Richard Proenneke

Richard Louis Proenneke (May 4, 1916 – April 20, 2003) was an American self-educated naturalist, conservationist, writer, and wildlife photographer. He was a Navy veteran.

From the age of about 51, he lived alone for nearly thirty years in the mountains of Alaska in a log cabin that he constructed by hand near the shore of Twin Lakes. Proenneke hunted, fished, raised and gathered much of his own food, and also had supplies flown in occasionally. He documented his activities in journals and on film, and also recorded valuable meteorological and natural data. The journals and film were later used by others to write books and produce documentaries about his time in the wilderness.

After graduating from high school graduate Proenneke worked on farms performing agricultural tasks. He may have learned his remarkable carpentry skills from his father, also a house painter and well driller. He joined the Navy day the after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Medic has obtained Proenneke’s military personnel file from the National Personnel Records Center in Saint Louis. Of note, the Navy separation paper indicates Proenneke’s civilian occupation as Cowpuncher, a reference to farm work. His naval occupation is Carpenter’s Mate Third Class.

Proenneke spent almost two years at Pearl Harbor and was later stationed in San Francisco. After hiking on a mountain near San Francisco he contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalized at Norco Naval Hospital. During his six month convalescence the war ended. He was medically discharged in 1945. According to his friend and biographer Sam Keith, the illness led Proenneke to devote the rest of his life to the strength and health of his body.

Following his discharge from the Navy, Proenneke trained to become a diesel mechanic. The combination of his high intellect, adaptability, and strong work ethic helped him become a skilled technician. Though adept at his trade, Proenneke eventually yielded to his love of nature and moved to Oregon to work at a sheep ranch.

He moved to Shuyak Island, Alaska, in 1950 and for several years worked as a heavy equipment operator and repairman on the Naval Air Station at Kodiak, then spent several years working throughout Alaska as both a salmon fisherman and diesel technician. He worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service at King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula. His technical skills were well-known and sought after, and he was able to save for retirement.

On May 21, 1968, Proenneke retired to Twin Lakes, Alaska, where he arranged to use a cabin on Upper Twin Lake, close to the site he would build his own dwelling.

Proenneke’s cabin is handmade and is notable for its fine craftsmanship, a result of his carpentry and woodworking skills. He also made 8mm films covering its construction. Most of the structure and the furnishings are made from materials in and around the site, from the gravel taken from the lake bed to create the cabin’s base, to the trees he selected, cut down, and then hand-cut with interlocking joints to create the walls and roof rafter framing. The fireplace and flue were made from stones he dug from around the site and mortared in place to create the chimney and hearth. For food storage, he cut one gallon cans into basin shapes and buried them below the frost line. In this way fruit and perishables could be stored for long periods in the cool earth yet still be accessible when the winter months froze the ground above them. A bush pilot and missionary friend, Leon Reid “Babe” Alsworth, returned periodically by seaplane or ski-plane to bring mail, food and orders that Proenneke placed through him to Sears.

Proenneke remained at Twin Lakes for the next sixteen months, after which he went home to see relatives and secure supplies. He returned to Twin Lakes the following spring and remained there for nearly thirty years, traveling to the contiguous United States only occasionally to visit his family. He made a film record of his solitary life which was later re-edited and made into the documentary Alone in the Wilderness. In 2011 a sequel was produced after enough footage for at least two more programs was discovered.

In 1999, at 83, Proenneke left his cabin and moved to Hemet, California, where he lived the remainder of his life with his brother Raymond. He died of a stroke on April 20, 2003, at the age of 86. His ashes were scattered on Proenneke’s Peak, near his cabin at Twin Lakes.

Never married, he willed his cabin to the National Park Service; it remains a popular visitor attraction in the still-remote Twin Lakes region of Lake Clark National Park. The cabin was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007 and is a popular attraction for many who want to personally experience parts of Proenneke’s life and values.




National Park Service

Bob Swerer