Friday, September 20, 2013

How Chris McCandless Died: A Tragic Hero or An Unprepared Fool

Many of you are familiar with the name Chris McCandless from the book, and subsequent movie, Into The Wild. The story is a true-ish account of the travels of Chris McCandless, who in 1990, after graduating from college, severed all contact with his family, and started traveling around the country. Eventually, in 1992 he made his way up to Alaska, where he traveled about 20 miles into the woods to an old bus which had been set up there as a shelter for hunters. He stayed at the bus for about 100 days, attempting to survive, until finally dying sometime in August of that year. His body was found soon after by hunters.


The author of the book, Jon Krakauer, has insisted since the writing of the book, that Chris McCandless did not simply die from starvation as the coroner’s findings indicated, but that he was the unfortunate victim of poisoning. It is not clear on what he bases that instance, but it has certainly made for a better story than him dying because he didn’t bring enough food.

Over the years Jon Krakauer has put forward several theories for this poisoning, each being scientifically disproven. Recently he published an article in the New Yorker, giving his theory yet another try. You can read the article here.

When I read the article myself, it raised a number of questions for me. Krakauer’s conclusions, as conclusive as they were, seemed based on almost no evidence, and the rest of the evidence outright contradicted his conclusions. As a summary, Krakauer believes McCandless was poisoned from eating the seeds of wild potato. He bases that on a note in the journal of Chris McCandless, stating that on day 94 he ate potato seeds, and he was too weak to walk as a result. He combines this note with research done by the Nazis in a concentration camp during WWII, showing that prolonged consumption of such potato seeds over a period of a few months can lead to a debilitating crippling, making it difficult and then eventually impossible for people to use their legs.

Krakauer’s conclusions struck me as odd for several reasons. For starters, there is no mention of prolonged consumption of these potato seeds, and if the consumption was in fact prolonged over the 94 days prior to McCandless’ mention of the seeds on day 94, how could he have possibly linked them to this condition caused by accumulation of an amino acid. The dilemma continued for me because the condition is supposed to be continuous, progressive, and irreversible. Yet, there is no mention of symptoms prior to day 94, and his journal indicates that he was walking and hunting for at least 10 days after the note on day 94. In the last picture he takes of himself prior to his death, he is standing up with out any aiding device.


Anyway, as I was trying to write a list of all the things that struck me as odd about Krakauer’s article, Craig Medred published an article in the Alaska Dispatch titled Krakauer Goes Further 'Into the Wild' Over McCandless Starving to Death in Alaska. You can see the full article here. He does an excellent job describing the issues that struck me as odd. I think it is well worth a read.

I think people are way too invested in this story, and I think it is for reasons largely unrelated to the wilderness or the way McCandless died. People seem to search for meaning in what he did, and as a consequence they want the death to fit the story of his life that each person perceives. I personally don’t care about his life, and have little interest in figuring out the spiritual pursuits of some kid. As it related to the wilderness, for me it is very simple. He went into the woods unprepared, and he died. Whether he died due to lack of food, or because he was not familiar enough with wild plants to avoid the poisonous ones, the result is the same-he was not prepared, and he died. I don’t say that to necessarily impart fault on him. Much of what we do as woodsmen is designed to test us and push our boundaries. I bet many of us have been in situations where the outcome might have been very similar. Granted, McCandless was an example of someone who was recklessly unprepared for the wilderness, but still, the risk of death is something that we must accept about going into the wild.

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