Most of the people I meet around the world have one thing in common, they all want to live a more simple life. And it seems like Americans, more than any other culture, are bombarded and held hostage every day by stuff and complication. Every hour of our days are accounted for and we are normally juggling multiple priorities, people, and guilt. Suddenly simple sounds pretty good doesn’t it?
Very few people are able to make that leap from complicated human life to simple. But the few who make it are highly regarded – maybe for their ability to do it, or maybe because they are seen as freaks. But when we encounter those people, we remember them and hold them in regard. It’s as if they have some special magic that we don’t; the ability to give it all up.
I’ve done a few pilgrimages before. I completed the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela a few years ago. During that 5 week hike I always knew what the pilgrimage was about. However, this pilgrimage to Twin Lakes Alaska in Lake Clark National Park was different. I knew nothing about what I was pilgrimage-ing for. I knew nothing of Dick Proenneke before I set out on this adventure. But that’s what made it so special – I learned with each flight, step, and paddle – as I inched closer and closer to the Dick Proenneke cabin in the wilderness. It was like a little breadcrumb trail leading me closer to a man whom, to my surprise, I had an immense amount in common with.
Dick Proenneke, A Man Destined to Be Different
Born in Iowa, with a strong work ethic Dick spent his younger years as a diesel mechanic and repair man. To say he was ‘handy’ is an understatement; his skills were sought after all over Alaska. He never married and had no kids. Like many people, he had been out to Twin Lakes Alaska to hunt and fish, then unlike others, 5 years later at 51 years old he decided to build a cabin in this pristine wilderness.
You might be envisioning a contractor and building crew; no, Dick was destined to do things his way. He built the tiny cabin by hand, in the remote wilderness without a single power tool. I don’t think the enormity of this sunk in to me until I actually saw the cabin and the PBS documentary, Alone in the Wilderness, where he captures the building process on video.
Dick had very clear goals for himself when he decided to build his cabin on Twin Lakes in 1968:
1. He wanted to see if he could do it solo, with only hand tools and local material.
2. He wanted to see if he could live with himself for an entire year.
3. He wanted to live in the wilderness.
As I laid in my sleeping bag and tent at night inching closer to Dick’s famous cabin, I thought about his goals. Dick was testing himself. It made me think about how I made a bunch of life changes (quitting my corporate career, living in Vietnam, doing the Mongol Rally, being nomadic for a decade) – and every single one of them was to test myself. I wanted to see if I could actually do them. Each of these life challenges I went into thinking there was a good chance I would fail. Like Dick, there was also an element of wanting to see if I was capable of doing them solo. I think it’s sort of the ultimate in survival skills and empowerment – to know that you are capable of doing something on your own.
Dick proved he was capable of all of his goals. He expertly built the cabin, and stayed living there in the wilderness for 30 years. It started as a test to see what he was made of, and it ended up his home.
Living in the Wilderness
“Beyond was all around me” –Dick Proenneke
Dick cut down and shaped every log, dug up every stone, and put together a carpentry masterpiece that is recognized around the world. He used metal containers for food storage—one-gallon cans were cut into basin shapes and buried below the frost line. This ensured 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. To say he was a hard, meticulous worker is an understatement. He was a perfectionist.
The cabin was built in a few short weeks and soon he settled into life in the wilderness. The cabin was simple; it had a desk, a bed, and a fireplace. For the first year he actually hunted wildlife for food, but he had a change of heart after that year, and never hunted again. He had begun to look at the wildlife as his neighbors. After all, they were the only other living things around.
The longest he went without seeing another person was 10 weeks for the entire 30 years. I was told he was actually a very social person, not a hermit or introvert. I can only imagine how challenging that was for him to live alone in the wilderness when you naturally like to be around people. I think that’s why the animals ended up meaning so much to him.
Dick was the main advocate for making the area a national park; he wanted it preserved. Thanks to his book, One Man’s Wilderness, and his intense love of the area, the park service plan went from 300 acres to 4 million acres for Lake Clark National Park.
As Dick aged, he finally had to leave the cabin in the wilderness, but he actually stuck in it for longer than anyone ever anticipated. He was in early 80’s when he left.
“Too many men start things, but completing things is what’s satisfying to me.” –Dick Proenekke
I talked to one of his friends who used to visit him at his cabin and asked him why Dick stayed so long living at the cabin? “People had an expectation of him and he felt obligated to uphold it we think. So he stayed there year around,” his friend explained.
I know this feeling of being obligated to a persona. I’ve been going through it for a few years now. It sort of holds you prisoner, but it’s a prisoner to something you do really love. However, I’ve learned that sometimes love has to let go a bit to grow. Dick finally let go of the persona and cabin in his 80’s.
Visiting Dick’s Cabin
When Dick passed away in 2003, he left the cabin to the park; it is now maintained as a historical site. When you visit the cabin today it is exactly how he lived in it. He kept notes on his calendar that still lay on the desk. He left a map with a little stick pin of where he went for the day lying in the cabin just in case someone needed to know where to find the body.
You will also likely meet Tony and Becky, rangers at the cabin, during your visit. They volunteered for 2 summers for 5 weeks trying to learn the history from other previous volunteers. Tony spent time improving his woodworking skills to help with maintenance of the cabin site. The Park Service turned the volunteer positions into a job, and now they are rangers for Lake Clark National Park.
They live in a smaller cabin near Dick’s and maintain the historic site. They are experts on his life and are eager to talk to any visitors that come by. And there aren’t many visitors; they get around 1,000 visitors a year. Only 10% come by foot/kayak to the cabin (like I did). Most fly in from Port Alsworth and they look at the cabin, maybe do a short hike to Teetering Rock (1 mile, 500 ft) and leave.
A Pioneer of Old and New
As I learned more and more about Dick Proenneke, I had one phrase that kept running through my head – ‘the first’.
Reality TV: Move over Bear Grylls, Dick was the first Man vs. Wild; he was taking on the wild before you were born! I think about all of the Alaska reality shows on TV these days about remote living, and Dick really pioneered this way of living and capturing the stories to share.
Vlogger: I was also surprised to learn Dick Proenneke was the first video blogger (vlogger)! In all honestly, no one told me this, but based on what I learned, I decided to christen him as the first! Before we even knew the word Vlogger, Dick was recording his life and experiences building the cabin. He made a film record of his solitary life, which was later recut and made into the documentary Alone in the Wilderness. It has aired on PBS numerous times. This exposure on PBS is what turned Dick into a wilderness cult hero.
The National Park Service actually provided him with the video camera and photo camera to capture his time in the wilderness. I honestly didn’t think much of this until I saw the documentary and realized just how much work this was to do. He was alone in the wilderness, so he set up every shot himself. When he shot footage of himself kayaking off in the lake he had to set it up on a tripod, row out, and then row back in to stop the film. Plus – I have no idea how he dealt with battery management – after all – this was the 1968 and he had no electricity! He might even be the father of the ‘selfie’ for all I know!
The video is of footage shot mostly by Dick himself, with his 16 mm Bolex camera, and the narration is writings from his journals in the book, “One Man’s Wilderness”. You can see some of it here and get a feel for Dick’s hard working personality:
Tiny House Movement: Dick’s life was a very tiny footprint. In a way, he was pioneering the simplicity and tiny house movement decades before it hit our screens on HGTV and FYI Networks! The cabin measured 11′ by 14′. He lived in 154 square feet with no electricity, and no running water for 30 years. This man could live small. For Dick it was easy to live small when he had millions of acres of wilderness surrounding him that he also called ‘home’.
Dick’s Wilderness Legacy
I was just expecting to do some backpacking in the wilderness, I wasn’t expecting to become enveloped in a man’s life that I had just heard of. But when you are out on Twin Lakes in Lake Clark National Park, it’s impossible not to be enthralled by Dick’s story and life. I breathed in every moment I could of this story, and I can now say that the term ‘wilderness’ and ‘Dick Proenekke’ are one in my thoughts.
“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 by hand, 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, dreams and company. Thousands have had such dreams, but Richard Proenneke lived them.” –Sam Keith, author of One Man’s Wilderness
Learn more about Dick Proenneke!
Getting to Dick Proenneke’s Cabin
Dick Proenneke’s cabin is located in a roadless wilderness, you can either backpack in from other areas of the park or fly in via float plane to Upper Twin Lake.
Twin Lakes Paddle – a 5 day wildnerness pilgrimage to Dick Proennek’s Cabin
General Lodge and Lake Clark Air run a number of tours out to the cabin for the day.
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I was a guest of Alaska Alpine Adventures and the Adventure Trade & Travel Association on this trip, however all opinions are my own.