Richard Proenneke lived a life many of us dream about but only a few hardy souls could actually pull off. He settled deep in the wild lands of Alaska, country well known for eating lesser men for breakfast. And yet, his is not a story of man pitted against nature, enduring one hardship after another. Instead, he was a simple man, in harmony with his surroundings and perfectly content with what the land provided him.
Dick certainly possessed the skillset to survive, but more importantly he had the mindset that allowed him to thrive. He did not walk off the map seeking gold, fur or fame—although the latter would eventually find him—he simply set out to test himself and live an honest, hardworking life. He did so in such a fine fashion that he, still to this day, inspires thousands with his example of a life well lived. Born in rural Iowa in 1916, Dick was a child of the Great Depression. There were few com- forts to be had in the way of material things during this time, but little was ever accomplished by complaining. Hard work and determination, however, kept the wolf away. Despite the hard times, by 1939 Dick had saved enough for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Mechanically gifted from an early age, the old bike was the perfect tinker toy. Not long after, he and a friend set out to see the country. They rode west and worked the wheat harvest in Oklahoma, then on to pick apples in Oregon. The pair drifted south and even took in the World’s Fair in San Francisco. He left home with $30, and he returned some months later with $10. To say he was frugal is an understatement. He later returned to Oregon and found employment in the Blue Mountains on a large sheep and cattle ranch where he built remote herders’ camps.
One day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Proenneke enlisted in the Navy. He spent his first two years as a carpenters mate working in Hawaii. While waiting for redeployment, he was stricken with rheumatic fever in San Francisco. He would spend the rest of the war recovering in the Navy hospital near Corona, California. Although he would make a full recovery, he would never forget how weak and helpless his illness left him. Dick had lots of time to think about the importance of his physical health that winter. Against his doctor’s advice, he returned to work on the sheep ranch in Oregon. He stayed on for several years. Then Alaska came calling.
The Last Frontier
In 1949, Dick moved to Portland, Oregon, to study diesel mechanics and heavy equip- ment operation. While there he flew to Alaska to visit an old Navy buddy. By the next summer he was back in Alaska. He went with the intent of raising cattle on Kodiak Island but it was not to be. The cattle may not have worked out, but when the naval station on the island learned of Proenneke’s capabilities, he was immediately put to work as a diesel mechanic. Dick would work for the next 14 years on Kodiak.
While working for a defense contractor at Cape Chiniak, Proenneke met Gale Carrithers. Carrithers and his wife, Hope, were building a cabin at Twin Lakes on what was then Bureau of Land Management land. They invited him up for a visit and in 1962 he got his first look at Twin Lakes country.
Proenneke would return to work on Kodiak, but Twin Lakes was never far from his thoughts. While at work at Chiniak he sustained an injury that nearly cost him his vision. Again he was forced to lay low while he recuperated. His vision would return but one thought would haunt him: What if the greasy belly pan of a bulldozer had been the last sight his eyes ever witnessed?
This was the second time in his life he was laid up by a serious injury or illness. He vowed it would be the last. In addition, Dick sought to improve his mental state as well. Not that he was ever a troubled man, but a lifetime spent working on parts instead of the whole project was not his cup of tea. As he put it, “To look around at what you have accomplished in a day gives a man a good feeling. Too many men work on parts of things. Doing a job to completeness satisfies a man.” Returning now more often to the Carrithers’ cabin at Twin Lakes, Dick found his answers in the solitary wilderness.
In the fall of 1967, Dick cut logs for his own cabin on the lake. The following spring, working alone and with only hand tools, he built his now famous cabin. Sturdy and modest, it measures 11 by 14 feet and would be his home for the next 30 years. With the exception of a handful of nails, tar paper and some plastic sheeting, all the materials came from his surroundings. The cabin stands today, a testament to his exceptional craftsmanship and resourcefulness. [Editor’s note: To say he was ahead of his time is a massive understatement—especially when you consider all of today’s survivalist-type cable TV programs. Dick captured much of his famous cabin build on film. Visit dickproenneke.com and check out Alone in the Wilderness and other DVDs for sale.]
Dick lived his life at Twin Lakes with the same spirit he used to build his cabin, with purposeful intent. Hardly a sedentary retirement, he was up before dawn each and every morning. He would hike, paddle and snowshoe thousands of miles each year, exploring the land he loved and checking in daily on all of his animal “neighbors.” Each morning would begin the same way, a hot breakfast, then outside to feed his “welfare” birds and a squirrel named Freddy. He greet- ed each day with childlike enthusiasm and never begrudged a task. When old man win- ter forced him indoors, he enjoyed reading Thoreau and Leopold, both of which he was fond of quoting in his journals. From start to finish, Dick would keep meticulous weather records, maintain daily journal entries and filmed much of his life on the lake.
In 1969, Dick turned over his journals to friend Sam Keith. Keith’s book, One Man’s Wilderness, was published in 1973 and intro- duced Dick to the world. Now, on top of all his other self-appointed duties at Twin Lakes, Dick had fan mail to return as well.
Through the early 1970s, land usage debates raged in Alaska. The National Park
Service sought protected status for the Twin Lakes region that would limit hunting to sub- sistence only. A conservationist at heart, Dick wished to see the Twin Lakes area protected as well, but he was unsure about the Park Service’s intentions. A hunter himself, he had quickly become disenchanted with the streams of trophy hunters that flew in each fall. More than once he verbally confronted them over leaving behind trash or useable meat. On one such occasion he tracked down a large caribou that had been shot through a front and hind leg and salvaged the meat for himself, finishing the job the lazy hunter refused to do. Ethical subsistence hunters, on the other hand, could always count on Proenneke’s help packing out and caring for their game. In all his years at Twin Lakes, Dick only documents killing a ram and a caribou himself. You can bet he made use of every scrap. More often than not, fresh meat came in the form of the porcupines that insisted on chewing down his cabin.
Dick eventually came to view the National Park Service as the lesser of two evils. In 1978, he was featured in the PBS documen- tary “Alaska: The Closing Frontier,” where he advocated preservation and quoted Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
In 1974, the National Park Service rec- ognized Dick’s limitless knowledge of the local wildlife and prowess with a camera by contracting him to do wildlife photography. For Dick, nothing could be better than free film and a paycheck for doing what he loved. He was especially well suited to this task. He possessed tremendous attention to detail as the faintest track or the slightest movement was sure to catch his eye.
Physically, his lifestyle and attitudes about work kept him fit as a fiddle well into his seventies. Anyone wishing to keep up with him in the rugged terrain would most certainly sleep well that night. In addition, he had a keen mind and loved to learn, mostly through observation. His work can be seen in dozens of documentaries and short films. Today it’s overshadowed by his other accomplishments, but he was truly one of the premier wildlife photographers of his time.
In October of 1976, Dick nearly met an untimely demise while flying south to Iowa. Flying solo in his Piper Cub, he was lucky to be in sight of a road when the engine cut out. Unable to restart the iced-up engine, he made a forced landing outside of Copper Center, Alaska. He came to outside the crumpled remains of his beloved Arctic Tern. He had suffered severe damage to his lower spine and numerous lacerations to his face. In a feat one can only chalk up to adrenaline, he managed to walk to the high- way where he was picked up by a passing motorist. It was the last time he would walk unassisted for another six months. Dick’s brother Raymond collected both Dick and
the Arctic Tern to recuperate at his home in California. Dick slowly recovered over the winter, as did his Piper Cub, thanks to Raymond’s care. July of 1977 would find him back home at Twin Lakes.
Through the 1980s, Dick would spend more and more time with his journals, documenting everything he noticed in his graceful cursive script. In his time at Twin Lakes he would fill some 100-pounds worth of notebooks. With One Man’s Wilderness now in worldwide circulation, more and more folks came to visit, eager to meet the now living legend. Far from anti-social, he welcomed them all with hot tea and pop- corn. He assisted the Park Service in finding lost hikers, counting wildlife and acting as an impromptu interpretive guide to the Twin Lakes area. He was pleased to see hunting pressure ease on his wild “neighbors.”
Dick would stay on at Twin Lakes into the late 1990s, spending a little more time down south every year. Finally, in 1999, at age 82, he moved permanently to California to live with his brother, Raymond. He would return briefly to Twin Lakes in the summer of 2000 for a taped interview and a farewell to his little cabin. Richard Louis Proenneke died on Easter morning, 2003, in Hemet, California.
Self-sufficient as he was, Dick was always dependent on the outside world. Although his needs were few, he did receive the occa- sional supply drop. Everything that came in was hauled back out or re-proposed in some form or another. Over the years many have drawn parallels between Proenneke and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was no doubt a great philosopher, but in truth he only spent two years on Walden Pond. Dick on the other hand was a man of action, putting Thoreau’s (and his own) ideas into practice for nearly 30 years. In his minimalistic life he needed few material things. Most of what he did have he made himself. He did, however, possess one rare gem that seems very difficult to find in our modern world—pure, unadulterated contentment. It is my opinion that Dick Proenneke left this world completely satisfied with his life’s work. When it’s all said and done, what more could you ask for?
This story was originally published in the American Frontiersman #158 2014 issue. For more great stories Click Here to Subscribe.
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