Monday, June 11, 2007

Loner in the Wilderness

Dick Proenneke at his cabin door in Alaska.

Building his cabin.

Finished reading last night One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey. What a read. The story of 51-year-old Dick Proenneke, who decided to go to a remote part of Alaska in 1968, build a cabin, and live by himself, letting nature deal him whatever it would. It was his dream, and he lived it. The book, first published in 1973, is in its 26th printing, which vouches for its lasting popularity.

His journal while in Alaska is filled with the feats of this handyman, who could craft practically anything and do it well. In the depths of winter it got down to -55 degrees, and still his cabin, with only a fireplace for heat, would be 45 degrees; cold but warm enough compared to what was outside his door. Also just beyond his front door was the beautiful scenery of lakes, mountains, and forests, and all that go with them in the wilderness: bears, beavers, weasels, moose, caribou, ducks, badgers, and much more. I enjoyed his accounts of growing vegetables and collecting berries, then cooking fantastic meals. At times he was not totally alone, having a friend bring him supplies every few months by plane.

Dick's accounts of nature and how he deals with setbacks, scares, and the pure wonder of what is around him are riveting. Take this account of a night in March, temperature -22 degrees with the awe of the northern lights: "I put on my cold-weather clothes and went out on the ice to watch the show. It was the best I have seen. A weaving curtain of green . . . spreading large one moment and shrinking small the next. Streaks of red, yellow, and green shot like searchlight beams to a point overhead. Clouds of colored light like brilliant fog patches blinked on and off. All alone in the subzero cold, with the heavens on fire and the ice cracking and crashing around me. A savage scene, and one to remember."

Dick's accounts of nights in the deep freeze of Alaska made me shudder. The eerie stillness and solitude were haunting. He must have felt like the only man on earth.

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