Dick Proenneke – Alone In The Wilderness
“I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn’t cost me a lot of money either.” – Dick Proenneke
Have you ever had one of those days when you are just fed up with all human contact and wondered what it would be like to head out and live in the wilderness by yourself? We’ve all had these moments, we’ve probably said it dozens of times, but nobody ever does it. Nobody unless you’re Dick Proenneke. In the spring of 1968, 52 year old Proenneke arrived in Twin Lakes, Alaska and he would spend the next 30 years of his life living in isolation in a cabin that he hand built.
Dick Proenneke was born in 1916. Like many patriotic American’s he enlisted in the Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the end of the war, Proenneke was discharged and began his career as a diesel mechanic. Proenneke was first introduced to Alaska in the 1950s when he moved there for work and he spent time around the state with several different jobs. His reputation as a skilled mechanic ensured that he always had a job and in his free time he explored the wilds of Alaska.
When he retired to Twin Lakes in 1968, Proenneke set out to build his cabin. The construction would take him 2 years to complete. The final structure was only 10 feet by 12 feet and contained 3 windows that Proenneke had flown in. He also hand crafted a fireplace and hearth from stones gathered by the lakes edge. The roof was a combination of sod and moss that were supported by a series of spruce trees.
What makes this cabin impressive is that Dick Proenneke essentially built it from scratch. He felled the trees stripped the timbers, transported them to his build site, cut and notched every log to fit together precisely. He custom crafted the front entrance door, including the hinges, latches and handle. The fireplace, chimney and hearth were all painstaking built from rocks handpicked by Proenneke. What is even more impressive is that Proenneke used only hand tools to complete this project and most of these tools he hand crafted himself.
Upon the completion of his cabin, Proenneke lived without modern conveniences like electricity or running water. He gathered his food from local sources, fished, hunted and lived off the land. He forged a relationship with Babe Alsworth, a bush pilot who regularly flew in required supplies and correspondence from friends and family. He learned to live by himself and survive year round in this hostile, isolated land that he now called home.
With this amazing feat under his belt, it may surprise some that this was only the beginning of Dick Proenneke’s legacy. Over the next 30 years, Dick Proenneke kept meticulous journals outlining his daily activities, interactions with wildlife and general observations of the Twin Lakes area. He also used 8mm film to document his activities and adventures including the entire process of building his cabin.
In 1973 One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey was published. This book contained journal writings and photographs of Proenneke’s first 5 years at Twin Lakes. Two other publications followed in 2005 and 2010; More Readings From One Man’s Wilderness: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke and The Early Years: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke, 1967-1973.
While these publications do a great job in detailing the life of Dick Proenneke, it was the 2004 documentary Alone In The Wilderness that really brought Dick Proenneke and his accomplishments to a mainstream audience. This hour long documentary pairs Proenneke’s own film footage and his diary entries and highlights his first year while he built his cabin. This amazingly simple documentary is captivating and a first viewing will likely result in repeated viewings as we are sucked into the world of Dick Proenneke.
Proenneke left his Alaskan paradise in 1999 and returned to California. His advanced age (82) and failing health made it difficult for him to continue his isolated life in Alaska. Dick Proenneke passed away on April 20th of 2003 at the age of 86. His cabin still stands on the shores of Twin Lakes. He left his cabin to the U.S. National Parks Service and it was declared a National Historic Site. This cabin, hand crafted with many years of skill and experience is still a popular tourist draw today. This cabin not only stands as the incredible structure that it is, but as a symbol of bygone days and simpler times.
For further details on Dick Proenneke please explore the following links:
Alone In The Wilderness Documentary (First 10 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYJKd0rkKss&list=PLHhsu-Vn6jZpBMVJ5Wncizf0wrCw1C0-V
More information on Proenneke’s Cabin: https://www.nps.gov/lacl/learn/historyculture/proennekes-cabin.htm
Virtual Tour of Proenneke’s Cabin: https://www.nps.gov/lacl/learn/historyculture/proenneke-cabin-virtual-tour.htm
More information on Dick Proenneke: https://www.nps.gov/lacl/learn/historyculture/richard-l-proenneke.htm
Proenneke’s first published work: https://www.amazon.ca/One-Mans-Wilderness-Alaskan-Odyssey/dp/0882405136/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1486231048&sr=8-1&keywords=dick+proenneke