Saturday, March 30, 2024

#2,952. Alone in the Wilderness (2004) - Documentaries


In 1968, 51-year-old Richard Proenneke, mechanic and veteran of the U.S. Navy, retired and settled in the Alaskan wilderness, specifically the Twin Lakes area. Skilled at woodworking, Proenneke arrived in May of that year and spent the summer building a log cabin.

Using 8mm films shot by Proenneke himself, and with narration (by producer Bob Swerer Jr) lifted directly from the outdoorsman’s personal journal, 2004’s Alone in the Wilderness brings his entire first year in the Alaskan wilds to the screen, and it is a fascinating watch.

Like all nature documentaries, there are some stunning shots of the Twin Lakes area, from ice breaking up on the lake to scenes of caribou, brown bears, and rams on the surrounding mountainsides. But the bulk of Alone in the Wilderness’s 57 minutes is dedicated to Proenneke building his retirement cabin from the ground up. At first, I wasn’t sure if watching a guy build a cabin was going to hold my attention. Proenneke went into great detail in his journals, laying out the process of not only assembling a comfortable, waterproof dwelling, but also the amenities he would need. At one point he carves a wooden spoon out of a stump, making it just big enough so that one pour from it would equal one flapjack.

The more detail he went into, however, the more intriguing I found the movie. Who would have thought watching a guy make wooden hinges for a front door could have me on the edge of my seat?

We see it all, including the construction of his icebox (buried in the ground and covered with moss, it maintained a temperature of 40 degrees even when it was 80+ outside); the building of his fireplace (an especially tedious, though entirely necessary process); and even his outhouse!

As interesting as the footage and narration are, it’s the sheer magnitude of the project itself, and Proenneke’s tireless dedication to seeing it through to the end, that really impressed me. From his smokehouse to the storage containers he rolled himself out of sheet metal, this guy thought of absolutely everything, and I sat in awe of what he was able to accomplish.

Alone in the Wilderness does feature some additional footage shot by producer / narrator Bob Swerer Jr, which, because the quality of the image is so different from the rest of the movie, proves a distraction. The extra shots are mostly inserts of wildlife in their natural habitat, but one late segment, where Proenneke describes how he made ram stew, which is then brought to life by this “new footage”, felt particularly unnecessary. And while Proenneke was an amazing survivalist and outdoorsman, he was not the best photographer. The scenes of him building the cabin, when he set up the camera from a distance and left it running, are actually better than his shots of the landscape. Still, these are minor quibbles, and do not detract from the experience of watching this captivating film journal.

Richard Proenneke would spend the majority of the next 30 years living off the land, finally returning to the Continental U.S. in 1999 at age 83 to live the remainder of his days with his brother in California. Alone in the Wilderness chronicles that first year, which saw harsh winter conditions and threats from bears, wolves, and other creatures. I doubt I would’ve survived that first year. I doubt most people would. To have done so for another 29 years on top of it is beyond amazing.
Rating: 8 out of 10

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