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 acts 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 13 – New House
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