On my night table: One Man’s Wilderness

March 9, 2013

A neighbor loaned me a book and told me a little bit about it: a guy building his own cabin in the Alaskan wilderness and living in it, out hiking in the weather that was occasionally 50 degrees below zero. I thought maybe it would be better summer reading when I wasn’t already cold working outside (at 25 above). But I started it and found it to be so good that I couldn’t put it down.

The book is One Man’s Wilderness, the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke as told by Sam Keith. The journal format helps me since these days I have only short chunks of time to read. In 1967 At age 50 Dick Proenneke went to a place in the wilderness he loved, hand-cut and peeled logs for a cabin, then returned a year later to build the cabin. He used no power tools and brought provisions and only the working ends of his woodworking tools (he made handles when he got there). In the creeks he fished for simple meals, kept sourdough starter going to biscuits each night, and ate simple meals. He started a garden—itself a feat in permafrost soils—and when hunting season started he hunted a sheep and also scavenged wasted meat from temporary hunting camps elsewhere on the lake.

He thrills in the beauty of the land, enjoys life for what he makes of it, and befriends the birds around his cabin. His woodworking is beautiful, and his cabin is now a historic site in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. He made everything by hand, including the furniture, wooden spoons, and his dinner plates. On top of this, he used a spring-wound movie camera to film the process and the wilderness and the footage has been made into a documentary (you can see selections of it online, and it airs occasionally on PBS).

When I’ve told people what I was reading, nearly everyone had already heard the story, from the PBS documentary. If you haven’t read this book I highly recommend it.

Posted by Daniel Barringer on March 9, 2013.