Richard Proenneke: The man who showed us how to be alone in the wilderness
For decades, Proenneke lived in a handmade cabin at Alaska's Twin Lakes; his writings and films have left a legacy.
Wed, Apr 23, 2014 at 12:30 PM
There are few places in the United States more beautiful, or more isolated, than the Twin Lakes region of Alaska. Perhaps that is why Richard Proenneke, the noted amateur naturalist, decided to retire there in 1968. For the next 30 years, Proenneke lived in almost complete isolation in a cabin he built for himself. He says that he did it, in part, to test himself and his limits. He also used the time to write, take pictures, document the natural world and shoot film, all of which continue to inspire people more than a decade after his death in 2003.
Born in Iowa in 1916, Proenneke entered the Navy during World War II, where he learned the carpentry skills that would later be put to use in Alaska. The war inspired him in other ways as well; after contracting rheumatic fever, he spent six months recuperating, during which time he started dreaming of a simple life in Alaska. He got the chance to move to the state of his dreams in 1950, where he initially worked as a cattle rancher, a diesel mechanic and even a salmon fisherman. Those jobs tided him over until he retired in 1967, when he began scouting locations for what would become his new life. He spent that summer cutting logs, then returned briefly to his home in Iowa to prepare for the next phase of his life.
He came back the following year. In the documentary "Alone in the Wilderness" he recounts, "It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace. I was alone – just me and the animals. ... I suppose I was here because 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? Could I truly enjoy my own company for an entire year? And was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me? I had seen its moods in late spring, summer, and early fall but what about the winter? Would I love the isolation then, with its bone-stabbing cold, its ghostly silence? At age 51, I intended to find out."
Proenneke built his cabin — he also created most of the tools that he used — and spent almost all of the rest of his life hunting, fishing, gathering his food, and documenting everything around him, including meteorological data, the comings and goings of local wildlife, and his own activities. All of this formed the crux of the classic book he would publish in 1973, "One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey," which remains in print today.
One of the most striking aspects of Proenneke's life at Twin Lakes is his own transformation. Originally a sport hunter and then a subsistence hunter, he evolved to become a non-hunter and conservationist. He stopped hunting in 1980 (although he would occasionally kill and eat any porcupines that he found chomping on the logs of his cabin).
Proenneke lived on his own until 1999, when, at the age of 82, he retired once again, this time to live with his brother in California until he died four years later. He bequeathed his cabin to the Natural Park Service, which maintains it as a popular tourist destination. Visitors can not only see his workmanship but also the desk where he wrote the journals that would become "One Man's Wilderness." The Park Service displays his homemade furniture as examples of his "woodworking genius."
You can watch the first nine minutes of "Alone in the Wilderness" below:
Related stories on MNN:
- 7 people who gave up on civilization to live in the wild
- 18 of the world's most stunning treehouses
- He lives in a tree, doesn't wear shoes, and brushes his teeth with a pinecone
Richard Proenneke photo courtesy of National Park Service