Chapter 9 – Making the Move

Oliver had decided to leave Ambler, but there was much to do and many decisions yet to be made. He wasn’t always sure of his direction. 

In the meantime, he continued to work on Thoughts Born of Turmoil, the manifesto of his philosophical beliefs, and also had preliminary booklets printed to address a growing demand. He was also beginning to get interest in his writings and philosophy from further afield. On September 11, 1981 he wrote:

I have requests for copies of the book that I can’t respond to now. It would be a big help to be able to get some copies made up….As it is there have been copies sent or carried to Norway, Sweden and England besides the ones I’ve gotten a chance to Xerox for people around here.

Also I have invitations to visit those countries from young (middle age 30s) people who are interested in the theories I have about the significance of our lives and the events that effect them [sic]. There seems to be a greater degree of frustration and anxiety, and more awareness of social problems and world conditions among them than I’m used to finding in most young people here.

These people included a couple who became a significant connection to Norway for Oliver. Rein and Heidi Dammann had arrived in Ambler a few months earlier in the winter of 1980 – 81, and—as did so many—became acquainted with Oliver. They shared many of Oliver’s interests, including ancient building techniques and a sustainable wilderness lifestyle. They were expecting their son at the time, and left in June for Anchorage so Heidi could have the baby, but they returned to Ambler in the fall before moving back to Norway.

Oliver, meanwhile, continued research to narrow down relocation sites. On October 19, 1981 he wrote Dorene:

Have sent for more information about open entry land…If it looks feasible what I have in mind is to locate a site on the Tanana drainage next spring (I would like to be able to get to Fairbanks without flying if I want to.) Then build a warehouse or cache and possibly a small house there next summer. Come back to Ambler in the fall and if meat is scarce in the site area maybe hunt here and dry it up again. Then take or send the equipment I want from here to the new place….

It would be nice to fix up a place so I feel good about it, using a minimum of tools and supplies. It has been on the back of my mind to do such a venture and write about it as a vehicle for some how to do it articles and also for some philosophical comments. Right now it makes me feel tired just to think about it, but it is one step at a time…

A few months later he took a trip to Fairbanks and stayed with a friend who lived nearby. In February, 1982 he wrote:

I’m still thinking about the Minchumina area…Have been to BLM and also gotten some information from people familiar with the area. The area is not all that ideal, in some ways. It’s not close to the river for one thing, and relatively inaccessible. As of now the nearest mail is 30 miles away….Am still debating about trying to go for a look before breakup or not. All things considered that seems the most reasonable course. After the weather warms up somewhat I may be able to do that. Sometimes I wonder what I’m thinking about in this move….So as usual it’s questions and feeling my way.

Carol was no longer living at Manley Hot Springs, so Oliver arranged to stay on her property, initially in a tent. His plan was to stay at Manley and build a boat, then go up the Kantisha River into the settlement area, scouting potential home sites. He was staying there in July of 1982 when he wrote:

It looks more and more like I’ll be here at least part of the winter. Carol left the propane lights for me to use.

In the same letter he mentions progress on a boat:

I’ve been sanding the kaynoe1 frame but it is starting to rain so came in and built a fire, warmed up some fish and vegetables, and ate them…. The frame is complete and the corners partly sanded off. I guess I’ll give it a coat of pine tar before covering it. It’s been such a job making it I want it to last awhile.

Dorene with son Perry visiting Manley Hot Springs, 1982. Cameron family photos.

Oliver and Perry, Manley Hot Springs, 1982.

Besides talk of food, shelter, and family news, Oliver’s letters during this period revolve around the two main topics of a new home site and finishing his book, but a third idea was stirring: Norway. He writes:

Rain and Heidi sent me a book “Inshore Craft of Norway.” I find it fascinating. It has methods I’ve been interested in for a long time.

While the kaynoe was a smaller boat he finished over the summer, his plan was to build a large, flat bottom boat to use in exploration. In late September of 1982 in a letter to Dorene he discusses collecting material for a new boat and making a pattern. His plan was to dig spruce roots for part of the project as well as plane lumber and build some of the frames. 

Oliver’s focus that fall and winter in Manley was finding a source of meat. While not too concerned— he noted there were plenty of rabbits around—he did consider returning to Ambler to gather meat and visit old friends. The end of September—the day of the first real snow—he moved into the house he and Carol had built in 1980. Before winter truly set in he had made some progress on the next boat. In October, 1982 he wrote:

We had a late fall so I got the stove finished before it got too cold and still have time to dig the stumps I wanted for the natural crooks for boat frames.

By November he was writing Dorene to dissuade her from trying to ship meat to him. The situation had resolved with the help of friends and his catch of a large salmon and a large shee fish. He had also acquired bits of moose from various sources as well as an ice chest full of eggs—twenty dozen. The good news was he had some protein on hand; the bad news was the weather was affecting his lungs. The effects of having frozen his lungs on the caribou hunt in Shungnak continued to plague him. Medicating himself was always a balancing act. He had been prescribed prednisone, a corticosteroid, for his breathing problems. Steroids reduce inflammation, but also suppress the immune system. He had felt well enough at the end of fall to taper off the prednisone, but now faced the possibility he might need to increase it again to deal with the cold weather.

Since he was taking it easy to try and get his breathing problems under control, he made use of the time to edit his book manuscript again. By the time he was through he was feeling good about the book and wondering if it was time to get it typed up properly and have it printed. Since he continued to receive requests for copies of his writing, he was becoming more and more eager to get the finished book into print and available to those who wanted it.

Time moved on, the seasons changed, and Oliver spent much of the summer and fall of 1983 in Ambler, helping Bob and Dorene, and sorting out his own place.

Oliver in Ambler helping haul house logs, summer 1983.

Oliver in Ambler, fall 1983

He returned to Manley, then immediately took a trip to Fairbanks with a friend. When he got home he wrote Dorene on November 10, 1983:

While in Fairbanks I spent most of the money I’ve accumulated. A lot of it to go ahead with the printing of the book. So in about a month I should have it. That only covers printing and cutting on 200 copies but getting the camera work and layout done is the big expense. It won’t cost much to get more copies made now.

This was the first printing of Thoughts Born of Turmoil. It was a landmark accomplishment, and producing it gave Oliver a sense of closure. While there would be further edits and subsequent printings, Oliver was now able to focus exclusively on the move, and he was looking forward to the future:

It feels good to be back here. [Manley Hot Springs] The break has been made and I feel like I’m on course again. It was good to be there [Ambler] but I never felt really relaxed or settled. Of course I’m not really settled here either but still I feel a lot more settled inside. Having the decision about the printing made and about moving has relieved a lot of questions and I feel freer to look to what’s next.

While some financial pressure was relieved when he became old enough to draw social security in 1983 at age 62, Oliver was still plagued with poor health. He admitted to having pneumonia after his return to Manley from Fairbanks as well as being bothered with aching joints and a chronic lack of energy. In spite of these issues, he continued to look forward to the next phase of his life:

There are 2 parcels of federal open to entry land now (and the 3rd will be open in a couple of months) out between Wien Lake and Lake Minchumina. Having purty [sic] well broke away from Ambler, I’m feeling an urge to get on to something else.

Oliver at Manley Hot Springs circa 1983. From Curt Madison photos.

Health issues and the daily demands of life in Alaska continued to slow Oliver’s progress. By February of 1984 he was talking about flying over the homesite area rather than making the exploratory trip by boat. 

Also in early 1984, Professor Rudy Krejci, the Czechoslovakian-American philosopher and professor who founded the Philosophy and Humanities Program at the University of Alaska, called on Oliver. He had read Thoughts Born of Turmoil and was mentioning the book in his lectures. Due to his influence the book was stocked in the University bookstore. On June 7, 1984 Oliver wrote:

Rudy Krejci, the U of A Philosophy teacher, took 12 books last time and sent word he wanted more, so I took 40 and he took them all. 

And later, on August 9, he wrote:

I’ve been invited to give a lecture to a philosophy class at the University some time in November. I might try, if I don’t get cold feet. I’m curious to see if I can do it. Talking informally is one thing, but this kind of business – I don’t know.

Oliver did give the talk at the University. Oliver’s letters indicate he spoke at an informal gathering of students three mornings in a row, then another gathering one evening to students and adults. Oliver was relieved he was not required to create a formal lecture, and declined Professor Krejci’s invitation to become a regular speaker.

Another, more sinister event, took place around the time the Professor was interviewing Oliver. On May 24, 1984, a twenty-five year old drifter, Michael Silka, put Manley Hot Springs in the news and the history books by murdering seven people at the boat ramp along the Tanana River. It was believed he had also killed a man before coming to Manley, and later that day also killed an Alaskan State Trooper in a shoot-out with authorities. Oliver had spoken casually to Michael earlier in the day. That evening, May 24, 1984, he wrote to Dorene:

This is a somber town now. Besides the seven people the fellow killed here he had already killed a man and possibly two more before coming here. Then he killed a State trooper before they shot and killed him 20 miles or so upriver from here. They figure he threw the bodies into the river but they haven’t found any of them yet. 

“The carnage chilled the soul of Manley Hot Springs,”2 the New York Times wrote late in the fall of that year. The surviving residents would feel the emotional, social, and even economic effects of the shadow cast by the murders for years to come.

However, Oliver and his fellow Manley neighbors tried to move on, making plans, gathering berries and catching fish for the winter. In September of 1984 he wrote:

It looks like I’ll probably be here another summer and possibly the next winter. I’m hoping I can finish up some small projects this winter and get them out of the way so I can be free to concentrate on building the river boat next summer. I didn’t get much done on it this year.

He also continued working on his writing, ordering another 500 copies of Thoughts Born of Turmoil printed and calculating ways to reduce publishing costs if the demand was high enough to warrant more copies made.

During the fall of 1984 he was working on building a warehouse or storage building for the Manley property. On September 12 he wrote:

I’m getting so I hedge on all my plans, knowing how easy it is to think in terms of the energy I once had. The days get away without enough done it seems like, then I have to rethink my options. But all in all I do get things done even tho [sic] not as quickly as I would like.

Later that fall Oliver wrote that he was glad to have the storage shed finished, even though taking time to build it cut into the time he had planned to use to build the boat. He calculated that even if he could move to a new home site the next summer, he would need the Manley place for storage for a year or two longer. 

Life continued in this vein for a bit longer. Oliver spent his days gathering food, tending to the details of life, making trips to visit his children, and fighting health problems. Eventually he followed through and hired a friend to fly him over the settlement area he had in mind, and decided a location on the edge of the Kuskokwim foothills appealed to him. Oliver went back to work on the boat, intending to travel first by river and then go overland to the new site.

However, health problems forced him to spend more time “Outside,” often in California, for treatment, time got away, and before he knew, it was 1986. In July of 1986 he learned the government planned to close the settlement area in October of that year. Running out of options and time, he got another friend to fly him to a location on a small lake near Minchumina. Another family living near the lake, Dennis and Jill Hannan, advised him against trying to get to his chosen site near the Kuskokwim foothills. A site about a half mile from their home had been staked by an earlier settler and given up. Oliver later explained to Ole Wik:

I found a tree, a witness tree with the lid to a glass jar nailed to the tree and a glass jar screwed into it with a paper inside. These people had staked out a trade and manufacturing site, but their time to do something to hold the ground was long past, but anyway I wrote to them and told them that I was over-staking part of their claim, and that since they had not been back to do any improvements or shown any more interest, I was assuming they were through with it. That was the case, and they were good about it; they knew I’d appreciate an answer, and sent me a nice letter saying that they’d realized that it was more than they could handle at the time, so they’d given up on it. 

It was late August, 1986. He had finally found an acceptable homesite and was ready to begin creating the fully handcrafted life he had long envisioned.

1Kaynoe: A canoe-kayak hybrid style boat Oliver designed and built himself, that combined elements of both a canoe and a kayak.

2https://www.nytimes.com/1984/11/11/us/memories-of-springtime-murders-chill-small-alaskan-town.html

Chapter 9 – Making the Move
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