From fortune cookies to Richard Proenneke

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


This is the story of an incredible man Richard Proenneke and how he, like my Grandfather transformed me into not only a man but a good man. This is mainly the story of Richard Proenneke and his
life at Twin Lakes.

Submitted: May 05, 2015

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Submitted: May 05, 2015

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FROM FORTUNE COOKIES TO RICHARD PROENNEKE 

by Michael Dale Sipes, Jr.

 

As a child, I would open fortune cookies and believe that a great wise Chinese man with a long white flowing beard had personally envisioned a phrase just for me. Later as I became wiser and less naïve to the world I realized the ugly truth, fortune cookies were an American invention and not Chinese, Japanese or Oriental at all. Well, that was okay because by this time I had moved on to wiser truths that my parents and teachers told me such as Confucius says ‘Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star”. Well at first I again believed that this wise old man had made these sayings, but remembering back to the fortune cookie and my inability it to understand the meaning of the saying I thought Confucius really meant confusion. Once again age, wisdom, and knowledge overtook my naiveté and I realized that most sayings that my parents and teachers said had nothing to do with Confucius, just a saying to bamboozle me into believing whatever they wanted me to believe or do. Of course, there was a man named Confucius who did indeed profess many a great proverbs and sayings around 500 BC. But now some 2500 years later is it’s my turn to think of witty proverbs and sayings to be passed down from generation to generation. Why can’t I be Confucius, or why can’t anyone be Confucius for that matter? I started writing original quotes about a year ago. Some are very elegant and well-spoken or written, some just get my point across, but they are mine, my original ideas, and ideals. Today I was thinking of a great man, no not a General, a President, Emperor or King but a simple man whose story, words and quotes had a huge impact on my core beliefs about what it is to be a man. That man’s name is Richard “Dick” Proenneke, as any good Genealogist would phrase a name with a surname, most called him Dick. Some of you will know instantly who he is, but the majority of you will not. Why might you ask? Well simply because his story wasn’t told until quite recently.

In 1968 at the age of 51, Richard Proenneke decided to move to Twin Lakes, Alaska and build a log cabin by hand using nothing more than a handsaw, chisel, ax and a few tools he made himself. He cut the trees the year before and let them dry over the summer and used his ax and chisel to form perfect notches to join the logs together. He fashioned a door made from boards he sawed from a nice straight log and even devised a door lock made entirely out of wood. The cabin was made from materials gathered from the surrounding area and there was nothing prefabricated about his cabin except for a piece of plastic that he used to cover the roof, which was then covered with thick layers of moss, about 2 acres worth to be exact, for insulation. He always said that he felt bad about using it but it would ensure that his cabin had no leaks. His talents as a carpenter are visible in all aspects of his cabin. The floor of his cabin was made from the gravel taken from the lake bed to create the cabin's base, to the trees he selected, chopped down, and then hand-cut into interlocking joints to create the walls and roof rafter framing. The window openings were also pre-planned and cut to suit. The fireplace was made from stones he found around the site and then meticulously placed to create the chimney and hearth. He used metal containers for food storage and dug a hole below the frost line to keep his food fresh and cold even during the summer. Not only did this preserve his food during the summer but ensured that fruits and perishables would still be accessible when the winter months froze the ground above them. He had a bush pilot friend named Babe Alsworth who periodically brought him food in the form of sacks of sugar, flour,  pounds of coffee, seeds for his garden, potatoes, and other staples. Dick grew a modest garden of potatoes, onions, beets, rhubarb, and carrots. His diet was even more modest and included rice, lots of sourdough pancakes, syrup, bacon, rice, hot chocolate and lots of beans. He also ate meat, either caribou or sheep, but he preferred sheep over caribou any day. He said that there were three essential traits exemplified by a good hunter: first make a good clean shot, second dress out the animal properly and third salvage all the edible meat. I learned the exact same thing from my Grandfather when I was a young boy. To preserve the meat and keep it from hungry bears and wolves he would hang it in his “meat tree”.  Later he built a special meat house that was suspended high in the air on poles to protect his meat better than just hanging it in his special tree. He also fished and ate fresh salmon from the lake not far from his cabin.

Dick was such a meticulous carpenter and genius that he even fashioned his own utensils, spoons, forks, bowls, everything was made by hand, nothing was store bought. He would go on to fashion a chair to sit in, a table to sit at, a bed to lie in and a sled to haul meat and wood on in winter and many more everyday items all by hand, all from nature. For him living on the frontier was seen as an opportunity to experience a free, solitary, peaceful life where he could engage nature and the universe, without the entanglement and cares of modern society. “It was something I had to do,” said Dick Proenneke when asked why he built a cabin on the crystalline shore of Twin Lakes in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park. Once settling in and getting used to living in his new home and environment, Dick would turn to his next passion, filming wildlife. He filmed bears eating wild blueberries, sheep on the mountain and the annual salmon run. Due to the quality of his photography and filming he was eventually employed by the National Park Service to photograph the wildlife. Dick Proenneke remained at Twin Lakes for the next 16 months, except when he left to go home for a time to visit relatives and secure more supplies. He returned to the lakes in the following spring and remained there for most of the next 30 years, going only occasionally to visit family. Dick kept meticulous records and was a tireless journalist who recorded everything from daily weather notations, details of his days and sage reflections of the simplest of lifestyles. Dick stayed at his cabin until the age of 82 when he returned to civilization and lived the remainder of his life with his brother Raymond Proenneke in Hemet, California in 1999.

He would occasionally go back and visit the cabin, but never stayed the winter again since it was getting too hard for him to chop wood and endure the sub-freezing temperatures of Alaska. Richard Proenneke died at the age of 86 from a stroke. His cabin was left to the National Park Service where it still remains as an attraction for visitors to Twin Lakes. I learned a lot from reading Dick’s journals, his struggles with everyday life and how he survived without the luxuries and modern conveniences we take for granted today. As a child I always wanted to live in the country, the wilderness and not the big city where I was born. I got my first taste of this life when I met my Grandfather for the first time at the age of five.  I told myself that one day I would live surrounded by mountains and away from the city life and that is where I live today. I learned a lot from my Grandfather, who like Richard was a carpenter, a genius at building things by hand and he had a love and respect for nature, just as I now have. From my experience with living on the farm with my Grandfather and my readings of Dick Proenneke’s journals I learned a lot about life and what it is to be not only a man, but a good man. I learned to respect God’s gift to us, this precious earth and the plants and animals that inhabit it.  I have two quotes that Richard Proenneke said himself that I live by and they are "If you don't need to eat, well don't kill it." A lot of people could learn a thing or two from reading and living by that quote and my favorite quote "…risk now and then is good for a man. Makes him come alive and tunes his body to a greater efficiency." A lot can be said from that quote and I live by that quote every day. If there ever was a man that I would want to be like, it’s Richard Proenneke.

I wanted to share this incredible story with you so that you might want to read more, and there is much much more to read about this man and the 90 or so pounds of journals he kept. I would like to close with one last quote from Richard Proenneke, “I have found that some of the simplest things have given me the most pleasure. They didn't cost me a lot of money either. They just worked on my senses. Did you ever pick very large 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 woolen socks after you've peeled off the 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.”

 

 


© Copyright 2020 MichaelS76. All rights reserved.

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