One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey is a marvelous little book. I loved it and give it five stars. It chronicles a man’s first 16 months in the wilds of Alaska in the late 60’s. He has such a can-do spirit and such a love of nature that it is contagious. He made me realize I needed to get outside again more, and that all my little household chores can be a joy.
Earlier this year I read The Great Alone, which was set in Alaska, but with some very dysfunctional characters. I wanted to read another one where the protagonist was healthy and happy there, and this classic journal was just the ticket for that. I had a copy of it languishing here in my personal library just waiting to be read. Now I see that there is a PBS documentary based on this book called Alone in the Wilderness; I’ll try to see that next.
This book chronicles the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke, as he got left on the shores of the Twin Lakes in Alaska, surrounded by mountains, with a bit of gear. We follow him as he builds an 11’x15′ cabin with a few hand tools. We go with him to pick blueberries, watch caribou, wolverines, and big horned sheep. We struggle with him through the cold, watch his ingenuity, and marvel at his cheerful, industrious, curious attitude. He is patient, unruffled, thoughtful. He enjoys the work of his own hands. A tireless worker, he has an exceptional ability to improvise. He basks in the beauty and wonder around him in a simple and straight forward manner. And certainly his respect for the land is something we need more of.
Here are some bits to give you the flavor:
- “Anyone living alone has to get things down to a system– know where things are and what the next move is going to be. Chores are easier if forethought is given to them and they are looked upon as little pleasures to perform instead of inconveniences that steal time and try the patience.”
- “The mountains are wearing new hats this morning.”
- “I had taken a long look into the heart of the high places and felt like a man inspired by a sermon that came to me firsthand, that came out of the sky and the many moods of the mountains.”
- “Needs? I guess that is what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people. I don’t understand economics, and I suppose the whole country would be in a real mess if people suddenly cut out a lot of things they don’t need. I wonder how many things in the average American home could be eliminated if the question were asked, ‘Must I really have this?'”
- “Most people don’t work hard enough physically anymore, and comfort is hard to find. It is surprising how comfortable a hard bunk can be after you come down off a mountain.”
- “What a man never has he never misses.”
- “No sense complaining if the weather turns sour – make your job fit the day. Grandmother Nature is in control, and you better just wait until she sees fit to give you the weather that is right for another job you have to do.”
- “At my pace I notice things.”
- “I don’t think a man knows what he can do until he is challenged.”
- “Nature provides so many things if one has the eye to notice them. It is a pleasure to see what you can use instead of buying it all packaged and ready-made… I found spruce cones to be effective as Brillo pads or steel wool to scour my pots.”
- “I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes. It is a way of life with us now. The emphasis is on teamwork. I believe this trend bears much of the blame for the loss of pride in one’s work, the kind of pride the old craftsman felt when he started a job and finished it and stood back and admired it. How does a man on the assembly line feel any pride in the final product that rolls out the other end? I realize that men working together can perform miracles such as sending men to walk on the moon. There is definitely a need and a place for teamwork, but there is also a need for an individual sometime in his life to forget the world of parts and pieces and put something together on his own– complete something he’s got to create.”
- “We need each other; but nevertheless, in a jam, the best friend you have is yourself.”
- “Worrying about something that might happen is not a healthy pastime. A man’s a fool to live his life under a shadow like that.”
- “News never changes much. It’s just the same things happening to different people. I would rather experience things happening to me than read about them happening to others.”
- “Did you ever pick blueberries after a summer rain? Walk through a grove of cottonwoods, open like a park, and see the blue sky beyond the shimmering gold of the leaves? Pull on dry socks after you’ve peeled off wet ones? Come in out of the subzero and shiver yourself warm in front of a wood fire? The world is full of such things.”
The man who wrote these journals of his remarkable wilderness experience lived there for over 30 years, well into his eighties. There is so much here I desire to emulate, that I am grateful to have gotten such a glimpse. You may feel the same way.