DESTINATION- BACK AND BEYOND
I have often thought about what I would do out here if I were stricken with a serious illness, if I broke a leg, cut myself badly, or had an attack of appendicitis. Almost as quickly as the thought came, I dismissed it. Why worry about something that isn’t? . . . I have thought briefly about getting caught in rock slides or falling from a rock face. If that happened, I would probably perish on the mountain in much the same way many of the big animals do. I would be long gone before anyone found me. My only wish is that folks wouldn’t spend a lot of time searching. When the time comes for a man to look his Maker in the eye, where better could the meeting be held than in the wilderness?
If you have never come across the name Richard Proenneke (May 4, 1916-April 28, 2003), and there is a part of you that listens to the Wilderness calling, if you yearn for the way life should be, and enjoy the comfort of a hearth in a cabin on a snowy night, then you will probably be interested in his story.
Dick was born in Iowa, and spent time as a carpenter in the Navy during which he contracted rheumatic fever, and was bedridden for almost 6 months, vowing after to spend the rest of his life working on the strength and health of his body. After being discharged, he went to school and became a very adept diesel mechanic – his skill were well known and sought after in Kodiak Alaska where he had eventually moved. Dick’s heart was captured by the wildness of Alaska. In the spring of 1967, a contractor that Dick was working for was under pressure to hire only union men – Dick always felt he was his own man, and he did the job he had to do without worrying about the hours or conditions. It was the excuse he needed to plan his retirement at Twin Lakes, and at 51 Dick headed into the Wild and never looked back.
I was here to test myself, not that I had never done it before, but this time it was going to be a more thorough and lasting examination.
It would be a tough argument to win to find a person on earth that was more hardcore than Dick Proenneke. I can imagine one bit of his experience as I’ve built my own cabin from scratch using wood from the surrounding property, but I had the benefit of a chain saw. Dick did it all by hand, including a stone hearth and chimney. One thing that I found amazing when reading the book is that not only did he use only hand tools, to save on weight he only packed in the axe heads and other steel items and built the handles after he got there. Who does that???? It would be such a daunting task for me I would certainly quickly feel overwhelmed to think that I had to build my axe handle before starting to build my cabin.
Thankfully Dick kept a journal of all of his activities which is now a book “One Man’s Wilderness” and shot lots and lots of film, which is now a movie ” Alone in the Wilderness”, both of which are available at the end of this post. I am so thankful that he had the forethought to know that there are many of us that would relish and envy his life.
The book begins with one of my favorite poems by Robert Service – I’m Scared of it All;
I’m scared of it all, God’s truth! so I am;
It’s too big and brutal for me.
My nerve’s on the raw and I don’t give a damn
For all the “hoorah” that I see.
I’m pinned between subway and overhead train,
Where automobillies swoop down:
Oh, I want to go back to the timber again –
I’m scared of the terrible town.
I want to go back to my lean, ashen plains;
My rivers that flash into foam;
My ultimate valleys where solitude reigns;
My trail from Fort Churchill to Nome.
My forests packed full of mysterious gloom,
My ice-fields agrind and aglare:
The city is deadfalled with danger and doom –
I know that I’m safer up there.
I watch the wan faces that flash in the street;
All kinds and all classes I see.
Yet never a one in the million I meet,
Has the smile of a comrade for me.
Just jaded and panting like dogs in a pack;
Just tensed and intent on the goal:
O God! but I’m lonesome — I wish I was back,
Up there in the land of the Pole.
I wish I was back on the Hunger Plateaus,
And seeking the lost caribou;
I wish I was up where the Coppermine flows
To the kick of my little canoe.
I’d like to be far on some weariful shore,
In the Land of the Blizzard and Bear;
Oh, I wish I was snug in the Arctic once more,
For I know I am safer up there!
I prowl in the canyons of dismal unrest;
I cringe — I’m so weak and so small.
I can’t get my bearings, I’m crushed and oppressed
With the haste and the waste of it all.
The slaves and the madman, the lust and the sweat,
The fear in the faces I see;
The getting, the spending, the fever, the fret –
It’s too bleeding cruel for me.
I feel it’s all wrong, but I can’t tell you why –
The palace, the hovel next door;
The insolent towers that sprawl to the sky,
The crush and the rush and the roar.
I’m trapped like a fox and I fear for my pelt;
I cower in the crash and the glare;
Oh, I want to be back in the avalanche belt,
For I know that it’s safer up there!
I’m scared of it all: Oh, afar I can hear
The voice of my solitudes call!
We’re nothing but brute with a little veneer,
And nature is best after all.
There’s tumult and terror abroad in the street;
There’s menace and doom in the air;
I’ve got to get back to my thousand-mile beat;
The trail where the cougar and silver-tip meet;
The snows and the camp-fire, with wolves at my feet;
Good-bye, for it’s safer up there.
To be forming good habits up there;
To be starving on rabbits up there;
In your hunger and woe,
Though it’s sixty below,
Oh, I know that it’s safer up there!
In 1998 Dick entrusted his cabin and cache to the Park Service, after spending some 30 years alone in the Alaskan Wilderness. What an adventure it must have been. The Park Service is maintaining it as a historic site, and there was an agreement that he could return to stay in his cabin anytime he wished.
Dick lived out the last years of his life with his brother in California, and passed on Easter Sunday 2oo3 at the age of 87, reportedly from a stroke.
An amazing man, and an amazing life…thankfully he allowed us to share some of it.