'Into the Wild' author Krakauer returns to debate of how McCandless perished

Best-selling author Jon Krakauer, in an essay for The New Yorker, revisits the 1992 death of Christopher McCandless, the young idealist and wanderer who famously died in an abandoned bus near Denali National Park and became the subject of Krakauer's 1996 book "Into the Wild" and a fairly well-regarded 2007 movie by the same name. Krakauer cites recent new evidence supporting his long-held conviction that McCandless did not starve to death but was poisoned by seeds he had gathered and eaten. Part of the evidence for that was McCandless' own journal note citing illness from "potato seeds," Krakauer writes. But Krakauer's critics, among the most vociferous former Anchorage Daily News columnist Craig Medred, have repeatedly called Krakauer's book a glorification of a clueless dreamer who simply starved to death because he didn't take the Alaska wilderness seriously enough.

Now Krakauer brings to light recent tests showing that wild potato seeds contain enough toxin to incapacitate a person "suffering from malnutrition, stress and acute hunger." As Krakauer writes, the news won't change the mind of detractors but might lead to a revision of entries on the wild potato plant in guidebooks.

[The] discovery that McCandless perished because he ate toxic seeds is unlikely to persuade many Alaskans to regard McCandless in a more sympathetic light, but it may prevent other backcountry foragers from accidentally poisoning themselves. Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis, he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April, and would still be alive today. 

Krakauer's New Yorker piece includes an account of how a university bookbinder who had read of seed poisoning in World War II concentration camp inmates suspected a link to McCandless' demise -- which in turn led to Krakauer's own recent effort to have wild potato seeds tested for toxins "once and for all."

Read more: How Chris McCandless died