carcass.
While all this was happening in the wee hours, Oliver spent the days digging a pit and lining it with plastic tarp just beside his cache. He extended the tarp under the cache eves so the rain would run off into the catch basin. He expected to collect about two-thirds of the rain in that manner and thought his basin would hold about 300 gallons. He had plans to add a trough to divert even more rain water.
Although he got the spot of land cleared, by the end of June he had given up on trying to build a small temporary house. He would wait until Rein came, then perhaps build a good house on a new site. Waiting on Rein’s arrival, and knowing that Dorene, too, was doing what she could to facilitate the new house-building project, Oliver was appreciative of the support, but had some other feelings as well.
Makes me feel bum having so many people putting themselves out for me. I sometimes wonder why I stay here and try to live the way I do….Actually, I do know why. It seems like a farce when I get so much of my food and other needs flown in from a city store. But that is not the point. The important thing is to be trying to live in the best way I can see as much as possible…Living as much as I can by using native raw materials gives me an increasingly developed sense of appreciation in many ways and keeps me challenged to grow mentally and in the ability to make difficult choices with moral implications. It isn’t easy to live at odds with the accepted values of nearly all the people one knows and deals with, but we are not intended to be carbon copies….
In early July Oliver confessed to feeling tired, but he thought some of this was due to having unexpected visitors who came with Dennis Hannan. Dennis had flown out to check on his property, and on the changes he had made to better protect his home from the grizzly, but now the grizzly failed to show. This led Dennis and Oliver to hope it had left the area for good.
Jack, the pilot who flew Dennis in, also brought a young couple from Brooklyn, New York. Oliver thought they seemed a bit overwhelmed by the unfamiliar environment. A few days later another couple came to see the sights when Jack flew back out to pick up Dennis. They were older, the man was a physicist at “some university,” and they were very inquisitive and easy to talk to. Oliver enjoyed the company, but was also drained.
“Only three weeks till Rein will be here,” Oliver wrote. He was anticipating the visit, but also concerned that all be in readiness for them.
Needing to rest, Oliver took a day off from the strenuous work of shoring up the cache. He was adding “sister” poles to the supports already in place to strengthen the structure. While he was taking a rest day, a spruce hen brought her three chicks into the yard to show them off, and Pack, in an uncharacteristic live-and-let-live gesture, benignly watched them take a dust bath. Oliver spent time resting and catching up on chores: getting in some firewood, bringing in water, loading more gun cartridges. The next day it rained and he spent time reading, but had the energy to cook some special food Dennis’s pilot, Jack, had brought for him. He had a nice meal of salmon, potatoes and apples. He thought the apples gave him a rash.
The next day, just as it stopped raining, he heard George—the pilot who regularly brought Oliver’s supplies— fly over and went to meet the plane. George had brought the aluminum canoe Oliver had asked him to find. It was second-hand, in need of paint, but 16 feet long and fairly wide. It looked like it would be stable on the lake, and he was very pleased with it.
The countdown to the arrival of Rein and Narvaq continued. With Pack’s help, Oliver dragged the 70-pound canoe up from the lake and went to work on it. He beat out the worst of the dents, improving its appearance considerably, and took out the two seats and center thwart (bench seat). He made wooden side decks between the front and rear thwarts with blocks fastened to the side decks to enable him to row the boat. He wanted to be able to comfortably use it with his guests.
Then he had another, less welcome, guest: the grizzly returned. It came by Hannans’, not bothering their barn this time, but attempting to break into the house through the roof. That same evening it came along the back trail from Hannans’ to Oliver’s. Pack’s barking persuaded it to go around Oliver’s homesite this time, but Oliver was in a quandary about how to protect his friends who would be staying in tents. He sent word for Rein to bring another dog.
By now Oliver was feeling in need of a vacation. No matter how much he told himself to relax, the bear—which showed up yet again, and again tried to rip up the Hannans’ roof—the strangers flying in to view his lifestyle, Rein’s impending visit, the pressure to fix his cache and the warehouse roof, preparations to build the new house, as well as the constant need to gather food for winter and maintain his 6.5 Carcano, meant he was never free from one worry or another.
Just before Rein and Narvaq were due to arrive, Oliver accidently left his CB radio on all night. Unaware of the “live” CB, he was sitting in his house doing some revision on his book when he overheard Jill Hannan try to contact Duane Ose on Ose Mountain. Nobody was home, but Oliver responded to her, and she was able to hear him. To Oliver’s surprise, Jill suggested Rein stay in the Hannans’ house. This was an unexpected gesture. Oliver had been about to go out—in the rain—to set up a tent for his friends. Due to the damp weather, he would have needed to get a stove going to dry things out and keep Rein and Narvaq warm. Jill also told Oliver that Rein was bringing a dog, as requested, that he would then take back with him.
For Oliver, this was a great weight off his mind. Rein and Narvaq would have a safe, comfortable place to stay, and with the dog the probability of the grizzly even coming around was greatly reduced. “It is just chance that things like that mesh together so well,” he wrote.
The next day—August first—Oliver had a message from Rein saying they would arrive about noon the next day.
The next three weeks were a happy and productive time for Oliver. He, Rein, and Narvaq worked hard to excavate the new house site and wrestle the log walls into place, then framed the roof. By the time the visit was over the skeleton of the house was in place, and Oliver covered the structure with a tarp to protect it during the coming winter until he could resume work on it.
They also ate well, Oliver preparing special foods for his guests including one that became a favorite with Narvaq, applesauce with raisins and nuts. He liked it well enough he learned Oliver’s recipe and began making it himself before the visit was done.
The days were still long and Rein and Narvaq took the aluminum canoe Oliver had prepared for them and explored the lake nearly every evening, taking lots of photos and viewing the abundance of wildlife. The grizzly obligingly stayed away.
When George flew in for Rein and Narvaq at the end of their stay, he brought copies of the latest edition of Oliver’s book. While there was always room for improvement, by now Oliver was feeling satisfied about the content of his book, and that his thoughts had been fully expressed to the best of his ability.
With his guests gone, Oliver turned to preparing for the coming winter. He planned to dry the seed heads and upper leaves of his lamb’s quarters, an edible wild plant Oliver encouraged to grow in his “self-starting” garden. The wild cranberries were ready to pick and he would also dry some coltsfoot leaves—another edible wild plant. Fall seemed to be coming early and it looked like it would be an unusually cold winter.
2Headspace is the distance from the base of the cartridge case to the point on the cartridge case that prevents the cartridge from moving any farther forward in the chamber.
3When a gun barrel is larger in diameter than the bullet, the bullet wobbles and leaves a “keyhole” shape in the target rather than a round hole.
CHAPTER 13 – New House
Oliver continued his life at the lake, moving ahead with the new house begun with Rein’s help. However, he was still having problems with the grizzly. In July of 1997 he wrote:
I put some bracing on the cache to steady it while building. Intended to change it but didn’t think a bear would get in anyway, so put it off. Also, I didn’t intend to be gone well into the summer again. But that was a goof. That griz was able to reach up balanced on a brace and tear away at the door till it finally got in.
Some food was missing, but that was quickly replaced, and Oliver was able to repair the damage to the cache and some additional damage done to the Hannans’ vacant house. However, the bear continued to be an irritation to Oliver. Around this time he discovered it had tried to dig up the corner property marker. Such markers have anchors on the bottom, so the bear was not able to remove it, but did loosen and tip it. Then:
Few nights ago it came around. I left the dogs inside and took a look. Didn’t see anything, let them out and they found it in the trees back of the dog houses. It didn’t want to leave its favorite grubstake area. So [it would run] a ways and turn on the dogs and they would get it going again for a ways and turn on them again, etc. I could tell by the sound of Pack barking. Didn’t hear anything for a bit and figured it had decided to take off. But no, it swung around and headed back. I heard them coming on the trail that comes under the cache so I started that way. Was just about to the cache when here they come. It saw me when it was nearly to the cache and turned. But with cache legs and two dogs in the way and raining and too dark to see sights, well, better hurry hurry, I snapped off a shot at it. Hit a cache leg but judging by the way it (the bear) took off something made an impression on it. It evidently didn’t stop right away as the dogs soon came back. Haven’t seen any sign of it since.
A month later the bear was back, however. It chewed a hole in the Hannans’ cache floor and got some dog food. Oliver built a shelf out of reach of the bear and moved their supplies onto that. He also changed anti-bear tactics and hung a #10 can half full of ground meat, laced with a cup of Epsom salts under the cache for the bear. (Epson salts act
s as a laxative. Apparently Oliver intended to give the bear a stomach ache.) A couple of nights later he put out oats, dry meat, honey, oil and two cups of Epsom salts near the hole the bear had made. The bear ate that as well, and tore the hole larger trying to find more. However, after that the bear abandoned the Hannans’ cache and the next night came back to Oliver’s place, searching under his cache presumably for food unadulterated by Epsom salts. The dogs, Pack and young, very pregnant Mup, chased it off:
They didn’t come back so when I could see I went to find them. They took off toward Hannans’ so I went over there. When almost there I met Pack coming home. He was exhausted and didn’t want to go back, but Mup wasn’t with him and I wanted to find her in case she was still alive and wounded. I thought she might be a dinner for that bear. Told Pack to find Mup. He went out the trail to Old House Ridge a ways and we met Mup. She was ok, but also overheated and exhausted. It started to rain so we went back to the Hannans’ woodshed and waited till it let up and [the] dogs rested. Then went to see if we could find that bear again. I thought it might be too tired to go far since Mup had been worrying it by herself for a half-hour or so. Trail went into a heck of a tangle of down timber and brush so we came home. Dogs hardly moved all day.
Early next morning bear came back again and dogs took after it again. I waited awhile, didn’t hear any barking so went back to bed. Dogs still not home three hours later when I could see, so I got ready to go find them again, thinking they may be holding it at bay. Just as I was leaving here they both came just plodding along. I was glad to see them.
Oliver, hoping that the lack of available food and the barking dogs would discourage the bear from returning, turned his attention to finishing the new house begun the summer before with the help of Rein and Narvaq.
There was much to do, and Oliver was working alone now. The Hannans were spending less and less time at the lake. Dennis Hannan came out to repair and winterize, but mostly their place was empty.
Oliver had used a single-bit axe he had fashioned himself to cut and peel the poles for the house. With this type of work Oliver missed the versatility of a double-bit axe, but also found wielding his heavy double-bit for any length of time too much for him. Frustrated, he brought the heavy axe inside and began sawing and filing it down to a more manageable weight. Meanwhile, he continued getting the heating system for the new place installed, but work did not always go smoothly. On August 17, 1997 he wrote:
Yesterday I put a pole up under the ceiling to hold the ends of roof poles that have to be cut off to make room for a 55 gal drum stove pipe safety (an oil drum section filled with dirt for the stove pipe to go through, to keep the heat away from the sod roof). When I laid the poles I put in a safety for a metal asbestos chimney (chimney insulated with asbestos) but then found that the asbestos had deteriorated and was sifting out of the chimney sections so made one out of the barrel to use instead. I fastened the pole up with 8-inch ringshank spikes. Driving the spikes up overhead with a heavy hammer was too hard on my upper back.
Oliver had to take it easy a few days to let his back heal up. He used the time to continue working on the double-bit axe, a chore he termed another “chink-time” project. Within a couple of days his back was better, the double-bit axe was usable, and he was determined to get the safety installed so he could start covering the roof. His back troubles hindered his work, including hauling supplies up from the lake where George the pilot left them, and digging the garden strip behind the dog houses as well as continuing on the house. He had to experiment to find a comfortable way to dig his garden, eventually sitting on a bucket and chopping the ground up with a miniature mattock he had bought in California and modified. He had to take extra prednisone to get the work done, but finished his fall chores, including picking four-and-a-half gallons of cranberries. In the midst of this, he did make headway on the house, getting the stove pieces in place, but work was slow:
I opened and flattened a couple of round kerosene cans and made a collar for the 55 gal drum stove pipe safety. Since there is a double roof I need to make one more. Then I can seal around it with tar and also seal the plastic sheeting to it with tar.
By mid-September Oliver had the stairway into the new house nearly done. He was hoping for a few more days of warmer weather to finish some details, but he had given up any idea of being able to move into it this year. His old house, however, was holding up better than expected:
If this house didn’t collapse with that huge bear tromping on it maybe it will last this winter again. After freeze-up [when] I have more time I may take the pole floor out and put a piece of polytarp on the dirt for a floor. Also plan to put some vents in so I can use kerosene or Blazo lights. I have figured out a way to do it. Those two things, a non-dusty floor and good lights, will make it a lot more pleasant to live here.
When his physical energy ran low, Oliver turned to his writing. He continued to write and revise, adding shorter pamphlets and appendices to pair with the manuscript of Thoughts Born of Turmoil.
That fall he mulled over his options for the winter. He loved being in his “cozy, economical home” with the dogs. He felt secure, at peace, and confident he was living in a responsible way. Loneliness was a factor, of course, but he was used to that. Life would be somewhat easier if the new house was finished and that grizzly would stay away, but all in all it was good to be where he was. He just needed to get in some firewood if he was going to spend the winter there. There were other options: he had been invited to spend the winter with his old friends Keith and Anore Jones where he could camp on their California ranch. Rein wanted him to come to Norway again, tempting him with the information that there was growing interest there in Oliver’s interpretation of Scripture.
He was tired, seventy-six years old, and the big question was how best to use the time and energy he had left. Sometimes he wondered why he kept on living by the lake, and was tempted by the thought of an easier life, but these thoughts usually passed quickly. By September he had the east side of the new house banked up and the back wall almost done.
“House building is getting done better than I hoped for,” he wrote. “I still enjoy figuring out how to do things and using the tools I have fixed up when I have the energy.”
By summer 1998 things were much the same. Encounters with the grizzly bear were becoming so commonplace, he only mentioned them in passing. He was drying willow leaves and planning to harvest lamb’s quarters. Since he felt he had thoroughly expressed his philosophy in writing, and thought his work there was complete, he often wondered at his purpose in life. Still, although he knew he was slowing down and not able to keep up with chores as well as he had once done, it did not seem to bother him as much as it used to. He was experiencing a growing contentment: “I often find myself feeling peaceful,” he wrote.
He had a new dog, Tug (one of Mup’s puppies). “Tug still has some puppy ways but I couldn’t do without him. We have to have play time a couple times a day. He looks forward to it, and I do too,” he wrote in June of 1998.
However, the ongoing battle with the bear was wearing Oliver’s patience. He had about given up trying to protect the Hannans’ food supply at their empty cabin, bringing what remained from the bear’s latest raid to his place for safekeeping. During a time when he was uncertain when Dennis and Jill were coming to check on their place, or if they would come at all, he heard from Jill that his paperwork to apply for the patent on his homesite was in the mail. He would be pleased, he wrote, to finally get the patent as it would be handy if he ever wanted to dispose of the property. (A patent is a document passing the title of land from the government to a homesteader. It marks the beginning of private ownership of the land.)
The seasons passed, and in mid-June, 1999, Oliver returned from his annual trip Outside. He hauled his 500 pounds of supplies up to his house and put it all away over the next week, noting that in earlier days he could have completed the task in a day. As he aged—he would turn 78 in July—he became more adept at inventing new ways to get work done without over-extending his energy and strength. Home from his trip, he settled into his routine, got his garden going, and dried some willow leaves. A #10 can of dried and powdered willow leaves would last him eight months if he consumed a tablespoon per day as a dietary supplement. He checked out the Hannans’ place by canoe, relieved to see no sign of bear damage to his place or theirs. The bears were still around, though, and he later spotted a grizzly track.
He had seen swans on the lake when he flew in, and a beaver came to check out the plane and the activity and had come by for a visit every day since. On Oliver’s canoe excursion, he discovered the beavers were rebuilding their house. He also saw a loon swimming along the shore with three babies following along behind. The mosquitoes were out in full force as well, but he was happy to be home, fixing and improving his own place.
It was the season to gather food for the next winter, and he took stock of all that was available that year. The lamb’s quarters and chickweed were starting to come on in the garden area behind the dog house. The four clumps of chives he had planted were doing well. He checked on the blue bell crop, but did not find enough to preserve. There was not much of a blueberry crop, but the cranberries were starting to ripen and appeared abundant. He cooked some fireweed, parboiling (blanching, or partially cooking) it and then pouring off the water and cooking it in fresh water. It was as edible as nettles or dandelion prepared the same way, he noted, but would probably not be a favorite of his. He began experimenting with reindeer moss, Iceland moss, and rock tripe—all lichens—as sources of food. He removed the bitter taste by preparing it as he had the fireweed: parboiling in water and then cooking again in fresh water. Water lilies had begun growing on the lake—he wasn’t sure why—but he heard the seeds were a good food crop, so he planned to harvest some before freeze-up. The roots were supposedly good as well, but involved digging in four or five feet of water—not something he felt inclined to try.
By now Oliver was often using two walking sticks to get around. He found that a four-foot length was good for traveling, but that it was easier on his arms if the sticks were shoulder-height.
The new house was where he had left it, and by mid-July, with the garden well started and some food already preserved, he turned his attention to it. He moved the 55-gallon barrel stove and stovepipe outside and inspected the roof. It had done well over the winter. The tarp was still good, and the roof was ready to finish. It had been raining, but now hot, dry weather set in and he was able to get the stove fittings installed and sealed. By the time the rain started again, he had the roof covered with sod. In July of 1999, he wrote:
I would like to put one more layer of poles on top the sod before putting dirt on to make it that much harder for a bear to dig down to the plastic. But time is running on and I’m slow, so may not. Haven’t decided yet.
When it began pouring rain again, he was happy to note neither the roof nor the chimney seal leaked.
The first frost of the year came in late August that year, and the local trees were beginning to put on fall colors. Oliver continued to harvest cranberries and dry lamb’s quarters and other foraged foods. He picked some pond lily seed heads and experimented with cooking them, although the beavers beat him to the rest of the seeds. He found a good way to harvest rock tripe and reindeer moss and cook it. He liked it, even though the taste was rather bland. Mushrooms were a new interest, and with the aid of a pamphlet on mushroom identification he harvested puff balls and birch scaberstalk boletes for one meal. They were good, but he had trouble locating more before they were past their prime. Meanwhile, he kept plugging away at the construction of the new house, beginning work on the inside walls as the fall progressed.
By now he had the porch roof built on the new house, covered with sod, and ready for fireproofing with a layer of dirt. The house itself was also covered with poles and ready for a layer of dirt.
His concern over his lack of energy gave him pause, and he tried not to let the anxiety over lack of progress rob him of his peace of mind. He considered other options, giving serious thought to Dorene’s offer to arrange for a permanent place near her in California. Oliver admitted it had some appeal and wondered if her offer, the bear problem, plus some other issues were a sign he should leave, but in the end Oliver decided that once the new house was finished he would be able to manage on his own awhile longer.
Anyway, the rogue bear had not shown itself this year, and he thought—hoped— perhaps it had not survived the winter. The main drawback to living in California, he admitted, was his sense of being out of place. Oliver felt he did not get along well with others unless he was working with them or they needed his help in some way. There on the lake he had plenty of “elbow room” and freedom. Yes, it was lonely, but he was lonely most places, making many acquaintances but few intimate friends.
“The only place I’ve been less lonely has been in Norway. Also that is the only place I’ve found people who are much interested in and appreciate my ideas and skills,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the swans were on the lake every day. The beavers took his boat pole with the hook on it and he had to go retrieve it from the top of the beaver house. It was a mess: birds had perched on it and it was covered in mud.
By November 18,1999, Oliver was ready to put the door and doorframe in the new house. He built a hollow door with three inches of moss insulation and a 28” X 24” window. A few days later, on November 21st, he wrote:
Finally, after 13 years I now have a house. Hung the door today. Still a little framing and chinking to do around it, but basically it’s done. Of course, there is still a lot of inside work I want to do. But if it turns cold I can move in any time.
As he put up the radio antennae and moved the solar panels to the new house, he thought about Rein and Heidi, and Norway. He had gotten a letter from Rein in the last mail that gave him much to consider.
“Maybe I still have some unfinished business over there,” he wrote.
He officially moved into the new house on December 2, 1999.
CHAPTER 14 – Wilderness Camp
Oliver’s Norwegian friends, Rein and Heidi Dammann, had long envisioned a camp built to share the knowledge and skills they had learned in Alaska and in their other travels among indigenous people.
The camp was to be built with no power tools and of local forest materials, every bit of the camp furnishings constructed by ancient traditional methods, the shelters consisting of tipis and wigwams. Local foods, often foraged, were cooked over campfires and in homemade Alaskan ovens (a metal box for baking built to fit on top of a regular wood-burning heat stove.) Beyond the natural, sustainable camp itself, their plan was to offer to their clients outdoor and survival training based on the Inupiaq’s positive and respectful attitude toward nature, life, and people. The camp was created to convey what the Dammanns had learned from native people in practical hands-on ways, with an emphasis on the Inupiaq approach toward life, which included a gracious and cooperative stance not common in industrialized societies.
During their year in Alaska the Dammanns had discovered that the indigenous people were world-class team builders. In dealing with harsh living conditions and adverse circumstances, the Inupiaq had learned to treat each other with respect while staying in tune with the feelings and needs of those around them, even becoming highly skilled at reading body language, for example. The ones who contributed most to the community were accorded the highest status. The Dammanns incorporated stories of this attitude learned from the Inupiaq to teach teambuilding skills to their clients, while they participated in group tasks in the forest or on the lake. The visitors to Wilderness Camp not only learned to respect and support each other, but also learned new ways of tackling adverse situations and to reframe problems in positive ways —all skills Rein and Heidi learned during their years with native peoples.
They located their camp, Villmarksleiren, or “Wilderness Camp,” about 45 minutes north of Oslo near the huge forest that covers eastern Norway and stretches into Sweden.
Norway and Sweden
Located on lovely Lake Breisjoen, the camp itself consisted of a central fireplace surrounded by six tipis, each with their own campfire. Other structures added as the compound developed included a large wigwam which was used as a meeting place and dining hall. Training and other activities took place on the nearby trails, in the pine forest itself, and on the lake, often in handcrafted canoes. Drinking water came from the lake, there was no power, and showers were a taken via a bucket hung from a nearby tree.
As the business grew, the Dammanns’ guests included groups who came for corporate or government team-building sessions as well as weddings, conferences, and educational events for school groups, including the physically or mentally challenged. They could host as many as 280 people, and were highly rated by the Norwegian tourist industry.
Wilderness Camp, Norway, 2004
Just as Oliver finished and moved into his new house in Alaska, Rein and Heidi were ready to launch Wilderness Camp in Norway. As the new millennium dawned, the Dammanns turned to their old friend Oliver for advice and practical help, and over the next few years, in the early 2000s, Oliver made repeated trips to Norway to help with setting up and running the camp. They received support from other friends as well. In February of 2000 Oliver wrote from Norway, where he was working on building a bucksaw frame for the camp, “Rein, Heidi, and Dyre [their younger son] leave early tomorrow morning for a week visit with Thor Heyerdahl [their friend, the archeologist of Kon Tiki fame]. He is someplace far off excavating a pyramid.”
Over the next couple of years Oliver began to require more assistance as he traveled to and from Norway and other places. Various companions—he did not yet term them caregivers—began appearing in his life to help him with daily tasks, or with his writing. In 2003 a woman named Beverly Nordquist traveled with him to Norway. The two stayed in his cabin near the Wilderness Camp and at first seemed quite content. Rein reported to Dorene in an email dated January 26, 2003:
Beverly amazes me! She is so adjustable!!! She is living in Oliver’s cabin. They are both sitting all the dark afternoon with just small headlights. Oliver is awake a lot during the nights, then he starts working. Beverly can’t sleep then, so she just starts reading. For some reason it seems to work out perfect. She is working a lot, both to help Oliver—and the camp. She gets a lot done!…I am full of respect for her.
It was never easy for Oliver to share space with someone, however, and Beverly returned home to the Pacific Northwest a few weeks ahead of Oliver’s flight back to Alaska in late March.
Meanwhile, Carol Schlentner—the young woman who built a house with Oliver at Manley Hot Springs in the 1980’s— was living at Lake Minchumina and made plans to visit Oliver after he got back to his house on the lake, in addition to traveling out there to make sure all was ready before his arrival. At first Oliver was reluctant, arguing it would not be worth the bother to her to come for a relatively short time. She insisted the trip was for “her own soul,” however, and by April she was at the lake with Oliver. She slept in the cache and stayed in the Hannans’ empty house, as Oliver’s was just too small for two people. She collected firewood for Oliver, hauling it by sled while there was still snow on the ground.
In August of that year, Oliver flew to California for the fall, staying in Visalia, California in a mobile home with a woman named Zimba, a friend of Keith and Anore Jones. Oliver had met and become friends with Zimba while staying on the Jones’ ranch in California. Oliver and Zimba worked on improvements to his book. This location was close enough that Dorene could drive down to visit and check on her father as he kept busy drying meat as well as working on his writing. Zimba was alarmed when Oliver insisted he was losing weight, as she thought he was too thin already, but it appeared to be a discrepancy in the scale—to her relief. By November Oliver was finalizing details for the Norwegian translation of his book, which Rein would have published when all was ready. Rein, by now, was quite pleased with the success of the camp, and Oliver planned to return in early 2004 to offer more assistance.
By fall Oliver had published a smaller book, a condensed version of Thoughts Born of Turmoil called Thoughts About Life, Good News For Sure. It was printed in both a thin paperback version, and a pocket edition. He was happy with the outcome, but his focus was on getting back to Norway and finishing the publication of the Norwegian translation of Thoughts Born of Turmoil. Oliver felt this translation was an important part of the task he was meant to finish in his life. With this on his mind, Oliver flew to Idaho for the holidays, staying with his son, Richard, who lived and worked there. On December 5, 2003 Dorene wrote: “He is living in my brother Richard’s motorhome out in the beautiful countryside of Idaho. Trees, snow, quiet.”
His mind on Norway, Oliver was restless and unsettled his first days in Idaho, in spite of the quiet and the beautiful scenery. While there were many in the area who wished to visit with him, including his own two sons, there was also much on his mind, and he had an ongoing sense of urgency to get his ideas published for the benefit of others. Another distraction was the possibility of a website for him being put together by Zimba and her friend, Richard Cummings, back in California. However, after a few days of visiting with his relatives, Oliver began to feel more settled and at peace. He gave approval for the website to go ahead, and relaxed enough to enjoy his remaining time in Idaho, although he still talked of flying to Norway “next week.”
He did stay in Idaho through the holidays, however, not arriving in Oslo until January 12, 2004. His return ticket was for May 15, 2004. In February Rein wrote, “I think Oliver enjoys his stay right now. We have several foreign visitors that are here to practice survival skills, and Oliver is the boss! Could it be better?”
Oliver and Heidi, Norway, 2004. From Heidi Dammann photos.
Oliver and Rein, Norway, 2004
Oliver in Norway, 2004.
Oliver and walking sticks, Norway, 2004
Oliver and Heidi, Norway, 2004.
One stopover on Oliver’s annual trips to and from his home included the city of Fairbanks. While there, he was in the habit of staying with a doctor friend and his wife, Chris and Jan Todd. In the spring of 2004 Jan Todd passed away and a memorial was held for her at Dorene’s home in California for friends who could not make it to Alaska. After that gathering, in a March 29, 2004 email, Dorene informed Oliver that Chris, Jan’s husband, wanted Oliver to continue the tradition of staying at their place during his stopover in Fairbanks. She added another message as well:
Ole Wik asked me to tell you, Dad, how influential you have been in his life. He remembers learning from you a way of thinking that included making a tool you needed. He hadn’t been aware that you could make some things you needed before he started working with you. He is most appreciative.
In April of 2004, Oliver learned that his son, Gary, was having problems with chest pains and had gone to OHSU (Oregon Heath & Science University Hospital) in Portland, Oregon, for a checkup. He also heard from Jill Hannan (Heimke), who was now remarried and had been living out of state. She, her husband, and little daughter were returning to Alaska, and Jill was trying to arrange to see Oliver, and to see her old homesite. The prospect of seeing Jill again greatly pleased Oliver. He even offered to pay George to fly her in to the lake if cost was an issue. In the end, Jill was able to make her own arrangements to come with her daughter and her father.
“It is peaceful out there and I long to hear the loons and walk the land again,” she wrote Dorene.
When Oliver left Norway that year, he flew to Visalia to see Zimba and do some work on the website before going home where he did connect with Jill, her father, and little girl. On June 18, 2004 Jill wrote to Dorene:
We just got back from [the lake]. Oliver is doing great. He has all systems up and running. My dad helped him to rebuild the CB antenna and George said he can hear Oliver stronger than ever. Oliver’s dog, Pal, is really a sweet dog. She is very attached to Oliver already and has already gone in the canoe and pulled the sled so Oliver is pleased with her. George said that he would go out there again in July with a small list of supplies for Oliver. I[t] was wonderful to see your dad and time was too short as usual. My dad and I had our hands full clearing out a moldy cabin and trying to do some repairs. Maybe the place will last a few more years.
The mosquitoes were pretty bad. Not the worst I have seen but probably the second worst year I have seen out there. It thundered and rained some every afternoon or evening to keep the mosquitoes happy.
Oliver was alone at the lake after Jill and her father left. Dorene passed on the news to Oliver that the Norwegian translation was done and was posted on his website. Although Oliver was on his own for a few weeks, Dorene checked in with him every week or so via the Oses’ radio and a CB patch. Oliver was again considering his options, not wanting to give up his lifestyle, but realistically assessing his ability to stay in such a remote area alone. He was now also unable to live sustainably off the land, resorting to shipping in supplies and material, and this frustrated him. He was not, he felt, really living responsibly.
There were other frustrations as well: the summer of 2004 five million acres burned in Alaska, creating smoky conditions and problems for Oliver’s lungs. He spent days indoors with an air purifier while he longed to be out picking cranberries. Meanwhile, Dorene was coordinating more visitors and help for Oliver, arranging a visit by her friend Devta Khalsa and six-year-old son, Noah, for the first half of September.
In a September 24, 2004 email Devta shared some of her impressions of Oliver:
Zen and the art of living; master craftsman, continual teacher…
He was really kind. We had a great time. I just adored Oliver. His integrity as a human being is beyond belief…
He certainly inspired us. I can see that I can live more responsibly. I can do things without being so reliant…
Oliver would teach Noah philosophical, spiritual things about growing up….Oliver is so generous. Every day he brought Noah a little gift…
Devta also quoted Oliver as saying, “I had myself all programmed to die, but now I will watch the signs to see if there is something else meant for me.”
Devta and Noah’s flight out of Oliver’s homesite brought in cousin Cam McGinnis, who helped Oliver pack, flying with him out via the usual stopover at Chris Todd’s in Fairbanks, then on to eastern Oregon where Oliver had a place to stay in a cabin behind their house. George Hobson was not available for this flight, and their pilot, Curtis Cebulski, later wrote Dorene to discourage any thought of Oliver staying at the lake over the winter.
“He looked pretty feeble to me,” he said.
Oliver was now 83, and while feeble and not truly able to live without some assistance, was also not sitting still. He did stay with Cam, but he also flew to Visalia and Zimba’s to work on the website, his flight out of Pasco, Washington delayed by foggy fall weather. When he arrived at Zimba’s she put him straight to bed, remarking that he tended to overdo. He spent some of that fall at Keith and Anore Jones’ ranch at Three Rivers, California. Carol Schlentner, meanwhile, was in Reno, Nevada visiting her daughter Paula and family, so just before Thanksgiving Dorene drove Oliver from California to Nevada where they had a good visit with Carol and her family.
Carol wrote, “Wesley [her toddler grandson] is enjoying Oliver. We had both of them out for a little walk. They are both walking at the same pace.”
Oliver flew from Reno back to Cam’s in eastern Oregon in time for the holidays. The day after Christmas saw him in Santa Fe, New Mexico visiting friends, and by January 17,2005, Oliver was back in Oslo at the Wilderness Camp.
On January 17, 2005 Rein wrote:
Oliver arrived safely and in a very good mood yesterday. The trip was fine he said. He seems in a better mood every time he arrives! He had a little trouble with his legs when he should walk across the street (from the airport to the car) but said he just had to get some exercise after the long trip.
While enjoying Norway once again, and staying in a nearby camper trailer, Oliver was frustrated with his lack of physical ability. He compensated for it by focusing on work he could do sitting still. He continued to walk with two sticks most of the time, and seemed to have plenty of energy. However, he did sometimes find it easier to simply crawl on hands and knees from his trailer to the Wilderness Camp, a distance of about 70 yards.
This trip in 2005 was the last Oliver would make to Norway. His technical assistance had been essential to the start-up and the success of the enterprise as he provided knowledge and skills in building furnishings for the camp that were not available in Norway, or—really—anywhere else. Rein credits Oliver with the design and building of their large dining hall wigwam made of bent poles. Their original plan was for a more expensive structure, but Oliver’s design was economical and eminently practical, seating as many as 120 for meals. Oliver was also responsible for the successful completion of things like a dugout canoe, fireplaces, stoves, storage buildings, and a toilet.
In addition to his practical help with camp basics, Oliver was popular with the visitors to the camp and others with whom he came in contact there. Many, including international visitors, came to the camp just to see and visit with him. Oliver found a lot of interest in Norway for his thoughts and beliefs on a sustainable way of life and his personal philosophy, and his knowledge in these matters was received with honor and respect.
CHAPTER 15 – Culmination
By 2005 Oliver’s family and friends were questioning the wisdom of his being alone out at his homesite. While he was physically frail, Oliver did plan to return to his lakeside home after his 2005 Norway visit, and his plans raised alarms in his closest circle.
Dorene, in addition to her concerns about Oliver’s health and living situation, was realizing she just needed a nice, long visit with her father, and began to put plans in motion even before Oliver left Norway. She wrote to ask him if he would postpone going to Alaska, breaking his trip at Seattle, or maybe Boise, in order to meet with her and her family after their return from a trip to Hawaii. It was eventually settled that when Oliver left Norway toward the end of March, he would stop in Seattle where Dorene and her son, Perry, would meet him at the airport. They would then travel to a rented cabin near Snoqualmie, Oliver’s childhood home, for a few days, and then Oliver would go to Fairbanks and Chis Todd’s home until he could return to the lake—if he still felt so inclined, after, presumably, heart-to-heart talks with family.
On April 1, Dorene reported:
Dad arrived just fine. He was pretty tired and has been resting here in a lovely cabin which we have rented on the Snoqualmie River near Seattle. My son Perry and his girlfriend, Kari, live here in Seattle so we have been seeing them every day as well. Dad grew up in Snoqualmie. Yesterday we drove to the old house which he helped build for his family when he was a teenager. Also drove by the old sawmill which my grandfather worked at. Tomorrow Dad will fly to Fairbanks where he will stay a few days before going home. We have talked quite a bit about his reasons for going back out there now even though he will be alone and he is not very strong. He feels quite comfortable with doing it regardless of possible unpleasant consequences. I am very glad that we have been able to talk about it as I certainly would make difference choices. But I respect his positive trusting attitude and wish the very best for him.
Oliver at Snoqualmie Falls, 2005.
Oliver at Snoqualmie Falls, 2005.
Mill where Oliver’s father, Ed, worked. 2005.
Mill where Oliver’s father worked. 2005.
Kari, Oliver, Perry and Dorene, Snoqualmie Falls, 2005.
Oliver enjoyed his time with family and his sentimental journey to his childhood home, but he continued with his plans to return to Alaska. Discussion among the people closest to him also continued. Rein wrote on April 7, 2005:
We share your thoughts about Oliver going back north. We don’t like it. It must be better if he stayed the next years close to his family – or us. I have been working on him to have him understand that to be a valuable person you don’t necessarily have to work hard….people have other values to share that are actually more important….
On April 8th Dorene replied:
Dad seems quite weak. He mentioned how the old [Native Americans] used to walk up into the mountains when it was time for them to leave this life. And compared that to what he is doing now. He expressed that he felt Ok about it being time to die and about what discomfort he might face in the process. I would choose differently for myself, but I really respect his serenity and his lack of fear around it.
By this time—early April, 2005—Oliver was in Fairbanks and was waiting for George to fly him to the lake in a few days. Oliver would be alone out there as the Oses, who had the phone, were not due to arrive until June. However, there were others who could help him call out by CB radio if necessary, and—worst-case scenario—a helicopter could fly him out in an emergency.
Oliver made it to the lake, and his family and friends repressed their concerns, at least for the moment. Devta and Noah were planning another trip to visit with Oliver in late June or early July, and Oliver was working on the website and more book editing which did not always go smoothly, as they were often complicated by the complexities of communication at his remote location.
Then in early June came an abrupt change of plans. Oliver decided to leave the lake and go to California, calling his pilot George to pick him up and take him back to Fairbanks. Oliver’s physical weakness was hampering his ability to provide enough food for himself by foraging, and he believed the lack of fresh food was preventing him from having the energy he needed. In Fairbanks he rested and worked on his book, but before he could make arrangements to go on to California, Tonya Schlentner, who was operating West Denali Lodge at Lake Minchumina, suggested he camp near her for the summer. The opportunity to stay in Alaska, live in a tent, and catch fresh fish from the lake—an old canoe was even provided—greatly appealed to Oliver. He had other friends in the area, in addition to Carol Schlentner and her daughter Tonya, who would enjoy his company and keep an eye on him. In the end, he finished up his writing edits in Fairbanks then flew back to his lake home, meeting Devta and Noah, who helped him pack up the supplies he needed for his proposed fish camp, and flew out with him when he returned to Lake Minchumina. He spent the summer a half-mile down the beach from the Lodge, fishing, enjoying the company of old friends, and eating fresh produce from Tonya’s garden.
By November Oliver was still at Lake Minchumina, but really not well enough to remain over the winter. Dorene wrote to him on November 18, 2005:
Hi Dad, It sounds like your body is being difficult. Come on down where we can help you out. You usually get stronger when you are at Cam and Val’s (Oliver’s nephew and wife in Oregon). The fresh vegetables and other foods also seem to help your body. Also, we LIKE having you around!
By the end of the month Dorene was still trying to convince Oliver to fly out to Oregon or California for the winter, but she also conveyed unhappy news about her younger brother, Gary. He had struggled for years with both mental and physical health issues. Now his mental problems had caused erratic behavior which had resulted in serious legal and financial problems. He faced a rocky road ahead.
By the end of November Oliver had decided to spend the winter in Santa Cruz, a town he chose partly because it was easier for him to navigate than Dorene’s neighborhood where his lack of a car hindered him from getting to appointments and the grocery store. The young-adult daughters of old Alaskan friends Keith and Anore Jones and Ole and Sasha Wik—Willow Jones and Linnea Wik—lived in Santa Cruz and were available to offer assistance to Oliver. Dorene began searching for an apartment for him.
Rein wondered if there was any possibility Oliver could come to Norway after the holidays. Dorene told Rein she thought he was too weak to go to Norway this year, but had seen him rally before, so one could never be sure.
Oliver hated to leave Alaska, but knew he was too frail to even get in wood for the winter, so he decided to go south as soon as the cold weather set in. Suspecting he might never be able to return to Alaska, Oliver was grieving even as he left and continued to be sad during his first weeks in California. Carol Schlentner traveled with him from Lake Minchumina to Fairbanks and wrote:
He still thinks of himself as a bother, but he is a wonderful resource. Though, there is a little bit of sadness when he went out the door to the plane, another era of Fairbanks past is fading. The terminal used to be full of people that dressed and had experiences like your father. Now, in watching the crowds of Friday, there was no one else from his era in the airport.
Dorene was able to find him a converted garage on the edge of Santa Cruz. Oliver stayed in a hotel until the garage apartment was ready, but he was already starting to feel better from eating fresh organic vegetables as well as the beef from the ranch managed by Keith and Anore Jones at Three Rivers, California, about three hours from Santa Cruz. By December Oliver had settled in and was consuming a variety of foods unavailable to him in Alaska. Meanwhile his young friends, Willow and Linnea, were checking on him frequently.
By late January, 2006, Oliver was still in his little converted garage, with Willow and Linnea visiting him often and learning crafts from him, including how to tan deer skin and even making tools for tanning the hide.
Oliver in Santa Cruz 2005-2006. Cameron family photos.
2006 would prove to be a difficult year for the Cameron family. By January, Oliver, even with healthy food and good friends caring for him, was not doing well physically or emotionally. When it became apparent he needed more help, he moved into a duplex, living in the lower level apartment with Willow Jones in the upper unit.
By April Dorene was reporting:
He is quite weak! It’s hard work for him to get dressed. Some days he still goes out with one of our young friends [Willow or Linnea] to the grocery store. I am looking for a nicer house for him to live in where he can have a view out his window since he stays in his room most of the time and doesn’t even go out for walks.
On April 1, 2006 Oliver, with Dorene’s assistance, emailed Devta himself:
Dorene is visiting me, so I have a secretary….I came down here hoping to regain some more energy for daily life. But my stay down here has been disappointing in that way. This is a stressful place to live if you want to live responsibly. I haven’t quite given up hope. I’m still planning on coming back to Alaska. And maybe setting up a fish camp at Lake Minchumina.
Rein sadly—and correctly—concluded: “Seems like Oliver is way too weak to visit Norway anymore.”
Tonya was still living at Denali West Lodge, but had reluctantly decided not to take reservations that year. She and her mother, Carol, flew over Oliver’s place on the lake, and reported that all looked well. She had planned to break trail to the Oses’ with a snow machine, but there was too much snow, and her plan to check on Oliver’s homesite in person was tenuous, although she still hoped to try.
Through April of 2006 Oliver remained weak and depressed, although he put up a cheerful front for visitors. He read a lot and particularly enjoyed political and international issues. Those near him began to notice short-term memory gaps. Both Tonya and Devta expressed concern about him even attempting to go back to Alaska in May, and Dorene agreed as she watched him struggle and become exhausted just from getting to the bathroom and back.
Carol Schlentner, however, began exploring ways for Oliver to come home to his beloved Alaska, even in poor health. Communication in the form of emails and phone calls about the thorny problem flew during April and early May between Carol Schlentner, her adult daughters Paula and Tonya, Linnea Wik, Willow Jones, and Dorene. It was becoming clear to them that Oliver wanted to go home to die. He was lonely and depressed, and even being in Santa Cruz in a comfortable location near large redwood trees where the neighbors were out of view was still too much civilization for Oliver—too many strangers crowding him. He perked up when Linnea could come and he could teach her crafts, but she was not always available.
In fact, Linnea had taken a job selling products for farmers at farmer’s markets in the area. She was a possible traveling companion for Oliver if he did go back to Alaska, but her work schedule made that unlikely. It would seem his days in Alaska were over. However, Oliver had a strong will and generous friends.
Oliver’s friends and family, while not happy with the idea of him dying alone at his lakeside home, wanted to maintain his independence and dignity as long as possible, so Carol continued to work on the problem, even when she realized he was much weaker than he had been in October. Obviously, they needed someone to stay in Alaska with Oliver—someone who had the time and desire to be there. Dorene laid out the challenges in a May 8, 2006 email:
The trip itself will be exhausting for Dad. He easily gets winded and his heart starts to pound and he gets dizzy and needs to lay down and go back to sleep to settle everything down….So that means that someone takes him to the airport and then he is transported by wheelchair to his seat and he sleeps for part of the flight. Someone helps him from the plane by wheelchair, picks up his luggage and transports him to his bed for the night in Fairbanks. Then someone needs to buy food and be sure it is a form he can eat for a few days until going out to Minchumina. Then how will he be transported to Tonya’s? He can walk a very short distance (20 feet) with the help of sticks or a walker and then needs to rest.
He will say he does not need help: “I will manage somehow.”
Carol and her daughter Tonya had a long phone conversation and came up with a plan: Carol would travel with him to Alaska; Tonya could get him to her lodge by boat and four-wheeler. They still needed more help for Tonya at Minchumina if Oliver was to stay there, as he required too much care for one person and she had other responsibilities.
Carol, attempting to deal with uncomfortable facts, wrote: “We all realize that we most probably are bringing him home where he wants to die. Your Dad is probably very much at peace with this idea. It is us who need to come to grips with this reality.”
Oliver’s need to feel useful and to be giving back for the help he received was met by Tonya’s desire to build a sod house at Minchumina. While he would be unable to help with the physical labor, she needed Oliver’s advice and coaching. She already had 30 spruce poles cut from a nearby area that had burned four summers previously. Even though they still needed another person to help care for Oliver, they began to plan on him traveling the end of May. The next hurdle was Oliver’s energy level, which needed to be higher for him to even get on a plane.
Dorene had deep misgivings about the burden of responsibility being placed on Tonya’s young shoulders. When Tonya and Oliver seem determined in spite of her concerns, she arranged funds to help with expenses. The remaining requirement—that Oliver’s energy level rise—was resolved, almost miraculously, by Oliver’s reaction to the travel plans. Once Oliver learned Carol and Tonya were willing to help him get “home,” his energy improved dramatically.
Only a few days after letting Oliver know of their scheme, Dorene reported to Carol and Tonya:
The difference in Dad’s energy is amazing! He was walking better today…across the room without the walker or his sticks. He didn’t nap the whole time I was there—about 6 hours. He was talking about wanting to build a new house at [the lake] to try a different style of sod house. Back like his old self! It was great to see! And yet I know that while his mood is tremendously improved, that his body is only slightly improved. You both are such great friends to have given him the gift of renewed interest in life.
As the daughter of a strong-willed father, Dorene had to take her diplomatic skills to a new level during this time. First, Oliver insisted he could fly to Seattle alone and meet Carol there. Carol, at that point, was visiting the Eastern United States and had planned to fly to Santa Cruz to accompany Oliver the entire journey. Dorene, taking courage in hand, had a heart-to-heart talk with her dad, and he finally agreed to the original plan: Carol would accompany him from Santa Cruz, not meet him in Seattle. A little later Dorene also confronted him about the need to hire caregivers, a requirement he had previously refused to consider as he did not see himself in need of “caregivers,” paid or otherwise. With both these issues, Oliver bowed to Dorene’s logic and wisdom, to her great relief.
She mentioned to Tonya the balance between trying to help Oliver without denying him dignity and independence. Tonya replied on May 14, 2006:
I think I understand about the balancing act between doing what is necessary and not taking away a person’s need to feel independent. And Oliver does so want to take care of himself. He had always hoped he would never need to be cared for. Perhaps our Maker would like him to learn to allow others to at least help at little?
It was set: they made the arrangements to fly to Fairbanks, with Tonya flying from Minchumina to meet them at a friend’s house. The group had another worry as well, though. Oliver had let slip, at one point, that he planned to go—alone—from Minchumina on out to his home on the lake once he was in Alaska. While Minchumina was isolated—only thirteen people lived there—there was mail, phone, and internet which gave them access to emergency services. The lake and Oliver’s sod house were just too remote, and if he became ill or was in pain it would be a complicated and expensive procedure to get him out and to medical care. No one—especially not Oliver—wanted that. He refrained from saying more about his plan to go to the lake as they prepared to travel to Minchumina, but there was no doubt any effort on his part to get out there would be met with resistance from his supporters.
The emails between Oliver’s network of family and friends became even more somber as the travel dates drew near.
Carol, on her way to Santa Cruz, wrote Dorene on May 15:
I hope to discuss with you more about your father’s health proxy and wishes for his funeral. There are ways to avoid having to send his body back into Fairbanks if we do the right paperwork. I am not sure what it would be at the moment. I am being forthright as we all know that Oliver will most probably not want to return or be physically able to return to the lower 48.
Dorene, however, knew her father’s stubborn will and had learned not to underestimate Oliver’s resilience. While other close friends expected this to be Oliver’s final trip to Alaska, or anywhere else, Dorene left the options open, suggesting he might, after all, want to come back to Santa Cruz or to their cousin Cam’s in Oregon for the winter. He also might wish to stay in the sod house he and Tonya were planning to build in Minchumina. While facing reality and worst-case scenarios was probably wise, she thought the gloomy predictions might be a bit premature.
The need for additional help for Tonya was resolved when Linnea Wik took time off from her work in Santa Cruz and arranged to go along as well. Details such as a current DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order and medical power of attorney were arranged, as well as the proper steps to take in the event of an unattended (by a medical doctor) death. Oliver would prefer cremation and did not wish to be buried on his property. He did not consider his possessions out there to be of any value, and did not think his tools would be of interest to anyone, although Dorene thought a museum might want them. Carol agreed to help Oliver in the unlikely event he wanted to come back to California or Oregon in the fall, but felt that was not his wish. On May 23, 2006 she wrote: “I think he would love to just walk away in a snow storm like the Elders did.”
On May 26th Dorene joined the group in Santa Cruz and saw Carol Schlentner, Linnea Wik and Oliver off to Fairbanks. Noting that he needed new moccasins, Dorene put tanned deer hide in the mail for them and suggested this would be a good project for someone to work on with him. They were arranging to fly organic vegetables from Fairbanks to Minchumina for Oliver’s health. “He eats lots of soft fully cooked vegetables when they are put in front of him,” she wrote.
In a few days Oliver was safely in Minchumina.
Then, with 2006 having gotten off to such a rocky start, it took a sudden and drastic turn for the worse. While the focus was on Oliver’s frail health and even his possible demise, another family member slipped away. On June 10th, less than two weeks after Oliver settled in at Lake Minchumina, his youngest son, Gary, passed away unexpectedly in Baker City, Oregon. Gerald Jon Cameron was only 57, and while he had struggled with physical and mental problems for years, this was shock for the Cameron family.
Oliver, having just arrived back in Alaska, did not attend the funeral for his son that was held in Baker City. However, a month later, mid-July, he suddenly decided to leave Minchumina and travel to Cove, Oregon to stay with his nephew Cam. Mid-August found him trying to get help and support to get back to his lakeside home. Friends and family were balking.
I have told Dad that this time I will not be helping him. I just don’t feel like his body has the ability to manage at [the lake]. I think that he is running away from some uncomfortable feelings inside himself (loneliness, restlessness, getting old and feeble, imposing on others). Of course, he is not comfortable! But trying to go to[the lake] after already trying that several times in the last two years is just not a viable solution…My cousins very much want Dad to stay [in Cove] They love him and enjoy him and want him to stay forever.
Cam and Val McGinnis home, Cove, Oregon, 2006. From Cameron family photos.
Carol Schlentner, her daughter Tonya, and Duane and Rena Ose were all of one mind. Carol summed their feelings up in an August 18, 2006 email: “It seems that Oliver has always been in poor shape to be at [the lake]. That we have always worried.”
Oliver, however, was still his own man, had his wits about him, and was capable of making his own decisions and of persuading others to grant him the help he needed to achieve his goals. Oliver did manage to get to his lake home by late September with Tonya as companion.
At lake fall of 2006. From Cameron family photos.
Oliver at his home site, fall 2006
Oliver on trail. 2006.
He did not plan to stay the winter, though, and while his messages about plans to fly to Oregon as soon as the ice was firm enough to travel might sound like business as usual, there were some changes in his attitude this year. Perhaps what drove him so hard to get out there in September of 2006 was to say good-bye. On October 26, 2006 Tonya wrote:
Of course it did catch my attention that he said he wanted to destroy the place when he left. On the one hand, to me it seems in keeping with the mindset I’ve seen him have. It seems that when he decides to leave he destroys something to make it difficult for him to return…It is his way of tidying up loose ends and in his mind not leaving a burden on anyone. So I can see destroying [his homesite] as a kind of restoring things to their natural state and therefore not leaving a “mess.” And also as a way of convincing himself that he can’t go back.
Tonya herself saw things differently and believed preserving his place would be a way of remembering him, plus it seemed like such a waste of resources to destroy it. Dorene, who stood to inherit the property when he died, agreed, and still thought his tools might be of interest to a museum. Oliver, of course, held his earthly belongings lightly. Dorene, with wisdom borne of long experience, would wait and see whether he did fly out to Oregon, and if this would, indeed, be his last trip to Alaska.
Oliver did leave the lake that fall and it was his last visit, but he left his homesite intact. He settled in LaGrande, Oregon, in a camper, and by June of the next year was still there with Delma Bracken, a woman in her 60s whom he had hired as caretaker. Oliver spent his time writing, sending copies of his book to Norway, and editing other work. Another woman, Geneva, also helped care for him and assisted with his writing.
Oliver in camper at LaGrande, OR, 2006. Cameron family photos.
Delma Bracken, son Mike Cox and family LaGrande, Oregon 2007
Oliver and Dorene, LaGrande, Oregon 2007
Oliver turned 86 on July 15, 2007, and Dorene arranged a birthday party for him in Oregon. It went well, and he seemed happy with the celebration.
His health took a turn later that fall, in October, when he was hospitalized with a blood infection and renal failure. Oliver had a long-standing aversion to doctors and for too long had refused medical attention for a urinary tract infection, insisting he was all right. This caused damage to his kidneys. His caregiver, Delma, finally transported him to the hospital over his objections for treatment, a trip he would not remember making. Dorene got home from a vacation to Italy just in time to visit Oliver in the hospital and arrange for a larger house in LaGrande with an extra room that would enable caregivers to stay overnight. Delma, along with her son, Mike Cox, began providing 24-hour care. Mike took care of Oliver’s doctor appointments, communication with doctors, and medications. Dorene flew in as often as possible to see Oliver and to be present at doctor visits. On October 30, 2007 she wrote to Richard Cunnings, who still worked on Oliver’s web page:
Dad got quite sick two weeks ago…We came close to losing him, but he has recovered nicely. While his kidneys, heart and lungs are all in less than optimal health, he is still carrying on pretty well. We have rented a small house for him so that there is room for a caregiver to be there all the time when he needs it. He sometimes gets up for meals and to walk a few steps inside the house with a walker. He is getting stronger and we are feeling more comfortable leaving him alone for an hour or two at a time.
Later, on December 4, 2007, she wrote Jill:
He is sleeping more and just starting to be a little confused…Other than that he is still wonderful to talk with and thinking pretty clearly….He is in bed most of the time, but sits up and reads a lot. He gets up to walk around with a walker once or twice a day.
During this time, December, 2007 through February, 2008, Ole Wik conducted a series of interviews with Oliver, encouraging him to talk about his life experiences. By the time they were done, Ole had collected around 200,000 words of Oliver’s recollections and knowledge. Oliver stayed in LaGrande on into 2008, the caregiving crew growing to include a couple of relief caregivers. Many old friends called or wrote to keep in touch, including Carol Schlentner, Jill Heimke, the Oses, Michael and Robin Mayer, Richard Cunnings, friends in Norway, and others.
Life in the wider world continued with Jill Heimke contacting Oliver before embarking on an extensive sailing trip with her husband and little girl. The Oses checked on Oliver’s cabin and declared it in good shape. Oliver, Duane Ose said, had it well “battened down.” Carol, in particular, could not bring herself to discourage Oliver in his dreams of returning to his homesite on the lake. His network of friends all remembered how hard travel was for him his previous visit, but Carol couldn’t bring herself to squash his dreams, however unrealistic. She wrote to Dorene after one phone conversation with Oliver: “He does not complain, he just feels hypocritical that he is not living responsibly. I keep telling him, that he can live responsibly wherever you go as living responsibly cannot always be done in the wilderness.”
Oliver, while comfortable and well-tended, was frustrated with what he saw as the careless ways of those around him. He thought his caregivers slept too much, taking cat naps. He also did not think they needed a room to themselves, and they should have kept busier blanching vegetables, catching local fish, and making juice out of fresh berries. Nevertheless, Oliver was realistic about the limitations his health placed on him, and contented himself with talking about Alaska to Carol on the phone.
In the spring of 2009 Oliver moved from LaGrande to the home of his son, Richard, in Donnelly, Idaho. Richard and Judy Stanton became his full-time caregivers. By mid-November Oliver was receiving care from a hospice organization as well.
Oliver and Richard out for the day. Donnelly, Idaho 2009.
Oliver and Shea, (Judy Stanton’s granddaughter) building a toolbox. Donnelly, Idaho, 2009.
Oliver, Judy Stanton, Shea, Richard, Donnelly, Idaho 2009.
In the late fall of 2009 Carol Schlentner came to Donnelly to give Richard and Judy a chance to take a well-earned break. On December 17, 2009 she wrote:
The snow is still bouncing off the high roofs onto the lower roofs and sliding off. The chunks are heavy and shake the house. I shoveled out a spot so Teresa [hospice worker] could pull in off the road. No one has plowed as of yet….Teresa found Oliver very healthy.
Richard’s home, Donnelly, Idaho, winter, 2009.
Dorene, Oliver, Carol Schlentner, and Richard at Donnelly, Idaho December, 2009.
Just before Christmas winter storms were creating havoc for travel. By December 20th Dorene was in the Cayman Islands for Christmas—her family tradition—waiting for other family members to arrive, while Richard and Judy, coming back from their break, were traveling through Idaho’s snowy mountains. Carol continued to hold down the fort, struggling with the blood pressure cuff and reporting Oliver had kauk, whitefish eggs, steamed spinach, cranberries and ice cream for dinner. “I worked on my moccasins with your dad, trying to get the puckers just right,” she emailed Dorene on December 20, 2009. Flights were cancelled and some trips took longer than expected, but finally all were safely in their respective locations for Christmas, including the primary caretakers.
“Reading has been my whiskey,” Oliver had said to Ole Wik. Oliver spent these winter days reading, his friends checking out books from the McCall, Idaho library. Richard built a railing on the wheelchair ramp to improve safety, as snow continued to slide off the roof and cause problems. Mysterious packages began showing up and were placed under the Christmas tree.
Judy Stanton, Christmas, Donnelly, Idaho, 2009.
On Christmas day those in the household had prime rib roast, and Oliver feasted on whitefish, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. They opened gifts and Oliver enjoyed his new money belt, bird pictures from Hawaii, a back scratcher, and new fish tank. A day later Carol wrote Christmas greetings for Oliver to numerous friends and Oliver was enjoying a book about President Truman.
“Keep the sand out of your britches,” he said to Dorene (still in the Cayman Islands) through Carol, who was sending email messages for him. He was, she also reported, glad Christmas was over as it was “a damned nuisance.” However, he did admit it was good to get together with family.
About this time they discovered Oliver was suffering from yet another urinary tract infection and he was quickly put on antibiotics. As they kicked in he began to feel better and his appetite picked up. He spent some of his time watching the tropical fish that lived in their tank on a stand Richard had built for them near his bed.
The New Year came, 2010, and with it the realization that Oliver’s kidneys were failing. As the days passed, he spent more and more time sleeping, drifting in and out of consciousness. Friends and relatives gathered, filling Richard’s big log house.
Cameron family visiting Oliver, January, 2010.
On January 17, 2010, Oliver—surrounded and supported by his closest family members—quietly slipped away.
In April of 2004 Jill Heimke had written to Dorene and captured the longing for wilderness, solitude and rest many associated with Oliver’s home on the lake: “It is peaceful out there and I long to hear the loons and walk the land again,” she wrote. Now, as 2010 progressed, spring came again to Alaska. The loons and the beaver returned to the lake near Oliver’s sod house, and Heidi Dammann made a pilgrimage to Oliver’s property. While she was there a cheeky black bear explored the entrance to Oliver’s vacant house. There was no sign of the grizzly that had done so much damage to Oliver’s homesite and continued to stalk his place and harass his dogs for several seasons.
Bear at Oliver’s homesite, 2010. Heidi Dammann photos.
The wildfires returned that spring as well. In late May, 2010, Dorene learned Duane Ose’s place was threatened by fire, and she contacted Carol Schlentner, now back at Denali West Lodge, to check on any danger to Oliver’s homesite. On May 31, 2010 Carol wrote:
I am at the post office so the ice is off the lake. Steven Green flew over Oliver’s place this morning and it was okay. They are starting a backfire to protect the Oses’ as it is surrounding their hill. The smoke is evident over here at the lake.
Once the fire danger had passed, Dorene arranged for friends to go collect Oliver’s tools. She still believed his handiwork should be in a museum. His tools, especially, represented many years of knowledge and skill acquired in building homes and outbuildings in the harsh Arctic climate.
Before the coming of outsiders, the Alaskan natives successfully built and lived in sustainable shelters for thousands of years. Over the last hundred years, however, that changed as native society was disrupted by an influx of new people who introduced their own building techniques, resulting in much illness from living in houses that were inappropriately insulated and ventilated for the climate. For example, in the early years of the twentieth century the native population was decimated by tuberculosis due to cold, damp housing. This situation began to change after World War II as builders started searching for better ways to construct homes for residents of the North, addressing such issues as permafrost and sub-zero temperatures. Oliver had learned building methods from those natives who still clung to their traditional ways, fusing them with his own pioneer skills and ingenuity.
In the late 1970s a group of settlers, including a man named Jack Hebert, traveled to the upper Ambler River. Jack built a cabin on a plot of ground there and, hearing of Oliver’s expertise in survival skills and traditional building methods, made his acquaintance. Oliver lived in Ambler, the nearest village and 60 miles from Jack, but they spent many hours together working on survival skill projects and discussing the native building techniques at which Oliver excelled. Oliver shared with Jack his knowledge of the native ways of doing things, and how he used that knowledge to adapt and use local materials for his own housing, tools, and transportation.
Jack went on to become a builder himself, and in 1999 became the Founder and CEO of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center based in Fairbanks on land supplied by the University of Alaska. The CCHRC is a research and testing facility that builds prototype houses across Alaska, assists with housing after natural disasters, and is involved in a variety of housing research projects. The research results are shared with governments, contractors, and private institutions to help build more sustainable homes in the North’s harsh climate.
After Dorene collected Oliver’s tools, she began the search for a museum that would display them. While the University of Alaska was interested in acquiring the collection for research purposes, Jack Hebert offered to create a display in the entryway of his new addition at the Research Center to honor his old friend and mentor, and to show the connection between the traditional ways of survival in the North, and the innovation, adaptability and creativity of modern materials used to achieve the same ends.
In 2014 the display was complete.
Oliver’s tools being prepared for display, Cold Climate Housing Research Center, 2014
Oliver’s canoe on display, 2014.
Oliver had begun his education in tools and construction as a child, picking up nails at job sites on his way home from school, and carefully observing the carpenters as they built houses in his neighborhood. By adulthood he was a skilled carpenter himself. By the end of his days he was an expert in traditional native Alaskan methods of house-building, creating and inventing tools, making clothing, boats, canoes, sleds and all the other necessities of daily life while living on a remote homesite in the interior of Alaska.
His commitment to sustainability, leaving a small footprint and living a thoughtful, purposeful life, impacted all who had the privilege of meeting him.
He truly lived a handcrafted life.