Chapter 11 – Routine Interrupted

By the early 1990s Oliver had his home, equipment, and time well-organized. In December of 1989 he had written:

Little by little I’m getting things sorted out and stored so I can see what I’ve got and find it when I need it. Sure is a good feeling to need something and know right where it is.

He had worked hard to create a space and routine where he was comfortable and felt like life was finally under control, as he flourished under conditions of predictability. He confessed that stress built up and he lost his perspective if too much was thrown at him too quickly. He could achieve this state of equilibrium at home by the lake, but going “Outside,” as Alaskans termed trips beyond the state’s borders, presented some challenges.

Travel to other states for medical treatment and to see family was a necessary part of his life, however. In the late summer of 1990, for example, he spent time with family and friends, visiting Idaho, California, and Oregon. He connected with all three of his children, and the grandchildren, but by the time he got home to Alaska he was definitely worse for the wear and dreading ever leaving again.

The homeward bound trip that year included a long, exhausting flight from Boise, Idaho to Salt Lake City, Utah, then on to Fairbanks with a wait to catch the train to Nenana. There was more delay as he waited to arrange a private flight to his home on the lake. His special diet, under these circumstances, was difficult to maintain.

When I don’t eat I don’t need so much medicine,[prednisone] but was having a difficult time getting even that much and got infection in the scar tissue in my right main bronchial tube. But then I found I could take the medicine with kaopectate and get by so lived on that and vinegar and honey in water till I got home.

His first three days at home were spent sleeping and medicating himself. His digestive system was still not functioning well, but the bronchial infection cleared up and he was finally able to take a walk when it quit raining. He complained that one leg was slightly paralyzed from the medication, but walking helped.

Still not back to feeling like doing much, but better, other than my leg. Now that I can rest a little more it shouldn’t be long till I’ll feel more like doing things….As I get older I’m less able to adjust to having the stability of routine and being in a situation where I know what is going on, what needs doing, when, and how to go about it, disrupted. 

He unpacked, harvested some of his garden, and made plans to pick cranberries and go moose hunting.

Traveling to Idaho, Oregon, and California was a challenge for him, but Oliver had a longstanding invitation from his friends Rein and Heidi Dammann to visit Norway, a more daunting proposal. Occasionally, when his energy was up and he felt well enough, he actually considered making the trip, but something always came up. Once, just as he was thinking seriously of going, Rein wrote that he was coming to Alaska to do some writing, so Oliver put the idea aside for yet another year.

Then, in January of 1993, Oliver made one of his regular trips to visit his son, Gary, in Oregon. Dorene and Bob were living near San Francisco, and after concluding his visit with Gary, Leona, and the children, Oliver planned to fly to San Francisco. Dorene had casually renewed the idea of the trip to Norway in a phone conversation with him, but Oliver felt it was not a convenient time—at first. He was feeling concerned about his homesite, pressured to get back to keep the snow from caving in his tent cache roof, when suddenly, with no preamble, he decided to fly from San Francisco to Norway for a week. Oliver made his decision on a Sunday in mid-January, leaving him five days to get ready.

Oliver, his family, and his friends swung into action. Rein and Heidi Dammann prepared and were eagerly awaiting him at their home near Oslo. Dorene had earlier contacted Keith and Anore Jones, and their daughter Willow—old friends from Ambler who had relocated to a ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains in California—to find a traveling companion for Oliver, in case he did decide to go. Anore opted in, and there ensued a mad rush to get an emergency passport for her and arrange all their travel plans in order to leave on Thursday, January 21, 1993.

After Oliver and Anore had successfully boarded the plane and both realized they were actually on their way, Anore recalled they turned to each other and shared a “what have we done?” look. “Oliver’s comment was, ‘I didn’t want to go to Norway, but I felt it was my duty,’” she wrote. He wanted to share his book, Thoughts Born of Turmoil, with people he knew in Norway, with a special focus on Rein’s father, Erik Dammann, who had read the book twice and was eager to discuss it.

Norway is a Northern European country on the northwestern edge of the Scandinavian Peninsula. Sweden lies to the east with Finland and Russia bordering the northeast. A portion of the North Atlantic Ocean, the Norwegian Sea, is along the western coast. The country is a little larger than the state of New Mexico and is on the same latitude as Alaska. However, a warm extension of the Gulf Stream, the Norwegian Current, makes the climate much more temperate. While it is one of the least populated countries in Europe, it is well-known for scenic forests, mountains, lakes, fjords, and the midnight sun. The capital, Oslo, is in the more heavily populated southern part of the country.

 Oliver and Anore had an eleven hour flight to Oslo. The first leg took them across the United States to New York where Oliver’s worn mink trapper’s hat got them curious looks at the JFK Airport. Oliver had dried some hamburger to take on the flight, along with celery sticks, sardines and Anore’s homemade corn pone.

After a stop in Copenhagen, they arrived in Oslo and were met at the airport by Rein and his two sons, Narvaq, 11, and Dyer Oliver, age five.

Oliver had first become acquainted with Rein and Heidi when they stayed in Ambler for several months during 1980-81. In 1980 the couple was making plans to spend time in Alaska to live among the Inupiaq, when Heidi became pregnant with Narvaq. They went anyway, Heidi five-and-a-half months pregnant, her condition unexpectedly opening doors for them into the Inupiaq society.

Rein and Heidi Dammann had lived with indigenous peoples around the world, both as a couple and on their own. Rein, at 13, lived with his parents on the Samoan Islands in the Pacific. Later he would work on a boat out of Norway through Panama up to Canada, and then hike to Alaska. He also lived with Native Americans in the United States. Heidi had gone to Calcutta at the age of 22, exploring the poorest sections of the city to understand life there. She worked on a coconut plantation on Malakula, the second largest island in the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. She also spent time in the bush in New Zealand.

During their stay in Ambler, Oliver became their mentor and close friend. From him they acquired new information and skills on hunting, the work involved in surviving in the Arctic, and how to make the tools, clothing, and other objects they needed for everyday life. Most importantly, for them personally and for a future business venture, Oliver taught them lessons gleaned from the Native culture on how to incorporate an awareness of nature and the caring way the Inupiaq treat each other into their own lives.

Now, Oliver was about to enter the Dammanns’ world and experience Norwegian culture for the first—but not last—time. Of course it was winter in Norway, and Oliver and Anore’s first glimpses were of bays with partially frozen water. Snow and ice covered everything. It was cold, but not the bitter cold of the Alaskan Arctic. They saw a lot of birch trees, as well as spruce, pine, maple, and oak. Up a hill in a well-to-do area, Rein had built a new house on land his father and grandfather had owned. Further up the hill was a wide band of forest that enclosed much of Oslo and was used by the public for skiing, walking, riding horses, camping and other outdoor activities.

Oliver and Anore entered Rein and Heidi’s house onto a landing where coats and boots were stashed, stairs leading either upstairs to four bedrooms and a bath, or downstairs to the living room and kitchen area. The house was heated by radiant heat: electrical wires embedded in the six-inch concrete slab floor. There was a wood stove as backup. Oliver and Anore were used to a warmer house than the Norwegians preferred, so Oliver was given the responsibility of keeping the wood stove burning at their comfort level.

The long trip and jet lag had taken a toll, but they were able to sleep in the next day before going to visit the Kon Tiki Museum. Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and writer, had built the balsa raft Kon Tiki to demonstrate that early peoples could have traveled from South America to the Polynesian Islands. He successfully completed that voyage in 1947 and the raft itself was on display in the museum, along with a later one, Ra II, built of papyrus reeds, which Heyerdahl sailed from Bolivia to Morocco in 1970.

Norwegians are understandably proud of their famous explorer, but additionally Rein and Heidi had a personal relationship with him based on their mutual interest in indigenous peoples and their cultures.

A few days later, the Sunday after their arrival, Anore took a train ride into the mountains to visit another friend and a camp for troubled youth. Oliver preferred to stay behind to rest and enjoy the quiet and long talks with Rein and Heidi. When Anore returned on Thursday, both Oliver and Anore helped Heidi start some beef drying on the wood stove— one of the skills the Dammanns  hoped to learn from Oliver while he was visiting. Also, Heidi had caribou skins she wanted to tan and turn into mukluks under Oliver’s guidance. That evening The Dammanns, Oliver, and Anore also visited a couple, Helge and Anne Ingstad, who lived up the hill right against the band of forest. At this time Helge was 93 and Anne was 75. Their house was built on land given to them by the government in recognition of their work in anthropology and archelogy. In 1960 Helge discovered signs of a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Anne led teams to excavate the site during the 1960s, revealing an 11th century Norse settlement, proving the Norse had settled in what they called Vinland long before Columbus. It remains one of the most important archeological sites in the world.

Rein and Heidi had long been acquainted with the couple, and had arranged for Oliver and Anore to spend an evening visiting with them, their son-in-law, Edvin, and a granddaughter.

Edvin and another younger daughter were also there tonight as we sat around the table with hot drinks and cookies, surrounded by statues, paintings, a whole wall of books (some 250 years old), a grand piano, stuffed arctic animals, and other artifacts from Alaska. We visited in English and listened to them talk Norwegian. Helge told us about the year he had lived with the Inuit of Anaktuvika Pass in 1949-50, and ate their food and hunted with them. He had brought a generator to run his tape recorder and had recorded many tapes of their songs. Edvin played some for us and the quality after all these years was very good. –Anore Jones, 1993.

Helge Ingstad, Oliver Cameron, Anore Jones, 1993. Photo from Heidi Dammann

By now Heidi was campaigning to persuade Oliver to stay another week, and he was considering it. He was making each of her boys a tool kit to hang from the belt, as they were intrigued by the one he wore, and he wanted time to complete that project and others. On Saturday they went to see the Sami exhibit at the Folk Museum in Oslo. The Sami, or Lapplanders, are the indigenous people of Scandinavia.

Oliver studied the stick framework of the Kota, or tent, and especially the sleds, built like a boat, that the reindeer pulled. He was frustrated because they never displayed both ends of the same belt, so you couldn’t figure how their clever and beautifully decorated antler belt buckles worked. Even worse, they never showed the tools, the key to all these ingenious handmade items of a simple life. Oliver noticed that the model of a sod house had the door hinges put on backwards so the door couldn’t possibly shut. He pointed it out to us and we recognized right away. Then he showed the mistake to the museum attendant who refused to agree, apparently incapable of perceiving these exhibits as actually functioning…Anore Jones, 1993

Their next visit was to Rein’s parents, Erik and Regnhild Dammann, a two-hour trip by bus, ferry, and tram. Erik, an author, environmentalist, and government scholar, had written several books, including The Future in Our Hands, on simple living and fighting pollution, concerns which he held in common with Oliver. Oliver and Anore were treated to a lunch laden with traditional Norwegian dishes, including cheeses, salamis, salted meats, lox, and pickled herring. After lunch Oliver and Erik were able to spend time discussing Oliver’s writing and philosophy while Heidi and Anore took a walk to the shoreline and enjoyed the view of Oslo from there. Anore learned that just across the fjord was the summer house of Roald Amundsen—another famous Norwegian explorer—which was kept just the way he left it in June of 1928 when he disappeared on a rescue mission. Amundsen was known for being the first explorer to reach both the North and South Poles.

Between visiting and exploring the area, it was soon time for another meal.

Oliver had his own food as usual and some mention was made that he could eat the reindeer if it wasn’t cooked up in wheat-based gravy. Heidi got up and brought a plate with neat slices of reindeer kauk, which looked way better to me than the cooked meat. Both Oliver and I enjoyed the kauk although it was far too unorthodox for our hosts to accept at all. -Anore Jones, 1993

Oliver did elect to stay an extra week, and the arrangements were made. They finished drying the meat for Heidi and got started on the mukluks. By the time the second week had flown by, they had finished their projects including the mukluks and the boys’ tool pouches. On Tuesday, February 9th, Oliver and Anore boarded the plane for the long flight back to California.

By the end of February, back in his sod house on the lake, Oliver wrote that he had gradually gotten everything put away, and the familiar routine once again set up.

It looked like an early spring.


Chapter 11 – Routine Interrupted
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