Birthday: May 4, 1916
Died At Age: 86
Sun Sign: Taurus
Also Known As: Richard Louis Proenneke, Dick Proenneke
Born in: Lee County, Iowa
Famous as: Naturalist
father: William Christian Proenneke
mother: Laura Bonn
siblings: Florence, Helen, Lorene, Raymond, Robert
Died on: April 20, 2003
place of death: Hemet, California
U.S. State: Iowa
Richard Proenneke was an American self-educated naturalist who spent over three decades of his life, alone and cut off from modern utilities like electricity and telecommunication, in a hand-crafted log cabin in the mountains of Alaska near the shore of Twin Lakes. Following a few years of military service as a carpenter during the Second World War, he worked as a diesel mechanic and fisherman before deciding to retire and return to the nature in his early 50s. He was motivated by the urge of building something from scratch. He lived by the motto, "What a man never has he never misses." Apart from building his cabin and outhouse, he also hunted, farmed for food, and searched for firewood to keep himself warm in the freezing cold. He documented his life in writing, photographs and videos. While larger cabins had been built in the area previously, his cabin stands out as a marvelous construction by one man. Moreover, his journals and recordings served as the basis for books like 'One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey' and documentaries like 'Alone in the Wilderness'.
Childhood & Early Life
Richard Louis Proenneke was born on May 4, 1916, in Primrose, Harrison Township, Lee County, Iowa. His father William Christian Proenneke was a well driller who had served in World War I and his mother Laura was a homemaker.
Richard was fourth of his parents' six children. He had two brothers, Robert and Raymond (Jake), and three sisters, Helen, Lorene, and Florence.
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The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Richard Proenneke enlisted in the United States Navy to serve as a carpenter. After serving there for nearly two years, he was sent to San Francisco in order to join a new ship assignment.
Unfortunately, he contracted rheumatic fever while hiking a mountain near San Francisco, following which he was hospitalized at Norco Naval Hospital. The war had already ended by the time he recovered six months later, so the Navy gave him medical discharge in 1945.
He next went back to school to prepare himself for a career as a diesel mechanic. During the next few years, he earned a reputation as a very skilled mechanic thanks to his adaptability, strong work ethics and intelligence.
A nature lover, Proenneke soon gave up his career as an engineer to work at a sheep ranch in Oregon, and later relocated to Shuyak Island, Alaska, in 1950. He spent his early years in Alaska, working as a heavy equipment operator and repairman on the Naval Air Station at Kodiak.
For several years, he roamed across Alaska, switching between his work as a salmon fisherman and a diesel mechanic, and earned enough money to save for his retirement. He also worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service at King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula for some time.
Cabin Life in Alaska
Writer Sam Keith, Richard Proenneke's friend at the Kodiak Naval Station, once mentioned that his illness had worked like an eye-opener for him and shifted his focus on building bodily strength. Following his retirement, he decided to live alone in the wilderness of Alaska and on May 21, 1968, he arrived at the spot he had chosen near the Twin Lakes.
He had already made arrangements to utilize a nearby cabin belonging to retired Navy Captain Spike Carrithers and his wife Hope as his temporary shelter while he was building his own cabin. A skilled carpenter, he decided to build the cabin all by hand from materials that he had collected around the site and basic tools that he had assembled. He recorded the building process on film.
He collected gravel from the lake bed to build the cabin's base, and hand-selected trees, manually cutting them down and creating interlocking joints for the walls and roof rafter framing. He also dug up stones and mortared those in place to create the chimney and hearth.
His main cabin is roughly a 12-foot by 16-foot structure built from round spruce logs, with the roof being covered by sod, moss and grass that he added over the years. He used thin plastic panels for the windows, while the handmade Dutch door was secured by wooden hinges and a wooden lock.
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A few feet to the south, he also built a 6-foot by 4-foot raised log cache, supported on four 9-foot-long wooden poles. He accessed the cache with a ladder that he had built himself. He supported the raised storage with poles higher than traditional Athabascan caches in the region to avoid bears breaking in, and wrapped tin around the poles to prevent small rodents from climbing.
About 45 feet east of the cabin, he built a woodshed-cum-outhouse with a slanting shed roof, modeled after Adirondack shelters. He primarily stored his tools and a huge pile of wood in the shed.
To store perishable food items, he used metal cans, cut into basin shapes, and buried them below the frost line. Occasionally, he ordered food and other items from Sears through his friend, bush pilot and missionary, Leon Reid 'Babe' Alsworth.
He initially stayed at the cabin for 16 months before returning home to visit relatives and to collect more provisions for a longer stay. Upon his return, he lived in his cabin for over 30 years, except for occasional travel to the contiguous United States. He documented his solitary life in journals, photographs and videos, which became a treasure trove for naturalists.
On the suggestion of comic artist Sam Keith, Richard Proenneke's journal and photographic records were published in the form of a book, 'One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey', in 1973. Edited by Keith, it was re-issued on its 26th anniversary in 1999, which won the 'National Outdoor Book Award' (NOBA) that year.
His journals and videos were used with permission in the documentary, 'Alone in the Wilderness', which aired on television in 2004. When more footage was found from his recordings, a second part was made and aired on December 2, 2011. A third part was announced but never aired.
His friend and Lake Clark National Park employee John Branson edited his journals to publish two books, 'More Readings From One Man's Wilderness' and 'The Early Years: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1967–1973'.
Family & Personal Life
In 1999, 82-year-old Richard Proenneke left his cabin and came to live with his brother Jake in Hemet, California. Four years later, Proenneke died of a stroke on April 20, 2003.
He donated his cabin to the National Park Service, following which it became a popular tourism attraction as NPS offered trips to the site during summer. In mid-2007, his cabin and the outbuildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Donnellson Public Library in Donnellson, Iowa, close to his hometown of Primrose, opened a Richard Proenneke museum exhibit in 2012. Apart from a replica of his cabin, the exhibit also features some of his writings and other artifacts.
While living in his cabin, Richard Proenneke spent a lot of time hunting for meat, growing vegetables and collecting wood for fire. However, in spare time, he kept meteorological records and monitored movements of animal, as well as human hunters in the area, and often assisted the National Park Service in apprehending poachers.