Echo man’s Alaskan adventure started in the mid-’80s

GroceryStoreOver the course of time hundreds of brave, ambitious, industrious and perhaps even questionable individuals left the “lower 48” for an entirely new adventure: homesteading in Alaska.  But only one of these adventurers has the claim of being the very last person to secure a homestead under the Federal Homestead Act of 1862.

Duane Ose, born and raised on a farm near Echo, Minn., is that person. A 1960 graduate of Echo High School, he enlisted in the Army in 1964 spending three years in Korea as a U.S. Army engineer.  After service, he returned home and started his own company selling and delivering concrete.

In 1982 he was invited to Alaska for a summer visit with his cousin Mickey Ose.

“I was tremendously impressed with the vast wilderness.  It grew on me rather suddenly. I could see tremendous expansion opportunities for this beautiful country, but I just wanted the wilderness experience,” said Duane. “So I explored the back country when I was up there visiting my cousin.  It was then I found out the Homestead Act of 1862 was still in existence in that area.  Two 30,000 acres had been opened up with one of these areas called the ‘Lake Minchumina Land Settlement Area.’ But I didn’t want a lakeshore claim.  Mosquitoes love the low lands.  Also permafrost is prevalent in low lands sheltered from the sun. I didn’t want to build on stilts.”

What he really wanted was a hilltop area, with a distant view to the McKinley mountain range.

“The next day I found my way into the Federal Land Office in Anchorage, specifically the BLM (Bureau of Land Management).  I picked up every folder, brochure, even $20 for a high altitude black and white photo of this Lake Minchumina area.  And also something called a staking application; the paperwork for filing a claim.”

Ose found out that 64 claims had been filed as soon as the Lake Munchimina Area opened in December 1982.  All the best shorelines were claimed.  But Ose had other thoughts.  “Being of Norwegian decent I loved the hills.  And I knew mosquitoes would be less an issue than down by a lake area.”

That hilltop claim proved to be a bit of a challenge however.  People filing the 64 claims down in the lake area simply flew in; then walked ashore and staked out their property.  “But I wanted to do it the old fashioned way like our homesteaders back in Minnesota.  So with my 15-year-old son, Dan, we flew to an airport adjacent to Lake Minchumina which used to be an airfield when the U.S. was ferrying bombers to Russia in WWII.  We unloaded our provisions, locked up at the airfield what we didn’t need with us. So with an 80 pound backpack on Dan, a 100 pound pack on me, we started the hike to stake out our claim.  This was July 4, 1985, and it truly was my Independence Day!”

Ose chuckles when he tells of securing tickets to fly up to this lake area.

“The young lady at the ticket counter asked if we were going to the lake for trophy fishing.  I told her we were going to hike to the ‘Federal Land Settlement Area’ to find land to stake.  The look on her face was telling me she thought I was crazy.  I said no more.”

That first day of hiking the father/son duo mostly used the more open lakefront shoreline. With a breeze off the lake, mosquitoes were not an issue.  But once they headed inland the mosquitoes “….came on like a horde.  We had musk oil and Ben’s 100 mosquito repellent.  Without that you’re going to be hurting really bad,” said Duane, a former Scout Master back in Minnesota and thanks to his Army engineering experiences, already skilled at living and thriving under extreme conditions.

Ose knows full well the challenges when hiking unprepared.  After returning to Minnesota from the summer with his cousin Mickey, Duane spent the next three years studying and preparing in detail what needed to be done to stake his claim on this remote Alaskan hilltop.  But he was ready.  He knew he and son Dan had 56 miles of hiking ahead, each with a fully loaded backpack, plus hills and sloughs, mosquitoes and heat.

“Our shortest day we covered only two miles in 18 hours; our longest we covered eight miles in 18 hours,” he said. “A  four man Eureka tent was our shelter each night.  It was a North American jungle experience struggling sometimes through 2 feet of moss. We didn’t want to sprain an ankle or hurt ourselves, so we walked carefully and were well prepared with medicines.  We knew how to treat our water. And in these efforts it’s important to consume a lot of water.

“One day the temp reached 100 degrees; we were scaling a hill and had run out of water.  I told Dan to stay in the tent while I walked down the hill looking for water.  But no water, so what was I going to tell my son?  I sat down to think of how I was going to explain this ‘forced march’ without water, and no breakfast.  What I sat down on looked like a big sofa, but it was a moss-covered, sponge-like mound.  My pants got wet sitting there.  I reached down an arm’s length into that moss sponge and came up with a handful of wet, whitish looking moss.  I squeeze and moisture dripped.  So that day we filled both our canteens with mossy water.  We purified that stuff so it was safe for drinking.  But that was our solution for that rather perilous experience.”

After 16 days of strenuous hiking Duane and Dan reached the spot Duane had identified on his map as his claim site. “For a long moment I stood looking.  A tingling came rushing over me.  Dan was looking out over this vast wonderful view.  He said, ‘Just like a picture, Dad.’  “Yup, this is where the front window will be with a deck.  Drive that claim stake in.  This is it,” related Duane.

And how did 15-year-old Dan handle this remarkable adventure?   Duane remarked, “I’m extremely proud of him.  I suspect we both developed a new respect for each other and how important and rewarding it can be to function as a team.  We used topographic maps to pinpoint our locations after each day of hiking.  That was how I knew it was 57 miles of zigzagging through these woods, hills, creeks and bogs.

“And the beauty of this spot.  Looking due south we could see Mt. Denali’s crest glistening in the sun. Plus we have water, wild game, plenty of big trees for shelter.  Our angel has been guiding us I shared with Dan.  He agreed.”

Ose had three possible choices. The first claim choice provided 80 acres of land but with the requirement that this had to be generating income shortly after settling and building.  A second choice was a 5-acre headquarters site where you could set up guide services for visitors to this remote area.  But again Ose didn’t like the idea of having to prove an income off the claim.  The final choice was a 5-acre hillside point strictly for homesite purposes without having to prove any income.
“So this was my choice. Heavy wilderness area with my proving property lines brushed off (trimmed down) leaving me with a piece 360 feet wide and 660 feet long.  The next year (1986) we had to build a habitable dwelling site much like our forefathers.  So we first built a hillside dugout.  I brought in a chainsaw mill so I cut my own lumber while my helper (Jeff Peterson from Wood Lake) did the digging and the excavation.  After supper we’d do the nailing of the fresh-cut birch lumber.  Now we’re mid-September on into November so we needed a roof and fire box to keep us warm at night.”

That dugout was sort of cozy being 11 feet long, 9 feet wide and 9 ½ feet high.  “I found out you need to have a high ceiling to hang things.  I call it a two-step cabin because it was 2 steps to everything in that place… the bed, the table, the kitchen stove.  But it was something that gave me a good feeling of how our forefathers made things work in their early pioneers days,” said Ose.

DSCN2694His Alaskan adventures continue. He has written his first book aptly titled Alaskan Wilderness Adventure.  October 1986 the Homestead Grant BLM office in Anchorage was closed and thus leaving Duane Ose with the unique distinction of the last U.S. citizen to file and claim a free piece of U.S. property.  Because of his military time, proving his Alaskan claim required only five months living during a one-year span. Nonmilitary claimants need to live on their property five months a year over five years time.  Also because he’s military he didn’t need to pay for the official government surveying of his property.  However that 5-acre claim wasn’t quite free.

“The land cost me 12 ½ cents per acre.  That cost originated way back in 1862 with the original designation of the Homestead Act passed by the United States Congress.”

Those first couple of years Ose had good summer help building his dugout from friends back home, including two of his sons.  But before starting construction of their current home and guest lodge, a neighboring Alaskan lady advised Ose that he first needed a wife.  Duane and his first wife were divorced, so this Alaskan adventure was without a female partner.

He smiles when he says Rena, his current lady, was a “mail order” wife.

“When down in the states, I flipped through the back pages of a magazine called The Globe.  One page was ads for men; one page was ads for women.  Rena was one of 30 that I had picked out.  I started corresponding and that eliminated most of the women.  Via letters, videos, and phone calls I narrowed it down to three.  Then with passport in hand I went to visit my three finalists. Rena, from Hamilton, Ontario, was the second lady.  It seemed good.  We visited some more, fell in love and got married.”

Shortly the two newlyweds were motoring to Alaska, each driving their own car.  A float plane flew them to the lake area where Duane had built his dugout. But it was a 3 ½ mile hike from the lake shore to Duane’s property.  Because the plane was late, it was about 2 a.m. before Duane was able to carry his new bride across the threshold of Duane’s new dugout. It doesn’t get dark during the summer that far north. The plane would not be back for six months!

Rena’s take on this new adventure? “Well it was what it was…..a dugout in a hillside. I used 5-gallon buckets for storage of flour, pancake mix and sugar.  These buckets fit under the bed.  One time I forgot to mark the cans.  Made a batch of cookies and a cake but turned out I used pancake mix instead of flour.  You could bounce those cookies off the wall,” she laughed.

Her ad in The Globe read (according to Duane) “I walked the Northwest Territory to Alaska. I like the cold; can’t stand the heat.”   Both were in their mid-40s back in 1986-87; both still exhibit good health though Rena now has a heart stent.   That hole in the ground eventually turned into a three-story log house encompassing over 2,000 logs said Duane.  “It took us nine years to get this completed.  That was stripping the logs, sanding the logs, and painting the logs….all done by Rena,” related her husband.  But these folks only had about five months of “summertime” work for this undertaking, which included downing the timber in the hillside below, then cutting and dragging it up to the building site.  So they could start working immediately when returning each spring they even stockpiled some of the cut timber inside the house each fall before they left their claim site.

The coldest they’ve measured so far is 45 below.  And winter days are virtually 20+ hours of darkness; just the opposite in summer.  They still don’t have electrical power lines, but thanks to solar panels and a generator, they get along very well. Yes, they even have Internet access. Their wilderness log cabin has grown into a 30 foot by 40 foot home with three bedrooms and bath at that third level. The basement even contains a 10 foot by 10 foot cellar with constant temps at 38-40 degrees.

Thanks to generous gardening plus moose and bear, the Ose’s are virtually 100 percent self-sustaining. “For a weekend warrior roast bear once or twice a year might work.  But if you’re going to live on bear meat, forget it,” said Ose.  Rena and Duane are now 70 and 71.  Yes religion prevails.  Rena simply saying “‘I talk to God just like I’m now talking to you.”  Duane puts it this way, “I’m closer to God when I’m out there in our wilderness. It’s easier for me to talk one on one with God out there than it is back here in Minnesota with all our distractions.”

The Ose’s were back home in November.  Duane’s mother passed away shortly before Thanksgiving Day however he got back to Minnesota for some private conversation with his mother before her passing.

“She wanted to say goodby to her little boy,” smiled Duane.

Contributor Dick Hagen interviewed Duane and Rena on the Ose home farm, a few miles northeast of Echo (Yellow Medicine County). You can read more about Ose at www.osemountainalaska.com.