In Praise of Dick Proenneke

In 1967 at the age of 51, Dick Proenneke decided to leave the industrialized world behind and take to the wilderness, with the aim to test himself in the harsh environment of Alaska. After scouring the state to find an ideal location for a home, he settled on a plot on Twin Lakes, in what is now Lake Clark National Park. He set about to build a cabin that first summer, having cut and stacked logs from the surrounding forest the year before. Proenneke preferred to work as simply as possible, using hand tools (including making many of the handles of said tools) and repurposing old materials whenever possible. Outside of some tar paper, polyethylene and nails, the end result is made entirely out of local materials from the land and a masterpiece in log craftsmanship . Dick would live at this site for the vast majority of the ensuing 30 years. The bulk of this period he was alone, with resupplies by plane every 6 weeks or so of groceries and mail from his friend Babe Alsworth. Dick kept journals, took photos and recorded videos throughout his time at Twin Lakes, detailing the goings on of the area, his thoughts and activities. Many of these works have culminated in documentaries and books, the most popular being One Man’s Wilderness:An Alaskan Odyssey, a collection of his early journals.

I was a sophomore in college, in the Chicagoland area with my mom and family on Christmas break in 2012, when I first came across Dick Proenneke. I am still unsure what led me to finding his journals that December. But whatever the path, it led me to the book One Man’s Wilderness. Instantly, I was enraptured by the self reliance and the simplicity of lifestyle as well as the mystique and grandeur of the Alaskan wilderness. Within days I had finished the book and decided I wanted to do that, I had to do that. The only problem was that I had no skills, barely knowing even how to swing a hammer. The following week, in another strange series of discoveries, I came across NOLS and their program in Alaska and the rest is history.

Dick Proenneke is the reason I’m in Alaska today and he still serves as a grand inspiration in many parts of my life. His inspiration was one of the reasons in which I decided to move to Wiseman and try out living a subsistence lifestyle. He was one of the inspirations behind wanting to build my own house and pursue the skill of carpentry. He is one of the reasons I love reading and writing just about anything about Alaska. It was nearly a sacred moment back in the summer of 2019 when Asa and I flew into Twin Lakes country and over his cabin. The fulfillment of a dream and the continuation of another.

Proenneke has inspired thousands, including my wife, Alana, and many other people within Alaska today. There’s no telling how many people have come up to the state, at the very least just to visit, as a result of him. Nonetheless, there are those who try and diminish what he did saying things like “there are plenty of people who do that up here, they just don’t write about it.” To a certain extent that is true. There are plenty of people who live in log cabins, plenty of people who watch and hunt wildlife, and plenty of people who do the necessary things it takes to run a homestead. However, there is almost nobody who lives in a cabin built with hand tools and repurposed goods from the surrounding environment, while also completely eschewing the use of power tools. Just as there is almost nobody who lives alone, without contact with other human beings, for at least a month at a time for nearly 30 years. That’s the difference. Proenneke lived his values and didn’t compromise for ease or to please others. And it is the reason why over 50 years later he still serves as a grand inspiration to many and will continue to do so going forward.

For those interested in learning more about Dick Proenneke, I’d recommend reading the following books, the first two of which are an unedited collection of his journals over his first 10 years at Twin Lakes. One Man’s Wilderness (linked above), is a shorter introduction to his work with some editing from Sam Keith. The final recommendation, First Wilderness, is a book from the editor of the first book and some of his experiences with Proenneke in Alaska prior to him living at Twin Lakes.

The Early Years: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1967-1973

More Readings from One Man’s Wilderness: The Early Years: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1974-1980

First Wilderness: My Quest in the Territory of Alaska

There are also multiple documentaries that use his footage. There are only previews available online but they are available for purchase and generally available in most libraries.

Alone in the Wilderness

Alone in the Wilderness Part 2

The Frozen North

Alaska: Silence and Solitude

One Man’s Alaska

1 Comment

  1. I loved to watch and re-watch the videos…

    Even now years after I stopped living in the woods whenever I watch some clips I feel a kinship to him.

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