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Commentary: In to the Wild

Right, then…

For the uninitiated, Despair.com has a series of demotivating posters that mock the Successories crap that can be found in the SkyMall catalogue.  One poster (“Mistakes”) depicts a partially sunken ship and intimates that sometimes ones purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.

With that, I’m not going to say that it’s a good thing that Chris McCandless (or, “Alexander Supertramp”, his self-applied moniker) starved to death in Alaska. But I will say that it does provide a silver lining if his plight serves as a cautionary tale.

Again, for the uninitiated, McCandless – an adventurer – set off into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 to “live off the land”.  Over 100 days later, he was found in his shelter (Fairbanks bus #142), having starved to death.

He went in with little more than 10 lbs of rice and a .22 caliber rifle, no map, no compass and no radio (remember, cell phones, sat phones, GPS and SPOT were not ubiquitous in 1992).  Further, no one of consequence knew he was there, save for one man that he hitched a ride with.  In short, he took a margin that was markedly narrow and honed it down until it was paper thin.

The knee-jerk reaction to all this would be to blame him and proclaim all various sundry of editorial comments about his mental ability.  He went not only into the wilderness – in and of itself unforgiving – but the Alaskan wilderness, which is far moreso.  Further, he went without much knowledge, training or supplies.  Locals were particularly harsh upon hearing his tale.

Some years ago, I volunteered with the local Search and Rescue team.  During that time, one of the things I learned was that the downside of all of the technical gadgets and articles of clothing (along with shiny stores that will sell them to you) is that now anyone can walk in, put down a credit card, and then leave, feeling sufficiently outfitted to handle whatever nature throws his way.  This led to the dichotomy of being over-geared, yet under prepared.  This, in turn, led to self-styled adventurers getting lost in the wilderness with high-tech gear.  But even after re-reading this paragraph, I realize that this was not the case, here.  While McCandless may have been disillusioned, it was not due to overconfidence caused by an REI hangover.

Jon Krakauer (the author) further illustrated that this was not the case.  McCandless set out sans the high-tech trappings we see today, thus no false-reliance.  While he initially had trouble hunting at the outset, he managed to develop that skill over time – enough skill to keep him alive for several weeks.  Also, remember that his stay in the woods started at the end of spring when it was still cold enough that the snow had not yet melted and the beaver ponds were still frozen.  As his shelter was an abandoned bus, he still had to keep warm (there was a stove in the bus, so wood gathering and fire craft – or the foresight to bring some form of firestarter – would be necessary).  During a post incident interview, one man confided to Krakauer that most of the folks that were critical of McCandless, most likely had not “lived off of the land” for more than a week or two.  All told, McCandless spent several weeks in the wilderness without any outside assistance, managing to survive off of what he was able to hunt or gather – no simple task, that. 

In the book, Krakauer hypothesized that what finally got McCandless was poisonous potato seeds – something that was not listed as poisonous in his book of edible plants.  The poison that apparently killed him was the type that prevented the body from pulling nutrients from food.  Admittedly, McCandless had naturally lost weight while living off of the land, thus he became lean, bordering on gaunt, thus he did not have much fuel stores to survive on.  Point being, a more robust person might have had a better chance surviving the poisoning – for a while longer, at least. 

McCandless spent some months on the road before heading to Alaska.  During that time, he successfully was able to survive on what he was able to scavenge (either from the land or from strangers).  It’s not that unreasonable, then, to assume he made the logic jump that if he could survive in the lower 48, then the 49th would merely be more of a change in weather, but not supply.  Where this failed, I think, was in that prior to Alaska, a) his food supply was fairly safe (from a toxin point of view), and b) he benefited from the kindness of strangers (or new friends, in his case) that bought or made him meals. 

What contributed to his starving, though, was the fact that he was – in effect – trapped.  When he crossed the Teklanika River in the spring, it was fairly low.  By the time he attempted to cross it in the summer, it was significantly higher due to glacier melt.  This, however, is where McCandless’ lack of preparation or wilderness knowledge contributes:  There was a hand-trolley about ¼ mile downstream from where he was attempting to cross the river.  Had he performed some reconnaissance, he would have found it.  One thing that I have learned (via reading up on the topic) is that if you come to a river that you cannot cross, travel up and downstream of your point to see if you can find a better place to cross.  Had McCandless known of this technique…well…he’d have survived with some amazing tales that would inspire others to strike out, under prepared.

It’s easy, I guess, to be critical of McCandless, despite the post-incident findings.  But do the armchair quarterbacks actually glean anything from these occurrences? 

As The Second Most Interesting Man in the World (henceforth, MIMW2, which is one helluva lot easier to write), I slowly push myself farther and father into my safety margin.  This is a three-pronged approach of doing research on a topic that borders on obsessive, over stocking on supplies and then under-shooting the complexity of the final activity.  Admittedly, this is not very sexy compared to what McCandless attempted.  However, for me, the goal is to continue to gain new skills and to enjoy new activities.  This process is probably slower than it needs to be, but I view this as a function of a) being conservative and b) not wanting to wind up like McCandless. 

For McCandless, I think there was something that he was trying to reconcile in his head.  For me, I’m just trying to find ways to get out and do things that interest me and generally enjoy myself.  Then again, maybe I’m doing all that because I have something that I’m trying to reconcile, as well.  Reconciliation, it seems, lies somewhere beyond cities and suburbs. 

That said, I’m not seeking to wind up as fodder for a book.  Unless, of course, I wind up doing something amazing and I’m the one writing the book. 

I guess once upon a time, a man could strike out in to the wilderness with a minimal of equipment and survive with his abilities and instincts.  That time most likely ended thereabouts of the industrial revolution with the introduction of heating and regular meals.  Since then, we’ve lost whatever abilities and instincts that the frontiersmen used to deal with nature.

Dirty Harry once said “A man has got to know his limitations.”  Profound words from Inspector Callahan that still ring true.  It’s important to realize that when it comes down to man vs. nature, nature always wins.  Sometimes nature will relent and let us off of the hook – but it is up to us to realize that it’s just that:  We’ve been let off of the hook.  Our fate is entirely up to how nature is feeling on that particular day. 

Reading about Chris McCandless made me (as much as I hate the simplicity of it) sad.  Even when I Googled images of Fairbanks Bus #142, I felt a sharp, decentralized pain, after seeing images of McCandless and the bus – how he lived and where he died.  I’m guessing it’s because in the end, I think he was a good person.  Misguided and self-centered, perhaps – you can’t just haul off like that without being such – but a good person.  But I can’t help to think that despite these flaws, despite the lack of preparedness, despite the naiveté and the excessive hubris that just one more time – just once more –  nature should have relented and let him off of the hook.

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