“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace. I was alone – just me and the animals. It was a great feeling – free once more to plan and do as I pleased. ‘Beyond’ was all around me. My dream was a dream no longer. I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do – not just dream about it but 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. What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet? Could I really enjoy my own company for an entire year? And was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me? I had seen its moods in late spring, summer, and early fall, but what about the winter? Would I love the isolation then, with its bone-stabbing cold, its ghostly silence? At age 51, I intended to find out.”
And with those words, I was introduced a couple of years ago to the world of Richard Proenneke (pronounced PREN-ick-ee). Born in the southeast corner of Iowa in 1916, his greatest adventure wouldn’t begin for a half century. He was (unlike me) very skilled with his hands. His carpentry skills served him well in the Navy, and his ability as a mechanic and repairman made him the person people called when a fix was needed. His skills were so in demand that, by the age of 51, he had socked enough money away to retire.
But his retirement would be very different than what many of us might imagine.
Dick Proenneke chucked civilization, with all its convenience and comfort, and headed for Twin Lakes, Alaska. Located roughly 130 miles southwest of Anchorage, it may not seem at first blush to be “the middle of nowhere”, but it was. There was no electricity, no running water, no gas lines, no grocery stores, and no neighbors (if you don’t count Spike Carrithers’ cabin situated on the upper lake). There wasn’t even a road. If anything or anybody got to Twin Lakes, it required walking over the mountains or an airplane with floats. But this was the pristine setting Proenneke sought.
Proenneke first arrived in 1967, when he stayed long enough to cut down and trim the spruce trees he would use to build his cabin as well as select his cabin site. He returned the following May to begin construction. Not wanting to carry a bunch of luggage (remember, transportation was a tremendous issue), he brought only the most basic hand tools, and most of those without handles (for easier packing). His first job was to fashion handles for the tools he would need.
And then he was ready. Four days after his arrival, on May 25, 1968, Dick Proenneke made the first cuts in the first logs of what would eventually become his cabin. Once completed, he would live in Alaska for more than a year, after which he returned home to visit family. He would come back to his cabin in the spring of 1970 and would remain there, living mostly in complete solitude, until age and health issues forced him to leave in 1998, at the age of 82. Proenneke has passed on, but the cabin remains, maintained with its owner’s care by the National Park Service.
One of the coolest things about Proenneke’s time in Alaska is that he filmed it and kept journals. Those records have been turned into several videos and at least one book that chronicles his first year alone in the wilderness. My wife got me the complete video set (and the book) this past Christmas and I’ve already watched the videos several times. I found the book to be equally fascinating. Public Television shows these videos on occasion, but it’s way better just to buy your own set.
For me, there’s something very intriguing about watching a man use his hands and his wits to solve a problem. What makes it more compelling is the fact that this particular man did it in a place of such magnificent beauty, completely unaided by modern technology and helping hands.
Recommended Reading: One Man’s Wilderness – A diary of Dick Proenneke’s first sixteen months in Alaska.