Weekend Warm-Up: Dick Proenneke — One Man’s Alaska

A wonderful, old-fashioned film about a man who builds a cabin in Alaska in 1965 and lives there for 30 years.

It’s never too late to change your life; or so say motivational posters, “life coaches”, and Instagram influencers. For those that have spent the last year cooped up at home, drastic change is an increasingly attractive proposition. One Man’s Alaska might serve as a call to action.

In 1965, Dick Proenneke swapped his life as a mechanic for the Alaskan wilderness. A welding accident that had nearly cost Proenneke his sight was the final kick he needed to move to Twin Lakes, 200km by air southwest of Anchorage. “I decided I was going to enjoy my eyesight, if I had any left,” he explained during this 1976 interview.

His new life started with the kind of work schedule you’d think he would want to leave behind. Using only hand tools, he put in 12-hour shifts, six days per week, to build a wooden cabin on the lakeshore. He even filmed the process, using a timer-controlled camera and a tripod. His hard work paid off: The cabin still stands today, immaculately maintained by park services and a team of volunteers.

A keen naturalist, Proenneke documented the comings and goings of bear, moose, caribou, and arctic hares. He filmed the changing seasons and hiked for an average of 5,000km every year.

His relationship with the land changed over his 30 years in the cabin. He stopped hunting large game. Instead, to impact the environment as little as possible, he survived mostly on lake trout and vegetables. He detested waste and decide that large game was too much for one man. He developed a flair for recycling too, taking discarded gas cans and converting them into cooking pots.

Proenneke’s wilderness films appealed to the public. The slow, meditative snapshots of his new life inspired others to make their own Alaskan pilgrimages. But it was apparent that wilderness life wasn’t for everyone: “People come up here and remark how nice it is, but it’s not 30 days before they’re trying to make it like where they came from…this is pretty nice here, let’s not spoil it.”

We can’t embed this particular film, but you can watch it on YouTube below.