Dick Proenneke lived a life that would put all of these so called action heroes to shame. He settled deep in the desolate parts of Alaska, in country well known for chewing up and spitting out other men like tobacco. Dick didn't struggle like so many before him. Instead, he was a simple man, in harmony with his surroundings and perfectly content with what the land provided him. In tune and having realistic expectations.
Dick certainly possessed the skillset to survive, but more importantly he had the mindset that allowed him to thrive. He did not walk off the map seeking gold, fur or fame—although the latter would eventually find him—he simply set out to test himself and live an honest, hardworking life. He did so in such an exemplary manner that still to this day, inspires thousands with his example of a life well lived. Born in rural Iowa in 1916, Dick was a child of the Great Depression. He had little in the way of material things during this time, but little was ever accomplished by complaining so he made do with what he had.
Hard work and determination, however, kept the wolf away. Despite the hard times, by 1939 Dick had saved enough for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Mechanically gifted from an early age, the old bike was the perfect tinker toy. Not long after, he and a friend set out to see the country. They rode west and worked as farm hands in Oklahoma and Oregon. The pair drifted south and even took in the World’s Fair in San Francisco. He left home with $30, and he returned some months later with $10. You could say he could live on a budget.
He later returned to Oregon and found employment in the Blue Mountains on a large sheep and cattle ranch where he built remote herders’ camps.
Moved by the attack on Pearl Harbor, Proenneke enlisted in the Navy as a carpenters mate working in Hawaii. While waiting for redeployment, he was stricken with rheumatic fever in San Francisco. He would spend the rest of the war recovering in the Navy hospital in California. Although he would make a full recovery, he never forgot how weak he was.
Against his doctor’s advice, he returned to work on the sheep ranch in Oregon. He stayed on for several years. Then the call of the wild came loud and clear from Alaska.
The Last Frontier - Alaska
In 1949, Dick moved to Portland, Oregon, to study diesel mechanics and heavy equipment operation. While there he flew to Alaska to visit an old Navy buddy and Alaska spoke to him.
By the following summer he was back in Alaska. The naval station on Kodiak Island learned of Proenneke’s capabilities, he was immediately put to work as a diesel mechanic. Dick would work for the next 14 years on Kodiak Island.
While working for a defense contractor, Proenneke met Gale Carrithers. Carrithers and his wife, Hope, were building a cabin at Twin Lakes. They invited him up for a visit and in 1962 he got his first look at Twin Lakes country. It invaded his mind.
Proenneke would return to work on Kodiak, but Twin Lakes was always on his mind. He almost lost his vision in another accident.
This was the second time in his life he was laid up by a serious injury or illness. He vowed it would be the last. In addition, Dick intended to improve his mental state as well. Not that he was ever a troubled man, but a lifetime spent working on parts instead of the whole project was not his cup of tea. As he put it, “To look around at what you have accomplished in a day gives a man a good feeling. Too many men work on parts of things. Doing a job to completeness satisfies a man.” Returning now more often to the Carrithers’ cabin at Twin Lakes, Dick found his answers in the solitary wilderness.
In the fall of 1967, Dick cut logs for his own cabin on the lake. The following spring, working alone and with only hand tools, he built his now famous cabin. Sturdy and modest, it measured 11 by 14 feet and would be his home for the next 30 years. With the exception of a handful of nails, tar paper and some plastic sheeting, all the materials came from his surroundings. The cabin stands today, a testament to his exceptional craftsmanship and resourcefulness. Dick captured much of his famous cabin build on film, being years ahead of his time.
Dick lived his life at Twin Lakes with the same spirit he used to build his cabin, with purposeful intent. Hardly a sedentary retirement, he was up before dawn each and every morning. He would hike, paddle and snowshoe thousands of miles each year, exploring the land he loved and checking in daily on all of his animal “neighbors.”
When old man winter forced him indoors, he enjoyed reading Thoreau and Leopold, both of which he was fond of quoting in his journals. From start to finish, Dick would keep meticulous weather records, maintain daily journal entries and filmed much of his life on the lake.
In 1969, Dick turned over his journals to friend Sam Keith. Keith’s book, One Man’s Wilderness, was published in 1973 and introduced Dick to the world. Now, on top of all his other self-appointed duties at Twin Lakes, Dick had fan mail to return as well.
Through the early 1970s, land usage debates raged in Alaska.
The National Park Service sought protected status for the Twin Lakes region that would limit hunting to subsistence only. A conservationist at heart, Dick wished to see the Twin Lakes area protected as well, but he was unsure about the Park Service’s intentions. A hunter and early environmentalist himself, he had quickly become disenchanted with the streams of trophy hunters that flew in each fall.
Ethical subsistence hunters, on the other hand, could always count on Proenneke’s help packing out and caring for their game. In all his years at Twin Lakes, Dick only documents killing a ram and a caribou himself. You can bet he made use of every scrap. More often than not, fresh meat came in the form of the porcupines that insisted on chewing down his cabin.
In 1974, the National Park Service recognized Dick’s limitless knowledge of the local wildlife and prowess with a camera by contracting him to do wildlife photography. For Dick, nothing could be better than free film and a paycheck for doing what he loved. He was especially well suited to this task. He possessed tremendous attention to detail as the faintest track or the slightest movement was sure to catch his eye.
Physically, his lifestyle and attitudes about work kept him fit well into his seventies. Anyone wishing to keep up with him in the rugged terrain would most certainly sleep well that night from exhaustion. In addition, he had a keen mind and loved to learn, mostly through observation. His work can be seen in dozens of documentaries and short films. Today it’s overshadowed by his other accomplishments, but he was truly one of the premier wildlife photographers of his time.
In October of 1976, Dick nearly died while flying south to Iowa. Flying solo in his Piper Cub, he was lucky to be in sight of a road when the engine cut out. Unable to restart the iced-up engine, he made a forced landing outside of Copper Center, Alaska. He came to outside the crumpled remains of his beloved Arctic Tern. He had suffered severe damage to his lower spine and numerous lacerations to his face.
In a feat one can only chalk up to adrenaline, he managed to walk to the highway where he was picked up by a passing motorist. It was the last time he would walk unassisted for another six months. Dick’s brother Raymond collected both Dick and the Arctic Tern to recuperate at his home in California. Dick slowly recovered over the winter, as did his Piper Cub, thanks to Raymond’s care. July of 1977 would find him back home at Twin Lakes.
Through the 1980s, Dick would spend more and more time with his journals, documenting everything he noticed in his graceful cursive script. In his time at Twin Lakes he would fill some 100-pounds worth of notebooks.
Far from anti-social, he welcomed all visitors with hot tea and pop- corn. He assisted the Park Service in finding lost hikers, counting wildlife and acting as an impromptu interpretive guide to the Twin Lakes area. He was pleased to see hunting pressure ease on his wild “neighbors.”
Dick would stay on at Twin Lakes into the late 1990s, spending a little more time down south every year. Finally, in 1999, at age 82, he moved permanently to California to live with his brother, Raymond. He would return briefly to Twin Lakes in the summer of 2000 for a taped interview and a farewell to his little cabin. Richard Louis Proenneke died on Easter morning, 2003, in Hemet, California.
Self-sufficient as he was, Dick was always dependent on the outside world. Although his needs were few, he did receive the occasional supply drop. Everything that came in was hauled back out or re-purposed in some form or another.
Over the years many have drawn parallels between Proenneke and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was no doubt a great philosopher, but in truth he only spent two years on Walden Pond. Dick on the other hand was a man of action, putting Thoreau’s (and his own) ideas into practice for nearly 30 years. In his minimalistic life he needed few material things. Most of what he did have he made himself. He did, however, possess one rare gem that seems very difficult to find in our modern world. Pure, unadulterated contentment. It is my opinion that Dick Proenneke left this world completely satisfied with his life’s work.