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Hard Core Onelers: Dick Proenneke (part 2) September 3, 2009

Posted by Onely in Great Onelies in Real Time, Great Onely Activities, Profiles.
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Welcome to the Hard-Core Edition of our series, Great Onelers In Real Time. Today we are talking about back-to-nature afficionado extraodinaire, Mr. Dick Proenneke. We’ve covered him before, but he’s so hard-core he needs a second post. 

I just finished reading the book about Proenneke’s first year in the Alaskan wilderness, where he built his own cabin using only hand tools and white spruce trees (ok, with some polypropylene and tar paper flown in for a roof). One Man’s Wilderness is a collection of Proenneke’s journals compiled and edited by his longtime friend Sam Keith. In his journals, Proenneke reveals his respect for and enjoyment of his fellow man. In this post, I want to emphasize that even though he spent most of his last thirty years living by himself in a cabin next to a remote mountain lake, he didn’t do it because he disliked people. Sometimes loners or singles’ rights activists are viewed as asocial or even anti-social. Dick Proenneke was neither. 

In one journal entry, he decides to build bunk beds instead of a single bed because he “might have company”. Remember, he’s forty miles and a float plane ride from the nearest town. But he still wanted to be prepared for guests. He muses how he’d like his brother to come stay for a few weeks and see the beauty of Twin Lakes. When the supply pilot Babe arrives every few weeks, Proenneke looks forward to the letters he receives from friends and family back home. In turn, he writes long letters back to civilization–that is, when he isn’t working on his understated, quietly joyful journal entries that describe how thrilled he is to be making his own way in the wilderness with his own two hands. The following essay excerpt is taken from One Man’s Wilderness and unlike the journal entries in the book, may have been composed by Sam Keith using his ample knowledge of Proenneke’s outlook and writing style. Keith was friends with Proenneke  for over 40 years, ever since they worked together at Kodiak Naval Base in Alaska. He also spent two weeks at the hand-hewn cabin (presumably that extra bunk came in handy after all). So we can assume that the Dick would concur with the below “Reflections” as related by Keith:

Needs? I guess that’s what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people. . . Funny thing about comfort–one man’s comfort is another man’s misery. Most people don’t work hard physically anymore, and comfort is not easy to find. It is surprising how comfortable a hard bunk can be after you come down off a mountain.

What a man never has, he never misses. I learned something from the big game animals. Their food is pretty much the same day to day. I don’t vary my fare too much either, and I’ve never felt better in my life. I don’t confuse my digestive system, I just season simple food with hunger. Food is fuel, and the best fuel I have found is oatmeal and all the stuff you can mix with it, like raisins and honey and brown sugar; meat and gravy and sourdough biscuits to sop up the juices with; a kettle of beans you can dip into every day; rice or spuds with fish, and some fresh greens now and then.

Proenneke never forgets those of us back in civilization who are making his retreat possible, but he knows that no handsome prince is going to ride a white horse up those mountains: 

I realize that men working together can perform miracles such as sending men to walk on the surface of the moon. There is definitely a time and a place for teamwork, 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 on man. I would be the last to argue that point. Babe brought me things that other men made or produced. We need each other; but nevertheless, in a jam your best friend is yourself.

Proenneke even addresses the age-old question posed to (and by) singles everywhere: What if you die alone?

I have often thought about what I would do out here if I were stricken with a serious illness, if I broke a leg, cut myself badly, or had an attack of appendicitis. Almost as quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. Why worry about something that isn’t? . . . I have thought briefly about getting caught in rock slides or falling from a rock face. If that happened, I would probably perish on the mountain in much the same way many of the big animals do. I would be long gone before anyone found me. My only wish is that folks wouldn’t spend a lot of time searching. When the time comes for a man to look his Maker in the eye, where better could the meeting be held than in the wilderness? 

Copious Readers, have you done any of these things described below? If not, what other Very Proenneke Moments have you experienced? 

I have found that many of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. . . 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? Put on dry woolen socks after you’ve peeled off the wet ones? . . . The world is full of such things. 

Congratulations, Dick Proenneke–TWO TIME winner of the Hard Core Oneler award! 

–Christina

Comments»

1. Laurence - September 3, 2009

Thanks, that was great to read, especially since I just got back from camping today. Living in the wilderness is a pure, “uncluttered” kind of existence. It’s no accident that rehab centres and programs for troubled youth often expose people to nature — it has a way of putting things back in proper perspective and clearing the mind. (Even so, people will still look at you funny if you ever decide to take a SOLO trip into the forest.) It’s great this guy Proenneke got to live the way he wanted, totally on his own, yet still found a way to contribute by filming, writing, and passing on his insights. Someone who just withdrew from society and didn’t care about anyone else would be taking the Onely lifestyle too far.

Onely - September 5, 2009

I agree–the one thing I’ve been wondering about is whether nowadays anyone could just decide “I want to live in the Alaskan wilderness” and go do it. The park service wouldn’t buy that, I’m sure, and if you went somewhere that wasn’t park land, you’d be guaranteed to be “trespassing”. I always found it fascinating–and disheartening–that we have to “own” land and that there’s been such a change in that philosophy since native Americans reigned. . .

CC

sterling - August 5, 2012

yes, you can still do it. it’s called homesteading. you have seven years to get your place established. it is still possible if subsistence existence is for you. only one way to find out. lokk into it, give ir a shot. you only live once.

2. Alan - September 3, 2009

The pleasure of solitude in the wilderness is really something.

I lived in the dorms the whole time I was an undergraduate, I didn’t mind it. But I found that it made my need for solitude greater, and as a result every day I made sure to take a walk around the lake or a bike ride through the wooded parts of campus…perhaps seeing a bright red cardinal in a long-needle pine, or the setting sun like a magenta coin, or the stars which multiplied in number the longer I looked.

Onely - September 5, 2009

I know about that star phenomenon–though I never thought of it quite that way!
CC

3. Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles - September 5, 2009

This man is my hero! When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about living in deeply wooded solitude, though granted in a warmer solitude than Alaska. 🙂 And, yes, I’ve done those things! Just substitute blackberries for blueberries and maybe hickory or birch for cottonwood.

Also, I just have to say that it’s nice to read something about a single man since they get less attention in general than single women.

Onely - September 6, 2009

Yes, I would like to go live in the wilds of Tahiti.
CC

4. Singlutionary - September 8, 2009

I love this man and I love that he spent so much time chronicling his experience. An experience like that is inspriational to many and offers guidance to people fed up with the clutteredness of modern life. I see this man as someone committed to helping others.

I would like to live in solitude for a week every year. If only the company I worked for would offer an additional week of “solitude” pay every year. I KNOW that I would be a far more productive employee.

Onely - September 9, 2009

Yes, I am a HUGE Dick P fan now!! Sometimes im Michigan when I can’t sleep, I just watch his video and it calms me down.
CC

5. joe reese - October 17, 2009

i first heard of dick proenneke on public television. i became interested in his trek to alaska and his amazing building skills with only hand tools. i have watched alone in the wilderness numerous times and i always find it interesting and the scenery is beautiful. if he was still around i sure would like to shake his hand and talk to him for a while. alas he is not.

Onely - October 18, 2009

Joe, I feel the same regret that he’s passed on. And I too have watched Alone in the Wilderness several times. I find it very soothing in the evening before bed. “I caught an eighteen inch grayling. More than enough for my needs.” He also has all these great metaphors–like something happening “as sudden as a broken shoelace”. He’s adorable! I would love to go see his cabin.
CC

6. Joanne Ladd (Mother Goose) - October 19, 2009

We watched the Dick P. film and then Googled “Alone in the Wilderness”…what a treasure to watch and read of his adventurous life. There are, in Flint Michigan, parks that you can visit with cardinals and butterflys that will join you as you walk. One time when we were fishing…a cold summer storm came up and when we got back to the car we put on warm sweatshirts that had been stashed in the trunk. We’ve “cold-packed” many blue-berries by Horse Race Rapids in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and picked wild asparagus…his stories reminded me of my forgotten stories .

Onely - October 23, 2009

MG, I love the Upper Peninsula. I’m glad you re-remembered those details and shared them–now I reremember my Uncle’s lot on Lake Superior, with its blueberry patches right on the beach!

Christina

7. joe reese - November 3, 2009

i have discovered two more dvd’s about dick proenneke. the frozen north and alaska silence and solitude. in these dvd’s you hear dick proenneke speak in his own voice. they were filmed 25 years or so after he built his cabin. i recommend them both.

Onely - November 3, 2009

My uncle, who got me into Dick Proenneke, actually does have both of those videos. They’re definitely also worth watching, although the first one remains my favorite. Please flag if you find any more Proenneke resources.
CC

8. Don McCullough - November 10, 2009

I knew Dick personally. We corresponded for many years and I visited with him when he was staying with his brother recuperating from a plane wreck. Also many years later when he had (very regretably, I’m sure) left his wilderness home and lived with his brother in California.

Several years before knowing about Dick I made a trip to Alaska intending to live in the wilderness– but made a “U-turn.” Dick got the job done. Got it done right!

joe reese - November 10, 2009

Don, i envy you since you personally knew dick proenneke. if you have any stories or anything you can share with us, it would be great. thanks joe reese

Onely - November 11, 2009

Hi Don,
Like Joe, I’m so excited to hear from someone who actually knew Dick! He’s kind of a hero amongst my extended family up in rural Michigan. We often reference him in our everyday conversation, such as, “You can’t find your glasses? If you were DIck Proenneke, you could *make* some new glasses in half an hour from the stump of an old tree!” Which is actually not *that* much of an exaggeration. = )

As soon as I read your comment, I called home to tell them about it. My uncle, who got us all addicted to Dick P, does not do Internet, but my parents are going to print out this post and show it to him.

I didn’t know he was in a plane accident. Also, I’ve wondered a good deal about what it was like for him to move back to the lower 48, and how he coped. Any stories you have to tell would be great. Thanks for checking in!

Christina

9. Arjun - November 28, 2009

This man lived a fuller life than I can ever imagine of. His venture into the wilderness is one of the bravest things I have ever heard and seen. We may want to follow in his steps, but those wants stay wants. We are in a way bound to society, our status, our possessions. His path into Nature was the ultimate show of an immaterial soul. I have heard stories of people climbing the Himalayas and living in caves for many years. But those are extreme accounts of self-enlightenment. I dream of living this way and I am only 21. I pray that I can also live like this for many years of my life.

Onely - November 28, 2009

I hope you are able to do it one day, Arjun!
CC

10. RIFFSTORM - February 2, 2010

I’am a big fan also. Alaskan wildlife preserve will release more of his journals in time. I always go to there website but hasn’t been changed for some time now on when or if they release them in 2010.

mjcf - March 5, 2010

I hate to be the one to bust anyone’s bubble, but, Dick Proenneke did not live in that cabin for 30 straight years like it said in the movie “Alone in the Wilderness”. If you read his journals he talks about while he moved back to Iowa (after he built his cabin) he would receive mail from his “fans” telling him how great it must be living in his cabin, he felt guilty reading the letters from Iowa that he thought he should go back. Also, after he built his cabin and stayed a whole year he moved back to Iowa that following winter. Now don’t get me wrong I love the man and what he accomplished but I was disappointed to find out alot of inconsictences.

Onely - March 7, 2010

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Although actually, I have to say that lasting even a year in that place seems like a miracle, so I’m not too disappointed. I read some of his journals–or at least I read a book that contained his entries for the first year, I think. I didn’t know that any others were available. I’ll have to check that out. . .

CC

11. Steve - July 18, 2010

More Readings From One Man’s Wilderness: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke (1974 – 1980) was published in 2005 by the National Park Service and is free to download in PDF format. I found it at the bottom of the wikipedia page on Dick under “external links”.

Onely - July 20, 2010

Thanks Steve! I just downloaded it. There are also some amazing photos of Twin Lakes under those External Links!
CC

12. Richard T - March 24, 2011

In fact, Dick had many people come to visit – during the summer the solitude was the exception to the rule. From kickers, rangers or on more than one occasion the Governor of Alaska (Jay Hammond) and his wife stopped by for a visit with Dick.
So, yes, during the winter months it was lonely, but during the summer, it was quite busy.

More of his journals
http://www.alaskageographic.org/store/products/more-readings-from-one-mans-wilderness

Onely - March 28, 2011

Thanks Richard! Interesting. What is a kicker?
I actually did buy that book, but as a present for my uncle. I haven’t read it myself (yet). Perhaps it tells the stories of his visitors in there. I’m looking forward to reading it.
CC

13. Richard T - March 28, 2011

Hahaha – I meant to type HIKERS – I guess that is what I get for using a Blackberry to post – darn auto-correct 😉

It is a great read (the extended journal) in fact they are releasing another few years of journals this summer. It really paints a much more down to earth view of life at Twin Lakes.

Either way, Enjoy!

Richard

Onely - March 28, 2011

OOH really, another batch this summer? Now I think I have my uncle’s birthday present. . .

14. Orange Jeep Dad - June 15, 2011

I think the world sorely misses male characters with the likes of Dick Proenekke. I decided to make him Hero of the Month on my blog with links to his story and video.

http://orangejeepdad.blogspot.com/2011/06/ojds-hero-of-month-richard-dick.html

15. Steve Zazulyk - September 7, 2011

My name is Steve Zazulyk and next to the Lord himself I am completely blown away by Dick Proenneke for so many reasons. His incredible talent as a carpenter, an extraordinaire of being resourceful, a brave adventurer and mostly, possessing the spirit of a true gentleman of the wilderness. How does someone do what he did for 30years..by himself ! Most of us are afraid to run from the garage to our house at night in the dark!! All those Christmas mornings alone……you have to be cut out for this. He was incredibly brilliant, few know he became modestly wealthy out there in his solitude panning for gold, which he never bragged about. His daily weather and animal observation have helped the Alaskan Government with data that would never have had if not for his tireless work. He also cleaned up after messy campers and hunters and reported poachers in Twin Lakes for years….preserving his beloved land and wildlife for the next generation of adventurers . This Dude deserves a statue or something!!! I often watch his movies (the 2nd one is out now) as I lay in bed. There is something about it that is so simple, honest, beautiful and spectacular all at the same time. Twin Lakes is on my bucket list, I just have to see the cabin and breath that air at least once. Cheers all you Proenneke fans……he was a great man!

Onely - September 12, 2011

Thanks for commenting, Steve. I didn’t know that Proenneke also cleaned up after hunters and campers and poachers. I guess I had imagined that no other people were even anywhere near his cabin, but of course that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case.

I totally get what you’re saying about watching his movies in bed–I have also watched them for relaxation before too and find them hypnotic. If I had a TV in my bedroom I’d probably watch them in bed. It’s also so cozy watching him drill though four feet of ice by hand while you’re sitting in a recliner with a cocoa. . . = )
CC

steve zazulyk - October 21, 2011

Ok you and I are on the same page CC. If you ever have time the book is great. Im always looking for a piece of Alaska I could call my own one day.Thanks for the reply. Cheers


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