Trying to imitate Chris McCandless’ life doesn’t mean you have to follow him to his death.
August 6, 2014: Alaskan state troopers are called to rescue three stranded male hikers in the Denali National Park and Preserve. While hiking on a trail, to a legendary bus, one of the men fell and was injured by an ax he was carrying. Unable to walk out on his own, the man and his fellow hikers were picked up by state troopers and transported out on all terrain vehicles. This isn’t the first time that people had been lost, injured, or killed while on this trip.
In 2010 a Swiss woman, Claire Ackermann, had drowned trying to cross the Teklanika River on the same trail. Claire and another hiker were making a last minute trip to the bus in the Denali National Park.
In the summer of 2013 alone, a dozen hikers were rescued from Denali National Park, same trail, same bus destination.
These tourists to Alaska have been hiking this trail since the late 1990s because of the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. In 2007, the movie with the same name would be released and turn the life of Chris McCandless into a cultural phenomenon. The hikers’ goal is to reach the dilapidated bus in which Chris McCandless died.
The story is intriguing. Chris is the college-educated son of a well-to-do family with the world at his fingertips. Upon graduation he donates all the money in his savings–$24,000–to charity and drives west across the country. When his car breaks down, he burns all his cash and identification and hits the road as Alexander Supertramp.
His adventure continues for a few years until his body is found in a bus in Alaska. The question most people have is How did a intelligent young man die alone in the middle of nowhere? His mistakes were many, long before he set foot in Alaska.
While spending some time in South Dakota, Chris learned the basics of hunting from the local sportsmen of the area. While his questions may have been pertaining to hunting in Alaska, the men he was talking to had knowledge of South Dakota.
Physically Chris was not unhealthy. He was young but weighed only a 140 pounds as the driver’s license he was found with had stated. He bragged in his journal how he could live for weeks at a time on a bag of white rice alone. When he went into Denali State Park, he brought with him a ten pound bag of rice and a .22 caliber rifle. With a small frame and low body fat, he was trying to live off of low calorie, low nutrient food.
While Chris appeared to be obsessed with the idea of going to Alaska, he did no research on the life of Alaskans. When he hiked into the park, the snow was still on the ground in the cool April days. The Teklanika river was only a stream frozen over, not being fed yet by the surrounding mountains. He found the bus by chance and chose it as his home for the next four months. Only his journal told his story.
Chris carved out paths around the bus for hunting and foraging. He had left his topographic map and compass behind trying to live in an unexplored area. He drew out his own map of his paths but had nothing to guide him out of the area when he was done except for the direction he had hiked in.
After weeks of living off the land and eating his white rice, Chris decided to pack up and go home. He hiked back to the stream he crossed that April to find the roaring Teklanika River waiting for him. He went back to the bus and tried to survive. He lived off birds, squirrels, and porcupine. He saved the feathers of the birds for further use. All of these are low calorie animals that don’t give back the calories needed to hunt them.
He was doing all of this during the summer months. In Alaska the time to travel and hunt is the fall and winter months where travel is easier over the frozen terrain. Food is preserved until spring by the freezing cold.
While Chris was hunting he came upon a moose that he shot and killed with his .22 caliber rifle. The killing of the moose was extraordinary and even the locals didn’t believe it until the photo was processed of Chris and his moose. The saddest part is how he tried to preserve the moose at the wrong time of year and didn’t eat what he could at the time, instead losing the whole thing to flies during the smoking process. It was admirable to try and use the whole beast, but foolish when you are already fighting to survive.
Last year the author of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, wrote an article proclaiming that he was correct in guessing that Chris died from poison and didn’t starve to death. While it appears he was correct that the potato seeds in the area contained a amino acid known to cause paralysis, I have to point out that the seeds themselves would not have given him enough calories to live off of anyway. He was already burning more calories to find food than he was bringing back. The river nearby didn’t have any fish in it to catch. Large game except for the moose didn’t live in the area. Had the seeds not been poisoned, the four weeks it took for the hunters to find him would have been too late.
The tubular of the potato plant would have been starchy and full of calories, but were only edible in the spring months. The seeds are small and would take more calories to digest than they would be worth. Chris’s own journal tells a tale of small game meals and not much else to eat.
I understand what Chris was seeking. I understand the need to go back to the land and free yourself from the society that fights to domesticate everyone from their natural urges. I struggle every day with the idea of money. I want to be more than just a number on a card. I desire to discover the world for the first time.
I understand what Chris was seeking. And Chris was a smart guy, I don’t doubt that.
What I don’t understand is why he never took a basic survival course. I don’t understand why he didn’t travel up or down the river to find people after he found out he couldn’t cross it. I don’t understand why he didn’t eat one of the legs from the moose when he finally had a decent meal after weeks of small game and losing weight. There are so many questions we will never have answers for. Even after everyone goes over his journals and try to dig out the truth their questions have no solid answers. Everything is left to speculation.
The three hikers in August were lucky to have been on the opposite side of the river from where Chris died. The Swiss girl was not. These two examples show the same ignorance that Chris had as he marched out into the woods that April day. These people are getting caught up in a tale of bravery and purity that in the end killed the man who was on that quest.
What I find the most interesting about this tale is the fact we only know about Chris’s adventure because he died. He didn’t march out of the woods and write a book talking about his fight against hunger and nature. He didn’t prevail in the end to spread his message of civil disobedience. Instead we have a romantic fairy tale of a lost future.
It reminds me of Romeo and Juliet. Their loss of a future is what captivates audiences to this day. They had a three-day love affair and died bringing several people with them. The loss of a future and dying at the peak of the relationship enhances the ideology of the experience. What we have is a man that died at his peak. The question of his future is what brings people on a quest to figure out the whole truth of Chris McCandless we will never know. The people getting caught up in his story are adding to an unnecessary death count that doesn’t need to exist.
What we need to learn from this is to NOT follow his path into the wild. All the pilgrimages I talked about tried to cross a river at its peak. Like Chris, these people did little research on life in Alaska and tried to follow one flawed source who died in the end. To not learn from the mistakes of Chris McCandless is the greatest disservice you can do for his memory. Chris was trying to live his life how he wanted to. To try and imitate his life doesn’t mean you have to follow him into an early death.
Image credit: Paxson Woelber/flickr