Throwback Thursday: When "Into the Wild" Worked

Hollywood movies aside, Dick Proenneke proved that a lone man can survive Alaska's brutal beauty.

by
posted on January 5, 2023
Proennekes Cabin National Park Service Image
Courtesy National Park Service

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.” – Henry David Thoreau

In the spring of 1968, 51-year-old Dick Proenneke began his pursuit of the dream of a lifetime. An accomplished outdoorsman, he had a bush-pilot friend, Babe Alsworth, fly him to remote Twin Lakes, Alaska, and drop him off. His goal was to spend an entire year living alone in the wilderness, not only to experience all four Alaskan seasons, but also to test himself; to see if he had what it takes to survive, especially through the 50-below-zero temperatures and extended, deep darkness of winter.

Proenneke chronicled his adventure by keeping a journal of his thoughts and activities, as well as documenting it through still photos and movie-camera footage.

May 21st:  I examined my heap of gear on the gravel. There were 150 pounds to be backpacked … I organized the array into three loads … included in the first load was a .30-06 converted Army Springfield [rifle], a box of cartridges, and a .357 magnum pistol…

His first priority was to build a log cabin near the lakeshore. Even though he was a master craftsman with hand tools, he estimated it would still take several months to complete the task. Reasoning that a small cabin would be easier to build and heat, the interior of the finished structure measured just 11’ x 15.’  To help retain heat, he covered the pitched roof with 6 inches of sod, held in place by small poles.

August 13th: The cabin was complete now except for the fireplace and, maybe later on, a cache up on poles. It was a good feeling just sitting and reflecting, a proud inner feeling of something I had created with my own hands. I don’t think I have ever accomplished anything as satisfying in my entire life.

Twin Lakes was surrounded by spectacular snowcapped mountains—a dramatic, rugged landscape that Proenneke could never seem to get enough of. What few free hours he had each day he spent watching and photographing wildlife. Grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, foxes, Dall sheep, caribou and moose were common. As were songbirds, raptors, ptarmigan, ducks, geese and loons, snowshoe hares, weasels and fish, mainly trout, salmon and grayling.

One particular species of songbird, known as a gray jay or “camp robber,” was so tame that within a short time Proenneke had the birds literally eating scraps of food out of his hand. A certain small red squirrel, however, was not as cooperative. It would occasionally steal Proenneke’s roll of toilet paper from his privy and string it through the nearby trees, apparently just for fun. But Proenneke took it all philosophically, both the good and the frustrating, knowing that the wild animals had been there long before he arrived.        

However, there was one species he had no patience with—irresponsible humans. A few groups of men came to the Twin Lakes region during autumn to hunt big game. A hunter himself, Proenneke had no problem with sport or subsistence hunting, but what he despised was people despoiling the pristine wilderness with their trash. On more than one occasion he cleaned up what a camp of negligent hunters had left behind.

September 21st: Why men come into this big, clean country and leave it littered the way they do I will never know. They claim to love the great outdoors but they don’t have respect for it. Beer cans, bottles, and cartons were scattered all over the place. It’s enough to turn a man’s stomach. I cleaned up several areas, digging many holes and burying those ugly reminders of thoughtlessness.      

(Note: It’s a lesson for our time as well as Proenneke’s—if you carry it in, carry it out!)  

December 2nd: Minus twenty-two degrees [Fahrenheit]…the wind drove the cold right into my bones. How many clothes would it take to shut out the cold? Shorts and T-shirt, Frisco jeans and wool shirt vest, red sweatshirt with hood, heavy Navy sweater and insulated coveralls. Then Navy cold-weather wool-lined overalls, watch cap, Navy wool-lined cold weather cap, two pairs of felt inner soles and one pair of cardboard inner soles in my pacs [boots], two pairs of woolen socks, two pairs of woolen mittens, and my heavy woolen scarf. I took a hike up the lake and felt I was dressed about right, except I needed more protection for my hands.

Anyone who has lived in the Alaska wilderness long enough has a grizzly bear story to tell. Proenneke had two encounters with aggressive bears. The first bruin tried to force its way into Proenneke’s cabin while Dick was inside! Proenneke was eventually able to scare it off by firing a shot into the ground in front of the bear with his .357 revolver. During the second incident, however, Dick was caught in the open, and with no firearm.

July 2nd: Suddenly the brush to my right rustled and crashed. A huge brown bear was coming head on, bounding through the willow clumps not fifty feet away! His head looked as broad as a bulldozer blade. I threw my arms up and yelled. That was all I could think to do.

I was stumbling as I retreated in terror, shouting. I tripped and fell on my back. Instinctively, I started kicking at the great broad head as it burst through the willow leaves. And then, as he loomed over me, a strange thing happened. Off he went up the slope … climbing hard and showering stones. Not once did he look back.

I was shouting, encouraging him in his flight. What seconds before had seemed so terrifying was now almost comical. What had saved my skin? He must have scented me at the last moment. Until then, I do believe he had me pegged as another animal and meat on the table. I couldn’t stop shaking. I was convinced that the ought-six [.30-06 rifle] would be standard equipment from this day on.  

Dick Proenneke not only survived his year in the wilderness, he thrived, spending the next three decades of his life at Twin Lakes. If you’d like to read more about Proenneke’s adventure, his story became a book in 1973 titled One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, written by his longtime friend, Sam Keith. PBS eventually turned the book into a documentary film, Alone in the Wilderness, which still airs yet today. You can also view short video clips of Proenneke’s wilderness life on YouTube; once to the site, do a search for his name.

The log cabin Dick Proenneke built and lived in was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007, and today is part of Clark Lake National Park and Preserve. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 87.

 

 

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