Who knew building a fireplace one rock at a time could be so mesmerizing?

Dick Proenneke is the real deal. He goes out into the southwestern Alaskan wilderness and builds a cabin and lives off the land for 18 months, with semi-irregular supplies funneled through a bush pilot 40 miles away. A practical idealist, if there is such a thing, he gets about as up close and personal with the land and the wildlife as you can get and still fly out in one piece.

This book is an interpretation of his daily journal by Sam Keith and Keith knows enough to keep out of the way of Dick’s story. The tale is told in the first person in spare prose sharpened by a keen eye and an understated humor, with an attention to the details of his life that is flat hypnotic. Who knew building a fireplace one rock at a time could be so mesmerizing? I kept flipping back and forth between the text and the photographs. One of Dick’s most attractive qualities is his fierce pride in his work.

In the beginning he writes, “…I was here to test myself, not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination…What was I capable of what I didn’t know yet? What about my limits? Could I truly enjoy my own company for an entire year? Was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me?”

Already something of a vest-pocket philosopher, his adventure mostly confirms what he thought when he went in, and he is no follower of Thorstein Veblein. “Needs? I guess that is what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people. I don’t understand economics, and I suppose the country would be in a real mess if people suddenly cut out a lot of things they don’t need. I wonder how many things in the average American home could be eliminated if the question were asked, “Must I really have this?””


“Funny thing about comfort–one man’s comfort is another man’s misery. Most people don’t work hard enough physically anymore, and comfort is not easy to find. It is surprising how comfortable a hard bunk can be after you come down off a mountain.”

Well worth reading, if only to watch over his shoulder as he builds his cabin from the ground up, without a power tool in sight.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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