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Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book, Into the Wild, tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate who gives away all his savings and drifts around the country for a couple of years. Eventually, he decides to retreat to the Alaskan wilderness and live off the land for a while. In 2007, the book was made into a critically acclaimed movie, but its subject never got to see either one come to fruition.
McCandless died of starvation in 1992 after roughly 100 days in the Alaska woods.
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A few years later, Timothy Treadwell, aka the “Grizzly Man,” turned his love of attention and lack of formal training into a death sentence for himself and his girlfriend. The bears he became famous for “protecting” decided the two would make a nice pre-winter snack. His story received wide media attention and is the subject of a documentary and a mini-series.
Treadwell’s bear experiences lasted about 13 summers.
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These two men died of different causes: one lacked food, while the other became food. But both are dead for the same reason: they were dumbasses.
Now contrast their stories with that of Richard Louis “Dick” Proenneke, whose journals are the basis of the book One Man’s Wilderness. In his 50s, Proenneke decided to pursue his dream of living alone in the Twin Lakes region of Southwest Alaska. The book details the intensive planning and effort that enabled this remarkable man to survive and thrive in an environment that is as hostile as it is beautiful.
One Man’s Wilderness is also a portrait of a man just as passionate about the wilderness as McCandless or Treadwell. But for Proenneke, that passion translated into Job’s patience and a powerful work ethic.
For example, he cut down trees and made his boards by hand, and he fashioned door hinges from empty metal food tins. He hunted, gathered and grew his own food, meticulously detailing in his journals how it was processed and stored.
It’s 40 miles by air to the nearest town, so the only supplies he had were those that could fit on small Cessna aircraft. It is incredible that he not only lived in these conditions, but also enjoyed and appreciated this life. That is especially true in an era when some people have anxiety attacks because their Internet is disrupted.
There’s no doubt that maturity is responsible for some of Proenneke’s success, as life experience was one of the major differences between him and the other men. Before his adventure, Proenneke had been a carpenter, a shepherd, a mechanic and a heavy equipment operator. During the years he spent in those trades, he became well-known for his ingenuity, craftsmanship, strength and stamina.
On the other hand, McCandless had recently gotten a bachelor’s degree in history and anthropology, while Treadwell was reportedly a recovering addict and aspiring actor. In my view, both sought the wilderness as simply a backdrop for their own personal dramas. For Proenneke, wilderness itself was the main attraction.
Another key difference between them was purpose. Proenneke wasn’t running away from life like the spoiled college kid McCandless or indulging a dangerous hobby like the fame-whore-with-a-death-wish Treadwell. Instead, he was living a dream he had nurtured, planned and saved for all his life.
The payoff was that Proenneke got to enjoy the existence he created, staying by himself in his little remote Alaskan cabin for the better part of 30 years, only leaving at the age of 82. In 2003, he passed away from a stroke – 11 years after McCandless and just six months before Treadwell.
Dick Proenneke whittled life down to its barest essence and made his life a work of art all of us can appreciate and learn from. His story shows us the beauty of a simple life in the wilderness, lived well and with great respect for nature.
McCandless and Treadwell’s examples teach us that the respect part is non-negotiable.
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If you love the outdoors, appreciate self-sufficiency and enjoy a good story, read One Man’s Wilderness by Sam Keith. If you can find it at a local book store, terrific. If not, you can order it online here.
Also, Filmmaker Bob Swerer produced three documentary videos about Dick Proenneke’s life, which are adapted from the book and from actual 8 mm footage Proenneke shot. One of these, Alone in the Wilderness, still airs occasionally on PBS. The program, along with some follow up stories and the book are also available here.