In 1968, Dick Proenneke built himself a cabin in the wilderness of Alaska, 170 miles from Anchorage. His original intention was to see if he could endure the harsh winter (and to see if he liked Alaska as much then as he did during the summer he had spent in his friend’s cabin nearby). He didn’t return for 30 years. While he wasn’t self-sufficient (he had supplies like spices, beans, toilet paper, and the like flown in by a bush pilot) he certainly had the right mindset – and I’m sure he would have grown his own beans and spices if the climate had allowed – heck, he hand carved the hinges and lock for his cabin and made himself an entire set of kitchen containers from old tin cans. He came to Alaska not with the conquering-pioneer come to master the land kind of approach, but more as a new neighbor moving discreetly into a quiet but eccentric neighborhood where all the other residents just happened to be animals.
He built his handsome cabin, with dutch door, storage shelves, double bunk, and river-rock fireplace all by hand over the course of the summer and still found time to tend a tiny vegetable garden, construct a privy, erect an elevated meat cache, dig and insulate a small root cellar, fashion furniture, fish daily, hunt when meat was needed, explore the surroundings, canoe the lakes, and generally get lost with his camera. He recorded the year in journals that became the book One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey and on 35mm color film. He filmed every bit of his fascinating daily life: fishing, canoeing, snowshoeing, building, carving, putting up blueberry jam, foraging, scoping the slopes for game, scavenging frozen wolf kills, and checking the ice depth at his water hole in the lake.
My folks recommended the film and book to us after they had watched Alone in the Wilderness several times on our local PBS affiliate and liked it enough to send away for a copy. Mom described it as restful, and I can confirm that – it’s restful in a sort of reassuring way while being fascinating enough to keep it from being soporific. It’s also kind of hypnotic. Dick Proenneke was busy as a beaver, practical but poetic, good-humored about setbacks and bear attacks, and bore a passing resemblance to my maternal grandfather. It took me back to the John Muir wildlife specials I used to watch as a kid – it has the same kind of pacing and reverence for the wildlands – but it is quirkier, with it’s grainy, gently washed-out, slightly over-cranked footage and out of synch foley. Narration is provided by the filmmaker, Bob Swerer, reading Dick Proenneke’s choppy, zen-like observations from One Man’s Wilderness.
I do have to warn you of two side effects of this movie: 1) You will be gripped by a strong desire to catch the first ferry to Alaska, and 2) You may begin to drive others crazy. Mom and dad have passed the Alone in the Wilderness bug on to my brother Einar, who has reportedly been using it as the latest method in his vast repertoire of ways to test his wife’s patience. When asked a direct question, like “Wouldn’t it have been easier to have the repairman fix the dryer?” he will strike his thinking-deeply-while-staring-into-the-middle-distance pose and intone a random line of narration from the film, like “Too many men work on parts of things. Doing a job to completion satisfies me.”
You can find the movie or the book at your local library if they’re worth their salt, catch the film on public television, or buy either at http://www.dickproenneke.com/.