The Life Of Dick Proenneke: What It Means To Be Free

Freedom is a curious word. We use it a lot in conversation without the need to explain or justify why we want it. The desire would appear to be a universal human craving.

However, as an overall concept, it is somewhat subjective.  What does it mean to have freedom, to be free? The answer all depends on who you ask, and their reply indicates their highest values in life.

I recall a passage from the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo tells Professor Aronnax why he loves the sea.

“Independence is possible only here!” he declares. “Here I recognize no master! Here I am free!”

Freedom seems to be the idea that we are in control of lives. We are masters of our own fates. What befalls us, for better or worse, is the result of our behavior, not that of others who impose their will upon us. When we are free, we decide our destinies.

When I think of freedom in that sense, I think of the life of Dick Proenneke. A Navy carpenter and later diesel mechanic, Proenneke left civilization in 1967 at the age of 51 to live near the Upper Twin Lake, located in southern Alaska. Using only hand tools, he built a 10-foot by 12-foot log cabin entirely by himself. The cabin is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Aside from the infrequent family trip, he lived there for 30 years until old age made it impossible. During that period he kept detailed journals about the local weather and filmed his adventures, including the cabin’s construction. The footage was later used to create several documentaries of his life. The most popular by far is Alone in the Wilderness.

Dick Proenneke filming.
Proenneke filming in 1975

It is hard to watch the film and not observe the immense freedom he had despite no electricity or running water. Yes, he relied on friends to bring him some basic supplies, but nature and the elements were his two biggest constraints. Even then, there is a beauty found in the way nature imposes restrictions on man through the seasons.

Other than that, he had few limitations. No one was around to control him or regulate his daily routine. Every morning was a chance to do something different, every day open to new possibilities. His life was devoid of the tedious complications that make so much of modern life feel circumscribed. When he wanted dinner, he walked a few yards to the lake, dropped a line in the water, reeled in a fish, and took it back to his kitchen to cook. He hiked where he wished to hike, explored where he wanted to explore.

It is easy to envy Proenneke, even though most would never choose his austere, isolated lifestyle. For all the technological comforts he denied himself, he still lived on his own terms. I wonder if a lot of people question whether giving up those luxuries is worth the price. How many wished they had done the same upon retirement?

At the same time, it is a moot point for the average person because they could not live the way Proenneke did, if for no other reason than the fact that much of what made his freedom possible was a self-reliance hardly any possess – incidentally, I think this is why anyone who watches his documentaries can’t help but admire him. Building a decent cabin that can withstand harsh weather is no small task, even less so without support. Watch the documentary and observe the ingenuity needed merely to build the front door. He also constructed a separate log cache to house additional supplies and fashioned many of the utensils or tools he needed. If tools broke, he could repair them. If emergencies arose, he could care for himself. He had to, because help would not arrive with a quick phone call and a short drive across town. And he was able to live like this until his eighties when most men could not do so in their prime years.

Which brings up perhaps the most fundamental part of freedom; to be free in any real sense requires ability. You cannot just have freedom as though it were some trophy or object you put on your desk to display. It is a state of being. You must have not only the competence to maintain freedom, but the aptitudes that make it possible to be free in the first place.