Dick Proenneke - Hiking With A Legend
by Alan Bennett
Dick stood and said, “Onward and upward,” as we continued our climb up the side of one of the steep mountains surrounding Twin Lakes in Southwest Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Dick Proenneke hiked these mountains for thirty years, usually alone. But for six of those years I had the privilege of occasionally hiking at his side, or more accurately, behind him, often far behind. At the time, Dick was in his early 70s and old enough to be my father. He was a tireless hiker, some would say, a human caribou. One year he wore a pedometer and at year’s end it read 3,086 miles. On our first hikes together I learned that if I asked Dick a question he would stop or at least slow down to answer it. On long hikes a good supply of questions was worth more than any amount of candy bars.
Snowshoes across their backs, Dick Proenneke and Leon Alsworth III cross Upper Twin Lake for a late winter hike to the top of Falls Mountain. I never saw Dick wear a pack on day hikes. No water bottles, no trail mix, no extra clothing. If he ate anything during the hike it was usually a couple leftover sourdough hotcakes coated with peanut butter and honey. They were rolled up like cigars and placed in his upper left shirt pocket. “Sticks of dynamite,” he called them. Dick drank water from snowmelt streams using his cupped hand like a dipper. Higher up on the mountains he ate snow. If he removed a layer of clothing during a hike it was tied around his waist. He always carried a walking stick made from a black spruce sapling. It was both a walking aid and a push pole used to clear small rocks off caribou and sheep trails when crossing steep scree slopes. Hiking behind Dick was both exhausting and relaxing. It was relaxing because I never had to worry about choosing the shortest or safest route, carrying a map, or finding my way back. During his first decade of hiking at Twin Lakes Dick carried a stopwatch. He used it to measure the hiking time to final destinations and landmarks along the way. Calculations were fine-tuned on successive hikes and compared to alternate routes used to reach the same destination. Over time his stopwatch, pedometer, and razor-sharp memory gave him the equivalent of an internal Global Positioning System. At any point during a hike Dick could answer the question: “How long before we reach the next canyon?” Dick’s hiking destinations often coincided with seasonal rhythms of the wildlife he closely watched. Caribou calving, Dall sheep calving, brown bear dens, red fox dens, hoary marmot dens, ptarmigan wintering grounds and American Dipper nests were a few of the sites he led me to. Dick marked special occasions such as his birthday, summer solstice, or New Year’s Day with hikes to his favorite places. Dick had an inquisitive mind and he was constantly searching for alternate routes. He usually traveled different ways ascending and descending a mountain. Because winter snow and frozen creeks afforded travel that was not possible in summer he often had both a winter and a summer route to most destinations. On my three hikes with Dick to the top of his beloved Falls Mountain, he traveled a different route each time. Winter never slowed Dick’s hiking. He seemed to thrive on sub-zero temperatures. Wearing 42-inch long-tail snowshoes and weighing in at 150 pounds, Dick floated on snow. I will never forget the sight of flying over Twin Lakes in winter and looking down at Dick’s snowshoe tracks. Miles and miles of tracks radiating outward from his cabin like spokes on a wheel, crisscrossing both lakes and up every valley. Most trails were straight as an arrow, looking more like they were made by a machine than by a man.
Dick Proenneke stands atop his “rock pile” four miles above the head of Upper Twin Lake. In his later years he hiked to this location each year on summer solstice. On one of our first winter hikes together I learned how he made all those straight trails. “There’s a wolf killed moose down lake, want to go look at it,” asked Dick as I climbed out of the back seat of a Piper super cub. “Sure,” I replied, somewhat reluctantly given the minus 10 degree Fahrenheit temperature. Before I could secure my snowshoes Dick rocketed off like a wolverine on the trail of game, and with a steady lope to match. He seemed to take a visual fix on a distant landmark and marched straight for it. Miles and miles went by non-stop and after an hour I began to realize that “down lake” actually meant “end of lake.” Finally, we reached the kill site where I found myself looking at a few scattered bones and a door-mat size chunk of hide. Obviously the wolves had revisited the carcass since Dick found it. As I was thinking to myself, We hiked all the way down here to look at this? Dick looked across the lake and said, “Well ... since we’re here let’s go over to Emerson Creek and see if the Great Horned Owl is on its nest.” Once again I’m following Dick as he marches straight across the lake toward the mouth of Emerson Creek and then straight up the frozen creek bed. Three miles later we enter a thick stand of timber and when I finally catch up with Dick he is standing at the base of a tall cottonwood looking up at a large but empty stick nest. “I wonder if they moved farther up creek,” said Dick as I tried to think of an indirect way to hint that it might be a good time to turn around without saying, let’s head back, my feet are freezing. “I think it might be too early in the season for them to be incubating,” I said, looking back in the direction of Dick’s cabin.
Dick Proenneke pauses on a hike to demonstrate to Laurel Bennett how he first learned that he could rock a six-ton glacial erratic that he named “teetering rock.” “Hmm, maybe so,” said Dick as we turned around to backtrack down to the lakeshore. As we approached the shoreline and turned to head up lake we were greeted by a strong gusty wind. Blowing snow obscured all but the mountain tops as Dick set off on a bearing straight up the middle of the lake. After four non-stop miles, with snow biting at our faces, we finally stepped inside a warm welcome cabin. “Oh boy ... that sure was a good hike,” proclaimed Dick. Dick Proenneke’s day-to-day explorations and the constant chain of nature's events that kept him company are known to many through his journals published in 1973 as One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey. Every niche and corner of Twin Lakes was special to Dick. He knew a couple hundred square miles like some know their back yard. “Mountains are a man’s best friend if he only knew it,” Dick would say. “You hike and climb every day and you don’t grow old.” Those fortunate enough to have visited Twin Lakes and gazed up the valleys or looked down from the peaks, can understand why these mountains kept Dick Proenneke young for so long. Story and Photographs by Alan Bennett
Wildlife ecologist Alan Bennett was an interpretive tour guide at the Richard Proenneke National Historic Site in Southwest Alaska. Alan and Laurel Bennett have edited a collection of memories, experiences, and stories by those who knew him during the thirty years he lived at Twin Lakes in Southwest Alaska, Dick Proenneke, Reflections on a man and his wilderness. A tribute to Dick on the 100th anniversary of his birth. You can purchase Alan's book on Amazon. Other fascinating books about Dick Proenneke are One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey by Sam Keith and Alone in the Wilderness by Bob Swerer. Click the links to learn more and/or purchase these titles on Amazon.
I was born in Bristol Bay and never heard of him until the PBS special “One Man’s Wilderness” and I could watch it over and over. What a brilliant person. And he never seemed to get lonely.
Thank you for this. I love Mr. Proenneke and am scouting for any and all tidbits about him!
I enjoyed this article about hiking with Dick Proenneke. I read “One Man’s Wilderness” in 1974 and it was a primary inspiration for me coming to Alaska, the place I have lived and called home since 1976.
Tom, thanks for the comment!
Last Frontier Magazine will be publishing an article this next issue excerpted from ‘Dick Proenneke – reflections on a man in his wilderness’ edited by Alan and Laurel Bennett.
In the early 1960’s my grandmother was his nurse once when he was in the hospital in Anchorage.. my family lived in Anchorage when my dad was in the Air Force.. Dick became friends with my Grandparents. After we returned home to Alabama they corresponded by mail for years. My parents had his book that he wrote and I read it a few years ago.. loved every page of it!
I read everything I find about Dick. I first became aware of him when the Alaska Geographic Society published "One Man’s Odyssey by Keith. With that, I learned that he worked at the Kodiak Naval Air Station, where I was attending school. I subsequently corresponded with him and learned that he knew my father and brother who also worked on “The Base” at the same time. He died shortly after those letters I received from him.
He is one of my all-time heroes!