Friday, April 1, 2011

R - One Man's Wilderness

One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey, By Sam Keith from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke

In 1968 Dick Proenneke was flown into the Twin Lakes in Alaska and started to build a cabin. Dick was 51 years old and had a lifetime of working with his hands behind him. He possessed the type of skills that were essential to making his dream of living in the Alaska wilderness possible.

This book, taken from Dick's journals and re-worked by Sam Keith, chronicles the construction of the cabin and the first two years that Dick spent there. I ended up reading it because my wife has a strong attraction to Alaska and told me it was a "must read". Roughly the first two-thirds of the book are devoted to the process of building the cabin and the challenges he faced during that period. The last part is mostly concerned with some of his explorations around the area and the wildlife he encountered.

I have to admit that I found the first part of the book far more interesting than the latter part. That probably reflects how I tend to get very involved in books that are focused on the engineering aspects of life, the "how do we do this?" kind of thing. There are some rather interesting thoughts that occurred to me while reading those pages. First, I thought about how I would have done some of it a bit differently. There are a lot of ways to build a log cabin and there is certainly nothing wrong with how Dick did it, but it provides me with a great deal of enjoyment to visualize alternate approaches that might have taken less labor, yielded better (in my mind) results, and possibly made less use of non-natural materials. Case in point is that Dick assembled many parts using nails where I would have used wooden pegs. He also used tar paper and plastic sheeting on the roof under a thick layer of moss. His method worked very well, but I would have probably split shakes instead.

The other thought that kept coming to my mind was that he was in phenomenal physical condition (and obviously remained that way since he lived in the cabin all or part of each of the next 30 years). I kept thinking that there was no way on earth I could do what he did. I might have the skills, but I no longer have the strength or stamina, and that was a bit of a melancholy thought.

If you have an interest in the Alaskan wilderness and in log cabins and isolation then I think you would find this a very good read. There are also a couple of follow-up books and the journals are available on-line in PDF format. I'll post the links as I find them.

The book on

More Readings From One Man's Wilderness - A huge PDF file of Dick's journals from 1974-1980

Alone in the Wilderness - a web site by Bob Swerer about Dick Proenneke