The illustration we used for the diestamp for “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” is fitting in myriad ways, the most important being it was created by Elan Robinson.
In 2000, Elan, who was 11 years old at the time, traveled with Monroe to Dick’s cabin.
“I knew I was traveling with a young and impressionable child and I wanted to create a meaningful experience in everything we did,” Monroe says.
By this time Dick had left his cabin to live with his brother in California. The National Park Service had contacted Monroe to restore the roofs on Dick’s cabin and woodshed.
“I wanted Elan to understand that their dad would do this work exactly as Dick’s original work, allowing future visitors to see Dick’s life and craft as it was, with as few changes as possible,” Monroe says. “I wanted Elan to understand the importance I placed on the impressive craftsmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corporation workers during the Great Depression at Chiricahua National Monument where my father worked during my youth.”
Meeting Dick Proenneke
While Elan would spend many summers between elementary school and college graduation with their father at Dick’s cabin, that first summer was particularly memorable.
“The cabin and the surrounding trails were like a wonderland for a kid my age,” Elan says. “Dick never threw anything away, and I remember being really impressed by the stacks and stacks of empty ink jars stashed in Dick’s outhouse. I wanted to write and document my time there like he did. My journal from that first year is funny to read now because of how much I complained about missing my friends, craving different foods, being bitten by mosquitoes, and doing manual tasks like carrying water or putting oakum between the cabin logs to keep the cold out. My memories of that first summer are much more positive than my journal entries!”
Dick made his final visit to his cabin in 2000.
“I was thrilled that Elan would meet him,” Monroe says.
Dick and Monroe exchanged many letters after their first meeting in 1982, and Monroe says Dick always included Elan in his letters. Elan and Dick meeting in person for the first time was a significant moment for both Elan and Monroe. And they were thrilled to accompany Dick on the float plane that took him back to the National Park headquarters where he stayed a few days with Leon Alsworth.
“I only met Dick one time, for just an hour or so, when he visited his cabin for the last time,” Elan says. “I wish I had a better memory of what that was like. But I have a photo, and in my journal from that first summer my pre-teen complaining is interrupted with my entries about how excited I was to meet him. I feel pretty honored to have been there that day.”
On Hikes and Observation
Monroe spent 19 summers at Twin Looks and says many of the more memorable moments centered around the camping trips and hikes he took with Elan around Twin Lakes. They would regularly see dall sheep, brown bear, moose and caribou. Together, Monroe and Elan observed the behaviors of these animals, and Elan spent a significant amount of time sketching them.
Monroe remembers one hike that began with the two of them kayaking from Dick’s cabin 10 miles west before embarking on the hike.
“That night a wind came up so fierce that our tent flattened to the shape of our sleeping bags,” Monroe says. “Since sleep was impossible I opened the tent zipper at 2 a.m. to look out in the orange glow of the ‘midnight sun’ below the northern horizon. Elan set the mood by springing forth with, ‘Oh! What a Beautiful Morning’ as we both gripped our nylon tent before it blew away.”
One summer, Elan, Monroe and Monroe’s wife, K. Schubeck, spent nine days hiking a loop, beginning at Dick’s cabin and then moving west, around the Volcanic Mountains and into Big Valley through Low Pass and back to Dick’s – about 30-plus miles. Early in the trip Elan spotted a fox den that would be a significant site in the course of K. and Monroe’s wildlife observations over the next 15 years.
“We spent several hours sitting in the rain watching one red kit and three black color phase kits fight and play, including a dramatic display of kit competition when the vixen brought in a dead ground squirrel,” Monroe says. “Later on this trip Elan sat motionless next to me as a lone wolf trotted toward us. We watched as the wolf chased, lost, and then caught and gulped a ground squirrel.”
Most children have memories of sitting quietly and listening to adults who don’t realize they’re being so astutely observed. Elan vividly remembers a time when a number of folks from Port Alsworth were visiting Twin Lakes.
“They had all come over to Spike’s Cabin and were sitting in folding chairs in the tight space, talking about Dick, sharing memories, and even arguing about what Dick had thought or felt about this or that,” Elan says. “I was watching all of this from under the bug net on the top bunk. I think I was too young to take part in the conversation, but not too young to be impressed by the intensity everyone was expressing around their memories of Dick, and their strong feelings around his legacy. At school, we had been talking about heroes and legends, and about how stories around real people grow and transform as they are told and retold, and I was aware that I was watching that happen.”
“I did a lot of drawing out at Twin Lakes over the summers I spent there,” Elan says. “I recently dug up my journal from my first visit there, when I turned 12, and it’s full of drawings of animals, scenery and little scenes from our everyday life that summer.”
Monroe remembers an 11-day hike he and Elan took across the lake from Dick’s cabin over the mountains and west to Sheep Lick mountain. They watched caribou, dall sheep, brown bears, black bears and a wolverine, and they even found two fox dens.
“Their journal on that hike included many illustrations including flowers, plants, the skull cap of a young caribou left at one of the fox dens when the fox den had been used by wolves years earlier, the partial skull of duck that the foxes had not bitten apart and an illustration of Dick’s cabin,” Monroe says. “Each time I look at this journal I am impressed with Elan’s art and the skill in creating a written narrative that holds my attention whenever I read it.”
One year Elan kept a nature journal as an independent study project for high school credit.
“I was really interested in botany at the time (I still am) and was really inspired by some of the detailed botanical drawings in the field guides we had at the cabin,” Elan says. “I learned from that summer that sketching the plants we found in detail was a really good way to commit the characteristics of each plant to memory.”
Monroe says Elan drew many illustrations of the Alaskan plants around Dick’s cabin, not only the physical plant but also how the Alaskan Native Peoples use the plants.
“After an injury to K.’s hip, Elan made a poultice of wormwood to relieve the pain and lessen the swelling,” Monroe says. “I was delighted with Elan’s interest and encouraged their efforts as an artist.”
Elan says they have had an on-and-off relationship with illustrating for most of their life.
“I drew a lot in elementary and middle school, but got a little more serious about it in high school,” Elan says. “I really liked the fine lines in the work of M.C. Escher and the moody inkwork of Edward Gorey, and I consumed any manga and anime I could get my hands on.”
Like many artists, there have been times that Elan has struggled with perfectionism.
“I’ve definitely had periods where that gets in the way of me being able to just have fun making art,” Elan says. “I got back into it again about five years ago when I was going through a really rough time with my mental health. I started buying cheap notebooks and drawing with ballpoint pen; the paper meant I didn’t feel so bad about ‘wasting’ nice paper on a drawing I wasn’t completely happy with, and the pen meant I couldn’t spend hours drawing, erasing and redrawing like I tended to do with pencil. I was doing it to try to express some of the stuff I was going through, but couldn’t express with words. I got to where I was drawing every day, often multiple times a day, without thinking at all about the final result, just about how it made me feel. As time went by, when I went back to things I’d drawn a year ago, I was surprised by not just how much I’d ‘improved,’ but how much I’d started to embrace my own style and feel confident about being able to produce something kind of consistent. I guess I needed to let go of meeting some standard of quality in order to feel more comfortable.”
Partnering Together for this Book
Elan says their dad’s work has been a huge influence in their work in the creative field.
“I’ve always wanted to be like my dad when I grew up (again, I still do),” Elan says. “I sometimes wish I had made more of an effort to learn woodworking from him, but even though my carpentry skills pretty much end with tightening screws and assembling IKEA furniture, I’m positive that growing up with my dad and around his artist and craftspeople friends meant that I always felt very supported and encouraged in all of my creative pursuits. I also think I learned a lot from my dad when it comes to attention to detail, and that shows up in the subjects I’m most interested in and the way I like to draw.”
These days Elan works as the community engagement operations manager at Pride Foundation, an LGBTQ+ community foundation supporting transformational work in five states in the Northwest, including Alaska.
“Graphic design has become an increasingly significant part of my role, and I do occasionally get to contribute illustrations to a design project,” Elan says. “I’m really lucky to have a day job that I feel passionate about and where my passions are supported. Outside of work, I write zines, including The Queer Language of Flowers, and occasionally do freelance illustration. I feel like I have a lot of learning to do still as an artist, but it’s been really fun and validating to find more outlets for my work in recent years.”
As a child and teenager, Elan says they were a little intimidated by the level of detail at Dick’s cabin.
“I tried to draw some of the objects around the cabin, and once spent hours trying to draw the cabin, and although I was pretty happy with how it came out, I knew it wasn’t accurate – I had trouble getting the number of logs and the other proportions right.”
So Elan was excited to revisit Dick’s cabin for their father’s book many years later.
Monroe says having Elan’s art as the cover for his book is deeply meaningful in that it symbolizes Elan’s presence in his care of Dick Proenneke’s legacy.
“It’s really special to me to be able to be a part of this book,” Elan says. “I think that the time I got to spend at Twin Lakes has had a big influence on me – on my relationship with craft, with nature, and with myself and my own sense of what I’m capable of accomplishing, so being a part of the ongoing legacy of Dick Proenneke is meaningful to me personally in that way. More than that, though, contributing an illustration to a book that I know my dad poured so much of himself into, and that I really believe only he could have written, makes me feel so proud.”
“The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” should ship before the year’s end.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl