Moving from the general to the specific on the issue of wilderness, the third book on my reading list was One Man’s Wilderness by Sam Keith and Dick Proenneke. The authorship of this book is somewhat complicated; basically, it was based on the journals Proenneke kept in the late 1960s while building a cabin at Twin Lakes in what later became Lake Clark National Park and reworked into a book by Keith, a writer who was a friend of Proenneke. Keith’s influence can be seen especially in some of the earlier passages where Proenneke describes at length events that took place over the course of weeks. This part doesn’t seem much like a diary. Most of the book, however, does feel like it has been taken mostly verbatim from Proenneke’s journals. The time period covered is roughly one year, during which Proenneke built his cabin almost entirely from scratch, using only hand tools.
This is a classic work in the Alaska wilderness literature. Proenneke filmed himself building the cabin, and the footage he produced later became the basis for an accompanying PBS documentary called Alone in the Wildnerness. Between the book and the documentary, Proenneke has become a household name among the sorts of people who know about wilderness and national parks in Alaska. It’s an interesting read just to see what it took for him to survive in the rather harsh conditions he encountered with very few resources at his disposal. From the time period covered by the book it’s not apparent what would happen to Proenneke (it ends as he leaves Alaska to care for his sick father back in Iowa), but he ended up returning to the cabin and living there for over 30 years, until he got too old for the rigorous lifestyle. When Twin Lakes became part of the newly created Lake Clark National Park in 1980 Proenneke was allowed to stay, and his cabin is now one of the most popular sites in the park.
It’s worth noting, however, that there are some odd things about this book. Unlike most other people who have come to the Alaska wilderness from elsewhere, Proenneke was not seeking gold, furs, or any other material gain. He came to Twin Lakes to retire after having worked as a ranch hand and laborer for many years, most recently in Kodiak. There is therefore a certain lack of grounding to his account of building the cabin and all of his daily activities. It’s interesting to read about everything he had to do to live out there, but it’s never clear just why he’s there. Ultimately he seems to just be there because he loves the wilderness so much, but still, that’s a hell of a commitment to wilderness making him do all that work for that alone.
It’s also noteworthy, in the context of the story John Miles tells about wilderness and the national parks, that Proenneke’s idea of wilderness doesn’t really match up with the concept of wilderness enshrined in the Wilderness Act, promoting by organizations like The Wilderness Society, and now protected by the National Park Service and other agencies. Proenneke didn’t just visit the wilderness; he lived there. Indeed, he moved there and built a cabin, which is in some ways the diametric opposite of the wilderness ideal of a land untouched by human activity. And yet, rather than a villain appropriating the wilderness for his own use, Proenneke is seen today by wilderness advocates primarily as a hero and a role model. There’s a definite tension here that I don’t think has ever been resolved.
Also, it’s worth noting that for all his rhetoric about getting away from it all and rejecting the modern world Proenneke arrived at Twin Lakes in an airplane. That plane was piloted by Babe Alsworth, a legendary bush pilot who moved to the shores of Lake Clark in the 1940s and founded what would become the community of Port Alsworth, which is now totally surrounded by Lake Clark National Park and the site of the park’s field headquarters. Alsworth continued to bring Proenneke’s mail (including supplies he had ordered) and to stop by from time to time to check on him. Proenneke did live off the land to a considerable degree, but he was nowhere close to self-sufficient. He talks about all of this in the book, but he never discusses how he paid for it. He must have saved up quite a bit of money in his working days.
Proenneke also doesn’t really put his own effort into the context of the times. To be fair, there’s no particular reason to expect him to do so, but it’s worth noting what else was going on at the time. The 1960s and 1970s were a time when many people (often called “rusticators”) were flocking to Alaska to live in cabins in the wilderness, and Proenneke was both part of this movement and an inspiration for later stages of it, largely through Keith’s book, which was originally published in 1973. The people John McPhee saw living like this on the Yukon near Eagle in the mid-1970s were also part of the general trend. Proenneke knew many of the other rusticators in his area, but they don’t show up in the book, and the impression it gives is that he was completely alone out there aside from Babe Alsworth’s occasional visits. That may well have been true for that first year, but it definitely was not for thirty years after that during which Proenneke remained a fixture of the region.
Overall, this is a good book, and a short and entertaining account of the Alaska wilderness and what it takes to live there. I didn’t make it out to Proenneke’s cabin while I was working for the Park Service, but I did get to Port Alsworth and other parts of the park. It’s a beautiful area, well worth a visit for those who can afford the (substantial) cost of getting there. This book definitely only gives a narrow perspective on Alaska and excludes a lot of important things, but taken for what it is it’s a good read.