In April of 2004 Jill Heimke had written to Dorene and captured the longing for wilderness, solitude and rest many associated with Oliver’s home on the lake: “It is peaceful out there and I long to hear the loons and walk the land again,” she wrote. Now, as 2010 progressed, spring came again to Alaska. The loons and the beaver returned to the lake near Oliver’s sod house, and Heidi Dammann made a pilgrimage to Oliver’s property. While she was there a cheeky black bear explored the entrance to Oliver’s vacant house. There was no sign of the grizzly that had done so much damage to Oliver’s homesite and continued to stalk his place and harass his dogs for several seasons.

Bear at Oliver’s homesite, 2010. Heidi Dammann photos.

The wildfires returned that spring as well. In late May, 2010, Dorene learned Duane Ose’s place was threatened by fire, and she contacted Carol Schlentner, now back at Denali West Lodge, to check on any danger to Oliver’s homesite. On May 31, 2010 Carol wrote:

I am at the post office so the ice is off the lake. Steven Green flew over Oliver’s place this morning and it was okay. They are starting a backfire to protect the Oses’ as it is surrounding their hill. The smoke is evident over here at the lake.

Once the fire danger had passed, Dorene arranged for friends to go collect Oliver’s tools. She still believed his handiwork should be in a museum. His tools, especially, represented many years of knowledge and skill acquired in building homes and outbuildings in the harsh Arctic climate.

Before the coming of outsiders, the Alaskan natives successfully built and lived in sustainable shelters for thousands of years. Over the last hundred years, however, that changed as native society was disrupted by an influx of new people who introduced their own building techniques, resulting in much illness from living in houses that were inappropriately insulated and ventilated for the climate. For example, in the early years of the twentieth century the native population was decimated by tuberculosis due to cold, damp housing. This situation began to change after World War II as builders started searching for better ways to construct homes for residents of the North, addressing such issues as permafrost and sub-zero temperatures. Oliver had learned building methods from those natives who still clung to their traditional ways, fusing them with his own pioneer skills and ingenuity.

In the late 1970s a group of settlers, including a man named Jack Hebert, traveled to the upper Ambler River. Jack built a cabin on a plot of ground there and, hearing of Oliver’s expertise in survival skills and traditional building methods, made his acquaintance. Oliver lived in Ambler, the nearest village and 60 miles from Jack, but they spent many hours together working on survival skill projects and discussing the native building techniques at which Oliver excelled. Oliver shared with Jack his knowledge of the native ways of doing things, and how he used that knowledge to adapt and use local materials for his own housing, tools, and transportation.

Jack went on to become a builder himself, and in 1999 became the Founder and CEO of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center based in Fairbanks on land supplied by the University of Alaska. The CCHRC is a research and testing facility that builds prototype houses across Alaska, assists with housing after natural disasters, and is involved in a variety of housing research projects. The research results are shared with governments, contractors, and private institutions to help build more sustainable homes in the North’s harsh climate.

After Dorene collected Oliver’s tools, she began the search for a museum that would display them. While the University of Alaska was interested in acquiring the collection for research purposes, Jack Hebert offered to create a display in the entryway of his new addition at the Research Center to honor his old friend and mentor, and to show the connection between the traditional ways of survival in the North, and the innovation, adaptability and creativity of modern materials used to achieve the same ends.

In 2014 the display was complete.

Oliver’s tools being prepared for display, Cold Climate Housing Research Center, 2014.
Photos from the Cameron Family Collection.

Oliver’s canoe on display at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, AK, 2014.
Photo from the Cameron Family Collection.

Oliver had begun his education in tools and construction as a child, picking up nails at job sites on his way home from school, and carefully observing the carpenters as they built houses in his neighborhood. By adulthood he was a skilled carpenter himself. By the end of his days he was an expert in traditional native Alaskan methods of house-building, creating and inventing tools, making clothing, boats, canoes, sleds and all the other necessities of daily life while living on a remote homesite in the interior of Alaska.

His commitment to sustainability, leaving a small footprint and living a thoughtful, purposeful life, impacted all who had the privilege of meeting him.

He truly lived a handcrafted life. 

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