The Best and Most Improbable Documentary Ever

January 9, 2015 | By | Comments (10)
Dick Proenneke's cabin via Flickr contributor Caitlin Marr

Dick Proenneke’s cabin via Flickr contributor Caitlin Marr

My favorite documentary is shot on grainy 16mm film, has a monotone narration, and includes little action—a 52-year-old man builds a tiny cabin in the Alaska wilderness in the late 1960s. And yet, as millions have discovered, the 57-minute film Alone in the Wilderness is completely mesmerizing.

So Sunset sent writer Leigh Newman, who grew up in the Alaska bush, to Lake Clark National Park to visit the Dick Proenneke Cabin and report back. Leigh’s terrific story is in the February issue of Sunset. You can hear her read her tale below.



Why do I find this documentary—made 35 years after most of the footage was shot—so intriguing? Well, the more you watch, the more you understand what a radical visionary Dick Proenneke was, a pioneer on issues of the environment, sustainability, and artisanship. To watch Proenneke make, say, a salad bowl or perfect Dutch door out of scraps of native spruce is humbling. And to realize that Proenneke did all this work in front of an unmanned movie camera reminds me of what they say about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did but did it backwards and in high heels.

With the notable exceptions of his hand-cranked Bolex camera and the airplane that delivered him supplies, Proenneke left technology behind. He escaped crowds and lines and summer reruns. And, ultimately, it is the brazen quietude he finds in the Alaska backcountry that makes his film so compelling.

Are there any other fans of Alone in the Wilderness out there? If so, why does the film resonate with you?


  1. Drew Walker

    Woh! Absolutely, yes! Its a honest and surreal life that I dream of. Its so pure and simple yet it seams almost unatamable. Its a delight to see Dick working with his hands (hehe), using essential skills unknow by many people today. It warms my sole and makes me long for that lifestyle… mint!!

    April 1, 2016 at 8:10 am
  2. 10 tips to build your dream tiny house | A blog by Sunset

    […] it is possible to build a house by yourself—as the indomitable Dick Proenneke proved—it’s not ideal. Often, “you need somebody to hold one end” while you work on the […]

    September 30, 2015 at 11:27 am
  3. robert

    This documentary is very enjoyable to watch over and over so I bought the 4 set dvd of the series. Another one to watch is the National Film Board of Canada’s Cesar’s Bark Canoe. It shows a native man build a traditional birch bark canoe and paddle on the lake when finished.

    April 1, 2015 at 5:28 am
  4. Denise

    After seeing the documentary, and reading his book..It was on my bucket list to see this special place. I was so taken by his life and outlook on it,I totally enjoyed my 5 days there..Camping out and enjoying the remoteness was so special..Watching the lynx move silently about and feeling the quietness was so worth the experience.

    February 19, 2015 at 9:05 pm
  5. AKGirl99577

    Our friends surprised us this summer by taking us in their float plane to Dick’s cabin. What an amazing man! The remoteness of his home is staggering. And his accomplishments, despite the harsh elements, are remarkable. We are lucky to have such good friends to share this wonderful man and his home with us. Everyone should visit it if you can.

    January 18, 2015 at 5:38 pm
  6. georgia ray

    It was the simple,quiet,completely able way he did everything. I ws awestruck when i watched this program.

    January 17, 2015 at 4:28 pm
  7. AngZ

    Wonderful film (and book.) First Wilderness by Sam Keith features the genesis of One Man’s Wilderness.

    January 13, 2015 at 1:52 pm
  8. Don Schneider

    My grandparents were neighbors of the Proenneke family. I remember Dick coming home to Iowa over winter, bringing his projector films to my grandparents’ home… and we all enjoyed a fascinating evening of films and stories. I recognized most of the scenes in the documentary as part of those movies he had shared with us many years ago.

    January 12, 2015 at 9:43 am
  9. Susan Morgan

    I was born in Alaska and live here still. I adore the film and watch it whenever it’s on. Dick embodied such calm competence. It’s a balm for the soul to watch him notch logs or whip up sourdough biscuits. Reminds me of what’s really possible in the world.

    January 11, 2015 at 2:17 pm
  10. Poetic Shutterbug

    I saw this documentary twice on a local PBS station and I just loved it. It resonates in me because there is nothing I would love more than to spend some quiet reflective time in nature and avoiding the fast paced city life. Of course thirty years would be a bit much for me but a year or so would have me inspired and rejuvenated.

    January 10, 2015 at 5:38 pm

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