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 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.
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. She wrote:
He eats lots of soft fully cooked vegetables when they are put in front of him.
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 53, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
On January 17, 2010, Oliver—surrounded and supported by his closest family members—quietly slipped away.