The Survival Legacy of Christopher McCandless

Why Chris's Life & Death Really Matter

Life & Legacy

It is very interesting how someone I have never met and really only have a few things in common with can shadow my life and professional career in so many different ways. That individual is Christopher McCandless. He has been dead for over 20 years, but he died just as I immersed myself into the business of teaching wilderness survival and Jon Krakauer’s excellent account of both his life and death has followed me into my professional life and Into the Wild.

The Road Less Travelled

The spring of 1992 when Chris might have hitchhiked through Edmonton1 on his way to Alaska, I was working in a downtown bank riding herd on a computer and saving my money to open an outdoor business. I had pooled all my overtime and vacation so I could spend the entire month of May teaching outdoor education on a U of A spring camp2. It didn’t pay anything, but I figured it would get me a leg up in the business.

“No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.” — Christopher McCandless3

After a winter of working in the bank I needed badly to get back into the wilderness. While Chris was exploring Alaska I was spending a month learning to teach survival alongside Mors Kochanski. That month in the Eastern Slopes4 allowed me to focus on what and how I wanted to teach and that Spring I made the decision to make a living teaching in the outdoors.

By then, with short hair and nine years in the Army Reserve, I may have walked by him on the street and not batted an eye. Certainly his odd collection of mismatched outdoor gear would have made me consider him a homeless man drifting through town. Not a graduate of Emory University with a double major in history and anthropology, areas I had studied and which have fascinated me ever since.

Had he lived, I might have had very little to do with him. We immersed ourselves in the wilderness in very different ways. We took very different paths in our schooling and work lives, and although I enjoy solitude, I have very little interest in being alone in the wilderness. Instead I really enjoy sharing our wild lands with others.

I finished up university in 1989 with a 92-day canoe expedition5. Each spring afterwards the call of my canoe was especially strong. When the river broke up in late April I simply wanted to put the canoe back into the water and paddle away. I would look at the river each morning as I crossed it to work and dream of spending the entire season padding again.

Chris did just that and I choose not to. Maybe that's why I am here to write this today. I had settled down, wore a suit to work, and wanted to start giving back the knowledge I had learned in the wilderness, university and the army. I was still running with a rucksack then, and the company I kept after university ended was mostly soldiers with a love of the outdoors.

That said, at the same point in his life that he died I was pushing myself deeper and farther into the wilderness and taking my survival for granted. Back then I knew I would be the “survivor,” that my brains and training would overcome all obstacles and regardless of the environment and conditions, I would prevail.

Of course today I consider that laughable, but we who survived look out at our youth both fondly and in my case with a strange wonder at how I survived as well as I did. Now don’t get me wrong I was not reckless that often, but once is all it takes to “snuff out” the Candle6. One mistake can make all the difference in the wilderness.

The Dark Side of His Life

That which haunts us most follows us into the wild as surely as our choice of what foods or equipment we take with us each time we walk out our door. The psychology of survival is important to our mental health and survival. It is very hard to walk away from your past and walking deeper into the wilderness cannot free you from it. The Wild Truth came out far too late to save Chris’s life, but it might help others on their quest to shake off the ghosts of their past before they walk into the wild and parish.

Everyone has their ghosts; we trust our friends and parents to help us along on the journey of dealing with them. When you cannot you have the same choices that every other animal has in a crisis: “Fight or Flight”. Chris chose flight and thus began his odyssey through the American west that finally ended in a small school bus in Alaska.

“The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” — Christopher McCandless7

The sad part of that journey is how much he learned about the environment and about himself. What kind of person or even writer might he have become had he survived? From what I have read, I believe that Alaska helped clear his mind and had begun to heal him. He was mentally stronger for his time there.

Do the Minor Details Make a Difference?

No, the minor minutia of Chris’ death is rather irrelevant to the overall decisions and actions that lead to his death. I completely understand why Jon Krakauer wants to get the story told correctly8, just as my present re-exploration of the case come from my need to tell his story correctly teaching survival.

It really doesn’t matter whether he died eventually because of a toxin9 in his body or whether malnutrition caused the toxin to ravage his body and that killed him. Alone in that bus he eventually starve to death. The loss of muscle mass, absence of fat reserve, malnutrition and possibly the lack of certain trace elements in his meager diet weakened him to the point where he would have been incredibly susceptible to trace toxins that a strong healthy person could have shrugged off.

The important point to remember here is as he began to starve to death, he fought hard to sustain himself in an environment that had little more to give. He certainly consumed plants with toxins10 and with little or no caloric value11. He knew he was in real trouble and was making desperate decisions in an attempt to survive, not in an attempt to kill himself. He wanted to survive and had a will to live that lasted until his final days.

Does His Death Matter?

Yes, the death of Christopher McCandless matters. We can learn from his actions, his love for the natural world, and his eventual death. Don’t worship him, but learn from his legacy. If Chris had not died that fall, most likely we would never have known about his journey.

Jon Krakauer would never have written his Outside Magazine article12 or his book13. Sean Penn would not have made the movie14. Carine McCandless might have buried the truth and never got the chance to share their intertwined story with us in her book15. More importantly, 22 years later we would still not be arguing over a coffee, glass of wine or a beer about how and why he died.

A lot of people who themselves did reckless things in youth, seem to want to judge those who were also reckless and did not survive. Growing up can be a dangerous time. Mixing youth in with curiosity, a love of the wilderness, and a yearning to explore can make us reckless. In Chris’s case, a wish to travel alone and a desire to flee the past made him even more susceptible to many additional dangers.

His Real Legacy for Survival Training

Chris did underestimate the wilderness he died in and the caloric requirements a person needs to survive in the northern forest over the long-term16. That does not mean he did not understand and love the lands he traveled and hunted in, only that he believed that nature would provide for his needs. In reality, the environment is totally neutral to our survival.

We are a candle when we walk in the wild. It can be quickly “snuffed out” or it can burn down slowly until it runs out of fuel. The aboriginal peoples of northern North America lived on a diet of mostly large ungulates or fish. He did not have the means to easily or safely hunt large ungulates regularly. The fact that he did “bag” a small moose is actually quite surprising.

Chris allowed his candle to burn down over the summer. When he got into trouble, his candle was a small stub that could not handle troubled times well. If he had more fat and muscle mass that fall, when trouble came he most likely would have either been able to travel out or would have survived until the first hunters arrived to use the bus that fall.

He is an excellent case study for how tough long-term survival can be. His story illustrates why the Aboriginal peoples of the Subarctic lived on a diet of predominantly meat and meat products17. They were hunter-gathers who lived a nomadic lifestyle so they could live in this harsh environment.

The northern forest has few plants that are edible, high in protein, and contain no toxins. The few that exist are rare, small compared to domestic plants, and have very short seasons for collection. In some areas, the berry crop in late summer is the only decent source of edible plants.

Most of the plants that we eat today are a product of over 8,000 years of horticulture18, developed first in Iraq and China and later spreading around the world. The reality is that most of the plants of the northern forest are not edible and have no food value if eaten.

Many may have toxins as well. Eating plants with no food value cost you calories as your body attempts to digest them. Eating plants with toxin can make you sick, incapacitate you and damage your body. This along with starvation will weaken the body, making it harder to hunt and collect foods. This slow spiraling downturn in available energy to do more work can only have one result.

The Aboriginal peoples who lived in these environments understood to eat what was around when it was plentiful and worth collecting. Literally to binge eat: when eggs were available in the spring, they ate as many eggs as they could collect. A few weeks later there would be no more eggs for a years, so they ate them when they were available.

If they hunted a moose, it was feast time, a time of abundance, not a time to ration their food to make it go further. They had no refrigerator and could carry only a small amount of preserved foods as they travelled. Life here was one of feast or famine.

This would have been an odd concept for a student of Thoreau’s “Higher Laws”19 to accept. One he would have found wasteful or even simply wrong. His wonderful liberal arts education and stern upbringing made gluttony a sin. Something not to embrace when food was plentiful, but instead fight as if it were a weakness. His philosophy helped weaken him for his last flight.

A Tale Worth Remembering

Jon Krakauer described it just right in his recent article “…many people—both admirers of McCandless and his detractors—regard “Into the Wild” as a cautionary tale….”20 Chris’ life and death do matter. Not to create a cult21 around him, not to follow in his footsteps22, but to learn from his mistakes.

“I now walk into the Wild.” — Christopher McCandless23

He risked much by traveling into the wild; he threw the map away, travelled light, and tried to out walk his ghosts. The saddest part of this cautionary tale is that we will never know for sure if he had out walked them. To risk is to live. Chris risked. He immersed himself fully into the wilderness, like many before him. We know him know only through his failures to survive that immersion.

Chris may have taken risks that I would never have taken. Some point out that a few were needless risks or the result of inexperience in a new environment he was travelling in. Each new environment that you travel in has its own hazards that you must discover. Those of us who survived can only stand back and try to teach that learned wisdom to the next generation.

Many times in class I have pointed out, perhaps correctly that he died for the price of a $5 USG Topo map. But to quote Alfred Korzybski, “the map is not the territory.”24 Chris’ journey required no map, for it was a journey of the mind and an odyssey through the northern forest.

If we are unwilling to walk into the wild, we are unlikely to learn those same lessons. Each step we take carries us on our own journey. We were not there and cannot follow in his footsteps. We can only learn from him.

Article by ()
Chief Instructor of the Boreal Wilderness Institute


Additional Resources

Footnotes

  1. Assuming he took the entire Alaska Highway this was his most likely route.
  2. The course moved to a number of location, conducting a week of survival training, a week long canoe trip, and two backpacking trips.
  3. Into the Wild, page 163. Quoted from writings found inside the bus, inscribed as Alexander Supertramp, May 1992.
  4. Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Commonly used in Alberta to refer to the Rocky Mountains on the eastern side of the continental divide, i.e. those within Alberta.
  5. At the University of Alberta I was part of one of the most innovative Outdoor Education Programmes ever conducted, Explorations. In this programme students over a 2 year period: plan, fund raise and conduct self-supporting expeditions. It was an intense programme. We took courses and spent much of our time together for two years. We worked really closely as a team and made decisions using consensus decision making. Explorations was not a program full of situations where if you got fed up, you could simply walk away. We were free to plan and conduct whatever trips we could agree to and fund. The original twelve students on the programme were thinned quickly down to six over the first year. We finally whittle our “dream list” down to a canoe trip in the fall, a first aid course, an avalanche awareness course and two backcountry ski trips over the winter. In our case the six of us chose as our final expedition to canoe from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta to Thunderbay, Ontario, approximately 3,500km, with no shore support except for six food drops. We choose to dream big and really challenge ourselves. Our route took our three small open canoes through the Saskatchewan River System and along Lake Winnipeg. This involved crossing three provinces; Alberta, Saskatchewan and half of Manitoba. At this point the we began the gruelling upstream part of the expedition by paddling, lining and dragging our way up the Winnipeg and Rainy River’s. Finally ending out journey by paddling the final stretch along the Boundary Waters and down the Minnesota/Ontario border. We covered over 3,200+ km of paddling, 40+ portages including Long Portage and the final 15km Grande Portage. This portage, like all the other one’s required two trips, meaning 45km over 2-days. As well as the padding we also did get in a little sailing, and a fair amount of lining and dragging along the Winnipeg River. We had only one real problem along the way which resulted in a short by-pass in a vehicle for a section of Lake Winnipeg. The trip took us 92-days and found us both changed individuals and close friends at the end. Explorations altered my idea of what a wilderness trip was, my philosophy on outdoor education and taught me practical long-term thinking in relation to wilderness travel.
  6. Today I often use the candle as an analogy for the human body. You come into a survival situation with a finite number of calories or fuel. It is hard to get more once you are stranded. Like a candle, you cannot burn for ever or survive unless you get more fuel and even burning very little by keeping the candle protected from the elements, it will not last forever.
  7. Into the Wild, page57. Quoted from a Letter to Ron Franz written before his departure to Alaska.
  8. How Chris McCandless Died (The New Yorker, Sept 12, 2013) and his updated article How Chris McCandless Died: An Update (The New Yorker, Feb. 11, 2015).
  9. The Silent Fire, ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless, Ronald Hamilton, 2012.
  10. Final paragraph, How Chris McCandless Died: An Update (The New Yorker, Feb. 11, 2015).
  11. Is Hedysarum mackenziei (Wild Sweet Pea) Actually Toxic?, Edward M. Treadwell & Thomas P. Clausen, 2008.
  12. Death of an Innocent, Outside Magazine, January 1993.
  13. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, Villard 1996.
  14. Into the Wild, 2007 Paramount Film.
  15. The Wild Truth, Carine McCandless, Harper Collins 2014.
  16. Long-Term Survival Situations (40 Days Plus), see Breakdown of Survival Situations.
  17. The Dene live in approximately the same latitude as where Chris was stranded and they lived on a diet of approximately 98% meat and meat products; other Aboriginal Groups had different percentages, but all that I have researched in the subarctic have had 95%+.
  18. For more in depth information on this subject I highly recommend reading Guns, Germs, & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, 1997.
  19. Walden; or, Life in the Woods, written by Henry David Thoreau in 1854. In Walden he discusses among other thing his ideas of Higher Laws that govern man's relationship with nature. He mentions a number of laws, but the most important to this discussion is: The highest form of self-restraint is when one can subsist not on other animals, but of plants and crops cultivated from the earth. This may actually work while living in an already built cabin in the woodlands of Massachusetts, but living as a vegetarian is essentially impossible in a survival situation in the subarctic or really anywhere in the northern forest.
  20. Final paragraph of How Chris McCandless Died: An Update (The New Yorker, Feb. 11, 2015).
  21. The Cult of Chris McCandless, Matthew Power, September 2007.
  22. The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem, Diana Saverin, December 2013.
  23. Into the Wild, page 69. Quoted from a postcard send to Wayne Westerberg on his arrival in Fairbanks Alaska.
  24. Alfred Korzybski.