Only in Alaska can reality prove stranger than reality TV, and when the two converge, the outcome is near unbelievable.
Consider the case of 78-year-old Duane Ose who off and on for years lived underground far from anywhere in the foothills of the Alaska Range only to emerge, find a woman to marry, and proceed to build with her a beautiful, three-story log cabin over the hole in a hill far from nowhere that he’d named Ose Mountain.
Now Duane’s wife, Rena, is dead. The cabin has been deeded to two contestants who won it in an English reality TV show. Duane has married a younger woman. She and he are arguing Duane was bilked out of the cabin, and they’re trying to reclaim it but can’t get to it because law enforcement authorities in the Central Alaska city of Fairbanks told air-taxi services not to fly them to Ose Mountain because Duane no longer owns it.
So the newlyweds are shacked up in a Fairbanks Holiday Inn trying to figure out what to do next while ranting on Facebook about the loss of the cabin and family members they believe are trying to sabotage the ailing Duane’s return to the wilderness.
Approaching his 79th birthday in January, Duane has already battled colon and prostate cancer, daughter Carol Hansen said during a telephone interview over the weekend from her dad’s old, home state of Minnesota, and last summer Duane suffered a heart attack.
Meanwhile, a past hip injury makes it difficult for him to walk. She doesn’t think her father fit to return to the now freezing wilderness for the winter, noting that since about the middle of the decade Duane and Rena had been moving into Fairbanks to live in an apartment through the cold season because of the difficulty the two of them faced trying to keep the three-story cabin warm with only wood for heat.
Duane and new wife, Ellie-Mae Blair, however, have a wholly different view of the situation.
In a rambling post on Duane’s Facebook page, he or she or both of them have posted a long list of complaints against Hansen and Duane’s other children including that “4. They MADE FUN OF Duane with hurtful comments Like: YOU ARE TOO OLD, You are CRAZY, you are LOCKED in a Basement, You are Drugged, You are Spending my inheritance, You are NOT SAFE to be in Alaska, You are not safe on the mountain, and Finally, YOU are not You??!! Crazy hurtful lunatics
“5. They HATE I haven’t taken Rena’s ashes to fly over the mountain…but they threaten my new pilot to Not go to MY Ose runway. George chips in here and had my hunting guns mailed and ADDRESSED Exclusively to himself and tricked me into telling him name of my new pilot so he could tell Mark and Emily Trolls and assist in harassing police for them, giving foreigners my private information and flight plans and other helpers.”
Duane has authored several books about his adventures in the Alaska wilderness, and the grammar, punctuation and random capitalization in those books is not at all like that in the Facebook posts quoted verbatim above. He has yet to respond to a request for an interview.
The “George” he refers to is the pilot who used to fly him to Ose’s Mountain but is wintering in Texas now.
Hansen said she is worried about her father’s mental health.
“They’re still trying to find a pilot to fly them, but no one wants to take them there,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
“He doesn’t have a place to go. He packed up his apartment (in Redwood Falls, Minn.). His lease ended in August. He put all his stuff in his car that is parked at a friend’s house.”
The child of Duane’s first wife – Rena was his second – Hansen is not exactly a fan of the new Mrs. Ose, a blonde who has posted what might best be called pin-up pictures on Duane’s Facebook page.
But now this story is getting ahead of a tale that starts – as do so many Alaska stories – with a dream of life in the wilderness.
“My dad grew up walking in the woods,” Hansen said, “hunting and fishing. He was a Boy Scout leader.”
The owner of a successful concrete contracting business in Minnesota, Duane was accidentally shot by Hansen’s mother in 1978 and afterward began collecting Social Security disability payments. The government support offered him freedom he’d never known as a working man.
Four years later, he and Hansen’s mother divorced, and Duane followed an “Into the Wild” dream north. Unlike a young Chris McCandless, the subject of a now-famous tale of struggle and death in the Alaska wilderness, Duane had the skill, the experience and the financial support to make his dream a success.
A promotion for one of his books claims “he and his wife, Rena, were the very last persons to file a claim under the Federal Homestead Act of 1862 for a piece of property Duane describes as ‘a giant, fertile garden bowl, cupped warmly in God’s loving hands.'”
The reality is that little in the 49th state is “cupped warmly in God’s hands” but for a few short months of summer, if that, and Duane’s homesteading predated Rena’s arrival. For several years in the early ’80s, Hansen said, her dad – who always stayed in touch with her mother and family – bounced back and forth between Alaska and Echo, Minn.
Eventually – either in 1986 or 1987 – she said, he moved north permanently and settled onto a homesite in the Lake Minchuminia area about 80 miles northwest of Mount Denali, and not all that far from where McCandless starved to death in an abandoned bus.
“He built himself a 12-by-15 foot dugout in the ground,” Hansen said. “He lived there for a year or two by himself.”
Lonely, he posted an advertisement for female companionship in a magazine when next he returned to Minnesota. That was how met Rena, a resident of New Brunswick, Canada.
“She told him, ‘You’re going to marry me, and we’re going to go back,” Hansen said. “They lived there 10 years building that house” before finally moving into it to grow old together.
Too old eventually for the wilderness where life is inherently hard even without a massive cabin to heat when the temperatures in Central Alaska drop to 50 degrees below zero or colder.
In such conditions, a man has to cut, haul and split a lot of wood to heat even a 12-by-15 feet dugout in the ground. Wood for a multi-story cabin requires far more labor. And then there is the grind of daily gathering snow or ice to melt for water.
Not to mention the experience of visiting the outhouse in extreme cold.
This is a life that wears people down. So when the illnesses that tend to come haunting the elderly began to appear, Duane and Rena started looking for a way to escape the wilderness outpost they’d come to love. But for that, they needed to recoup the money they’d poured into their wilderness adventure.
Chartering airplanes to fly to remote corners of Alaska costs hundreds of dollars. Costs quickly run into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars when you start flying in building and other supplies needed to live in the wild.
“For the last six years, they’d been trying to sell the house,” said Hansen. “Rena really wanted running water.
“They didn’t get anywhere.”
It was during these years Duane hit on the idea of pitching his story of life in the wilderness to producers of Alaska reality TV shows, which have their own little cult following. A number of U.S. producers were interested, Hansen said, but wanted to add their own, soap-operaesque spin to the telling as is often the case.
“My dad didn’t want to be part of that,” Hansen said. “He wanted to tell his own story.”
Eventually, Duane’s desire for control led to the couple hooking up with TwoFour media, which produced a show titled “Win the Wilderness: Alaska” for the BBC.
“How far would you go to escape the 9 to 5,” the trailer for the show teased. “In the depths of Alaska, 100 miles from the nearest road, six British couples risk it all to win an extraordinary wilderness home.”
“He and Rena were paid six figures,” Hansen said. “They got more money than they were ever going to get out of the cabin by selling it.”
The show aired in six episodes that largely featured cheechakoes bumbling in the wilderness or semi-wilderness, usually far from Ose Mountain. Duane then offered sage advice on what sort of couple he and Rena wanted to take over the cabin.
“We’re not just looking at practical skills now,” he revealed in the “Trekking into a glacier” episode. “We’re looking for a couple that will weather the storms of whatever comes along. The greenhorns have to have survival instincts. They have to be able to adapt.”
Given that Ose Mountain is a long way from the nearest glacier, those instincts would be of more use than any glacier trekking skills. The Oses didn’t appear to join the British couples on any of their various outings, all of which appear guided by others, but they did eventually pick a winner of the cabin.
“In the final episode of ‘Win the Wilderness,’ the two remaining couples fly to Ose Mountain one last time. In just 48 hours, Duane and Rena will reveal which couple should take over their home on Ose Mountain, but first the couples must prove their worth. Arriving to a boarded-up house, Duane and Rena surprise the couples by not actually being there to greet them,” the Win the Wilderness website says.
“The next morning the couples wake up to the sound of an incoming plane and Duane and Rena’s arrival. After a quick catch-up, both pairs are put to work on two crucial final tests….In the evening Duane and Rena invite each couple to sit down with them, one on one, to hear their reasons why they wish to be the next owners of their home.
“The next day Duane and Rena take an emotional, final tour of the home they spent over 30 years building, before delivering their verdict and naming the new owners of Ose Mountain.”
The winners were sheep farmers Emily Padfield, 37, and Mark Warner, 53, from Warwickshire, who were planning to spend the summer at Ose Mountain until the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to that idea – as if this story didn’t need yet another bizarre twist.
“Fortunately, they say that they have friends in Alaska that are looking after Ose Mountain while they are away and are in constant touch with them to know everything that has been happening. An issue for the couple though, when they do finally try to go to Ose, is Emily’s health insurance and the whole immigration process, but hopefully, it will all work out soon,” The Cinemaholic website reported in April.
Only weeks later, Rena died after heart surgery in a Minneapolis hospital. Her ashes were to have been scattered over Ose Mountain, but that has yet to happen.
Hansen said that Rena figured her odds were not good going into the surgery.
“She had all her final documents in order,” Hansen said. “She had directions for him on what to do with her ashes. She did everything for him. She’d been doing everything for him. He was on the computer all the time. He’s been into Facebook for years.”
Facebook is where he met Blair, the magazine connection with Rena having worked out so well Daune apparently decided to give the electronic version a try.
“She talked him into getting out of his apartment,” Hansen said. “They met for the first time in Fairbanks. They got married a week later.
“We know a lot about her, and it’s not good.”
Padfield and Warner credit the new Mrs. Ose with turning their Alaska dream escape into a growing Alaska nightmare.
Duane’s “texts certainly used words I’ve never seen Duane use,” Warner told The Sunday Times in England. “You can almost imagine Ellie-Mae banging her fingers through the keyboard – some of her statements are so irrational.”
“My dad kind of went off the deep end a bit after Rena died,” Hansen said. She’s worried Ellie-Mae might simply be trying to cash in on Duane’s life-insurance policy. He reported on his Facebook page that he was doing five sets of 50 pushups per day.
Hansen questioned whether that is a good idea for an old man with a heart condition, and she wondered if Ellie-Mae is seeing to it that her dad is taking his meds as religiously as Rena saw to it.