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Richard Proenneke - One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey

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One Man Lives His Wilderness Dream

Aug 2, 2006 (Updated Nov 13, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Easy read; Solid philosophy of life which is increasingly difficult to find today

Cons:Leaves you wanting more

The Bottom Line: A fantastic book that will tug at the dreams of many who value self-sufficiency, wilderness living, and one's own company.


If one is of a certain age and, I suppose, particularly if they are male, there exists a certain, common fantasy involving self-sufficiency, a cabin in the woods, a rifle, a fishing outfit, a modicum of adventure, and "breaking with the establishment." Oh, to have the capricious personality to, on the spur of the moment, get away from people; vacate the mind-numbing drudgery of a 9 to 5 work schedule; working so hard as to be too worn-out by the weekend to play (rationalizing by promising to nearly kill yourself two weeks out of the year by way of 'having fun'); and the non-existence of only earning money so as to "pay the bills." The phrases of a generation wanting to "return to the Earth" or "get back to Nature" hold meaning far beyond politically correct 'eco-speak' and rebellious ideology.

After watching Jeremiah Johnson (1972), observing Robert Redford go from "pilgrim" to legend in a landscape that, according to one of the movie's characters (Del Gue), forms the 'marrow of the World,' you rush to the nearest bookstore and grab copies of Mountain Man and Crow Killer to imbibe more of the real story. Then it's back to school or off to work and the dream is shoved into a corner of your mind to ferment in its own juices.

In 1974, a small film from an even smaller production company digs out the fantasy. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (and the subsequent television series, 1977) may be a trifle tame, but it hits you right where you live. A troubled man walks off into the wilderness with a rifle and ax, learns the way of things, becomes self-sufficient, and shares a few adventures with Nacoma, Mad Jack (played by Denver Pyle; long-time character actor who appeared in movies such as John Wayne's The Alamo and is most notable to younger generations as Uncle Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard), Ben (actually played by a female grizzly named "Bozo" who thought of Dan Haggerty as her 'mate'), and quite a few other critters. Harmony between man and nature. Even to the point where the title character becomes a vegetarian. Cool. Just the way it should be. Then the theme song plays endlessly in your head -

"Deep inside the forest there's a door into another land.
Here is our life and home.
We are staying here forever in the beauty of this place all alone.
We keep on hoping.
Maybe there's a world where we don't have to run.
Maybe there's a time we'll call our own, living free in harmony and majesty.
Take me home. Take me home.
"

Far out. I'm diggin' it.

(If you've already started trippin', you can go to this website and hear the song... http://www.grizzlyadams.net/about.html )

Then the sugary sweet Adventures of the Wilderness Family (1975) and Mountain Family Robinson (1979) movies hint that even a body caught up in modern existence can, in fact, return to the basics. For your health. For the health of your children. It's a better way to live rather than leading a modern-day existence. And, of course, it don't hurt that the Colorado Rockies they retreat to are so beautiful they hurt.

Just gotta do it, man.

But, and this was one of those nagging little 'realities' only lightly touched on in the films, how do I afford to get the land? Homesteadin' just ain't legal no more. Where's the money comin' from for the supplies? What a downer.

A few years later, a movie entitled The Mountain Men (1980) reinvigorates the fantasy. Charlton Heston (Bill Tyler) stands around talking to Brian Keith (Henry Frapp - roughly and only a little loosely based on a real mountain man named Henry Fraeb, partner to Jim Bridger, Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, Milton Sublette, and James Gervias in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company) saying:

"Remember the first time we saw the Tetons...standin' tall...white as a woman's breast...whole country so new, it made a man think he was the first one to set foot on it...you could walk for a year in any direction, with just your rifle, live free and easy, never say 'sir' to nobody..."

YES!!! There IT is!!! I gotta take up a "decent livin'" like "trappin'." A rifle, a fly rod, a possibles bag, an ax, a knife, a bag of sugar, a bag of flour, some salt...

Wait? Ain't there laws agin' that now? Well, you did say you wanted a 'modicum of adventure' - didn't ya?

The Book -

Somewhere in that decade of movies, Whole Earth Catalogs, Foxfire books, solar energy hopes, school, starting a career, gas crises, Iran, paying for the pickup, paying rent, buying groceries.... Let's just say you missed something.

What you missed was a simple little book that first appeared in 1973. In fact, it would take you the better part of three decades to discover a virtual blueprint for what you recall yearning for. It wasn't a series. It wasn't a famous movie with even more famous stars. It wasn't a television series. And it wasn't unrealistic fiction - it was the edited journal of a man who'd actually done it.

In the preface to One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, writer Sam Keith recounts the thought process of his friend, Richard Proenneke, which led to his doing what many only dream of...

"...He was working for a contractor who was being pressured by union officials to hire only union men. Dick always felt he was his own man. His philosophy was simple: Do the job you must do and don't worry about the hours or the conditions.

Here was the excuse Dick needed. He was fifty years old. Why not retire? He could afford the move.

'Get yourself off the hook,' he told the contractor. 'That brush beyond the big hump has been calling for a long time and maybe I better answer while I'm able.'

That was in the spring of 1967.
"

In late 1998, Alaska Northwest Books persuaded Keith to provide an Afterword, updating the story. Why? Because in was in 1998 that Proenneke "entrusted his homestead to the Park Service. His cabin will be maintained as a historic site. He may return to stay in it anytime he wishes. And while he may not make the trip physically again, his spirit will always linger in the perfect notches of his logs."

[Richard Proenneke died in 2003 at the age of 86.]

Released in 1999 for its 26th Anniversary, this "American Wilderness Classic" became the Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award (NOBA). It's 223 pages are almost entirely filled with the entries from Proenneke's journal; kept from 17 May 1968 to 25 September 1969. Keith turns these sometimes short, occasionally stilted, but always insightful and often detailed entries into a flowing story by providing a few, transitional paragraphs almost seamlessly woven into the text. As a friend and former 'partner' of Proenneke's, not to mention having stayed with Proenneke at his cabin, Keith is uniquely qualified for the task.

[At the moment of this review's writing, Amazon.com lists the paperback version at a "new" price of $9.72; with a regular price of $14.95. My local Barnes & Noble had three copies in stock the other night in their travel essay section for the $14.95 price.]

The Story -

It has often been said that "truth is stranger than fiction." It has also been said that "history is a story well told." Personally, I think a better and more relevant statement is: "The truth of a man's relationship with a certain place, at a certain time, is a story compelling enough in and of itself that neither the 'writer' nor the 'reader' need any literary tricks in the telling." Such a statement certainly encapsulates my thoughts about this book.

In 1968, Richard Proenneke hand built, using simple, basic hand tools, a cabin on Upper Twin Lake at Twin Lakes in the Southwestern portion of Alaska. Although more than half of the book is dedicated to the construction period for the main cabin, it is not a stilted "Insert log A into log B" instruction manual that can be easily replicated using Lincoln Log toys. It is the recounting of a lifestyle and, more significantly, the mindset, philosophy, and creativity of a man moved to live the life of simplicity that, arguably, we were all meant to enjoy.

In many ways, the writing reminds me of Louis L'Amour; representing the "complexity of simplicity." You can smell the pitch, hear the rip of the saw, almost taste the fresh air and sourdough biscuits; not to mention feel the pride of accomplishment and the anticipation of the welcome companionship of friends. You learn from simple observations, neatly and almost carelessly stated.

What do I mean? Here are some examples:

It was good to be back in the wilderness again where everything seems at peace. I was alone. It was a great feeling - a stirring feeling. Free once more to plan and do as I pleased. Beyond was all around me. The dream was a dream no longer...I suppose I was here becasue 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? What about my limits? Could I truly enjoy my own company for an entire year? Was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me?...At age fifty-one I intended to find out. (p. 21)

Brown, thin, and light - nothing like a stack of sourdough hotcakes cooked over a wood fire in the early morning. I smeared each layer with butter and honey and topped the heap with lean bacon slices. While I ate I peered out the window at a good-looking caribou bedded down on the upper benches. Now that's breakfast with atmosphere!...Before doing the dishes, I readied the makings of the sourdough biscuits. These would be a must for each day's supper...It was a good morning to pack in the rest of the gear. I put some red beans in a pot to soak and took off...I busied myself getting gear and groceries organized. Anyone living alone has to get things down to a system - know where things are and what the next move is going to be. Chores are easier if forethought is given to them and they are looked upon as little pleasures to perform instead of inconveniences that steal time and try the patience...By suppertime the biscuits were nicely puffed and ready to bake. There was no oven in the stove, but with tinsnips I cut down a coffee can so it stood about two inches high, and placed it bottomside up atop the stove. On this platform I set the pan of three swollen biscuits and covered it with a gas can tin about six inches deep...In about fifteen minutes the smell of the biscuits drifted out to the woodpile. I parked the axe in the chopping block. Inside, I dampened a towel and spread it over the biscuits for about two minutes to tenderize the crust. The last biscuit mopped up what was left of the onion gravy. Mmmmm. (pp. 30 - 31)

A problem. How to clean the million tiny chips and grains of sawdust out of the gravel on the cabin floor? An idea. Pack all the gravel back out and toss it into the lake. The chips and dust stayed on the surface and drifted away. I shoveled the gravel back on the beach, let it drain, and packed it back again. Clean wall-to-wall gravel once more. (p. 57)

Really had a time here this afternoon...here comes a brown bear up my path...He just ambled unconcerned past my big window in the direction of the rear of the cabin. No more had he gone out of sight when I heard sounds that brought me right up out of the chair. That character was trying to climb up the corner of the cabin and onto my new roof!...I slid the .357 magnum from its holster on the wall and stepped out the door...I yelled and touched off a round that exploded like a thunderclap...It didn't have the expected result. Around the corner came the bear in four-paw drive. I scrambled for the door, pulled it shut and gripped a fist down hard on the handle. The bear came slamming against the planks. I felt his weight bulging the upper door and heard the rake of his claws...Maybe it would take the heavy artillery to scare him off. I loaded the ought-six, opened the window, and rested the barrel on the sill. The I turned loose a rebel yell...He must have been a reincarnation of Jeb Stuart. He spun with unbelievable quickness and came on like the cavalry. I drove a slug into the path in front of him...He put on the brakes, whirled in retreat, then stopped...and was gone. (pp. 93 - 94)

Paddling across the still lake, I felt like an Indian hunter returning to a hungry tribe. I glanced up at the high place where I had made the kill. It seemed clouds away...I put the heart, liver, and brains to soak in a pan. I put the bloody flour sacks, the pelt, and the horns into the lake to soak. I hung the meat in the woodshed for the night, cleaned up all my gear, and put it away...The pelt must have weighed 100 pounds when I dragged it from the water...Sheep liver and onions for supper. The liver fried in two minutes to the side. Pink in the middle, full of flavor, and I ate enough of it. Maybe some of that old boy's ability to romp the high places will rub off on me...A satisfying day. The search for meat is over. I hate to see the big ram end like this, but I suppose he could have died a lot harder than he did. (p. 114)

Minus fifty-one degrees. Clear and cemetary-still...I find that it is as much as two degrees colder down on the lake than at the cabin, and there is only difference of four feet in elevation. (p. 136)

A strong wind was blowing when I reached the cabin. I got a fire going. It seemed sluggish so I rapped the stove pipe a few times and the fire came to life. Soon a strange odor came to me. I went outside and saw smoke pouring from the roof. I ran for the water bucket and sloshed it on the trouble spot...That took care of the emergency, but not before the fire had burned through the polyethylene and the tar-paper. Let that be a lesson. Never rap on the stove pipe with the fire going. The draft had carried a chunk of hot soot up and ropped it in the dry moss. After this there will be fire inspection before I leave the diggings. And the moss will be kept damp. It would really shake a man up to return and find the cabin burned to the ground. (p. 167)

Nature provides so many things if one has the eye to notice them. It is a pleasure to see what you can use instead of buying it all packaged and ready-made. Several stumps with just the right flare gave me my wooden hinges. Burls and peculiar branch growths afforded me bowls and wooden spoons and clothes hangers. Driftwood provided me with a curtain rod and my spruce buck horns. I found spruce cones to be as effective as Brillo pads or steel wool to scour my pots. Stones of all colors and shapes were the raw material for my fireplace. When I did resort to manufactured products such as polyethylene, nails, and cement, I felt as though I had cheated. I was not being true to the philosophy I was trying to follow...I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least accomplished something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes...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 upon man. I would be the last to argue that point...but, nevertheless, in a jam the best friend you have is yourself. (pp. 211 - 212)

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. 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. (p. 213)

Time to go...I closed the door and turned the locking lever for the last time...There was a lot of me down there. Sixteen months, but such days are a bonus that don't count in your life span at all...That night during a gather at Babe's place, I felt a civilized cold germ taking hold. (pp. 217 - 218)

Bonus Features -

Twin Lakes is now part of Alaska's Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. As the brochure states:

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is a composite of ecosystems representative of many regions of Alaska. The spectacular scenery stretches from the shores of Cook Inlet, across the Chigmit Mountains, to the tundra covered hills of the western interior. The Chigmits, where the Alaska and Aleutian Ranges meet, are an awesome, jagged array of mountains and glaciers which include two active volcanoes, Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna. Lake Clark, 40 miles long, and many other lakes and rivers within the park are critical salmon habitat to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, one of the largest sockeye salmon fishing grounds in the world. Numerous lake and river systems in the park and preserve offer excellent fishing and wildlife viewing. (see http://www.nps.gov/lacl/)

On this site, you can click a link to the "bookstore" (see http://www.alaskanha.org/ ) and find some bonus material to supplement One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey.

Alone in the Wilderness DVD - At $21.95, this 60 minute film is pieced together from footage shot by Proenneke while at his cabin. (The cover of the paperback book has an inset photo showing Proenneke standing in front of his friend's cabin holding a movie camera.)

More Readings from One Man's Wilderness: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1974-1980 - Costing $24.95 (Amazon.com shows a current listing of $32; but, the price difference may have to do with the fact that the website is the Park serivce's bookstore and the Park service is the one who has produced the book; note the 4-6 week ship date for Amazon), the write-up on the NPS bookstore website states:

The journals of Richard, or Dick Proenneke, are now available in an edited and annotated volume covering the years 1974 through 1980. The nation first became aware of the remarkable life of Dick Proenneke with the publication of One Man's Wilderness in 1973. Master of woodcraft and camp craft, keen observer of the natural world, mechanical genius, tireless hiker and journalist, for 30 years Proenneke lived a storied existence in a small log cabin he built in the Alaska wilderness.

Put out by Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, the work is edited by John Branson, has a listed length of 472 pages, color photographs, bibliography, and index; with an ISBN of 0930931785.

Alaska Silence and Solitude DVD - Listed as 58 minutes long and retailing for $21.95, with the DVD case highlighting a photograph of Proenneke's weathered cabin, the description provided is:

Venture into the remote wilderness of Alaska to experience the spectacular scenery, encounter bull moose, caribou, dahl sheep, grizzly bear, and meet Dick Proenneke who has lived by himself in this one man wilderness for over 30 years. For those who dream of a true wilderness experience in the wilds of Alaska, this video is the next best thing to being there.

And, if that's not enough to sate your interest, then you can always visit. Lake Clark Air & The Farm Lodge provides the opportunity to visit Twin Lakes and Dick Proenneke's cabin. Run by Glen Alsworth, Jr. (grandson of Babe Alsworth, the bush pilot who took Proenneke into Twin Lakes and kept him supplied - see p. 217 - 218 quote above), you can access the necessary contact information and numerous photos of Proenneke at his cabin in 1995 here - http://www.lakeclarkair.com/dick_proenneke.html

It is interesting to compare the photographs on the Lake Clark Air website from 1995 to the 32 pages of color photographs (divided into two, 16 page segments) provided in the book. Let's just say that after 27 years of exposure (at that time) to the Alaskan elements modern homes should look so good.

Final Thoughts -

My grandfather and his father-in-law (my great grandfather) built the house that my grandparents have lived in since 1950; the kitchen is the original cabin and was heated by a wood stove when I was some younger. My grandmother had grown up in the valley and so had my great grandparents. In fact, to this day, a good amount of the woodwork my great grandfather incorporated into the homes around that small town still stands; some of it having been exposed to the elements for almost 100 years.

My grandparents' place has one bathroom and an outhouse out back of the shed. It was an experience in the winter with five kids and four feet of snow on the ground. Being the oldest of the grandkids, I was afforded the opportunity to nibble at this experience from time to time. So much so that I spent a couple of years in my early twenties living 25 miles "over the hill" (how the mountain range is referred to). In fact, it was during that time that I had my best New Year's Eve -

Minus 16 degrees F by 8 pm (a couple weeks later we'd sink to overnight lows of minus 33)... a full moon... an hour's drive home to a house that stood at 48 degrees... stoke up the woodstove... make some frying pan biscuits on top of the stove to go with the Jalapeno seasoned chili spread over brown rice... take a shower (the house had warmed to almost 60 degrees)... put on the long underwear, slide underneath an inexpensive sleeping bag...

Yeah. More than once and in several different locations I've known precisely what Proenneke was referring to when he asked: "...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?" If I could, I'd return to such a life in a heartbeat. For, as with Proenneke, while being simple, somewhat harsh by modern urban dwellers' standards (it was nothing to walk the couple of miles to the movie theater with a windchill in the minus 20's - we'd get one show a week), and not exactly representative of the lifestyles of the rich & famous, it was living rather than existing to pay bills, worry over debts, and collect stuff that, in the end, you rarely use, can't take with you, and mostly takes up space.

Then, of course, there is the couple who've been family friends for nearly 40 years. When retirement was in the offing, they purchased forty acres in the foothills with another couple who had been friends of theirs for even longer. Two cabins were in the process of being built; in fact the one was nearly complete. No electricity. Wood stove heat. "Running" spring water. Hidden in the woods, well off the roads (it was best to take a Jeep or some form of four-wheel drive).

What happened? Health issues stepped in. The property was sold; the cabin (and the trees) were cut down. They used the money to live on the edge of town and pay medical bills. They're content; but HE'S never been quite as happy as he was up "on the forty."

Ah, the indecisiveness or, more accurately, the resignation that comes with aging. The reticence that stems from apathy born of focusing on 'career concerns,' acquisition of wealth, and placement in society's hierarchy. Oh, the clarity of poor, ill-advised, or "it seemed best at the time" decision-making viewed in retrospect. The tumultuous agony of what "might have been." And, the gnawing hunger pangs of dreams left unfed.

It has been said that dreams die hard. The reason they die hard is that they slowly perish from neglect. Even if dreams cannot be lived in a reality like that experienced by Dick Proenneke, they should at least be trotted out and enjoyed as much as possible. Maybe there's a world where we don't have to run and maybe there's a time we'll call our own, living free in harmony and majesty; even if only for a short time - a weekend, a two week vacation, a couple of years, or in retirement.

But, as my grandfather told me many, many years ago: "If there's something you really want to do, DO IT, cause there's going to come a time when you either don't feel like doing it or can't physically do it. And, that time comes faster than you think or are ready for." I'm afraid I have begun to see the truth in my grandfather's warning and wonder, as I crowd close to Proenneke's age at the time of his experience, whether both he and my grandfather may have had a point.

Due to the progress(?) called 'development,' the mumblings from our elected and appointed officials not so much interested in protecting our vanishing 'wildernesses' as in presenting the image or perception of protecting them, and the realities of population growth, there may no longer be an ubiquitous amount of country so new, it makes a man think he's the first one to set foot on it...where you could walk for a year in any direction, with just your rifle, living free and easy, never saying 'sir' to nobody. But, there are places where you can feel like that, even if only for a short time. Remember, as Proenneke points out, time spent in this fashion doesn't count against the rest of your life.

Perhaps, the best philosophy as it relates to your dreams, particularly those dreams which provide "shelter" from the harshness of reality, comes from a portion of the message Proenneke left on the table of his cabin for any who might need the shelter:

...You didn't find a padlock on my door (maybe I should have put one on) for I feel that a cabin in the wilderness should be open to those who need shelter. My charge for the use of it is reasonable, I think, although some no doubt will be unable to afford what I ask, and that is - take care of it as if you had carved it out with hand tools as I did. If when you leave your conscience is clear, then you have paid the full amount...


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