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Dick Proenneke

The content below is from Episode 124 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast

RECOMMENDATION SEGMENT

  • The Sandman
    • Neil Gaiman has written some of the coolest stories to have ever hit the page. One of his most popular characters is The Sandman.
    • The Sandman comics are dark, deep of thought, and captivating. And now there is a Netflix series which I think does the comic justice.
    • Here’s the plot
      • When the Sandman, aka Dream, the cosmic being who controls all dreams, is captured and held prisoner for more than a century, he must journey across different worlds and timelines to fix the chaos his absence has caused.
    • So I suggest you crack open a comic AND watch the Netflix series, but I know most people will just watch the series. Either way, enjoy!

NOW FOR THE MAIN EVENT

  • Richard Proenneke was born on May 4th, 1916 in Primrose Iowa.
    • His father made a living painting houses, drilling wells, and through carpentry. His name was William Christian Proenneke and he was a veteran of World War 1. His mother, Laura Proenneke was a gardener and housekeeper. The two married in 1909 and had 7 kids in total.
    • Richard or Dick Proenneke did attend school, but stopped attending high school after just 2 years because he didn’t see the point of it.
    • Typically seen as a free spirit, Dick spent his youth working as a driving contractor, farmer, and doing the usual odd job of an Iowa farmer. The call of the wild inspired him to get a Harley Davidson as a teenager.
      • While he loved nature and being out in it, he also loved to tinker with gadgets. Even with very little formal education at this point in his life, he was a whizz at taking apart machines and putting them back together.
      • So that was how he lived his life: mechanic by day and enjoying the natural world in his free time. That is until the next chapter of his life came around, a chapter that had the same title for virtually every person on the planet at the time.
    • Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7th, 1941… the very next day Dick Proenneke enlisted in the US Navy. (wow, what a sentence)… He served as a carpenter at Pearl Harbor and San Francisco. Towards the end of the war, he came down with rheumatic fever and was in the hospital when the war officially ended. According to one of his biographers and friend, Sam Keith, the illness was very revealing for Proenneke, who decided to devote the rest of his life to the strength and health of his body.
      • Rheumatic fever is an autoimmune disease that inflames the body’s tissues, such as the joints and heart. Healthcare providers may also call it acute rheumatic fever. It happens when the body’s immune system overreacts to a strep throat or scarlet fever infection that hasn’t been fully treated.
        • Apparently, Dick hadn’t had so much as the common cold before this. He probably had one hell of an immune system from being outside all the time. So you can see how this illness really shook him.
      • Perhaps this didn’t affect Dick the same way, but I couldn’t imagine how missing out on one of the greatest celebrations the world has ever seen would affect me. Imagine serving in the largest scale war that has occurred on the face of this Earth and when it ends you see the streets of the world celebrating, but you are stuck in a hospital bed… total bummer.
    • When the war was over and Dick had been medically discharged, he decided to become a diesel mechanic and pursued education to accomplish such. It turned out he had a knack for it. Dick was great at adapting to new environments, he was as sharp as a tack, and no one ever called the man lazy. It didn’t take long for him to garner the reputation of a skilled technician. But he didn’t feel fulfilled.
    • Dick left the promising life of a diesel mechanic to pursue a life in nature. He moved to Oregon to work on a sheep ranch and not long after moved to Shuyak Island Alaska in 1950.
    • There he worked as a heavy equipment operator/repairman at the Naval Air Station on Kodiak island. But once again, he couldn’t stay put. For years he hopped around Alaska working as a salmon fisherman, diesel tech, and employee for the Fish and Wildlife Service. His reputation as a skilled technician allowed him to save up enough money to retire early and THAT is when Dick Proenneke’s true story begins…
      • After living a life of enjoying nature and mechanic work, he had an accident welding one day that made him sway more towards nature. The welding accident nearly took his ability to see and just like his bout with rheumatic fever, it gave him perspective on his life. He decided to cherish his body and sight more and that’s what helped him decide to retire.
  • It was on May 21st of 1968 that Dick Proenneke did what most who love nature only dream of. He arrived at his new place of retirement, but really it was his first place of living, it was Twin Lakes Alaska.
    • He had prepared for this move by coordinating with retired Navy Captain Spire Carrithers and his wife Hope. He left his camper in their care and their permission to use their cabin as an initial base of operations in the area. Captain Carrithers’ cabin was in a beautiful spot on the lake and more importantly, it was close enough to the site Dick had picked out for his own cabin.
    • Dick constructed his cabin on the shores of Twin Lakes where he could wake up to the sounds of the wilderness, open his door to the sight of blue glaciers and giant pine trees, and live off the land for the next 3 decades.
    • Thanks to a PBS special that was popular for my parents’ generation, people associate Twin Lakes Alaska with Dick Proenneke himself, but before he came along in 1968 it was just known as a remote location for nature enthusiast tourists to soak up the wild splendor.
    • The natural landscape is made up of lakes that are deep and have a rich blue color to them. They sit at the bottom of tall snow-capped mountains, and of course filled with Alaska’s wild and tenacious flora and fauna.
  • When Dick showed up he wasn’t set on settling the area to make a town or tourist spot. He simply wanted to thrive alongside nature. He made his camp along the southern shores of the largest part of the lake. His skill as a carpenter allowed him to construct an impressive cabin from trees he processed all on his own. When he was finished he had a stone chimney, bunk beds, ingenious door hinges, and a wide window overlooking the lake.
    • This man constructed his own lakefront property out in the Alaskan wilderness. Although I respect the hell out of that, I plan on doing no such thing if I make it to retirement lol. I plan on traveling all over North America in a cozy camper with my wife… a much easier feat than Dick Proenneke’s retirement plan.
    • Although many would say he lived a simple life, I’d argue that Dick Proenneke’s years out at Twin Lakes Alaska were anything but simple. He was far away from the modern comforts we have all grown accustomed to here closer to the heartbeat of society. No electricity meant he had to heat himself and every meal by the fireplace. Without a refrigerator, he had to get creative with his food storage. During Alaska’s brutal seven-month winter he had to bury his food deep underground to keep it from freezing solid.
  • Dick’s time at Twin Lakes, his story there meant a lot to people and I think for 2 main reasons.
    • One: he was able to survive in such a harsh environment. If Dick ran out of food it would take him DAYS to reach the nearest market. If he had a catastrophic encounter with wildlife and needed medical attention or even just slipped and hurt himself that way it would still take days for rescue to reach him. If Dick was out fishing in his canoe and tipped it he would freeze within minutes. Yet despite all that, he managed to survive for over 30 years.
      • I’ve recommended the History channel’s Alone series that has contestants try to survive on their own in remote wilderness for as long as they can. The longest season of that lasted like 117 days… Dick puts that show to shame. It is a lost art living the way he did.
    • The other reason is that Dick didn’t just survive, he truly lived. The man was pursuing a mental state that most of us couldn’t even dream of today. He was out there by choice and he was happy. There were park rangers that stopped in to check on Dick every once in a while and when they recount their experience with Dick they saw him as a wise monk.
  • Although Dick has since passed away, he lives on through the cabin he built and the journal entries that he wrote while in his “retirement.”
    • “Was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me?” he wrote in his diary
    • “I had seen its moods in late spring, summer and early fall,” that same entry continues. “But what about the winter? Would I love the isolation then? With its bone-stabbing cold, its ghostly silence? At age 51, I decided to find out.”
    • “I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure,” he wrote in his diaries. “Did you ever pick blueberries after a summer rain? Pull on dry woolen socks after you’ve peeled off the wet ones? Come in out of the subzero and shiver yourself warm in front of a wood fire? The world is full of such things.”
    • Luckily there is no shortage of journal entries as Dick filled up over 250 notepads during his time at Twin Lakes. Thankfully he also kept a camera to record how he lived the way he did.
    • Through the power of editing and the memories he left behind, there have been documentaries, websites, and books about his life.
    • In 2004 there was a documentary titled Alone in the Wilderness that was release after Dick passed away.
  • You might imagine Dick living out his life in the cabin he built himself, going to sleep for the last time in his own paradise of solitude. But that’s not how it went down.
    • Dick didn’t let old age stop him from doing what he wanted to do. When young tourists (or visitors as Dick called them) would ask Dick about his favorite hiking trail, he would outpace them on their way up to his favorite rock.
    • But something changed in Dick. Instead of staying in Twin Lakes up until the very end, he decided to write his last chapter a little differently than the last 30 years.
    • In 1998, Dick packed his few belongings and moved to Hemet California to live out the rest of his life with his brother
  • He died of a stroke on April 20, 2003, at the age of 86. He willed his cabin to the National Park Service, and it remains a popular visitor attraction in the still-remote Twin Lakes region of Lake Clark National Park.
    • Sam Keith, who got to know Proenneke at the Kodiak Naval Station and went on numerous hunting and fishing trips with him, suggested that Proenneke’s journals might be the basis for a good book. In 1973, Keith published the book One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, based on Proenneke’s journals and photography.
    • After years in print it was reissued in a new format in 1999, winning that year’s National Outdoor Book Award (NOBA).
    • In his last message to the world, his last will and testament, Dick Proenneke left his cabin out on the southern shores of Twin Lakes Alaska to the rangers of the National Park Service as a gift.
      • The funny part is that Dick never owned that land or any land out there at all. He was technically gifting something that they already owned lol.

To live in a pristine land unchanged by man…
to roam a wilderness through which few other humans have passed…
to choose an idyllic site, cut trees and build a log cabin…
to be a self-sufficient craftsman, making what is needed from materials available…
to be not at odds with the world, but content with one’s own thoughts and company…Thousands have had such dreams, but Dick Proenneke lived them. He found a place, built a cabin, and stayed to become part of the country. This video “Alone in the Wilderness” is a simple account of the day-to-day explorations and activities he carried out alone, and the constant chain of nature’s events that kept him company.

– Sam Keith

CREDIT:

Millions of PBS viewers first met Dick Proenneke through the program “Alone in the Wilderness,” which documents Dick’s 30-year adventure in the Alaskan wilderness. On the shores of Twin Lakes, Dick built his cabin and nearly all of the household objects he required to survive, from the ingenious wooden hinges on his front door to the metal ice creepers he strapped to his boots.

And now, “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” examines this adventure through the lens of Dick’s tools and the objects he made. Written by Monroe Robinson – the caretaker of Dick’s cabin and his personal effects – the book weaves together vintage photos and entries from Dick’s journals plus new drawings and images to paint a portrait of a man fully engaged in life and the natural world around him.

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