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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.