Dick Proenneke lived alone in Alaska for 30 years – and thrived

For thirty years, Dick Proenneke lived alone in the Alaskan wilderness. He lived in a cabin he built with his own hands. He had no running water and no electricity. No phone to call for help. No neighbors to check on him. He obtained most of his food from the land and the animals that walked on it. Proenneke hunted, he hiked, he became an expert wilderness photographer, and most of all, he wrote. He did all this at the back end of his life, from about age 50 to 80.

A sort of retirement except: This period was clearly the man’s zenith. The full bloom of a guy who was born to observe the world and write about it, to immerse himself in nature and become part of it, to visualize a way of being and actually realize it.

As he wrote in one of the over 100 pound notebooks he filled while living in his cabin about the first year there:

“What was I capable of that I didn’t yet know? What about my limits? Could I really enjoy my own company for a whole year? Was I equal to anything this wild land could throw at me? I had seen its moods of late spring, summer, and early fall, but what about winter? Would I love the isolation with its bone-chilling cold, its brooding ghostly silence, its forced confinement? At fifty-one, I intended to find out .”

He did. And what he found was that he wanted to thrive.

Proenneke was not born with a ball cap on his head or an ax in his hand. Born in 1916 in small town Iowa, he grew up there and left to join the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The son of a carpenter, he also had skills with a hammer, so the Navy put him to work rebuilding their destroyed base. After a while, he was briefly stationed in San Francisco, waiting for his next assignment. While there he contracted rheumatoid fever and was deeply ill. While recovering in a naval hospital, the war ended and he was discharged.

The disease made Proenneke feel weak and powerless, two things he was not used to, and which motivated him to be as strong and self-reliant as possible. He also knew he didn’t want to spend any more time inside than he absolutely had to.

As it has for so many hikers in the northern hemisphere, the north called to him. Wild, harsh and empty. Maybe I’ll raise cattle, he thought as he traveled to Oregon. Instead, he enrolled in a diesel mechanic course in Portland, figuring he’d always have a job and could make enough money to quit working far earlier than most.

He also kept moving north and eventually got a job at an Alaskan naval base. A freak eye injury on the job almost cost him his sight; this was his second medically issued wake up call. I’ll be damned if the last thing I see is a grease-splattered bulldozer I’m working on, he thought. He decided it was time to find an escape hatch.

Proenneke found ii on the shores of Twin Lakes, Alaska, now part of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. In 1968 he moved there full time. He first lived in an existing cabin owned by a Navy mate. But he quickly set about building his own. He designed a 12′ x 6′ building from saddle-notched spruce logs he cut and peeled by hand. The roof was spruce limbs covered with sod and moss. He built a fireplace and a chimney with stones he collected from the lakeshore. Gravel floors came from a nearby stream. The structure was well thought out and designed to last. You can visit it today should you find yourself hiking Lake Clark NP.

The width of Twin Lakes. Photo: NPS/K. Lewandowski

If you do, you would see what drew Proenneke to that place. What gave him life. What kept him there, for the next 30 years, except for an occasional trip in his Piper Cub back to Iowa to see family. Proenneke left his cabin in 1999 and spent the last few years of his life with a brother in California. He died in 2003.

While in Alaska, he was free to let his body and mind wander and self-sufficient enough that every single day was an adventure, but not of the existentially life-threatening kind. Clear-eyed and skilled, he simply saw a beautiful place to live and thought: this is the place. I will take a position here.

“I looked around at the windswept peaks and the swirls of mist moving past them,” he wrote. “It was hard to take my eyes off. I had been up some of them and I wanted to be up there again. There was something different to see each time, and something different from each one. All those streams to explore and all those tracks to follow through the cuts of the high basins and over the saddles. Where did they lead? What was beyond? What stories were written in the snow?”

I wondered if at that moment there was anyone in the world so free and happy.”

Probably not, Dick. Probably not.

***

For more, check out One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey by Sam Keith.

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