First Wilderness: My Quest in the Territory of Alaska

First Wilderness: My Quest in the Territory of Alaska

by Sam Keith

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Fans of the Alaskan classic ONE MAN’S WILDERNESS will enjoy reading this memoir of how its author, Sam Keith, and its subject, Dick Proenneke, first met.
After serving as a US Marine during World War II and attending college on the GI Bill, Sam Keith decided to seek adventure and acceptance in Alaska. He arrived on Kodiak Island in July, 1952, where he


Fans of the Alaskan classic ONE MAN’S WILDERNESS will enjoy reading this memoir of how its author, Sam Keith, and its subject, Dick Proenneke, first met.
After serving as a US Marine during World War II and attending college on the GI Bill, Sam Keith decided to seek adventure and acceptance in Alaska. He arrived on Kodiak Island in July, 1952, where he secured a job as a laborer on the Adak Navy base.
He befriended a group of like-minded men there, including Dick Proenneke, who shared a love of the outdoors, hard work, and self-reliance. Keith explored the wilds of South Central Alaska while working on the Navy base, and later as a Stream Guard and Enforcement Patrolman. In his hunting and fishing trips with Dick and his friends, Keith found almost everything he sought.
But at the end of three years, Keith decided to go Outside to pursue other dreams. Dick Proenneke tells him, “Sam, you know right well you don’t want to leave this country. Don’t give up on it. Me and you got to figure something out.”
In 1973, Keith went on to write ONE MAN'S WILDERNESS: AN ALASKAN ODYSSEY, based on his dear friend’s journals and photography. It was reissued in 1999 and won a National Outdoor Book Award (NOBA). In 2003, portions of text from the book and some of Proenneke's 16mm movies were used in Alone in the Wilderness, which began appearing on US public television stations. The documentary follows Proenneke as he builds a log cabin with only hand tools, and includes reflections on wildlife, weather, and the natural scenery he sees around him.
Sam Keith passed away in 2003. But in 2013, his son-in-law, children’s book author/illustrator Brian Lies, discovered in an archive box in their garage a book manuscript, originally written in 1974 after the publication of ONE MAN’S WILDERNESS.
FIRST WILDERNESS is the story of Keith’s own experiences, at times harrowing, funny, and fascinating. Along with the original manuscript are photos and excerpts from his journals, letters, and notebooks, woven in to create a compelling and poignant memoir of search and discovery.
Foreword by Nick Jans and Afterword by Laurel Lies (Sam Keith's daughter.)

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Keith's 1972 best seller One Man's Wilderness described his good friend Dick Proenneke's solitary life in the wilds of Alaska. After Keith's death, his son-in-law found this manuscript chronicling the author's own story as a young man in Alaska Territory in the early 1950s. Keith, not knowing what to do with his life, goes to Alaska to find himself and do some writing. He lands a job as a civilian construction worker at a U.S. naval station on Kodiak Island, AK, and is later employed by the Fish and Wildlife Service as a temporary fish warden. He works hard but also has time to explore the remote Alaskan wilderness, taking movies and photographs and spending many hours fishing, as well as participating in bear and moose hunts. His memoir envelops the reader in the sights and sounds of the state's awe-inspiring weather and scenery, details the lives of the plants and animals that inhabit the places Keith visits, and expresses his joy in fishing trips. VERDICT A beautifully written memoir of Alaska that will appeal to nature lovers, fishermen, hunters, and wilderness seekers." —Library Journal

"Sam Keith’s ONE MAN'S WILDERNESS fired the imaginations of many to discover Alaska’s wild places, including my own journey to homestead a piece of wilderness in the Far North. Now, FIRST WILDERNESS, Keith’s compelling story comes full-circle to offer a glimpse of why dreamers continue to be drawn to Alaska’s mystical wild not only to quench their thirst for adventure, but also to seek answers to define their character." —Roy Corral, photographer, WHAT THE ELDERS HAVE TAUGHT US

Product Details

Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


About three o’clock it began to lighten.
Frost silvered the grass around us and glinted on the canvas. Our breaths steamed. The bay was emptying. Rivulets ran out over the sand past the blocky buttes and trickled into puddles, and then on past the kelp litter and clam shells to catch up with the fast ebbing tide.
With the coming of light, the tidal flat awakened. A few gulls sailed their patrols, while crowds of them waded in the shallow puddles that shimmered among the islands. A shabby fox moped along the beach edge, nosing here and there. Loud whistles shattered the air with a piercing abruptness. A pair of blackish birds, smaller than crows, teetered on a rock pile. Their long red bills and bright red eyes demanded a closer scrutiny. They walked over the rocks as if they wore flapping overshoes. I recognized them as oystercatchers, but I was too chilled to be excited.
I looked again at a margin of brush I had looked at only seconds before. A bear was growing out of it! He moved massively, like a monstrous raised turtle, slinging his forepaws in looping, pigeon-toed strides. His sloping hind quarters shuffled along behind as if they had difficulty keeping up with the rest of him. His shoulders bulged with crawling movements, and he swung his grizzled head from side to side as he came. Now he stopped to turn at a driftwood log with a raking of claws, examined it as if not really interested, and came on tiredly, leaving his crooked trail in the silt.
“Mac. Mac,” I whispered, “look . . . ”
The bear was less than two hundred yards away and drawing closer.
“God! God Almighty,” breathed Mac.
“Take him,” Dick hissed, “take him now.”
“I got to—get rid—get rid of these goddamn shakes,” quavered Mac. “I got to—”
“Down on your belly and bust ’im.”
“I’ll miss him. Christ, I’m shaking so much that the rifle’s got joints in it.” In desperation, Mac crawled back from the bluff edge. He was doing deep-knee bends, swinging his arms across his chest, and jogging his legs up and down.
“C’mon,” Dick whispered sharply. “This ain’t no gym.”
“A little closer,” begged Mac. “I don’t want to miss. Christ, even my words are shaking.” The night chill not only shook his body; it had shaken his confidence. The rifle trembled in his hands as he crawled like an infantryman through the frost to the birch clump.
“Now. Now,” urged Dick.
I waited for the shot to crash.
It never came. Suddenly the bear swerved and with an incredibly quick motion crashed into the brush. Mac whimpered and cursed. Dick looked at me. He took a deep breath and swelled his cheeks as he blew it out.
“That’s one lucky bear,” Dick said.
I thought Mac was going to cry.

Meet the Author

Sam Keith’s (1921– March 28, 2003) most notable work was the best-seller ONE MAN'S WILDERNESS: AN ALASKAN ODYSSEY in which he edited the journals and photographs of his friend Richard Proenneke’s (May 4, 1916 – April 20, 2003) solo experiences in Alaska. The book was reissued in 1999 and won a National Outdoor Book Award. Text from the book was used in the documentary seen on PBS, ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS After the release of the video and its frequent appearance on PBS membership drives, it became a runaway best seller. The close friends passed away within thirty days of each other. More information available at and on Facebook at

Foreword writer Nick Jans is one of Alaska’s most recognized and prolific writers. A contributing editor to Alaska Magazine and a member of USA Today’s board of editorial contributors, he’s written nine books and hundreds of magazine articles, and contributed to many anthologies. In addition, Jans is a professional nature photographer, specializing in wildlife and landscapes in remote locations. He currently lives in Juneau with his wife, Sherrie, and travels widely in Alaska.

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