Thursday, November 17, 2011

More Adventures in Untamed Alaska: Alone in the Wilderness Part 2

Dick Proenneke's simple, yet profound account of his 30-year adventure in the remote Alaska wilderness continues in a sequel to Alone In The Wilderness. The title of the documentary chronicling the second year of his experiences is as simple as the man himself: Alone in the Wilderness Part 2. WSBE Rhode Island PBS is proud to premiere the film on Monday, November 28 at 8:30 P.M., with rebroadcasts on Friday, December 2 at 4 A.M. and Saturday, December 3 at 1:30 P.M. The November 28 premiere will be followed by a rebroadcast of the original Alone in the Wilderness at 10 P.M.

In the late summer of 2010, Dick Proenneke's brother, Jake, discovered a closetful of 8mm and 16mm film shot during Dick's 30-year adventure living Alone In The Wilderness. The thousands of feet of film were turned over to Bob Swerer Senior and Junior, producers of the original Alone In The Wilderness and longtime friends of the Proenneke brothers, to see if it would be possible to create another documentary for public television.

The end result is Alone In The Wilderness Part 2. The Swerers carefully matched up footage with Dick's hand-written journals to recreate Dick's second year in the Alaskan wild.

Watch through Proenneke's eyes, as he continues to document his experiences with his 16mm wind-up Bolex camera, capturing his own amazing craftsmanship, the stunning Alaskan wildlife and scenery, and even a visit from his brother, Jake, who helped shoot some of the film used in this documentary. His epic journey takes viewers on a vacation far away from the hustle and bustle of today's fast paced society to a land of tranquility. It is truly a breath of fresh air.

From producer Bob Swerer:
Initially, the task of filming himself in the wilderness was a challenge for Dick. He began with a simple used wind-up Bolex camera that was given to him by his brother, Jake. Dick would give the exposed film to a passing bush pilot, who would mail it to his brother. Jake would have the film developed, review it through a projector, and send Dick letters reporting how the footage looked, whether it was over or underexposed, out-of-focus, too far away, etc. As it could take several months for these messages to reach Dick in Alaska, not all of the film he shot was of sufficient quality to be included in the documentaries.
Technical Challenges 
Because of the learning curve, many exciting scenes and stories had to be omitted from these documentaries. For example, Dick witnessed a sow grizzly run down a mother caribou and kill her. Dick rescued the caribou's orphaned calf, carried her back to the cabin on his back, and nursed her with powdered milk. Dick captured this entire incident on film but unfortunately it was a bit too shaky and out-of-focus to include.

There was a time Dick was unaware that he had developed a bad light leak into the back of his Bolex 16mm camera. Several months had gone by between the time the exposed film was sent to his brother Jake for review and when Dick finally received a letter telling him of the bad news. Thousands of feet of footage were lost due to a very large blue streak running down the center of each frame.

When problems like this happened, Dick always managed to get them fixed. More than once, he made replacement parts for the camera from materials at hand, such as a discarded tin can. His ingenuity is always obvious throughout the documentaries.
Unique Perspective
One spring, Dick discovered where a mother great-horned owl had built a nest to raise her young. For the next month, Dick paddled six miles down lake every other day to film the hatching and raising of the young owls. He built a ladder from spruce poles so he could film at the same level (30 feet in the air) as the nesting mother and her chicks. On more than one occasion the protective mother owl attacked Dick, leaving scratches on his face with her dagger sharp talons.

In the early years, Dick was extremely conservative with the film, as it was both expensive and hard to have delivered to his remote wilderness location. During the later years at Twin Lakes, the Alaskan Park service took advantage of Dick's skills of filming and documenting wildlife in this remote part of Alaska, and supplied him with a good batch of 16 mm. film stock. This allowed Dick to use film a bit more liberally than he had at the start.
Often times, Dick would venture away from his cabin, hiking thousands of miles every year, and carrying just enough food with him to stay away three or four days at a time. On these journeys, Dick would observe and film the wildlife that he encountered, such as grizzlies, caribou, wolves, and moose. He would keep close tabs on the grizzlies that would hibernate on the mountain across from the cabin, watching them dig their dens in the fall and emerge from their long winter sleep in early spring, many times with cubs. Much of this was captured on film.

Two Most-Asked Questions
Why did he choose to live so many years all by himself?
Rumors have it that he was running from the law or that a woman had jilted him. In truth, Dick simply just had a very sincere passion for the wilderness. He loved sitting for hours observing wildlife, hiking mountains that had never been walked on before, and being totally independent and responsible for himself and his survival. He seemed to enjoy the simple things in life. No TV, radio, cell phone or computer. He did not even have a chain saw; all wood was cut with an ax. He used to say, "No chain saws here where the wolves howl!" It was important to him to blend in with his surroundings. There was no one who had more respect for the environment and the animals than Dick Proenneke.

Did Dick ever get sick or have accidents while living in the remote wilderness?
Dick wrote in his journals that there were times he got sick but he would usually drink vinegar which he seemed to think cured a lot of things and lay in his bunk until the sickness passed (sometimes it would take several days). He did sustain a few minor cuts while using his ax.

Dick took his share of falls while hiking. One of the worst was when he slipped on the lake ice and landed on the back of his head. He claimed this caused headaches and on-and-off blurred vision for several years after the fall.

The worst accident by far happened in 1976 when his brother, Jake, flew a small Piper J3 cub airplane up to Dicks cabin all the way from California to spend a few weeks. The two brothers spent a lot of their time flying the little airplane to remote places in the vast wilderness. They would take turns at the controls. Jake would leave the little plane with Dick so Dick could fly back to Iowa by himself in the fall. While Dick was flying back to Iowa, the fuel line froze up over Eastern Alaska and the plane crashed on a mountainside. Badly hurt, Dick was able to crawl to a road where he was picked up and taken to the hospital. It took many months for him to recover but Dick was able to return to his cabin the following spring. Dick gave up the controls after that.
Simple Daily Lif
Dick always kept very busy writing in his journals and filming. He had to fish for dinner and there was always firewood to cut. Dick did not vary his diet much. It consisted of a lot of fresh fish, beans, potatoes; and oatmeal or sourdough pancakes for breakfast. During the early years, Dick would kill a caribou or sheep for meat but, as time passed, he found it hard to hunt the very subjects that he filmed with his camera.

Dick would live for 32 years alone in the wilderness. At the age of 82, he suffered a series of strokes and found that cutting wood was too much of a chore. Dick reluctantly left the cabin to live with his brother Jake. Dick died of a massive stroke in 2003 at the age of 86 with Jake by his side.

WSBE Rhode Island PBS transmits standard-definition (SD) and high-definition (HD) programming over the air on digital 36.1; on cable services: Cox 08 / 1008HD, Verizon 08 / 508HD, Full Channel 08, Comcast 819HD; on satellite: DirecTV 36, Dish Network 7776. WSBE Learn transmits over the air on digital 36.2; on cable: Cox 808, Verizon 478, Full Channel 109, Comcast 294 or 312.