The following is excerpted from “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke,” by Monroe Robinson.
Millions of PBS viewers first met Dick Proenneke through the program “Alone in the Wilderness,” which documents Dick’s 30-year adventure in the Alaskan wilderness. On the shores of Twin Lakes, Dick built his cabin and nearly all of the household objects he required to survive, from the ingenious wooden hinges on his front door to the metal ice creepers he strapped to his boots.
And now, “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” examines this adventure through the lens of Dick’s tools and the objects he made. Written by Monroe Robinson – the caretaker of Dick’s cabin and his personal effects – the book weaves together vintage photos and entries from Dick’s journals plus new drawings and images to paint a portrait of a man fully engaged in life and the natural world around him.
Dick Proenneke lived isolated in miles, but not in spirit. Many visitors came as friends. Others visited and became friends. Dick paid attention to people both when he was with you and through correspondence. If you wrote Dick, he wrote you back. It is hard to imagine an individual who chose to live as remotely as Dick while also nourishing relationships as he did.
Dick’s handcrafted gifts of bowls, spoons and knives can not be separated from his relationship with family, friends and community. His journaling and letter writing fits comfortably alongside his handcrafted gifts. Imagine having dozens of letters to mail through a post office many air miles away, not have any postage stamps and not knowing when someone would fly in with mail and be willing to take outgoing mail.
Far more people sent Dick provisions and gifts than this chapter touches upon. Here are just a few people who touched Dick’s life, and whose lives were touched in return.
July 7, 1968:
On up to Lofstedt’s cabin to return a couple magazines borrowed last winter and to search for a good ladder pole. The mission at Nondalton needs a ladder. Babe liked the one I built for my cache and said he would fly one out for the mission if I would build it. It shall be done. The mission girls gone home state side for a year. I hope Babe doesn’t forget who the ladder belongs to before they come back.
July 31, 1968:
I had been thinking that I could use a big wooden spoon to spoon my hotcake batter on to the griddle – one spoon full one hotcake. I had looked through my scraps of stump wood and found a couple pieces that looked suitable. I doubt if it took more than an hour to turn out a good looking spoon. I have more wood and I could use a wooden bowl or two.
August 14, 1968:
This morning on my way to the cabin for lunch I searched for a spruce tree with a burl. I had seen one in the back forty. I found a big dead tree with one but it isn’t too good. I would cut it off and make a wooden bowl.
August 24, 1968:
I have been thinking of trying to turn out a wooden bowl from stump wood. I hollowed it out easy enough but cut it too thin on the outside and broke a chunk out so made kindling of it.
November 22, 1968:
I sawed and split some wood and made myself a real nice candleholder from a spruce burl.
February 12, 1969:
Overcast, a strong breeze down the lake and a +25°. I was really surprised after it being a -26°.
Just like spring – I would take advantage of it and carve out a big wooden spoon for Mary Alsworth in exchange for the heavy boot sox. I dug out a good looking stump from the deep snow and went to work. She ordered a spoon with lots of curve to it so that is the way it would be. Nice to be working wood again and not uncomfortable with the temp. a weak 30°. The camp robbers kept me company and one sang a solo. I haven’t heard one sing but a few times but this one sat in a tree near where I worked at my bench and sang for nearly five minutes – he was really happy with the change in temperature.
February 13, 1969:
A little squirrel came by as I worked at the woodshed and I watched to see if he acted familiar. He didn’t make the usual circuit checking the stump and butcher block for bones so he is a stranger. With the snow settled he was able to get over the top in fair shape. A wood scrap from the spoon just about right to make a fork so I marked one out and went to work. Under the shed roof at the saw buck – I heard a gentle warbling. There just across from me perched on a tree branch was my little friend, his throat working and a song that could be easily heard. I waited until he was through then cut some meat scraps and put them on the chopping block not three feet from me. Now we had the magpies outsmarted. He would take the meat to the brushy lower branches and eat it there. Nothing but friendly when he is alone but if the other jays are there he hangs back and you would never know him from the others.
The fork completed and it looks pretty good. Still time to saw and split a few blocks.
April 5, 1969:
A wooden spoon marked out (makes 10 I have made) so while tending my cooking I sawed it out, scooped out the bowl – trimmed the outside and rasp it to shape. Sand it smooth – if only I was better fixed for good coarse sandpaper.
April 13, 1969:
I roughed out a bowl from a spruce burl using wood auger and gouge chisel.
April 20, 1969:
A good time to try Jakes coarse emery cloth – finish the spoon I had in the making. Sand a big spruce burl tabletop and work on the bowl that I had roughed out. Inside curves are hard on emery cloth. Seems no time and it is like a rag with no abrasive on it. I rounded the end of a stick of 2 in. spruce from my woodpile. Took my bowl up to the point and dry fine sand, a hand full of sand and much elbow grease to rotate the stick did a fair job. Much like a poor mans sand blaster.
April 25, 1969:
Time to sand the inside of my spruce burl bowl. A gift to Mary Alsworth when I get it finished. Payment for all the extra good things to eat that she has sent and for the good mail service. I moved out under the overhang to sand and keep an eye on the lake in case some wild animal might venture out on it.
June 7, 1969:
The first cut of the big burl – what to make of it. Hollow it out and make a super bowl or planter. I went to work with the 11⁄2 inch auger. Ninety-one holes to get it ready to hollow out with axe and chisel.
June 9, 1969:
Today I would work on my big spruce burl bowl. A lot of work and I was filling a box with chips. Gouging away and the chisel went over the edge and sliced across the knee of my new Frisco jeans. Only a cut an inch long but exactly where they take the most wear. Lucky that I didn’t cut my knee. As it was I was only scratched. By noon still not done but getting down to the proper thickness. Enough of that exercise for today.
July 8, 1969:
A small burl standing by. I would see if I could turn out a bowl while it rained…This one would be a mini bowl – only 4 in. x 5 and 15/8 in. deep. Considerable work goes into hollowing out a burl and sanding it smooth.
July 23, 1969:
About a week ago while traveling down country high in the timber and brush below Gold mountain I came across a down tree – dead and with a good burl on the side. A thick one that would make a good bowl about 12 inches or more in diameter and maybe five inches deep. I half surveyed the location so I might find it again.
June 24, 1971
I worked on outgoing mail nearly all morning. Film to pack and letters to write. One full bottle of Sheaffers Skrip ink used since May 16.
May 28, 1972:
I was looking for a spruce burl to make a bowl about six or eight inches across. It would have to come from a dead tree and still be sound.
May 29, 1972:
Some time to kill till lunch so I gouged out the burl. Not finished by any means but the rough work three fourths done.
June 4, 1972:
Today I would stay home. The bowl and spoons to finish. More sanding and then three coats of Humicure (plastic finish) at two-hour intervals. Write letters and do other odd jobs in between coats.
June 9, 1972:
If I could find a suitable burl I would make another bowl. I wandered about, thinking I might see a spruce grouse. I haven’t seen one for several days now. A burl on a dead tree but it wasn’t much. I marked the spot by lining up east Cowgill peak and the caribou lying on the bench. I found another not far from Spike’s cabin but on a green tree.