A Tale of a Simple Legendary Man
On May 21st, 1968 Richard “Dick” Proenneke entered into the Wilderness, leaving behind civilisation & its comforts, retiring from his job, society & the companionship of another human being. He built a home for himself where he lived alone for the next 30 years. He was 51 years old.
The home was the pristine untouched wilderness of Alaska at Hope Creek on the Twin Lakes. Twin Lakes is a complex of two large lakes in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. It contains a 9.7 km long Upper Lake and a smaller 6.5 km long Lower Lake, joined by a short connecting stream. Hope Creek flows into the Upper Lake.
Dick Proenneke maintained a daily journal of his life amidst nature & the wild. He also documented his Alaskan Odyssey with the help of a tripod-mounted 16mm wind-up Bolex camera. It is his journals, camera footage, accounting of his life and his careful observations of nature around him, recorded meteorological data that have provided a great insight into the flora & fauna of the region and has been very helpful to nature & wildlife conservationists & practitioners.
Alone in the Wilderness is a documentary put together by Bob Swerer using the photo and video footage documented by Dick and the script from his journals & from “One Man’s Wilderness” (1973), a book written by Sam Keith based on Dick’s journals & photography. It is a 57-minute awe-inspiring journey of a man’s announcement of freedom, his self-reliance, his message of deliberate and purposeful living and most importantly his unadulterated love for nature and the wilderness outside civilisation, the ‘beyond’ as he calls it.
This inspirational documentary showcases Dick’s life at Twin Lakes over his first winter. It was the winter of 1968, where he recorded 28 inches of ice & a temperature dip to minus 43 degrees Celsius on the second day of January 1969. It was a winter he had started preparations for in the summer of 1967 –when he harvested & piled peeled spruce logs, ready to be used the next year. In the late spring of 1968, Dick set out to build his cabin, using his own hands & hand-made tools.
He identifies a vantage location, clears an area of bush 20 feet by 20 feet and works the next few months building his cabin. He makes his own tools–a mallet from a spruce chunk and handles for his wood augers, wide-bladed Chisel & the files that he’s packed without the handles. As he makes careful custom-fit saddle notches on the logs, placing them on top of each other, one can only be thankful for Dick’s meticulous documentation of his project and more importantly, be amazed by his rugged self-reliance and his strong work ethic in his untiring precise ‘no boy scouts’ work. Everything for the cabin is hand-crafted by him using nature’s resources – including his cooking spoons, the Dutch door with interlocking wooden hinges (!), the wooden lock (!!), the lake beach gravel spread over the cabin floor area to the river stones for the chimney.
There is something meditative about watching him work. This man loves to work with his hands and work a job to completion. His years of work as a sought after diesel mechanic, heavy equipment operator and repairman give him the required skills to build a house, but clearly, it is his tenacity, high adaptability and acceptance of and surrender to the natural way of life that helps him make the wilderness his home.
The cabin occupies 11 feet by 15 feet of the cleared bush, has a large window with an open vista of the Upper Lake and is sufficient for a man of simple needs. He rues the fact though that the tarpaper and the polyethene used for the roof are not sourced from the ‘true wilderness’. This is the only digression in building his cabin from the nature around him and reflects Proenneke’s unshakeable character and ethic.
With his trademark wry sense of humour, he’ll tell you that he’s a “better builder than farmer”, though his garden yields a healthy crop of rhubarb, onions, potatoes, peas, carrots, beetroots and radish. He is occasionally visited by his friend and bush pilot “Babe” who brings him food and orders from the mainland.
On days that Proenneke isn’t working on his cabin, he walks the mountains or takes the canoe for a paddle down the lakes – recording the life around him and taking a “long look into the heart of the high places”.
He makes a record of all the animals he sees – sheep, ram, ptarmigan, caribou, moose, a mother bear with her cubs and even the elusive wolverine. Dick Proenneke spent his first 16 months at Twin Lakes, went back to the mainland to visit family and then came back to make his cabin on Twin Lakes his permanent home for the next 30 years. He lived alone with occasional visits by his brother and friends, himself occasionally visiting his family over the course of 30 years. He left the Twin Lakes at the age of 82.
He left his cabin to the National Park Service. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. (The NRHP is the US government’s official list of sites marked for preservation.) Today his cabin is a popular visitor attraction at the Lake Clark National Park.
Alone in the Wilderness reminds one of Thoreau’s experiment, captured in his noted work Walden. Naturalist and Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau spent 2 years, 2 months & 2 days living independently & in isolation in a cabin he built near Walden Pond – the book is a reflection of his time there.
He undertook this experiment to remove himself from society so as to gain a more objective understanding of it, to live simply and be self-reliant (read “Self-Reliance” essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor). The book is a bible for all naturalists who seek to “live deliberately”, understand the need for personal introspection and the importance of living simply. Unlike Proenneke, Thoreau left the woods after his experiment. In the conclusion of Walden, he writes –
“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”
We do not know if Dick Proenneke decided to make the wilderness his home as an experiment or a project. We do not know if he chose to seek the purity of nature just to escape the impiety of civilisation. What we do know is that he chose to chase his dream, to push his limits. He led an exemplary life by living simply and responsibly. He derived a deep sense of fulfilment from doing a job well and doing it completely. He makes his own cranberry sauce (boy, would I like a spoon!), foraged his own food – hunting and fishing only for subsistence. He doesn’t revel in taking another creature’s life – he makes 1 kill to last him for his first winter. (Dick evolved from subsistence hunter and stopped hunting in 1980). He is happy with the simple joys – on receiving knit socks from his friends, he says it’s “just like Christmas”.
Everybody wants to escape to off-the-grid living today. What would we not do to simplify our lives? But (we let) our lives run on those very rails that threaten to derail us at times. We are the lotus-eaters, too attached to the conveniences of civilised life, the maximum work our hands do manually is ‘follow’ and ‘like’ social trends or raise them off our armchairs in indignation. Can we break free from the ennui of everyday (non)-living?
Dick Proenneke’s life is an inspiration and must have been extremely soul-satisfying. There is a lesson in it for us. Perhaps we can still listen within and take our next step, just perhaps?