Howard Delo

Our short fall season has arrived with a vengeance! The first seasonal weather forecasts have already been given calling for below freezing temperatures at night. I’m glad I’ve finished harvesting the yellow squash my wife planted this past spring!

With the coming colder weather, I oftentimes turn into a book worm. Comments on the following book touch on why many of us originally came to Alaska.

Most of us were not born in Alaska. We came to “The Great Land” with our parents as children, or perhaps through a military or job transfer. Some of us came for schooling while others came specifically because of what Alaska represents – the Last Frontier.

I came to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and pursue a degree in wildlife management and fisheries biology. I figured what better place than Alaska to learn about these pursuits. I also came with stars in my eyes about the opportunity to live a wilderness/subsistence lifestyle.

Jack London’s classics, “To Build a Fire”, “White Fang”, and “The Call of the Wild” had all been “must reads” before I journeyed north.

I experienced two record Fairbanks winters during my pursuit of a higher education — one for low temperatures and the second for snowfall accumulation. While both records have since been broken, I began to get an appreciation of coping with life in Alaska, especially in the northern parts of the state.

When I began working for Fish and Game, I met a real, honest-to-goodness Alaskan homesteader. Frank McMichael and his family lived in Tutka Bay, on the southeast side of Kachemak Bay. Frank had come to Alaska in 1939 as a young man and homesteaded some land near Homer. In the late 40’s or early 50’s, he decided the area was getting too crowded. He sold his homestead, moved across Kachemak Bay, and homesteaded a site in Tutka Bay.

Frank made his living doing commercial set-net fishing on the west side of Cook Inlet in the summers and seal hunting (when it was still legal to do so) and trapping around Tutka Bay in the winters. He built a log cabin on his home site in Tutka Bay that still stands, although it was irreparably damaged in the 1964 earthquake.

I met Frank’s daughter, Debby, while working at Tutka Bay Hatchery and we married a few years later.

I recently read, “One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey”, written by Sam Keith from the journals and photographs of Richard Proenneke. Because of my familiarity with my father-in-law’s lifestyle and some of his reasons for choosing that lifestyle, I really enjoyed this book.

Richard Proenneke originally was from Iowa. He came to Alaska in 1950 and spent several years working for the Navy on Kodiak Island as a diesel mechanic. He also commercially fished and worked for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in King Salmon.

After visiting a friend’s cabin located in the remote wilderness of the Twin Lakes country, Proenneke knew what he wanted to do next. He retired and, in the spring of 1967, moved out to the area with the intention of homesteading a site.

Over the next 16 months, Proenneke built a log cabin and food cache and lived a semi-subsistence lifestyle. “One Man’s Wilderness” is the story of that 16-month period, based on the journals that he kept and the photos that he took during the time.

The book is written in a journal format. Each daily entry is dated and usually begins with a comment about the weather conditions. Proenneke talked about his efforts in building his cabin and several of his “day off” trips around the lake in his friend’s borrowed aluminum canoe. He shared his thoughts about the animals he saw and those with whom he interacted. He also shared his thoughts about the guides and hunters who visited the area each fall in pursuit of trophies.

Proenneke was very resourceful in his use of available materials during construction and was very realistic in his views on remote wilderness life. He didn’t begrudge the hunters their animals, but he was angered by those who were wasteful of meat and left litter around their campsites. He believed in a “wise stewardship” of the creation around him and had little tolerance for those who did otherwise.

There are no involved plotlines or unusual twists to this story. It is the simple telling of what Proenneke accomplished and experienced during his extended stay at his remote wilderness home site. It is an elegant reading experience.

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