Dick Proenneke

Dick Proenneke [pren-uh-kee] (1916 – 2003) was a self-educated naturalist who lived alone for nearly thirty years in the mountains of Alaska in a log cabin he had constructed by hand near the shore of Twin Lakes.

Proenneke hunted, fished, raised and gathered his own food, and also had supplies flown in occasionally. He documented his activities in journals and on film, and also recorded valuable meteorological and natural data. The journals and film were later used by others to write books and produce documentaries about his time in the wilderness.

Proenneke’s father, William Christian Proenneke, served in World War I and later made his living as a well driller. Dick enlisted in the United States Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as a carpenter. He spent close to two years at Pearl Harbor and was later stationed in San Francisco waiting to join a new ship assignment.

After hiking a mountain near San Francisco he contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalized at Norco Naval Hospital for six months. During his convalescence the war ended and he was given a medical discharge from the Navy in 1945. According to friend and writer 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.

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 on the Naval Air Station at Kodiak. Proenneke spent the next few years working throughout 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.

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 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.

Proenneke’s cabin is handmade and is notable for its remarkable craftsmanship due to his skill as a carpenter and wood worker, and because of the films he made of the complete construction procedure. Most of the structure and the furnishings are 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 with interlocking joints to create the walls and roof rafter framing. The window openings were planned and cut to suit. The fireplace and flue were made from stones he dug from around the site and meticulously mortared in place 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 friend, bush pilot and missionary Leon Reid ‘Babe’ Alsworth, returned periodically to bring food and orders that Proenneke placed through him to Sears.

Proenneke remained at Twin Lakes for the next sixteen months until he left to visit relatives and secure more supplies. He returned to the lakes in the following spring and remained there for most of the next thirty years, going to the contiguous United States 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.’ 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 late that year. 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 ‘Jake’ Proenneke in Hemet, California. He died of a stroke in 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 of Lake Clark National Park.

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