Another thing that kept me away from blogging last month was that I spent half of it in Alaska. I wrote a two page epic hiking adventure in the journal at a yurt one night, visited a couple Russian churches, and took a few notes on my visit to a cabin in the wilderness that is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The cabin was built by Richard Proenneke and has been made semi-famous by a half-hour documentary featuring him.
He is known for his longevity, he spent 30 years in that cabin. He was also known for his craftsmanship, the handle mechanism on the door is ingenious. He is a little lesser known for his environmentalism.
In 1967 he was retired from the Navy and decided that building a cabin in Alaska would be a challenge he’d like to try. Challenging himself was a way of life. He had a friend who had a cabin on Upper Twin Lake, just north of Port Alsworth, so he spent that summer walking the area, finally settling on a spot right next to his friend.
There were no hardware stores in the area so whatever he needed, he had to bring or build. Space was saved by bringing only the metal parts of drills or chisels and fashioning the handles once he was there. This also led to one of my favorite lines from the documentary, “today I needed a spoon, so I made a spoon.”
His skills were excellent, and his hiking pace was legendary, but many people have accomplished such things in Alaska and elsewhere. Mr. Proenneke felt the lifestyle of accomplishing things on your own, not wasting anything and spending time reflecting on the wilderness, was worth sharing, so he also filmed himself as he built and stocked the cabin. Originally, he probably had no more in mind that simply making some instructional manuals so others could share the experience.
As he returned to that isolated wilderness year after year, he noted changes in people who came to the area. He saw people no longer caring about the values he cherished. Something you’ll see in his film or if you visit his cabin is a lot of gas cans. He fashioned many useful storage and carrying items by recycling old gas cans. But where did they come from? He didn’t have a chainsaw or gas stove. They came from the hunters. They would come out, shoot their moose and sometimes leave everything behind except the antlers.
He wrote not only about how to live in the woods but of the experience. Others, Sam Keith in particular, put those journals and film into production and he gained a little fame. This was not his goal, since of the gifts he said, “My cabin and cache have been full to overflowing for quite some time and each new load makes me wonder where I will stow it all. ... I do appreciate everything but wish they would consider the poor miserable brush rat more fortunate than they and spend their money to beat death and taxes.”
When you see him talking about himself, it’s easy to assume a level of conceit, but if wasn’t for his friends, we probably would have never heard of him. One of the park rangers at the cabin said he corresponded with Aldo Leopold and Willard Munger, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. She said Dick did not save his letters, something that comes from living a sparse lifestyle. So whatever he did, that’s lost to history.
Summing up my feelings about this pilgrimage has been more of a challenge than I expected. The man remains a bit of a mystery, and as with any public figure, he’s what each of us want him to be. What struck me most on this trip was that he did not harbor much anger. In any of the short descriptions of him, no one ever called him “crusty” or a curmudgeon. Instead they went out of their way to note how friendly he was despite his isolation. Even his hunting was kept to a minimum, apparently out of a kinship with the animals who shared his valley.
This is not to say that he withheld his opinion. Throughout his discussions about carving handles or constructing a food cache he scatters tidbits of the value of making something useful, and being able to make something with quality and craftsmanship. He ends his first book with a longer discussion on those philosophies and on the positive affects it would have on all of us if more people adopted them.
To try to give some sense of the man, here’s part of a note that was left on his table,
“You didn’t find a padlock on my door (maybe I should put one on) for I feel that a cabin in the wilderness should be open to those who need shelter. My charge for the use of it is reasonable, I think, although some no doubt will be unable to afford what I ask, and that is – take care of it as if you had carved it out with hand tools as I did. If when you leave your conscience is clear, then you have paid the full amount.
This is beautiful country. It is even more beautiful when the animals are left alive.
Thank you for your cooperation.”
Somehow he managed to be “alone” yet engaged. While alone he was listening to the world. He saw the rise of polluters from the hunters to corporations. He also saw that just as no single person can solve our environmental problems, no single person caused them. Instead of loudly broadcasting anger over the changes in the world he did not care for, he quietly showed us how to live not just in nature, but with each other.