“Alone in the Wilderness” with Dick Proenneke

Richard Louis “Dick” Proenneke (May 4, 1916 – April 20, 2003) was an amateur naturalist who lived alone for nearly thirty years in the mountains of Alaska in a log cabin he had constructed by hand near the shore of Twin Lakes. Proenneke hunted, fished, raised and gathered his own food, and also had supplies flown in occasionally. He documented his activities in journals and on film, and also recorded valuable meteorological and natural data.

The following is the 57 minute self-made documentary shot by Mr. Proenneke entitled “Alone in the Wilderness”. This is one of my favorite pieces of wilderness living film and each time I watch it I am amazed and astounded at the vast set of skills, the motivation, and dedication that it took for someone to live off the land.

Dick’s cabin on Twin Lakes is now on the National Register of Historic Sites and is located within Lake Clark
National Park & Preserve in Alaska.

Canoeing the Smith River, a Montana Gem

If you ask a random American what their stereotypical perspective of a Minnesotan is it may very likely include hotdish, hockey, and canoeing.  As a youngster, being a Minnesota native I ate a lot of hotdish but I didn’t play much hockey and I didn’t do a lot of canoeing.  In the last decade or so I’ve grown very fond of river camping and have done a handful of trips via canoe, packraft, and standard raft.  Two of these trips are firmly rooted near the top of my all time favorite camping experiences, including the one I’m about to tell you of.

 

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The idea was spawned this past winter to get a group together to put into the lottery for a permit on Montana’s Smith River.  A few of us got together for dinner and drinks, discussed strategy and entered for three different put-in dates ranging from a prime mid-June slot to riskier (low water) slots in early June and early July.  The odds of the lottery aren’t terrible but they’re also not certain.  In 2013 there were 6,662 applicants with only 1062 permits awarded.  One of our group was lucky though and a slot to put-in on Saturday, July 12th was ours.  The ’13/’14 winter hammered SW Montana with near-record snowfalls so our fingers were crossed that the 165% snowpack in the Smith watershed would hold out and provide the needed 240+ cfs flows to get all of our crafts down the river without too much hassle.

 

The word spread that we had a permit.  The original group of six or seven participants quickly swelled to 13, dropped, swelled again – right up until the last day before we put in when one last member backed out leaving us with an even 10.  We had planned extensively both via group email as well as a thorough planning spreadsheet.  And in late June as many of the participants as were available went on an overnight trip to shakedown gear and group dynamics (that was a gorgeous trip in and of itself).  The logistics of shuttling ten people’s bodies, gear, and boats was solved, group cooking gear was selected, and paddling/rowing teams were set.

 

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We had participants coming from all over the U.S. – Bozeman, Minneapolis, and Seattle – but all successfully converged at the Camp Baker put-in Friday evening for our Saturday morning departure.  We arrived after dark but shelters were pitched, a fire lit, and beers were in hand in under 30 minutes.  Stoke level was high and we sat around the fire chatting ’til around 11pm.  Smith River policy requires a meeting with a ranger to pay permitting fees, select campsites, and hear a brief safety/regulations talk the morning of your put-in and we were up at 7am and ready with bacon, pancakes, and coffee flying off the Coleman Dual Fuel.

 

The ranger informed us there had been 8,000 applicants for the lottery this season and that on average there were 135 people putting in per day throughout the summer.  Our July 12th put in is considered near the end of the season but there were still dozens of boats and a few dozen people milling about Camp Baker getting ready.  The nice thing about the permitting and controlled access of the Smith is that it spaces river users out in such a way that although you’re sharing 50 miles of river with hundreds of people you may only see a couple other boats all day.  Some choose to float in a five day window, others choose to fit it into four days. This also helps to limit how many you see as well.  We played hop scotch with one other party who shared a similar itinerary to ours the entire time but only saw a small handful of other groups on days one and four.

 

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The Smith is everything from a well managed, natural habitat for flora and fauna, to a fishing paradise, to a relaxed and generally worry-free booze cruise.  Our group appreciated each and every one of those aspects day in and day out.  We had folks along who were into fishing, folks who have graduate degrees that are into science, and folks who enjoy cracking a river beer a little after ten in the morning.

 

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The river proved a very worthy adventure for our group.  We were spaced out in four canoe teams consisting of two paddlers and one raft team with one at the oars and one on a fishin’ rod.  The raft carried a little bit of extra gear but for the most part everyone had their own gear in their own canoes.  We spent a fair amount of time planning group gear (stoves, tables, shelters, et al) so that we had little to no unnecessary redundancy.  Food was also very well thought out and we devoted certain coolers to dry-ice laden deep freeze machines and others to open-as-much-as-needed cold beer dispensing machines.

 

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Our scheduled permit which came toward the end of the heavy float season meant we’d have whole campsites to ourselves.  The Smith is laid out in such a way that areas containing designated campsites usually have an upper, middle, and lower site.  The sites are pretty well spaced so even on the last night when we had neighbors to the upper and lower sites below us it wasn’t particularly annoying (at least not to us – not sure whether they liked us or not!?!).

 

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The trip was absolutely spectacular.  The fishing didn’t prove to be very fruitful because none of us consider ourselves pros with a fly and the lateness of the season meant the water was extremely warm.  Not to worry though, just getting to cast a fly into the water under a few hundred foot tall canyon wall is a relaxing and rewarding activity in and of itself and worth it without a trout reward.

 

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Any amount of fishing that may have not proved fruitful was easily made up for in exquisite swimming opportunities.  We made it a point to stop a couple times a day for an hour or more at at time when we’d come to a good swimming hole.  We even found a couple decent “deep water” soloing opportunities with some fun little cliff jumps.

 

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Get your friends together and apply for your permit if you want to float the Smith.  If awarded, do yourself a favor and do some pre-trip planning (or a ton of planning as we did).  Dial in your food plan so you can eat gourmet grub three meals a day and figure out which campsites are awesome and which are just so-so.  Find a couple good friends who don’t complain about the sun or the lack of good fishing and hit the river.  The Smith is an absolute treasure and worth sharing.  If you feel the same, consider researching the current plans to attempt to build a mine at the headwaters and write a note to your government reps or consider a donation to at saveoursmith.com.  Let’s keep Montana beautiful as both a natural resource and a recreational playground.

 

Fifty Miles on the Pitchstone Plateau and along the Bechler River

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A trip in the Bechler region of Yellowstone National Park has been on my bucket list for years.  I secured a permit encompassing a vast chunk of the SW corner of the park.  My itinerary was to traverse the Pitchstone Plateau, then head westward to the Bechler River Valley, following it northward to my end point in the Old Faithful geyser basin.  This would allow me to experience three vastly different ecosystems, camping one night in each.

 

I experienced beautiful moonrises, glorious sunrises, sunny afternoons, a seemingly endless thirty-six hours of continuous rain, mile after mile of both grassy savannah walking as well as mud and bog walking, a spectacular soak in one of the best backcountry hotsprings known to humankind, and hours of solo introspection and enjoyment.  The journey through this section of YNP is well worth a visit for someone looking to walk an all-trail route that has just enough an element of navigation and route finding challenge to keep things interesting but is still moderate enough to allow your thoughts to wander without consequence.

 

The route crosses numerous springs, streams, and rivers so water consumption planning is simple.  I inquired locally and with respected and trusted individuals regarding the fishing potential and fly choices.  I cast my line into three separate stream/river systems, each containing different species and although my luck and skill (lack of?) didn’t pan out, the joy and meditative qualities of tenkara fishing made the extra six ounces of gear well worth it.

 

Logistically the trip worked out exceptionally.  I left my car at the Pitchstone trailhead, hiked the loop, and grabbed an instantaneous hitchhike with an off duty park employee all the way back to my car at trip’s end.  Bike shuttling along the busy park roads is an option as well but would require planning a morning start to allow for the extra hours needed.  Hitchhiking can be a gamble but in this instance paid off exceptionally.

 

I decided to photograph the journey through wide shots of the landscape, trying to capture the essence of the different spaces I visited.  From the wide open, grassy savannah of the Pitchstone Plateau, to the woody and wet valleys of Mountain Ash Creek, to the boggy, misty and steamy Bechler River Valley, all zones had a unique character that was constantly bringing a smile to my face.

 

 

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My Grandfather Fishing – Circa 1940

My grandmother passed away recently having outlived my grandfather by over a decade. Upon her passing I found myself pondering the ways they shaped my life and in particular my love for the outdoors. My grandmother was a school teacher during her working career and my grandfather managed a local grocery store in their medium sized Wisconsin town. Much like many other Midwesterners they spent their weekends camping, fishing, and hunting. A love for the out of doors was a passion they spread to their daughter (my mother) and on to me. Memories of camping at the family property in Northern Wisconsin and countless road trips all over the country are some of my fondest. I miss my grandparents dearly but am able to find appreciation in the fact that my mother and father are carrying on the tradition in educating their grandchildren – my nieces – in the ways of the woods.


Grandpa Stan fishing, ca. 1940

Grandpa Stan fishing, ca. 1940