Richard (Dick) Proenneke was a WWII veteran, a diesel mechanic, and an Alaskan. He served in the war with the US Navy and became ill for six months with the rheumatic fever. It was during this trial that he began to really treasure his health. He pondered the simple life as well as the enigma of the Alaskan territory. He slowly found work farther and farther north and west from his homeland in Iowa, finally landing a job in Alaska where he was eventually able to retire. Unlike most, his idea of retirement involved surveying the remote land near Twin Lakes, looking for the ideal place to build a home in what is now a corner of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.
Dick has reflected on his accomplished dream stating:
Needs? I guess that is what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people… I wonder how many things in the average American home could be eliminated if the question were asked, “Must I really have this?” I guess most of the extras are chalked up to comfort or saving time. Funny thing about comfort – one man’s comfort is another man’s misery. Most people don’t work hard enough physically anymore, and comfort is not easy to find. It is surprising how comfortable a hard bunk can be after you come down off a mountain.
In 1968 he began construction on his 10’ x 12’ cabin. He hiked to the location on foot with a small knapsack filled with a few handleless implements. Not only did he build his own cabin by hand, he fashioned his own tools as well. He used nearby timber, mainly peeled spruce logs for the walls and roof structure. During the construction he stayed at another cabin in the region owned by an old Navy buddy. Once the cabin was completed he built two additional buildings, an outhouse doubling as a supply shed and a food cache. These three buildings made it possible for Dick to spend the next thirty years of his life in the remote Alaskan bush.
I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn’t cost me a lot of money either. They just worked on my senses. Did you ever pick very large blueberries after a summer rain? Walk through a grove of cottonwoods, open like a park, and see the blue sky beyond the shimmering gold of the leaves? Pull on dry woolen socks after you’ve peeled off the wet ones? Come in out of the subzero and shiver yourself warm in front of a wood fire? The world is full of such things.
Much of his solitude was spent observing and studying the surrounding environment. He immersed himself in the landscape and with the wildlife.
The more I see as I sit here among the rocks, the more I wonder about what I am not seeing.
Dick was able to keep amazing records of the weather, animal and plant species, and migration patterns while at Twin Lakes. He returned periodically to the Midwest to visit family, but most of his golden years were spent alone in Alaska. In 1999 at age 82, Dick finally had to leave to his new found home for health reasons. Consequently, he donated his cabin to the National Park Service. The remaining three years of his life were spent in California with his brother.
One of the remarkable aspects of Dick’s relationship with Twin Lakes was that he was able to film a lot of his endeavors while living there. Not only can the public visit all three of his structures, but they can still watch him meticulously place each spruce log in place. His circumstance was (and still is) quite unique in that Dick was able to invite people into the life at Twin Lakes in Lake Clark National Park.
Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service