Alone in the wilderness: the amazing story of Richard Proenneke

Tomi Stojanovic
 
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Only a few places in the US are more isolated and more beautiful than the Twin Lakes region of Alaska. Maybe that’s why Richard Proenneke, an amateur biologist, decided to retire there in 1968. On that beautiful land, he built an amazing log cabin, all by himself, completely by hand, and stayed to live there for more than 30 years.

His friends visited sometimes, but he liked living alone most of the time, and he did. During that period, he filmed himself, kept a journal, and documented environmental factors around.

 

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He was born in 1916 and entered the Navy during World War II, where he mastered carpentry skills, which later he would put to good use in Alaska. During the war, he contracted rheumatic fever, and he had to spend six months recuperating. During that period, he started dreaming of a humble life in Alaska.

 

Proenneke got the opportunity to move to Alaska in 1950, where he worked as a cattle rancher, salmon fisherman, and even a diesel mechanic. He retired in 1967 and immediately started scouting locations for what would be his new life. Richard spent the first summer of his retirement cutting logs and briefly returned home to Iowa.

 

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The next summer he returned to Alaska, where he built his cabin at the base of the Aleutian Peninsula, using mostly local materials and simple hand tools. Most of the tools he crafted himself, by using steel parts and making the handles with local wood.

When the tools broke, rather than buying new ones, he chose to repair them or make new ones himself. The remarkable craftsmanship used in building the cabin makes it one of the most fantastic man-made structures in Alaska. Besides the cabin, Richard also built a log cache (raised storage shed) and a woodshed/outhouse on the same property.

 

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“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.” – Richard stated in the documentary “Alone in the wilderness.”

 

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But, the most striking aspects of Richard’s life in Alaska, is his personal transformation. He used to be a sports and subsistence hunter, but later he evolved to become a conservationist and a non-hunter. Proenneke stopped hunting in 1980, but he would occasionally kill and eat porcupines that he found chewing on the logs of his cabin.

 

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Richard Proenneke lived alone until 1999, when he retired once again, and moved to California, to live with his brother. He lived there for four years until he died at the age of 86. Richard gave the cabin to the National Park Sevice, which maintains and promotes it as a popular tourist destination.

 

Along with his incredible workmanship, visitors can also see the desk where he wrote his journals, which later would become “One Man’s Wilderness,” a book he published in 1973. The NPC also displays his handmade furniture as a legacy to his “woodworking genius.”

 

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In 2007 the cabin and outbuildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Richard’s site is nationally recognized as an excellent and well-known example of an Alaskan bush log cabin.

Richard Proenneke spoke up to help with the protection of the wilderness in Alaska. With his talents, interests, and passion, he became influential in educating and shaping the public for the need of conservation of the natural world.

 

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The materials Richard gathered during his solitude years, continue to inspire people around the world, even after his death. Based on the book of Sam Keith and the journals of Proenneke, a documentary was released in 2004. “Alone in the Wilderness,” it tells the incredible story of Richard Louis “Dick” Proenneke. In the video below you can watch the first few minutes of the short film.

 

 

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