Building a book, tool chest, chair, backyard fort, orchard, business plan, well, cabin or even a family requires the same basic steps. A desire, need or circumstance that you can’t shake. Gathering or making the things needed. A plan (or not). And then, a lot of steps. Followed by a lot of problems. Solutions, failures, successes. The building continues until one day you think, whoa. I made this.
Near the end of the process of building “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke,” Monroe Robinson’s well ran dry. There was a second well on the property that hadn’t been used in more than 30 years. Monroe immediately set to work, rebuilding the old pump house that had almost wasted away, replacing the electrical service, water lines, water pump, pressure tank and controls. He worked on it for seven days straight (“seeing clear, clean water gush from a hose feels close to magic,” he wrote to me), and finished just in time for the annual apple juicing day he and his wife, K., hold for neighbors and friends every year. Using an apple grinder and press that Monroe made, folks take home nearly 100 gallons of juice each year.
“Children of all ages love to crank the apple grinder and long handle of the pressing screw, and especially hold their cup in the stream of sweet apple juice as it falls from the press,” he wrote.
Monroe signed the contract for “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” in December 2018. We spent nearly three years building this book. Monroe, of course, has spent more than 20, beginning with his first summer caretaking for Dick’s cabin in 2000. For months we thought this book wasn’t going to be printed until after the first of the year. It gave me so much joy to email Monroe and tell him his book was being shipped to the warehouse early.
The first of anything after a build is magic, no? Holding your book, holding your baby, filling a tool chest, pulling up a chair to the dining room table, locking up a new office space, camping outside in your fort, pumping clean water, picking a ripe apple, and lighting a gas lantern and standing outside, looking in.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
August 1, 1968:
The lake dead calm. A perfect day to move …
Clock wise around the cabin and set everything out that I want to go. Pack it down to the beach. Clean up the cabin and scrub the counter and shelf under and the woodwork of the stove stand. Everything in order. I loaded up and paddled down. Everything found its place and there was lots of room for everything. The cabin didn’t look cluttered as some do. An item or two to make. A knife holder for on the wall and on that project the worst accident of my cabin building career. The piece of wood I was working turned and I raked my thumb with the freshly sharpened ripsaw. The blood ran and I went down and stuck it in the lake and the lake was turning from green to red so I doped it, wrapped a rag around held by a piece of tape and went back to work.
Everything squared away and I saw it was two o’clock.
First night on my new bunk. I think that five inches of foam rubber will make it just right. And too I can hear Hope Creek real plain. That will be a pleasant sound to go to sleep by. I packed my drinking water from Hope Creek and I think there is none better that I ever tasted. I must light the gas lantern this evening to see how it looks inside and from the outside.
Dick doesn’t make a big deal of this move but I will. It had been only slightly more than 10 weeks since Dick packed three loads of gear to his building site four miles along the still-frozen shore of Twin Lakes.
Dick fabricated his own mallet, log scribe and many handles for other tools he would need. He sharpened his saws, axe and auger bits. He canoed to locations miles away and felled, peeled and rafted approximately 300 small trees to use as rafters, furniture legs, bed rails, woodshed/outhouse logs and more.
Dick had built his cabin! He had completed much of the furniture for his home. He had sawn lumber from spruce logs to make his own front door, and for door and window jambs. He had essentially built his home and what he needed inside with his own hands and now had moved in.
He also finished building his woodshed/outhouse/storage structure, except for the sod on the roof.
In the 1977 video “One Man’s Alaska,” produced by the National Park Service, Dick said, “I worked 12 hours a day, six days a week and in 10 days’ time I had the heavy logs up.
“I think there is a lot of satisfaction in having everything that you made yourself. Even your door hinges and everything, cut’er out by hand with the tools you got. I moved in August first. There was still work to be done but it was livable.”
— Monroe Robinson