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 14 – Wilderness Camp
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