In the late summer of 2010, Dick Proenneke’s brother, Jake, discovered a closet full of unseen 8mm and 16mm film shot during Dick’s 30-year adventure living ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS. The thousands of feet of film was turned over to Bob Swerer Sr. & Jr., producers of the original “ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS and longtime friends of the Proenneke brothers.to see if it would be possible to create another documentary for public television.
The end result is “ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS PART 2” The Swerers carefully matched up footage with Dick’s hand written journals to recreate Dick’s second year in the Alaskan wild.
Initially, the task of filming himself in the wilderness was a challenge for Dick. He began with a simple used wind-up Bolex camera that was given to him by his brother, Jake. Dick would give the exposed film with a passing bush pilot who would mail it to his brother . Jake would have the film developed, review it through a projector, and send Dick letters reporting how the footage looked, whether it was over or underexposed, out-of- focus, too far away, etc. As it could take several months for these messages to reach Dick in Alaska, not all of the film he shot was of sufficient quality to be included in the documentaries.
Because of the learning curve, many exciting scenes and stories had to be omitted from these documentaries, For example, Dick witnessed a sow grizzly run down a mother caribou and kill her . Dick rescued the caribou’s orphaned calf, carried her back to the cabin on his back and nursed her with powdered milk. Dick captured this entire incident on film but unfortunately it was a bit too shaky and out of focus to include.
There was a time Dick was unaware that he had developed a bad light leak into the back of his Bolex 16mm camera. Several months had gone by between the time the exposed film was sent to his brother Jake for review and when Dick finally received a letter telling him of the bad news. Thousands of feet of footage were lost due to a very large blue streak running down the center of each frame. When problems like this happened Dick always managed to get them fixed. More than once, he made replacement parts for the camera from materials at hand such as a discarded tin can. His ingenuity is always obvious throughout the documentaries.
One spring, Dick discovered where a mother great-horned owl had built a nest to raise her young. For the next month, Dick paddled six miles down lake every other day to film the hatching and raising of the young owls. He built a ladder from spruce poles so he could film at the same level (30 feet in the air) as the nesting mother and her chicks . On more than one occasion the protective mother owl attacked Dick, leaving scratches on his face with her dagger sharp talons.
In the early years, Dick was extremely conservative with the film Raymond would send him to expose as it was both expensive and hard to deliver to his remote wilderness location. During the later years at Twin Lakes, the Alaskan Park service took advantage of Dicks skills of filming and documenting wildlife in this remote part of Alaska and supplied him with a good batch of 16 mm. film stock . This allowed Dick to use film a bit more liberally than he had at the start.
Often times Dick would venture away from his cabin, hiking thousands of miles every year and carrying just enough food with him to stay away three or four days at a time. On these journeys, Dick would observe and film the wildlife that he encountered such as grizzlies, caribou, wolves and moose. He would keep close tabs on the grizzlies that would hibernate on the mountain across from the cabin, watching them dig their dens in the fall and emerge from their long winter sleep in early spring, many times with cubs. Much of this was captured on film.
Two of the most often asked questions about Dick Proenneke and his life:
Why did he choose to live so many years all by himself?
Rumors have it that he was running from the law or that a woman had jilted him. In truth Dick simply just had a very sincere passion for the wilderness. He loved sitting for hours observing wildlife, hiking mountains that had never been walked on before and being totally independent and responsible for himself and his survival. He seemed to enjoy the simple things in life. No TV, radio, cell phone or computer. He did not even have a chain saw; all wood was cut with an ax. He use to say, “No chain saws here where the wolves howl! “ It was important to him to blend in with his surroundings. There was no one who had more respect for the environment and the animals than Dick Proenneke.
Did Dick ever get sick or have accidents while living in the remote wilderness?
Dick wrote in his journals that there were times he got sick but he would usually drink some vinegar which he seemed to think cured a lot of things and lay in his bunk until the sickness passed (sometimes it would take several days).
He did sustain a few minor cuts while using his ax.
Dick took his share of falls while hiking. One of the worst was when he slipped on the lake ice and landed on the back of his head. He claimed this caused headaches and on-and-off blurred vision for several years after the fall.
The worst accident by far happened in 1976 when his brother, Jake, flew a small Piper J3 cub airplane up to Dicks cabin all the way from California to spend a few weeks. The two brothers spent a lot of their time flying the little airplane to remote places in the vast wilderness. They would take turns at the controls. Jake would leave the little plane with Dick so Dick could fly back to Iowa by himself in the fall. While Dick was flying back to Iowa, the fuel line froze up over Eastern Alaska and the plane crashed on a mountainside. Badly hurt, Dick was able to crawl to a road where he was picked up and taken to the hospital. It took many months for him to recover but Dick was able to return to his cabin the following spring. Dick gave up the controls after that.
Dick always kept very busy writing in his journals and filming. He had to fish for dinner and there was always firewood to cut.
Dick did not vary his diet much. It consisted of a lot of fresh fish, beans, potatoes and oatmeal or sourdough pancakes for breakfast. During the early years Dick would kill a caribou or sheep for meat but, as time passed, he found it hard to hunt the very subjects that he filmed with his camera,
Dick would live for 32 years alone in the wilderness. At the age of 82 he suffered a series of strokes and found that cutting wood was too much of a chore Dick reluctantly left the cabin to live with his brother, Jake. He died of a massive stroke in 2003 at the age of 86 with Jake by his side.
Watch Part 2 of Alone in the Wilderness Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 5pm.