“One Man’s Wilderness – An Alaskan Odyssey”
Book Review by Dennis Vander Houwen
“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.”Dick Proenneke
As you hunker down through the winter months this year, you are going to take on all the usual winter activities; tying flies, plotting and daydreaming your spring fishing, taking in the family holiday stuff, etc. I would recommend instead that you add one more thing for yourself in taking the time to read a good book.
If you happen to need a good book recommendation, then get yourself a copy of “One Man’s Wilderness – An Alaskan Odyssey” by Sam Keith. This book is a compilation of the journals and photos of Dick Proenneke and covers his adventure of being dropped off alone at an Alaskan back country Lake. With great fortitude, skills, and resolve; but with limited provisions and tools, he sets to work building a small one room cabin. The book covers 2 years of his life, and he shares his story through journal entries.
While this is not a new book by any means, or a New York Times best seller, it is a solid book you won’t regret picking up. I found my copy, a 50th Anniversary edition with a forward by none other than Nick Offerman, among the books left behind by my late father-in-law. I gathered some of his books as a way of keeping connected to him. Dick Proenneke’s book and videos were a common topic for us to discuss. This book was one that really stood out and I felt it very important to keep his copy as a memento of our relationship.
The journals start off with a slightly technical approach of recording his day-to-day activities and over time Dick becomes more revealing and intimate of his thoughts. By the end of the book, you hear the voice of someone who has been changed though his days and experiences. As I worked through the easy-to-read chapters, I became drawn in and found my imagination projecting a story in the spaces and life he lived between his entries. I could imagine his solitude, freedom, and peace of being in the wilderness alone. While these pleasant things are a good part of the story, Dick didn’t leave out any of the dangers of his life there either. He faces encounters with bears, losing track of time miles from home in cold weather, and injuries that he had to mend without so much as a radio to call for help. He seems to abandon any fears of the tragic though and focuses on being attentive and present going forward.
So many parts of Dick’s story are about making choices to live simply. His simplicity is not about denying himself pleasures but in finding pleasure in what is there. Things like wild blueberries. I could smell and taste the sourdough pancakes and biscuits, oatmeal, bacon, and pot of beans cooking on the stove. Nothing fancy about the food he ate and yet very satisfying to imagine. He covers these simple living details throughout the book, and he does it in a way that makes you more aware of our over abundant variety of choices, that don’t seem to add nearly as much to our lives as we think they do.
Dick did a considerable amount of fishing too. While this isn’t a book about his fishing, he does share his times out fishing. Using spinning rods and lures as well as a fly rod set up. Sometimes he would fish for food and other times he is intentional about mentioning releasing his catch. His stories made me want to calculate the best time to book a trip and visit. I would love to see how my tenkara gear would fair in such a place as the creeks that feed Twin Lakes. The book gives a clear picture of Alaska’s seasons as they change and are documented in good detail. Regularly entries in the journal name temperatures, weather conditions, and speak about both the short and long days of sunlight experienced over the year.
Dick is surrounded by and observes the prolific wildlife around him. Caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves, and wolverines. He tells many different stories about his wildlife encounters; some are funny, some scary, and some sad too. but I will let you find those yourself as you read.
The story seems like a modern one but takes place in the late 1960’s. I was likely no older than 2 or 3 years myself while Dick was living this story out. Now that I am about his age though (in my 50s) I am entranced by his story and feel challenged to live up to his ambitions. The late 60s and early 70s were a time in themselves, but Dick gives a commentary on the “hunting class” of those times that could equally describe some hunters and fishermen today. Observing and commenting on the abuse of the wilderness by these tourist hunters, he calls out their wastefulness as well as their abandon with their litter they leave behind. But Dick makes the best of their sins against nature by scavenging materials left behind and cleaning up a poorly cleaned carcass of a sheep to supplementing his food supply.
If you are like me then you will find yourself inspired by Dick’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. My “maker mindset” was piqued as I read about the way that he would make some of his needed things out of found items, manufacturing functional furniture and tools himself. You may become jealous of the long canoe tips he made, then grateful that it isn’t you who has to paddle the tree poles he gathered and hauled with that same canoe from miles away to his build site. We get to witness the slow and steady progress of the construction of his cabin and a raised supply cache using only his rudimentary tools only a few commercial materials and provisions flown in by his friend “Babe” who drops in every few weeks and is his primary connection to other human beings and the outside world.
As I read the book I could imagine the silence, the passing of time, and head space that Dick had to just ponder and be. It is a place few of us dare to venture into. Dick made it work though with just a limited connection to the outside world. He had letters from friends and family, and the occasional care package or two that Babe would bring him. Other than that, he had no radio, television, or daily newspaper to trouble him. He had only his own life in his wilderness to worry about and that seemed to be more than enough.
“One Man’s Wilderness” is a reminder that we are preoccupied too much with complications and stuff. As a result, we begin to dangerously rely on modern conveniences, and we let the part of our brains that adapts to challenges become soft. Few among our modern society have the skillset or confidence to build our own tools from the resources available to us. We have been taught that the things we need MUST be purchased.
Winter is a great time to reflect on each of our own lives. While few of us at all will ever make the choice to live like Dick did, we can find his choice as a great example to live by none the less. Through this book though we can perhaps have a small taste of being in a wild place alone and being self-reliant. You will find that in this book and that is the spirit of Dick’s adventure coming off the pages and into your own life, daring you to push your own boundaries and have meaningful connection with the wilderness.
Richard Louis Proenneke passed away on April 20, 2003. He was an American self-educated naturalist, conservationist, writer, and wildlife photographer who, from the age of about 51, lived alone for nearly thirty years (1969–1999) 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 his own food, and had supplies flown in occasionally. He documented his activities in journals and on film, and recorded valuable meteorological and natural data. 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.
Dennis Vander Houwen is an early adopter of tenkara, he lives and fishes all over Colorado. For more information on living simply or approaching a richer life with fewer things check out his blog, Tenkara Path, where you can also support his tenkara lifestyle by purchasing one of his amazing, handmade tenkara line spool, fly keepers.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021-22 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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