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December 26, 2015

"Alone in the Wilderness" — Dick Proenneke (1916-2003)

"'Alone in the Wilderness' is the story of Dick Proenneke living in the Alaska wilderness. Dick filmed his adventures so he could show his relatives in the lower 48 states what life was like in Alaska — building his cabin, hunting for food, and exploring the area."

Above, selections from the full-length movie.

YouTube caption:


Richard Louis "Dick" Proenneke (born May 4, 1916; died April 20, 2003) was an American naturalist who lived alone in the high mountains of Alaska at a place called Twin Lakes. Living simply in a log cabin he constructed by hand, Proenneke made valuable recordings of both meteorological and natural data.

Proenneke's father, William Christian Proenneke, served in World War I and later made his living as a well driller. His mother, Laura (née Bonn) was a homemaker. His parents married in late 1909, or early 1910, and had three daughters and three sons: Robert, Helen, Lorene, Richard (Dick), Florence, and Raymond (Jake). The year of Richard's birth is often given as 1917, but social security and census records prove him to have been born in Primrose, Harrison Township, Lee County, Iowa, on May 4, 1916.

Proenneke served in the United States Navy as a carpenter during World War II. It was during this service that he contracted rheumatic fever and was bedridden for nearly six months. According to Sam Keith, a lifelong friend from Duxbury, Massachusetts, this illness was very revealing for Proenneke, who decided to devote the rest of his life to the strength and health of his body.

Following his discharge from the Navy, Proenneke went to school to become a diesel mechanic. The combination of his high intelligence, adaptability, and strong work ethic turned him into a very skilled mechanic. Though quite adept at his trade, Proenneke yielded to his love of nature and moved to Oregon to work at a sheep ranch. He moved to Shuyak Island, Alaska, in 1950.

For several years, he worked as a heavy equipment operator and repairman at the Naval Air Station at Kodiak. Proenneke spent the next several years working throughout the state of Alaska as both a salmon fisherman and diesel mechanic. He worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service at King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula. His skills as a mechanic were well-known and extremely sought after, and he was able to put away a modest nest egg for retirement. Proenneke retired to Twin Lakes.

On May 21, 1968, Proenneke arrived at his new place of retirement at Twin Lakes. Beforehand, he made arrangements to use a cabin on the upper lake of Twin Lakes owned by retired Navy captain Spike Carrithers and his wife Hope of Kodiak (in whose care he had left his camper). This cabin was well situated on the lake and close to the site which Proenneke chose for the construction of his own cabin.

The cabin is hand-made. Proenneke's talents as a carpenter are visible — the entire structure was made from materials in and about the site, from the gravel taken from the lake bed to create the cabin's base, to the trees he selected, cut down, and then hand-cut into interlocking joints to create the walls and roof rafter framing. The window openings were pre-planned and cut to suit. The fireplace and flue were made from stones he dug from around the site and then meticulously placed to create the chimney and hearth.

He used metal containers for food storage — one-gallon cans were cut into basin shapes and buried below the frost line. This ensured that fruits and perishables could be stored for prolonged periods in the cool earth yet still be accessible when the winter months froze the ground above them. Proenneke's bush pilot friend, Babe Alsworth, returned occasionally to bring food and orders that Proenneke placed through him to Sears.

Proenneke remained at Twin Lakes for the next 16 months, when he left to go home for a time to visit relatives and secure more supplies. He returned to the lakes in the following spring and remained there for most of the next 30 years, going to the Continental U.S. only occasionally to be with his family.

He made a film record of his solitary life which was later recut and made into the documentary "Alone in the Wilderness." It has aired on PBS numerous times. In 2011 a sequel was produced after it was discovered that Proenneke had shot enough footage for at least two more programs. "Alone in the Wilderness: Part 2" premiered on December 2, 2011. A premiere date for Part 3 has yet to be announced.

In 1999, at age 82, Proenneke returned to civilization and lived the remainder of his life with his brother Raymond (aka Jake) Proenneke in Hemet, California. He died of a stroke April 20, 2003 at the age of 86. He left his cabin to the National Park Service, and it remains a popular visitor attraction in the still-remote Twin Lakes region.


Below, selections from "Alone in the Wilderness: Part 2."

"Bob Swerer has taken the best footage from Dick's films and he has created four videos about Dick: 'Alone in the Wilderness,' 'Alone in the Wilderness: Part 2,' 'Alaska: Silence and Solitude,' and 'The Frozen North.' You can purchase them in DVD format from www.DickProenneke.com."

December 26, 2015 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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