Re-reading Into the Wild: what killed Chris McCandless?

One of my all-time favourite books is Into the Wild by journalist John Krakauer. The film adaptation by Sean Penn was also superb.

I first read Krakauer’s beautifully written investigation of the short, but eventful life of idealistic adventurer Chris McCandless – who died in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 – whilst travelling around the south and Midwest of America on an Amtrak pass in the late summer of 1997.

Having recently re-read the book whilst on holiday, it occurred to me that back then in 1997, I was the same age – 24 – as Chris McCandless when he died, alone, in a rusting bus, on the Stampede Trail overlooking the Teklinaka River.

People around the world have become fascinated by the story of a well-educated and intense young man from an affluent West Virginia family who gave away all his savings, burnt his money and credit cards and abandoned his car to tramp around America for two years on a rite of passage “to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution”.

McCandless wished to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London and test himself with a final adventure in the wilds of Alaska.

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Chris McCandless – at Bus 142, in the year he died

After the first Associated Press article was published on September 13, 1992, about a body discovered by moose hunters in a remote camp, accompanied by a diary and a final plea for help, John Krakauer wrote a 5000 word article for Outside magazine “Death of an Innocent”  based on interviews with people who had met McCandless on his wandering. He then expanded that article into a book which became a 1996 bestseller. Sean Penn’s haunting film came out in 2008.

Alongside these mainstream retellings, hundreds of videos have appeared on YouTube about McCandless including documentaries, tributes and amateur investigations. There’s also hundreds of articles online discussing the book, film and McCandless’s adventures and final misadventure most of them captured on an excellent website, christophermccandless.info

People have become obsessed with his short, but adventurous life, his unique philosophical view of the world and his tragic death. Not all are hero worshippers indeed Krakauer has received plenty of criticism for – in the view of some harsh critics – glorifying the death of a naive and arrogant young man who thought he could tame nature, but who ended up succumbing to it in the most terrible way.

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The journal McCandless kept at the back of a book on edible plants

I was one of those people who became fascinated about Chris McCandless, in particular  his tragic end and the mystery about what actually killed in. That fascination has never died, and I found myself, upon re-reading the book this year, scouring the internet again for clues and answers.

As John Krakauer himself wrote in an article for New Yorker magazine in 2013:

The debate over why McCandless perished, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering, and occasionally flaring, for more than two decades now.

What I discovered is that a lot has happened  – both in terms of conjecture and scientific research – to try to come to a definitive answer.

It is worth remembering that John Krakaeur first came to the conclusion – in the article he wrote for Outside magazine – that Chris McCandless had most likely died when he mistook the supposedly poisonous wild sweet pea (Hedysarum mackenzeii ) for the edible wild potato (Hedysarum alpinum) and ate its seeds.

“Wild sweet pea looks so much like wild potato that even expert botanists sometimes have trouble telling the species apart,” wrote Krakauer in Into The Wild.

As depicted in the movie, Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) is seen studying the leaves of the plants he has been eating and discovering his mistake, to his horror.

But in the book Into the Wild, Krakauer said he had got it wrong, and that Chris McCandless did not make the mistake of mis-identification and that he was not as reckless, naive and possibly even suicidal as some claim. (Even, if he had eaten the wrong plant, some food plants experts say wild sweet pea is not in fact very poisonous.)

After McCandless wrote in his cryptic keyword diary on Day 90:  “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEEDS. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP” Krakauer concluded that skinny and desperate for food, McCandless had accidentally poisoned himself by eating wild potato seeds not just the roots. Three weeks later he was dead.

Krakauer hypothesized that wild potato seeds contained a toxic alkaloid that weakened McCandless to “to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation”.

Then in 2007, Krakauer suggested that a toxic mold had grown on the seeds McCandless stored in a damp Ziploc.

“Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy. And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares,” Krakauer said.

Six years later, in the 2013 New Yorker article, Krakauer admitted he had made a “rash intuitive leap” by suggesting in the first edition of his book that the alkaloid that killed McCandless was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation.

But later analysis by Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry
department at the University of Alaska, found no trace of swainsonine or any
other alkaloids.

Into_the_Wild_(book)_coverIn his 2013 article for New Yorker magazine, Krakauer wrote of how his theories had brought scorn from many, especially Alaskans, but that he had then come across a “brilliant” writer named Ronald Hamilton who had discovered “hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death”.

Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless,” offered, Krakauer wrote “persuasive new evidence that the wild-potato plant is highly toxic in and of itself, contrary to the assurances of Thomas Clausen and every other expert who has ever weighed in on the subject.

“The toxic agent…turns out not to be an alkaloid but, rather, an amino acid [a neurotoxin called ODAP causing lathyrism, a kind of paralysis], and according to Hamilton it was the chief cause of McCandless’s death. His theory validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be.”

Worryingly though Krakauer notes that Hamilton is “neither a botanist nor a chemist; he’s a writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library.

But after further scientific testing supported Hamilton’s theory, Krakauer concluded: “considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds”.

Alas, in a 2015 article for New Yorker, titled “An Update: How Chris McCandless Died” Krakauer admitted, following more criticism from a journalist in Alaska, that he needed to do more testing to prove his theory that neurotoxins are present in wild potato seeds and publish the results in a “reputable peer-reviewed journal”.

This he did – after further scientific research – authoring a paper with Dr. Jonathan Southard, Dr. Ying Long, Dr. Andrew Kolbert and Dr. Shri Thanedar,  titled“Presence of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and its Potential Role in the Death of Chris McCandless,”  It appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in March, 2015.

The paper concluded that L-canavanine (an antimetabolite with demonstrated toxicity in mammals) was a significant component of wild potato seeds and because they made up a significant portion of his meager diet “it is highly likely” they were a “contributing factor to his death”.

Of course ‘highly likely” meant Krakauer was still not 100 per cent about his latest theory and it was again an Alaskan journalist – Craig Medred from the Anchorage Daily News – who took him to task in a highly critical and daming article titled “The fiction that is Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into The Wild'”.

Originally published in January 2015 – a month before Krakauer’s second New Yorker article – but updated in September 2016, Medred posited that it wasn’t wild potato seeds that killed McCandless, but toxic mushrooms.

Medred points out that entry 89 of the 113 entries McCandless left in his terse diary states: “Many Mushrooms. DREAM.”

“DREAM is written in the largest, boldest letters of any word in the journal, and there are large, dark arrows connecting mushrooms to the word DREAM.” writes Medred.

He also notes that photos of mushrooms appeared on film found with McCandless’s body and appeared as photos in the McCandless family’s book about their son “Back to the Wild”.

Medred says a noted authority on Alaskan mushrooms – scientist Gary Laursen, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks – had identified mushrooms McCandless had eaten as “Amanita muscaria’ a variety known to make people sick and cause hallucinations. Laursen also identified other varieties of mushrooms in the photos that made people violently ill.

(Medred’s criticism of  John Krakauer’s book extends way beyond the wild potato seeds theory and claims the chapter he wrote about the time McCandless spent in Alaska has no basis in fact and that some of the books found with McCandless’s body (with underlined passages and notes that gave clues to his view of the world) were not actually his but that of an Alaskan adventurer “who’s now a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks”).

I looked up the mushroom Amanita muscaria online: depending on the location/variety it is either bright red, yellow or orange with white warts, similar to those I have seen myself whilst walking in woods near my own home of Gisborne, Victoria.

They about as toxic looking as any mushroom could look in my opinion, and it seems hard to believe Chris McCandless would have gorged on them, let alone eat one.

Even if he had tried one, according to the research I found online, it would have made him violently ill – but not fatally so – and it is unlikely he would have tried anymore.

Then in December 2018, Medred published another article about John Krakauer and Into the Wild.

In it he quotes an “authority on wild edible plants, Samuel Thayer” who he says lumped all of Krakauer’s poison plant claims together as part of a “poisonous plant fable.”

Thayer’s main criticism is that any poisoning theory requires one to know how much of wild potato seeds McCandless actually ate.

“While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose,” said Thayer.

Medred has another monumental dig at Krakauer, writing:

“Krakauer has never been able to accept the idea that McCandless simply starved to death. To do so, would be to recognize that McCandless  was killed by his own incompetence, and that would undermine the whole “Into the Wild” myth of a bright young man on a sensible adventure of self discovery murdered by twists of fate at the hands of nature.”

That is a view held by some – though not by me.

Regardless, we will likely never know with any certainty what caused the death of Chris McCandless. It will remain an unsolved mystery, his death a tragic end to a life full of promise.

What I believe is that Chris McCandless did not intend his Alaskan trip to be a suicide mission, and that he planned to walk out of the bush and re-enter society sometime at end of 1992.

How do we know this? From his photos of course. After all, why document your travels, if not to share them with others.

RIP Chris.

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His final photo: The card reads:   “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

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