'Alone in the Wilderness'

Series follows the handiest man making everything from scratch.

By Steve Burgess 22 Nov 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It has been noted here before that pledge week tends to bring out the worst in PBS -- a bland pudding of John Denver concerts and lengthy empowerment seminars. But the need to attract viewer support also inspires American public TV to unearth favorite gems that fully deserve their popularity -- in effect, PBS' Greatest Hits. Well, PBS appears to have added another perennial to the list. During recent pledge weeks, KCTS has been re-broadcasting a documentary called Alone in the Wilderness, and it's a worthy addition to the televised-panhandling canon.

Alone in the Wilderness was largely constructed from the home movies and personal journals of Dick Proenneke. In the late 1960's, at the age of 51, Proenneke left his southern life behind and headed up to the Twin Lakes region of Alaska to start anew. Armed with a film camera and awe-inspiring handyman skills, Proenneke built a cabin from scratch. This is a man who knows from scratch -- before he can make hotcakes he has to carve out his own spoon.

Proenneke documents his own progress as he works through the myriad details of building, securing and provisioning a safe winter home. He makes a door; he makes the hinges for the door; he cuts the door in half to make a Dutch-style opening; he makes a latch; he makes a wooden lock. Then there is the fireplace, the privy, moss insulation for the roof, the cold storage box, even the kitchen containers made from rolled tin. And much, much more.

The anti-'Grizzly Man'

Alone in the Wilderness is the anti-Grizzly Man. Unlike the unfortunate protagonist of Werner Herzog's documentary, Proenneke is practicality itself: his evident love for the environment unspoiled by romantic delusions. And unlike Herzog's documentary, we are never treated to the dark side of isolation.

Proenneke's journals, originally released as the 1973 book One Man's Wilderness, are read here by documentary producer Bob Swerer in a voice so folksy and laid-back that it's a shock to find out that it is not Proenneke himself. Step by step, Proenneke describes his work as we watch the accompanying footage.

The initial effect is almost comical. Alone in the Wilderness is like a live-action Mark Trail cartoon, wholesome and homespun. It seems as ripe for parody as Mr. Rogers. Is Proenneke ever lonely? Does he dream of old girlfriends late at night? Does he speculate about what part of his psyche has caused him to flee the civilized world for the companionship of bears, wolves and caribou?

Simple times, wild imaginations

Who knows? Those sorts of questions seem to exist in a different universe. Alone in the Wilderness is a Boy's Own Journal come to life, reminiscent of a simpler time that I could have sworn never actually existed outside of a 10-year-old's imagination. And I don't even know if 10-year-olds have those kinds of imaginations anymore.

For all we know, Proenneke could have been on the lam from the mob. He could have been a crazy old coot with seven murdered trappers buried in his vast backyard.

It doesn't seem likely, though. Proenneke may not be inclined to reveal his interior life, but after all, he's got so much outside life to deal with. And a little of his philosophy does come through in his musings about the world he inhabits. He appears to be the truest kind of natural philosopher, the kind whose personal doctrine is not spoken but lived.

Ironic miracles

Fans of Alone in the Wilderness tend to use the same words to describe their reaction to the documentary: hypnotized, mesmerized and entranced. It's no accident. Alone in the Wilderness has a truly hypnotic simplicity. It's something of an ironic miracle that the modern technology Proenneke was fleeing has succeeded in capturing and conveying its antithesis.

I was surprised to discover that the show is only an hour long. This is partly because I have never seen it uninterrupted by lengthy pledge breaks, but also because Alone in the Wilderness seems to drift along as timelessly as a cold spring creek. I'm not sure I've ever seen it from the beginning, but it doesn't matter much. Alone in the Wilderness functions like soothing music as Proenneke steadily beavers away at his den-building tasks. The real fascination of the show comes in the knowledge that this man is not the creation of some screenwriter who thinks the public might be ready for a one-man Waltons remake. He's a man -- one who had the skills and the desire to roll back the inexorable decline of human self-reliance.

The DVD is available and sometimes they give it to people who make pledges to PBS. Watch for it during the next pledge week. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll start work on a pinewood table. And good luck with that.

Steve Burgess reviews TV for The Tyee when he's not constructing his own log cabin.  [Tyee]

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