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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! 



1. phillip - December 11, 2011

did this man ever have a love life? was he gay? why nothing about these questions which, I’m sure, many people must be wondering about.

natalier - December 11, 2011

I would love to know that too. I do not care if he was gay but I wonder if he yearned for human physical contact with another human and did he miss love or want children?

Onely - December 18, 2011

I think someone else commented here that he actually made trips back to “civilization” now and then. Also, he had an extra bed in his cabin made especially for visitors. So he obviously continued to relish human contact; maybe he just needed less of it than the average person

2. Joe - April 27, 2012

A man’s needs for “human physical contact” lessens as he ages, while his self-reflection back on his life as well as his preparation for his meeting his Maker increases. He didn’t start this until he was 51 and retired as a mechanic. I imagine by then, the latter outweighed the former.

Onely - April 28, 2012

Great thought, Joe. I can buy it! Thanks.

3. Starshadow - July 25, 2013

Not sure where I read it, but I remember some time back reading something by someone who had been a family friend, and evidently Mr. Proenekke had female company from time to time. Reading between the lines, it was evident he didn’t do without, though he was happy being alone a good deal of the time.

4. natalie4477 - September 19, 2013

He did and his buddy Babe use to fly her in via air plane…. He also use to pan for gold and did very well.

5. Paul - May 5, 2014

No, Babe was a man, you can read details here

6. Paul - May 5, 2014
7. Tania - July 18, 2014

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8. Christine Zylka - May 14, 2016

If he was “Alone in the Wilderness “, who did all the video of him??

9. Elizabeth L. Krohn - May 8, 2021

Totally enjoyed reading ever comment here. Thank you for letting it be public. I am not usually able to comment on these sites, so it’s wonderful to make my presence known here, and not just be an invisible guest. Having a person tell his life story one day at a time from that wilderness is extra special. It makes you feel as if your are there with them. Being able to watch it and not just read it is the greatest gift! What an inspiration Dick has been to so many people.
Elizabeth Krohn

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