Self-portrait on the Stampede Trail, found undeveloped in his camera after his death.
February 12, 1968|
El Segundo, California, US
|Died||August 1992 (aged 24)
Stampede Trail, Alaska, US
|September 6, 1992|
|Alma mater||Emory University|
|Parent(s)||Walt McCandless and Wilhelmina "Billie" McCandless (née Johnson)|
Christopher Johnson McCandless (/ /; February 12, 1968 – August 1992) was an American adventurer. He ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992 with little food and equipment, hoping to live simply for a time in solitude. Almost four months later, McCandless's starved remains were found, weighing only 30 kilograms (66 lb). His death occurred in a converted bus used as a backcountry shelter, along the Stampede Trail on the eastern bank of the Sushana River.
In January 1993, Jon Krakauer published McCandless's story in that month's issue of Outside magazine. Inspired by the details of McCandless's story, Krakauer wrote and published Into the Wild in 1996 about McCandless's travels. The book was adapted into a film by Sean Penn in 2007 with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless. That same year, McCandless's story also became the subject of Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild.
A recent PBS documentary uncovering some additional information, with interviews, is titled "Return to the Wild: The Chris McCandless Story". It first aired on the PBS network in November 2014 and will be rerun.
Christopher McCandless was born in El Segundo, California, the first of two children to Walter "Walt" McCandless and Wilhelmina "Billie" Johnson. Chris had one younger sister, Carine. In 1976, the family settled in Annandale, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., after his father was employed as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). His mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft and later assisted her husband with his successful home-based consulting company in Annandale. Chris and Carine had six half-siblings living in California from Walt's first marriage. Walt was not yet divorced from his first wife when Chris and Carine were born; however, Chris did not discover his father's affair until a summer trip to Southern California in 1986.
In adolescence, McCandless was characterized by intense idealism and physical endurance. In high school, he served as captain of the cross-country team and urged teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were "running against the forces of darkness ... all the evil in the world, all the hatred." In her 2014 book, The Wild Truth, Carine McCandless described her father's abusiveness to both her and her brother, but also towards Billie.
On June 2, 1986, McCandless graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia. McCandless graduated from Emory University on May 12, 1990, with a Bachelor's degree, double majoring in history and anthropology.
By the end of summer in 1990, McCandless had made his way driving a Datsun through Arizona, California and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. A flash flood wet his car's engine, and he drained the battery trying to revive it. He left the car behind and buried the license plates. The car was later reused by the local police force as an undercover vehicle. During his travels, he sometimes used the name Alexander Supertramp and exhibited signs of paranoia, leading some to speculate that he was suffering from schizophrenia.
For years, McCandless dreamed of an "Alaskan Odyssey" wherein he would live off the land of the Alaskan wilderness, far away from civilization. He kept a journal describing his physical and spiritual progress as he faced the forces of nature. In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Enderlin, North Dakota, to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was last seen alive on April 28, 1992, by Jim Gallien, a south central Alaskan electrician, who gave him a ride from Fairbanks to the head of the Stampede Trail. Gallien was concerned about "Alex", who had minimal supplies (not even a compass) and no experience surviving in the Alaskan bush. Gallien repeatedly tried to persuade Alex to defer his trip, and even offered to drive him to Anchorage to buy suitable equipment and supplies. However, McCandless ignored Gallien's warnings, refusing all assistance except for a pair of Wellington rubber boots, two tuna melt sandwiches, and a bag of corn chips. Gallien allowed McCandless to wander off with the belief that he would head back towards the highway within a few days as his eventual hunger set in.
After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless found an abandoned bus (about 28 miles (45 km) west of Healy) used as a hunting shelter and parked on an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park, and began to live off the land. He had 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, several books including one on local plant life, and some camping equipment. He assumed he could forage for plant food and hunt game. For the next thirty days or so, McCandless poached porcupines, squirrels, and birds, such as ptarmigans and Canada geese. On June 9, 1992, he managed to kill a moose; however, he failed to preserve the meat properly, and within days it spoiled and was covered with maggots.
There has been some speculation (particularly in details given in the Lamothe documentary) that he vandalized survival cabins and supplies in the area. However, Ken Kehrer, chief ranger for Denali National Park, denied that McCandless was considered a vandalism suspect by the National Park Service.
His journal contains entries covering a total of 113 days. These entries range from ecstatic to grim with McCandless's changing fortunes. In July, after living in the bus for three months, he decided to leave, but found the trail back blocked by the Teklanika River, which was then considerably higher and swifter than when he crossed in April. Unknown to McCandless, there was a hand-operated tram that crossed the river only eight tenths of a mile away from where he had previously crossed. In the 2007 documentary The Call of the Wild, evidence is presented that McCandless had a map at his disposal, which should have helped him find another route to safety. McCandless lived in the bus for a total of 113 days. At some point during that time, presumably very near the end, he posted an S.O.S. note calling on anyone passing by to help him because he was injured and too weak. The full note read:
|“||Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?||”|
On August 12, 1992, McCandless wrote his final recorded words in his journal: "Beautiful Blueberries."
- Death's a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
- Something more equal to centuries
- Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
- The mountains are dead stone, the people
- Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
- The mountains are not softened or troubled
- And a few dead men's thoughts have the same temper.
His body was found in his sleeping bag inside the bus by Butch Killian, a local hunter, on September 6, 1992. McCandless had been dead for more than two weeks and weighed an estimated 30 kilograms (66 lb). His official cause of death was starvation.
Cause of death
In Into the Wild, Krakauer suggested two factors may have contributed to McCandless's death. First, he offered that McCandless was running the risk of a phenomenon known as "rabbit starvation" due to increased activity, compared with the leanness of the game he was hunting. Krakauer also speculated that McCandless might have been poisoned by a toxic alkaloid called swainsonine, by ingesting seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedysarum mackenzii) containing the toxin, or maybe by a mold that grows on them (Rhizoctonia leguminicola). Swainsonine inhibits metabolism of glycoproteins, which causes starvation despite ample caloric intake.
However, an article in Men's Journal stated that extensive laboratory testing showed there were no toxins or alkaloids present in the H. alpinum seeds McCandless had been eating. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at UAF said "I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I'd eat it myself." Analysis of the wild sweet peas, given as the cause of Chris's death in Sean Penn's film, turned up no toxic compounds and there is not a single account in modern medical literature of anyone being poisoned by this species of plant. As one journalist put it: "He didn't find a way out of the bush, couldn't catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death."
In 2013, a new hypothesis was proposed. Ronald Hamilton, a retired bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and published author, suggested a link between the symptoms described by McCandless and the poisoning of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp in Vapniarca. He put forward the proposal that McCandless starved to death because he was suffering from paralysis in his legs, induced by lathyrism, which prevented him from gathering food or hiking out. Lathyrism may be caused by ODAP poisoning from seeds of Hedysarum alpinum (commonly called wild potato). The ODAP, a toxic protein, hadn't been detected by the previous studies of the seeds because they had suspected a toxic alkaloid, rather than a protein, and nobody had previously suspected that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contained this toxin. The protein would be relatively harmless to someone who is well-fed and on a normal diet, but toxic to someone who is malnourished, physically stressed, and on an irregular and insufficient diet, as McCandless was. McCandless' field guide did not warn of any dangers of eating the seeds, which were not yet known to be toxic. Krakauer suspects this is the meaning of McCandless' journal entry of 30 July, which states "EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY."
In September 2013, Krakauer published an article in The New Yorker following up the claims of Ronald Hamilton. A sample of Hedysarum alpinum's fresh seeds were sent to a laboratory for HPLC analysis. Results indicated that the seeds contained .394 per cent beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans. The article notes that while occasional ingestion of foodstuffs containing ODAP is not hazardous for healthy individuals eating a balanced diet, "individuals suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin." Krakauer also points out that McCandless' guidebook had no warnings against eating the seeds of Hedysarum alpinum, as the plant was generally believed to be safe to eat.
Anchorage, Alaska, reporter Craig Medred has also pointed out in a January, 2015, article in the Alaska Dispatch News that mushrooms which McCandless collected, photographed and consumed may have also contributed to his death.
In February 2015, Krakauer published a follow up article in The New Yorker that reported on scientific analysis of the H. alpinum seeds McCandless ate. A report in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine demonstrated relatively high levels of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and suggests this as the toxic component in McCandless' diet rather than ODAP as originally supposed by Ronald Hamilton. In his New Yorker article Krakauer goes on to speculate that L-canavanine "was a contributing factor to" McCandless's death.
McCandless has been a polarizing figure ever since he left his home, along with Krakauer's Outside article on him in January 1993. While Krakauer and many readers have a largely sympathetic view of McCandless, others, particularly Alaskans, have expressed negative views about McCandless and those who romanticize his fate.
Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:
When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament [...] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.
Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure:
Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don't know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I'm puzzled by the way he's emerged as a hero.
Jon Krakauer defends McCandless, claiming that what critics point to as arrogance was merely McCandless's desire for "being the first to explore a blank spot on the map." Krakauer continues that "In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita."
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Christopher McCandless|
- Christopher McCandless at Find a Grave
- Christopher McCandless – Informative website on Christopher McCandless.
- Memorial Foundation – C J McCandless Memorial Foundation.
- Dispatches from the Wild – Excerpts of McCandless's own articles published in the Emory Wheel student newspaper.