Richard Proenneke

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Richard Proenneke
Richard Proenneke
Proenneke in his cabin at Twin Lakes
Richard Louis Proenneke

(1916-05-04)May 4, 1916
DiedApril 20, 2003(2003-04-20) (aged 86)
Hemet, California, U.S.
Other namesDick Proenneke
Occupation(s)Heavy equipment operator, carpenter, mechanic
Awards1999 National Outdoor Book Award (NOBA)

Richard Louis Proenneke (/ˈprɛnək/; May 4, 1916 – April 20, 2003) was an American self-educated naturalist, conservationist, writer, and wildlife photographer who, from the age of about 51, lived alone for nearly thirty years (1968–1998) in the mountains of Alaska in a log cabin that he constructed by hand near the shore of Twin Lakes. Proenneke hunted, fished, raised and gathered much of his own food, and also had supplies flown in occasionally. He documented his activities in journals and on film, and also recorded valuable meteorological and natural data.[1][2] The journals and film were later used by others to write books and produce documentaries about his time in the wilderness.

Proenneke bequeathed his cabin to the National Park Service upon his death and it was included in the National Register of Historic Places four years later. The cabin is a popular attraction of Lake Clark National Park.

Early life[edit]

Proenneke's father, William Christian Proenneke (1880–1972), served in World War I, and made his living as a house painter, carpenter and well driller. His mother, Laura (née Bonn) (1884–1966) was a homemaker and gardener. His parents married in December 1909 and had three daughters and four sons: Robert, Helen, Lorene, Richard (Dick), Florence, Paul, and Raymond (Jake).[3][1]: xiii The year of Proenneke's birth is often given as 1917, but social security and census records note Richard Louis Proenneke was born in Primrose, Harrison Township, Lee County, Iowa, on May 4, 1916.

Proenneke completed primary school in Primrose, but left high school after two years because he did not enjoy it. Until 1939, he worked in proximity to Primrose driving tractors, working with farm equipment, and doing typical chores Iowa family farms required at the time. He also admired motorcycles and obtained a Harley Davidson as a teen.[1]: xiii

Naval career[edit]

Proenneke enlisted in the United States Navy the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as a carpenter. He spent almost two years at Pearl Harbor and was later stationed in San Francisco waiting for a new ship assignment. After hiking on a mountain near San Francisco he contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalized at Norco Naval Hospital for six months. During his convalescence the war ended and he was given a medical discharge from the Navy in 1945.[1]: xiii According to one of his biographers and friend, Sam Keith, the illness was very revealing for Proenneke, who decided to devote the rest of his life to the strength and health of his body.[citation needed]

Later career[edit]

Following his discharge from the Navy, Proenneke went to school to become a diesel mechanic. The combination of his high intelligence, adaptability, and strong work ethic helped him become a skilled technician. Though adept at his trade, Proenneke eventually yielded to his love of nature and moved to Oregon to work at a sheep ranch. He moved to Shuyak Island, Alaska, in 1950.

For several years, he worked as a heavy equipment operator and repairman on the Naval Air Station at Kodiak. Proenneke spent the next several years working throughout Alaska as both a salmon fisherman and diesel technician. He worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service at King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula. His skills as a technician were well-known and sought after, and he was able to save for retirement.[citation needed]

Twin Lakes cabin[edit]

Richard Proenneke Site
Park Service photo of the cabin
Richard Proenneke is located in Alaska
Richard Proenneke
LocationSoutheastern end of upper Twin Lakes, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve
Nearest cityPort Alsworth, Alaska
Coordinates60°38′42″N 153°49′15″W / 60.645°N 153.82096°W / 60.645; -153.82096
Arealess than one acre
Built1967 (1967)
Built byRichard Louis "Dick" Proenneke
NRHP reference No.06000241[4]
Added to NRHPMarch 8, 2007

On May 21, 1968, Proenneke arrived at his new place of retirement at Twin Lakes. Beforehand, he made arrangements to use a cabin on Upper Twin Lake owned by retired Navy Captain Spike Carrithers and his wife Hope of Kodiak (in whose care he had left his camper). This cabin was well-situated on the lake and close to the site that Proenneke chose for the construction of his own cabin.[5][6]

Proenneke's cabin is handmade and is notable for its fine craftsmanship as a result of his carpentry and woodworking skills; he also made 8mm films covering its construction.[6] Most of the structure and the furnishings are made from materials in and around the site, from the gravel taken from the lake bed to create the cabin's base, to the trees he selected, cut down, and then hand-cut with interlocking joints to create the walls and roof rafter framing. The fireplace and flue were made from stones he dug from around the site and mortared in place to create the chimney and hearth. He used metal containers for food storage: one-gallon cans were cut into basin shapes and buried below the frost line. This ensured that fruit 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. Proenneke's friend, bush pilot and missionary Leon Reid "Babe" Alsworth, returned periodically by seaplane or ski-plane to bring mail, food and orders that Proenneke placed through him to Sears.[7]

Proenneke remained at Twin Lakes for the next sixteen months, after which he briefly went home to visit relatives and secure more supplies. He returned to Twin Lakes the following spring and remained there for most of the next thirty years, traveling to the contiguous United States only occasionally to visit his family. He made a film record of his solitary life, which was later re-edited and made into the documentary Alone in the Wilderness. In 2011 a sequel was produced after enough footage for at least two more programs was discovered. Alone in the Wilderness: Part 2 premiered on December 2, 2011.

Proenneke's cabin was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. The site is a popular attraction for many who want to personally experience parts of Proenneke's life and values.[4][6]

Death and legacy[edit]

In 1999, at age 83, Proenneke left his cabin and moved to Hemet, California, where he lived the remainder of his life with his brother Raymond "Jake" Proenneke. He died of a stroke on April 20, 2003, at the age of 86. He willed his cabin to the National Park Service, and it remains a popular visitor attraction in the still-remote Twin Lakes region of Lake Clark National Park.[8][2]

Sam Keith, who came to know Proenneke at the Kodiak Naval Station and went on numerous hunting and fishing trips with him, suggested that Proenneke's journals might be the basis for a good book. In 1973, Keith published the book One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, based on Proenneke's journals and photography.[1]: vii Proenneke however alleged that Keith had "changed some things" to embellish the story, such as writing that Proenneke had assumed a role as King of Bears and wielded power over them. After years in print it was reissued in a new format in 1999, winning that year's National Outdoor Book Award (NOBA).[9] A hardcover "commemorative edition", celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of One Man's Wilderness, was published by Alaska Northwest Books in 2013. In 2003, some of the copyrighted text from the book and some of Proenneke's film were used with permission in the documentary Alone in the Wilderness,[10] which began appearing on U.S. Public Television. It follows Proenneke's life as he builds the cabin from the surrounding natural resources and includes his film footage and narration of wildlife, weather, and the natural scenery while he goes about his daily routine over the course of the winter months.

In 2005, the National Park Service and the Alaska Natural History Association published More Readings From One Man's Wilderness, another volume of Proenneke's journal entries. The book, edited by John Branson, a longtime Lake Clark National Park employee and friend of Proenneke, covers the years when the park was established. Proenneke had a very close relationship with the Park Service, assisting them in filming sensitive areas and notifying them if poachers were in the area.

The Early Years: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1967–1973 was published by Alaska Geographic in 2010. As with More Readings From One Man's Wilderness, the volume is edited by John Branson. This collection of journals covers Proennekes' first years at Twin Lakes, including the construction of his cabin and cache. The journal entries overlap those in Sam Keith's edited collection of some of Proenneke's journals, One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey. But unlike that book—in which Keith frequently modified Proenneke's writing style—The Early Years presents Proenneke's journals with minimal or no modification.

In 2017, a Richard Proenneke museum exhibit was opened at the Donnellson Public Library in Donnellson, Iowa, near Proenneke's hometown of Primrose. The exhibit features a replica of Proenneke's cabin, some of his writings, and other artifacts.[11]

In 2016 and 2018, respectively, A life in Full Stride: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1981-1985 and Your Life here is an Inspiration: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1986–1991 were published. In 2020, the fifth and final collection of Proenneke's journals, Reaching the End of the Trail: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1992–2000 was published. These three final collections were published by the Friends of Donnellson Public Library, The Richard Proenneke Museum, and were edited by John Branson.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Branson, John, ed. (2006). More Readings From One Man's Wilderness: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1974-1980 (PDF). United States Department of Interior, National Park Service, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. p. 471.
  2. ^ a b "Virtual Tour of Upper Twin Lake". Lake Clark National Park & Preserve (U.S. National Park Service). 2019-10-28. Retrieved 2020-06-29.
  3. ^ "Friends of Donnellson Library - family". Richard Proenneke Museum. 1916-05-04. Retrieved 2020-06-29.
  4. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  5. ^ "Alone in the Wilderness, the story of Dick Proenneke, Building the Cabin". Bob Swerer Productions. Retrieved June 29, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c National Park Service (December 19, 2018). "Proenneke's Cabin". Retrieved July 5, 2020.
  7. ^ "Alone in the Wilderness, the story of Dick Proenneke, Living in Alaska". Bob Swerer Productions. Retrieved July 5, 2020.
  8. ^ "Friends of Donnellson Library - Raymond aka "Jake"". Richard Proenneke Museum. 1923-01-21. Retrieved 2020-06-29.
  9. ^ "Winners of the 1999 National Outdoor Book Awards". National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  10. ^ "Alone in the Wilderness, the story of Dick Proenneke, Later Years". Bob Swerer Productions. Retrieved July 5, 2020.
  11. ^ "Friends of Donnellson Library - Richard Proenneke Museum - Home".


External links[edit]