A Different Path
Dick Proenneke was a man of unique character. He was a multi-skilled man who was creative, innovative, highly disciplined, extremely precise, and most of all, comfortable with himself. It is rare to find all of those attributes in one person.
Dick was one seven children. He was born and raised in Primrose, Iowa. He served in the Navy in World War II. During his time in the service he contracted rheumatic fever and was bed ridden for nearly six months. This left a lasting impression on him. For the rest of his life he pushed himself constantly to maintain an extremely high level of physical endurance.
After his discharge from the Navy he was schooled as a diesel mechanic. He quickly became sought after due to his talent and his work ethic. Other interests called and he moved to Oregon and worked as a sheep rancher for a short time.
He first went to Alaska in 1950 with the idea of starting a cattle ranch. The ranch never materialized because he quickly realized that cattle ranching in Alaska was a very "iffy" proposition at best.
He went to work as a heavy equipment operator and mechanic on the Naval base on Kodiak Island. Again, due to his mechanical talent and his willingness to take on the most difficult jobs in the worst working conditions he was in great demand. During this time he also did some commercial salmon fishing. He was frugal and accumulated a cash reserve.
The most significant turning point in his life occurred in 1966 when a retired Navy captain invited him to spend a few weeks at his cabin in a remote area of Alaska. When Dick left Twin Lakes after the vacation, he knew he would return.
The return to Twin Lakes, which is located approximately 170 north east of Anchorage, came a bit quicker than Dick might have thought. Several events, including an accident while working on a piece of heavy equipment that nearly blinded him and pressure to join a construction union, brought him to a decision. In the spring of 1967 he quit his job and went to Twin Lakes. During that summer he cut and peeled spruce logs that he would use to build a cabin. That winter he planned and acquired the supplies he would need.
He returned to Twin Lakes in the spring of 1968, at age 51, and in less than a month, using only a few hand tools, prepared a site and built an 11 by 15 foot cabin. Building a cabin in the wilderness is not a particularly spectacular feat, thousands of people have done it. The precision, the attention to detail is what sets Proenneke's cabin apart. His log joints are perfect. An example of his innovation is the large window that faced the lake. He made a thermopane window out of 2 pieces of Mylar and then devised a way to vent the air space between so that it wouldn't fog up. His goal was to complete the job using natural materials. He felt guilty when he decided to use a layer of polyethylene on his roof. Besides the polyethylene the only materials that he purchased were cement for the fireplace, tar paper, nails (not many), glue, varnish and a 5 inch foam pad for his bed. Except for the cookstove, he constructed virtually everything in the cabin including pots and pans.
Proenneke was an an exceptionally good photographer. He took several cameras, including a 16mm "wind up" movie camera, with him. He filmed the cabin construction as well as animals, birds and the surrounding area.
His original intent was to stay for a year and a half. He wrote in his journal, "I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do. Not just dream about it but to do it. I suppose too, I was here to test myself, not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination."
Proenneke stayed at the cabin through the winter of 1968. He left before freeze up in 1969 to return to Iowa because his father was not well. He returned the next spring and stayed, with the exception of a few trips back to civilization, for the next 29 years! He left in 1998 at age 82 because his health was beginning to fail and the winters were beginning to be harder to cope with. He lived the last years of his life with his brother in California. He died on Easter Sunday 2003.
Throughout the years he acquired most of what he needed, including much of his food, from the area around him. He did fish but he seldom hunted for game. He felt that he could not use all of the meat that a caribou, sheep or moose would provide and it would therefore be a waste. Supplies and food that he could not find or grow were flown in. Friend and bush pilot Babe Alsworth would bring supplies every other month or so for most of the years that Dick lived at Twin Lakes.
Dick was well aware of the dangers of living alone in a remote wilderness area. Even though he gave animals a wide berth when he was observing them, he was attacked by brown bears on several occasions. One of these encounters was described in the book cited below. Fortunately, he was always able to escape without injury.
He had no tolerance for people who trashed the land. After every hunting season, he would travel to the few hunting camps surrounding Twin Lakes and clean up the trash left by the hunters.
During his stay at Twin Lakes, Proenneke meticulously kept journals, recording his thoughts, the weather, ice thickness, animal behavior, and much more. A few years before his death he donated his journals, written on steno tablets, pictures and films to the Alaskan Park Service. He also donated his cabin which is being preserved by the Park Service.
Proenneke was not an isolationist. Nor was he anti-social, he enjoyed the few visitors he had. In later years he served as a volunteer nature interpreter for people visiting the Twin Lakes area. He just found the simple, solitary, self sufficient life to his liking.
His journals written during the first 16 months in the wilderness were converted into a book, One Man's Wilderness by author Sam Keith. It was first published in 1973. It was published again in a new format 1999 and is currently in its 10th printing. A video, Alone in the Wilderness, also covers those 16 months and the construction of the cabin. It was compiled from Proenneke's films. A second video Alaska, Silence and Solitude, features Proenneke and includes some of his archival film.
One might ask what is so special about this man. Dick's life experience is inspirational on many planes. His creativity and determination were exceptional. He found beauty in a very harsh, unforgiving environment. He found satisfaction in his own self sufficiency and in a very basic lifestyle. Rather than avoid it, he welcomed challenge. He was pragmatic yet in many ways a romantic.
Excerpts from Dick's journals:
"I have often thought about what I would do out here if I were stricken with a serious illness, if I broke a leg, cut myself badly, or had an attack of appendicitis. Almost as quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. Why worry about something that isn't? Worrying about something that might happen is not a healthy pastime. A man's a fool to live his life under a shadow like that."
"I have thought briefly about getting caught in rock slides or falling from a rock face. If that happened, I would probably perish on the mountain in much the same way many of the big animals do. I would be long gone before anyone found me. My only wish would be that folks wouldn't spend a lot of time searching. When the time comes for a man to look his Maker in the eye, where better could the meeting be held than in the wilderness?"
"I realize that men working together can perform miracles such as sending men to walk on the surface of the moon. There is definitely a need and a place for teamwork, but there is also a need for an individual sometime in his life to forget the world of parts and pieces and put something together on his own - complete something. He's got to create."
"Man is dependent on man. I would be the last to argue that point. Babe brought me things that other men made or produced. We need each other, but nevertheless, in a jam the best friend you have is yourself."
"I have surprised myself with what I can make with simple tools when a definite need arose. I don't think a man knows what he actually can do until he is challenged."
"I've found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn't cost me a lot of money either. They just worked on my senses. Did you ever pick very large blueberries after a summer rain? Walk through a grove of cottonwoods, open like a park, and see the blue sky beyond the shimmering gold of the leaves? Pull on dry woolen socks after you've peeled off the wet ones? Come in out of the subzero and shiver yourself warm in front of a wood fire? The world is full of such things."