Richard L. Proenneke, Wilderness Steward
Richard Louis Proenneke (1916-2003) is an icon of wilderness living in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Born in Iowa, he worked as a farmhand and rancher before joining the Navy the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After receiving a medical discharge in 1945 (following a bout of rheumatic fever), he again took up ranching. In 1949, he made his first visit to Alaska at the invitation of a friend. He lived and worked in Alaska off and on for years, making his first visit to Twin Lakes in 1962. In 1967, he had begun work on a cabin there. It was completed in 1968.
On the Matter of Hunting: The Not So Strange Evolution of Richard L. Proenneke
Richard L. Proenneke was born in rural southeast Iowa in 1916. His home town of Primrose was a hamlet of farm fields and woodlots and as a boy Richard played and roved all over the surrounding countryside with his brothers and friends. He came of age during the late 1920s and early 1930s and enjoyed hunting for small game, rabbits, squirrels, fox and ducks. Richard was especially fond of tracking foxes after a fresh snow having been spurred on by his competitive nature to test his tracking skills against those of some of his older acquaintances.No doubt Proenneke more than held his own when tracking foxes or any other game, for that matter, with older men since he showed a keen interest in nature and its many creatures. Later in his life in Alaska at Twin Lakes he often said how much he enjoyed getting out after a big storm so he could take stock of his "neighbors", by which he meant the local wildlife. When I knew him at Twin Lakes and Lake Clark he had an astute knowledge of wildlife behavior and he probably knew the local wildlife as well or better than most biologists.
Proenneke considered the wildlife around Twin Lakes to be his neighbors and he never wanted to be encumbered by a dog, fearing a dog likely would chase caribou, sheep or moose. Above all else Proenneke did not want his existence at Twin Lakes to be a detriment to the overall welfare of the wildlife. Proenneke tried to follow Thoreau's mantra of keeping his life and impact on the natural world simple. He prominently displayed a framed sign in his cabin that summed up his personal creed:
IS IT PROPER THAT THE WILDERNESS AND ITS CREATURES SHOULD SUFFER BECAUSE WE CAME?
Proenneke wrote this message on blue-green construction paper with a black marker. He pasted it to a larger piece of paper with a winter scene printed on it. He then attached it to a wooden frame with masking tape. The frame is made of lightweight thin wood made in the Adirondack style, also called a cross hatch frame. On the back side of the artwork he spent some time practicing his penmenship with the black marker, writing "The Frozen North" in several different styles. "The Frozen North" is what he titled a segment of his early journals, writing this on their covers.
Proenneke as a hunter and ranch hand
Just before World War II erupted for Americans at Pearl Harbor, Proenneke worked as a ranch hand on a sheep and cattle ranch in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. While on the ranch Proenneke hunted mule deer and there is one photograph of him holding the reins of his horse with a buck mule deer tied across the saddle while he held a Winchester Model 94 .30-30 rifle in his other hand.
After moving to Kodiak Island in 1950 Proenneke continued to sport hunt taking a black bear and a brown bear. He had the brown bear hide made into a rug and gave it to his parents in Iowa. The bear rug is now more than 60 years old and is owned by the public library in Donnellson, Iowa.
After Proenneke moved to Twin Lakes to build his cabin in 1968 he began to gradually lose interest in hunting for the simple reason he did not want to make his wild "neighbors" suffer, as he so often said. He had, however, no problem with other people hunting provided they followed the game laws. Proenneke told me there were three essential traits exemplified by a good hunter: first make a good clean shot, second dress out the animal properly and third salvage all the edible meat. Proenneke continued to eat meat and he frequently accompanied his friends who hunted the Twin Lakes country to help them with the butchering and packing of the meat back to camp. In addition, Proenneke continued to fish, not for sport, but for the utility of it, to put food on his table. He loved to cut grayling or Dolly Varden in pieces and roll them in cornmeal, salt, pepper and a dash of chilli powder and fry them in hot fat. Between 1968 and 1998 we can only document one caribou and one sheep shot by Proenneke in those 30 years of living at Twin Lakes.
The wounded caribou
In addition, there was an extraordinary occurrence in September 1978 when Proenneke found a mortally wounded two-year old bull caribou with both a hind leg bone and a front leg bone shattered by a hunter's bullets. The hunters made a very feeble effort to locate the wounded animal. Proenneke spoke with the shooter who knew he had hit the caribou two times but was overweight and too lazy to find his wounded quarry. Proenneke was fumed with the hunters and was determined to find the animal and salvage the meat himself.
After some diligent searching Proenneke found the animal, down but still alive, but unfortunately he had no firearm to put the animal out of misery so he used his Schrade Walden Old Timer knife and cut an alder club to stun the caribou then he used the knife to cut the caribou's throat to put an end to its suffering. Later that same day he made two large pack loads of meat and the hide off the mountain down to the lake shore for a canoe paddle back to his cabin that evening. This was the kind of ethical man Proenneke was, truly he was an extraordinarily moral man.
Pioneering bush pilot Babe Alsworth was a close friend of Richard Proenneke and he brought in groceries and garden produce to help sustain his Twin Lakes life. On one occasion Babe allowed to Richard he could use some fresh caribou so the latter had an easy shot and took a caribou for Babe. The other hunt was in October 1968, a few months after Richard had moved into his new cabin, and is perhaps the finest subsistence hunt I have ever seen documented in the Lake Clark area.
Proenneke's account of his one and only Dall's sheep hunt between October 22 and October 25, 1968 is chronicled in his own words in the book The Early Years: The Journals of Richard L. Proenneke 1967-1973 between pages 159 and 162. Proenneke's account stands out for its clarity and candor and is very much in keeping with the very highest ideals of American utilitarian hunting traditions. Proenneke just about completely consumed the entire ram, eating the meat, rendering the tallow and using sections of the sheep hide for canoe seat covers.
After the fall of 1978 the Twin Lakes area became part of Lake Clark National Monument and sport hunting was forbidden, only subsistence hunting for local qualified residents of five subsistence zoned villages was permitted. Since aircraft cannot be used for access to any subsistence hunting in the park the practical result is there is no subsistence hunting occurring around Twin Lakes or Turquoise Lake.
On December 6, 1980 Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which created 48 million acres of new national parks, including the 4 million acre Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. Apparently Proenneke ceased hunting after that time, but he continued to salvage any game meat that had been killed by sport hunters who violated the law and who, in Proenneke's opinion, had not salvaged all the edible meat.
This would have been in keeping with what he had been doing since he first moved full time to Twin Lakes in the spring of 1968: cleaning up after hunters who did not sufficiently salvage kills before they rotted or bears claimed the carcasses. The only caveat I would add to Proenneke no longer hunting after 1980 would be the occasional porcupines he killed, and often ate, that chewed his or other cabins around Twin Lakes.
Even before the National Monument designation had been declared by President Jimmy Carter in December 1978 Proenneke had been growing increasingly disenchanted by sport hunters and guides who only salvaged parts of caribou and moose, such as the four quarters and back straps. Proenneke felt it was necessary for hunters to salvage as much of the edible meat as was possible, including the neck, ribs and tenderloins in order for the animal to be completely legally and ethically harvested. He saw several instances of sport hunters simply taking the four quarters from caribou and then hiding the dismembered carcasses beneath the branches of spruce trees.
Proenneke grew more assertive in his opposition to wanton waste of game animals that he risked open verbal confrontation with people who he had previously been on cordial terms. Increasingly he was running out of patience even with old friends who only salvaged a bare minimum of the meat.
From youthful hunter to older conservationist
Proenneke's evolution from sport hunter, to subsistence hunter to non-hunter seems to have been part and parcel of a fairly common feature of the maturation process of many American hunters. Writer-ecologist Aldo Leopold is most eloquent in his book A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC when he recounts a similar journey of personal growth to that of Proenneke's when he speaks of shooting wolves in Arizona in the early twentieth century.
"In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack ... When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks … We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters'paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view." [ p130]
Two other hunters who lived around Lake Clark for a number of years, the late Jay Hammond and 90-year-old Allen Woodward, both part of the Greatest Generation of WW II vets and both underwent the journey from youthful hunter to older conservationists. Hammond, a big game guide and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife predator control-pilot, and Woodward, an ardent sport hunter both traveled the same trail as Proenneke and Aldo Leopold did, as they aged they much preferred to observe wildlife alive as opposed to simply looking at them as food for the table or trophies on the wall.
Sharing the surplus
Proenneke was fortunate that the Alsworth Family brought in his groceries and mail over the years. He continued to fish for his dinner. Proenneke's diet was mostly oatmeal, sourdough hot cakes and biscuits, bacon and eggs, beans and just about anything else friends brought him. He still enjoyed eating meat but as the authority of the National Park Service was established in the 1980s and 1990s in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve Proenneke had few opportunities to salvage illegal kills simply because there was no legal hunting occurring around Twin Lakes.
But the ever resourceful Proenneke had one last trick up his sleeve, one time in the early 1990s Proenneke located a wolf-killed moose carcass and he was able to glean a few edible portions of moose meat from the carcass. I know this because soon after Ranger Leon Alsworth and I were flying a routine patrol in the park and we stopped in to check on the elderly Proenneke and he invited us in his cabin and promptly fed us bowls of moose meat soup while recounting how he happened to come by the fresh meat.
Lake Clark National Park & Preserve is dedicated to preserving history and passing along an appreciation for what was saved to the public and to the next generation. The Cultural Resources Team has responsibilities that include stewardship of historic buildings, museum collections, archaeological sites, cultural landscapes, oral and written histories, and ethnographic resources.
Archeologists, architects, curators, ethnographers, and historians work to preserve these resources because they are important components of our shared national and personal identity. We invite you to learn more about History & Culture and how Lake Clark National Park works to preserve it...
People make history. Lake Clark's first settlers came to the region following the Last Great Ice Age, interacting with one another in the centuries to follow. Russian explorers and missionaries arrived in the 18th century and were succeeded by Euro-American prospectors, trappers, and entrepreneurs. Throughout, the Alaska Native community retains traditions and languages, and there is a mix of various ethnicities in the area founded upon a collaborative history.
Stories are shared history. Lake Clark National Park & Preserve has created several books about the history of the area and the people who live here. Many books are made in partnership with community members, the University of Alaska, and Alaska Geographic.
Did You Know?
Pilot Matt Nieminen was the first to fly into Lake Clark country in 1930, in a Waco 10 biplane on floats. Nieminen is seen here on the floats of a Fairchild 71 at Two Lakes, just after he became the first to fly over Mt. McKinley in it.