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Solitary Man: Alone in the Wilderness

Alone in the Wilderness Wordle

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was fortunate enough to have access to a great public television network. Its programs sparked my love for cooking, cultivated my love for wacky British humour, and broadened my knowledge base and enthusiasm for science and the natural world.

One of the network’s most memorable shows, Alone in the Wilderness, aired frequently during pledge weeks. The documentary revolves around Dick Proenneke, a retired mechanic, carpenter, and handyman, living in solitude at Twin Lakes in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park. Alone in the Wilderness depicts Proenneke’s first year out in the wilderness in 1968 as he single-handedly builds his log cabin. Most of the colour footage used in the film was shot with a stationary 16mm tripod-mounted camera and accompanied by commentary on his day-to-day experiences.

In the film, Proenneke fully embraces the formidable challenges of living alone in the Alaskan wilderness. To be able to live in solitude in such a harsh environment requires all of his considerable skills and life experience, along with an appreciation for the wonders for nature. The life he chose to live demanded all that he is, but it provided him with deep satisfaction and joy. His story, told through Alone in the Wilderness, inspires me to examine the ideas of living simply and respectfully with one’s surroundings.

Living simply and deliberately: A path rarely taken

Proenneke Hiking to summit

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (Thoreau, Walden).

According to his lifelong friend Sam Keith, it was a bout of rheumatic fever that prompted Proenneke to reexamine himself and change his life (wikipedia). Upon his retirement, he chose to live away from people and civilization in the Alaskan wilderness. Living off the land with next to no support has a strong romantic appeal to it. For most of us, this lifestyle is too costly and too difficult to pursue; we are too attached to the conveniences of everyday life, too tied-down by the obligations and conventions of modern society, and too unskilled in the natural world to make this dream a reality. Proenneke, on the other hand, seemed to relish the opportunity to walk down a path rarely taken:

“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace. I was alone, just me and the animals. It was a great feeling, free once more to plan and do as I please. Beyond was all around me, my dream was a dream no longer.”

The experience served as a mental and physical test for himself. The wilderness offered him freedom, but did he have the physical abilities to live comfortably in a harsh environment? Did he have the mental fortitude to only have himself and the animals for company? He had to confront these questions in the beginning of Alone in the Wilderness:

“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 the age of 51, I intended to find out.”

In the end, Proenneke’s experiment was a success, and he would spend the next thirty-five years documenting his life through film and written journals of life at Twin Lakes.

One man’s respect for nature and culture

Itchy Caribou - Alone in the Wilderness

It is evident throughout the film that Proenneke harbours a deep sense of love for living creatures. Many of his ruminations revolve around encounters with local wildlife. He expresses empathy towards the mosquito-riddled caribou and takes delight in watching the winter antics of the wolverine. The appreciation he has for the beauty of nature shines through in his camera work and commentary:

Proenneke Blueberry Picking

“Close at hand, the mosses and grasses were full of tiny flowers. It is another world of beauty. The more I see as I sit here among the rocks, the more I wonder about what I am not seeing.”

Proenneke recognizes beauty in both the large and the small, accepting and appreciating all the mysteries of nature. He hunts and fishes only for subsistence; he never takes delight in taking another creature’s life and never revels in the thrill of the hunt. He does only what he must to survive, and no more:

“I opened and closed the season with one shot. The search for meat is over. I hated to see the big ram end like this, but I suppose he could have died a lot harder than he did.”

At one point in the film, he admonishes the wolves killing a moose calf seemingly for the sport of it, saying that they “lost a few points with me”. To me, these small scenes suggest that he is a thoughtful individual who understands the importance of living sustainably within the natural world.

Proenneke Relaxing by the Cabin

Watching Proenneke living simply also brings a sense of appreciation for the things we take for granted; I am reminded of a scene where he became excited because his friend’s wife had knitted him several pairs of socks. Few of us would have given a second thought to such a gift. But they meant the world to Proenneke; his words conveyed his deep appreciation for this gift from civilization. Like the routine by Louis CK, Alone in the Wilderness reminds me that I was extraordinarily fortunate to be born in modern times. It reminds me that I should be thankful of my good fortune, and be grateful for the conveniences provided by today’s society.

 Doing good, fulfilling, needed work

Proenneke Proud of the Work

“Too many men work on parts of things. Doing a job to completion satisfies me.”

No matter how many times I watch his careful meticulous construction of his wooden cabin, I never ceased to be amazed. The same combination of intelligence, adaptability and strong work ethic that made him a great mechanic also made him an unparalleled outdoorsman.  Here was a man with the patience, skill, and endurance to hew his cabin logs, create his own locks, roof his house with moss, devise and construct a sled, even carve his own spoon.

Proenneke - Spoon Carving

Need a spoon? Make one!

In each of his creations, I see humanity’s ingenuity and creativity guided by foresight and moderation. He shows great skill and cleverness in his work, taking great pride in completing projects, but only makes what he needs, and never likes to waste. There is something meditative about watching him work, whether it is seeing him skillfully notch out round holes in each of the logs of his cabin, or creatively bending metal cans to make a set of kitchenware. These quiet scenes of doing help convey to me the deep sense of fulfillment that can be achieved through doing needed work, doing it well, and doing it to completion.

The notion of doing good, fulfilling, and needed work reminds me of an initiative started by Alla Guelber, one of my colleagues from school. Called the Meaningful Work Project, it explores the concept of work that benefits self, society, and the environment. The project asks the following questions:

  • How can we align our values and our work?
  • How can we make money and also affect positive change in the world?
  • What are new models for engaging in the economic system and in society?

Alone in the Wilderness captures my attention every time I come across it.  It is an examination of what is necessary in our lives, but does not preach about the virtues of a simpler life. The skillset required to live off the land is an extensive one; few of us can do what Proenneke does. Proenneke is not only an unparalleled outdoorsman, but also a capable farmer, forager, fisherman, and chronicler. He reminds me that off-the-grid living is not easy: it takes ingenuity, demands patience. But as he demonstrates throughout the film, it can be an immensely soul-satisfying way to live. Thanks to his footage, musings and journals, I am able to glimpse a bit of the world as he saw and lived it. Whether he did it to provide a record for his family or for a wider audience, he has become a great educator, storyteller, and champion for living in balance with nature.

Proenneke Journaling

Next Up: Stories from a legendary game franchise.

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Images from Alone in the Wilderness © 2004 Bob Swerer Productions. All rights reserved.

12 Comments

  1. I did know of this man before reading your piece and found this a really fascinating read. What an absolute inspiration. I’m in awe of his skills and patience, and find that one word alone so incredibly meaningful: patience. Our lack of patience as a society is one of our very biggest shortcomings. Thanks for shining a light on this man and his work.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. I do agree with you: patience is not a virtue that is widely practiced or valued in modern society. To me, being patient seems to have a negative connotation to it, of not doing things quicker, of inaction and waiting. But frequently that’s what is needed for the achievement of better, long-term goals.

  2. As you say, it’s a romantic idea. I find it very attractive, but I definitely don’t possess the skills and my family would definitely object. I’m interested in how the thriftiness & resourceful creativity that’s needed to survive in the middle of nowhere could be translated to life in the city. What if we had to find and/or make what we needed rather than just buy it? What if we could share resources and skills more fully with our neighbours, especially when so many of us live so close together?

    • I think many elements of homesteading and of self-sufficient living can be directly translated to urban living. Learning to craft, fix, and appreciate items instead of buying and disposing of things all the time can lead us to new avenues of life satisfaction. A hermit’s life is definitely not necessary; having a supportive community around can also be a catalyst for living differently. With the ubiquity of social media nowadays, meeting like-minded individuals is easier to achieve than ever before.

  3. I am not familiar with Proenneke, here in Italy I have never heard about it. But your article reminded me the way my grand mother used to live, in Switzerland, and even today that she is gone, it is always very inspiring to visit her house up in the montain of Ticino ( the italian part of Switzerland).
    Thanks for the beautiful article 🙂

    • Previous generations definitely possessed more of the skills and mental makeup necessary to live off the land, probably mostly out of necessity.

      I’m glad this article helped you remember your own past. Visiting the place must evoke all sorts of connections between you, your grandmother, and the surroundings. Connections to nature, culture, and self is what this blog is all about!

      Thanks for sharing.

  4. Very nicely written. This piece reminds me of my brother, who lived similarly (he’ll be making it into my blog eventually). Thanks for finding me again. I enjoy your writing and have signed up to follow – that makes you the first one I’ve signed up to :). I think we’re writing about the same subject from different perspectives. Hope you’ll check back from time to time.

    • Thanks very much for the follow. I look forward to reading about your brother’s experience, along with your other nature based thoughts on balance.

  5. Pingback: Review: The Age of Missing Information « Mindful Stew

  6. Hello Issac
    As producer of “ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS” both part 1 and 11 and a friend of Dick Proenneke
    We thank you for posting what you have on Dicks life and adventures. I think Dick would have enjoyed reading all the blogs . His brother Jake who took care of Dick when he left Twin Lakes at the age of 82 after suffering a series of strokes, is a wonderful man himself and good friend. He is responsible for taking good care of all the film footage that Dick shot over those 32 years. Both one hour programs are available on dvd from the official Dick Proenneke website http://www.aloneinthewilderness.com or http://www.dickproenneke.com for folks that have not seen it on a PBS channel.
    Best Regards
    Bob Swerer

    • Hi Bob,

      I sincerely appreciate your visit to my blog, and I want to thank you for producing Alone in the Wilderness so that I could have the opportunity to learn about this remarkable man. I ordered the dvd a few years ago from KCTS and still watch it on a regular basis, but I didn’t know there was another full documentary. I will definitely check it out, and perhaps write another piece in the future on it.

      Cheers,
      Isaac

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