Last week we reviewed the final page proofs of Monroe Robinson’s “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke,” finished up the diestamp (more on that soon) and sent everything to the printer – that felt good. We had hoped to have this book available for purchase by the end of the year, but it may be early 2022. As Chris wrote about here, U.S. printing plants are shutting down and consolidating, and we are working around significant paper shortages.
In the meantime, here’s a short excerpt from the first chapter, Starting from Scratch, written 53 years ago this week. A lot of the book is like this – excerpts from Dick’s journals (in regular font) accompanied by Monroe’s commentary (in italic font) and photography.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
August 13, 1968:
Today was a day to clean up my leftovers from the cabin. Saw them to length and split them for wood. A good pile by the time I finished.
I drew up plans for the fireplace and they look very satisfactory to me. Now I must try to figure out how much cement it will take. Yesterday I had sawed a few blocks of wood at both the main and guest cabin. Enough to last a day or two. Today I cleared the drift wood from the landing beach and picked up more big rock to make a beach a pilot would enjoy coming in to.
More small jobs – clean up the canoe paddle and give it a coat of shellac. Sharpen and oil the planes and chisels. Ready to return them to the main cabin.
Dick stacked the large rocks he removed from the beach to start a small jetty on the up-country side of the beach. The photo on the first page of chapter 7 shows Dick’s rock-free beach after he and his brother Jake stacked rocks to create a large jetty to protect their J-3 Cub airplane from the west winds.
This week 28 years ago Dick Proenneke was rolling pell-mell down a mountain steep as a cow’s face.
Editing this book has been so much fun, in part because of what we didn’t edit. Dick made it very clear that he did not want his journal entries edited, which Monroe Robinson has respected. The result? Intimacy.
We editors love to tidy things up. Here at Lost Art Press we have our own house style followed by AP Style and Merriam-Webster. We like consistency. Our goal is to create smooth and easy reading, much like the experience of driving on a freshly paved stretch of road. No one likes to hit a pothole while admiring the scenery.
That said, voice is scenery. We respect voice. We also know that as much as we find comfort in lines drawn on a map, sometimes turning off the highway and onto a bumpy dirt road provides the best view.
So much of this book is edited – the photos, the illustrations, Monroe’s text, the front matter, the back matter, the maps, and even the journal entries chosen and the order in which they appear. But Dick’s words, for the most part, are not. And so we are gifted with porkypines (porcupines). Hurdy gurdy drill (egg-beater drill). Purty (pretty). Cuttingest machine (a tool that is performing its job well).
Much of this book is about the things Dick made from found materials while living alone in Alaska. But every once in a while Monroe includes a gem of a journal entry such as the one below. Once you catch onto the rhythm of Dick’s writing style you find yourself with him, circling the mt. (mountain), hiking in deeper snow than expected, noting the tracks of wolves, climbing, sliding, lamenting snow in mittens and a lost walking stick, surviving (not “sorry charley” this time!), and warming and writing by the fire. Each journal entry is a delightful detour down a dirt road.
The illustrations for this book by Elin Price are complete and Linda Watts, our designer, is already working on Chapter 6 out of 9. We can’t wait to share this book with you, a deep dive into Dick’s life, misspellings and all.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
March 15, 1993:
Clear, Calm and -8°.
Clear and stars looking down, it could get pretty cool tonight. The half gallon carton of vanilla ice cream set on the table out front and morning would find it about right for dishing it out. Zero degrees makes soft ice cream.
The fire was buried the whole night. I would have coals but puny ones. During breakfast I knew what I was going to do today. A good day to circle the mt. I had suggested it to Leon [Alsworth] and he said we will have to go on snowshoes. Maybe next week he could go but I was sure he wouldn’t. On those little Sherpa aluminum and plastic snowshoes I wouldn’t go. Only thing good about them is the ice claws for mt. travel. It was 9.30 when I closed the door. I would pack my snowshoes to the mouth of Low Pass creek. I had the Olympus OM1n with 50 and 28 mm lens. I was dressed cool for it would be a warm three hrs getting to the divide. That last 400 feet of elevation is as steep as a cows face.
I took a few frames from the mouth of Low Pass creek and then headed for the pass. No sign of porkypines at their winter home and now I wouldn’t know where to find one. I see no tracks.
I was breaking a deeper trail than I had expected. It would be a good climb up the trench to the pass. Old tracks of a wolverine headed or coming from the pass. I have seen porkypines in the pass making that slow hike to the Kijik country. In due time I was up there enjoying the view back down and across the lake. Lots of snow up there and I believe there is more snow in the bottom behind gold ridge than I have ever seen there. 1,700 feet from the lake is the gain in elevation when you climb to the pass. From the pass it is a gain of 1,300 feet to the summit where I would cross. No tracks not one as I traveled on. The fresh last snow laid like a cotton bat and about 6 inches deep on top of the settled snow pack. Just before I got to that last very steep pitch to the divide I came to a reasonably fresh wolf track coming down from the high ridge. Later I would see that track climbing up 1st canyon. So wolves cross there some times and so do wolverine for today I would see a wolverine track climbing to the 3,000 ft. ridge.
At last I stood at the base of that 400 ft. very steep climb. I would have to climb it without snowshoes so I put them on the light pack frame with my camera gear. The snow more than shoe pac deep but a base that was soft enough to give good traction. Traverse back and forth across a width of a couple hundred feet of the mt. Climb at a comfortable angle. Slow but steady does it and in due time I was up near the eye in the mt. I had looked for it as I climbed from Low Pass but couldn’t spot it. I found the snow so deep only a little of the eye was visible. At last I stood on the divide and the time a quarter till three. It had taken me more than five hrs from my cabin to the top 3,000 ft. up.
The sun was bright and a cool breeze had me looking for sun on the protected side of the ridge. I shot a few frames and ate my sourdough sadwich and one of Sis’s good cookies. Now it was down hill all the way to my cabin and about 2 hrs. steady going to get there. Steep for the 1st quarter mile. Now I learned what I once knew. Crampons can be necessary for that 1st quarter for the snow can be too hard to kick steps. Right there I should have turned back and down where I had climbed. I expected it to get better a hundred feet down. There is hard wind pack near the top. To play it safe I moved in the clear of rock outcrops below.
To lose footing and go pell mell down a steep pitch and hit a rock will spoil your day, but good. I was in the clear but footing was poor. If I started I wouldn’t stop for about 200 yds. And I started. I was using both hands on my good walking stick for a brake. Faster and faster and it was a pretty rough slide. My pack kept me from staying on my back and when I went side wise I started to roll. Ho Boy! All I could see was snow and blue sky revolving at a terrific rate. Presently I slowed and stopped. It had been the six inches of loose snow I was expecting higher up. It is surprising how much snow gets inside a tumble down the mt. My mittens were full. Snow inside my jacket. Didn’t lose my Bean cap with the ear flaps over my ears. Still had my pack on for I had hooked the rubber link across my chest. First thing I noticed was that my right upper arm pained a little. If it hurt so soon it wouldn’t hurt a lot more tomorrow. Legs were ok and that was good. If I had broken a leg it would be “sorry charley” you didn’t make it. Tonight would be well below zero. So I could put up with a sore arm and not complain. I discovered that I had lost my good walking stick. I looked for sign of it above and below. Even tried to climb but after climbing 50 feet I slid down 25. Tried again and just couldn’t get traction. So I got organized and headed down the mt. in the loose 6-8 inches of snow. When the incline flattened a bit I put on my snowshoes and came down the water course from the base of the steep going. I hadn’t gone far when I met a wolf track climbing to the divide. It was short steps and feet making drag marks in the loose snow for the wolf. Headed for the Kijik for I hadn’t seen tracks in the pass coming to the upper lake. Down, down but not so steep that I would lose control on snowshoes. At times I would support my right arm with my left hand. It was uncomfortable hanging free. Lower I came to a wolverine track climbing so it was going over the top. I find mr. wolverine just doesn’t seem to care how steep or rough it is. He doesn’t seem to appreciate an easy route.
Hope creek at last and from 1st canyon down it was nice going. Wished for my walking stick but managed without it. It was going to take just about 2 hrs. from the divide to my cabin and the sun would be just about ready to set directly behind the Pyramid mt.
I opened the cabin door and learn’d Leon had been here. A bag containing letters a package and two batteries for my Bendix “King” radio. I still had a very few coals under the ashes and fine stuff would have a fire going quickly. I wanted to auger the ice this evening for I might not do it so easy tomorrow. I found it 27″ this 15th of March. Did my chores with little difficulty and got out of my damp hiking clothes. How would my journal entry go with that gimpy right arm. It has worked better but I managed better than I expected. I’ll take an “Ascription” at ladder climbing time. Now 10.30 Clear, calm and -3°.
“How long did it take?” is sometimes a difficult question to answer when it comes to making a book, particularly when you consider the time spent acquiring the knowledge that is at the heart of any book.
This is particularly true for Monroe Robinson, author of the upcoming book on Dick Proenneke. I asked Monroe to write about himself for the book’s introduction and, after reading it, I realized Monroe’s life story could be a book in and of itself. His bridge to Dick (which I say both figuratively and literally as it includes the building of a log bridge in Alaska) is filled with determination, vision loss, talent, bravery, compassion and adventure. On top of all that are the 19 summers Monroe served as caretaker of Dick’s cabin, restoring and, when needed, creating museum-quality reproductions, using the same raw materials Dick would have used and, when possible, Dick’s tools.
So to answer the question “how long did it take,” well, Monroe’s life accounts for a lot of it. Then there are Dick’s journals, which, once transcribed, amounted to more than 7,000 pages which Monroe spent hours combing through. Also: writing the book; editing it (with help from Monroe’s wife, K. Schubeck); acquiring and sorting thousands of photos from the National Park Service, and Dick’s family members and friends; our edits (here at Lost Art Press) of both text and photos; the creation of a design template (Linda Watts has completed this and it’s gorgeous); the creation of three maps (which Monroe and Brendan Gaffney are working on); and more than 60 hand-drawn illustrations.
We needed so many illustrations for two reasons: (1) some photos weren’t high-enough resolution or in good enough condition to reproduce and (2) there were some things Monroe wanted to show/explain that could only realistically be done in illustration form. Monroe has always been drawn to Eric Sloane’s work and so, with that in mind, after a long search we hired Elin Price, a UK-based paper artist.
Elin grew up in the Yorkshire Dales and now lives on the edge of the Peak District. Primarily a paper artist, Elin draws and designs everything she creates, hand cutting with a Swann-Morton scalpel. Her work ranges in size from a giant mermaid (their local mermaid who is said to live in Mermaids Pool on the slope of Kinder) for the New Mills Festival to papercut scenes as small as her thumbnail. Her academic background includes archaeological illustration, which provided her with training in observational drawing and depicting small details. And being skilled in observation is precisely why she excels at both papercuts and the beautiful illustrations she’s making of Dick’s handcrafted life.
To help guide Elin, Monroe created a 43-page document filled with pictures and texts. This has been quite helpful as often Elin is creating illustrations of tools without proper photo representation. Take, for example, Dick’s ice chisel, which Monroe talks about in Chapter 2.
“The only photos of the chisel are present day photos taken in the archives with the shaft of the ice chisel being a maximum of 2” in diameter a few inches above the steel chisel,” Monroe wrote to Elin in a follow-up email. “The 2” diameter maintains at that diameter for more than 2’ up the shaft before tapering as a natural spruce sapling would taper toward the upper end of the handle. That section of the shaft that maintains 2” diameter is not the natural taper of the spruce sapling. Dick first made the ice chisel using the spruce sapling with its natural taper, so the diameter of the handle increased in diameter throughout the length of the handle until just before the metal chisel. Your illustration will be best if it illustrates what the ice chisel handle looked like when Dick made it in 1968, with a maximum diameter of 3”, which is the natural taper of the sapling. Years after he made the chisel (1977), he shaved the handle diameter from 3” to 2”. Two inches is the width of the steel blade. That is why the photos are different than what is needed in your illustration.”
Monroe continues, noting a saw cut up the shaft but he asks Elin not to include the natural crack that developed over time. He talks about the wire wraps that hold the shaft together, and asks Elin to use two, not three as shown in the photo, and he talks about the groove Dick carved to help hold the wraps in place, and the location of the wraps’ knots.
“Your illustration could show little flats from Dick shaving the taper in the lower end of the handle and finally rounding the end, much like you so beautifully did with the chisel handle in the illustration with the collection of tools,” Monroe writes.
Elin gathers all this – Monroe’s mindful, detailed instructions, photos from various sources and Dick’s journal entries – and then, she draws. Careful. Observational. And all a work of art.
Elin plans to have all the illustrations complete by the end of February. As Elin finishes a chapter’s worth of illustrations, Linda will work on the design, that way both can be done simultaneously.
We hope to have this book – representative of a mind boggling number of hours of work (and observation) – to the printer this spring.
Editor’s note: Monroe Robinson and I have been working through edits and securing a few final photos for his book about Dick Proenneke. This week Elin Price sent us her first batch of illustrations, and we were elated. Between Dick’s journal entries and photography; Monroe’s insights, writing and photography; and Elin’s illustrations, this is going to be a beautiful, beautiful book. Following is a journal entry from Dick, dated June 30, 1968.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl
June 30, 1968:
Last evening after supper I decided I would paddle down to the connecting stream and try for a couple trout.
A third of the way down a breeze met me and as time went by it got stronger. Opposite low pass creek it was a battle to keep headway so I headed for the right shore. I finally made Emerson creek… I found several uprooted trees that would make hinges but it would take some carving. Following the beach to the lower end I saw a few in the drift on the beach. I may get some and see what I can do. Steel hinges are better no doubt but it is interesting to see what one can do using only material from the forest.
I had no watch but it must have been midnight when I left the beach. It was a beautiful clear night and a good breeze to help me along. It was one thirty when I got the trout cleaned and already the northeastern sky was getting lighter… Not long till sun up so I sawed a few blocks of wood… Filed a couple handsaws.
Took a walk up the beach towards the base of Crag mountain. Finally Gold mountain caught the first rays of the sun and I turned in for a few hours.
Oct. 27, 1968: A few stars are showing. A light breeze coming up and 26°.
A day for small chores. I mixed up a batch of wood glue very thin and painted the runners on my sled. Tomorrow it will be ready to kick out the door. If I only had a pet caribou to pull it. Snow picking up – big flakes and lots of them.
“Dick’s lightweight sled is held together with 48 mortise-and-tenon joints, a few nails and his thin copper-coated electric fence wire. He put the sled to heavy use each winter, to haul firewood and occasionally meat from wildlife he found.”
This is an excerpt from “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” by Monroe Robinson, which we are happily and fully immersed in right now. The italic portion is from Dick’s journals. The quoted portion is commentary from Monroe. — Kara Gebhart Uhl