Skip to main Content
Books

The fiction that is Jon Krakauer's 'Into The Wild'

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published January 10, 2015

Twenty-two years after a young man named Chris McCandless was found dead in a long-abandoned bus north of Denali National Park and Preserve, a plausible explanation has arisen as to why the 24-year-old man stayed there until he starved to death: toxic mushrooms.

Photos of the mushrooms appeared on film found with McCandless' body after his death. Some of those photos made their way into a McCandless family book "Back to the Wild'', published in 2011.

A noted authority on Alaska mushrooms who this year examined one of those photos identified some of the mushrooms McCandless was eating as "Amanita muscaria.'' Those have been known to make people sick and cause hallucinations.

German doctors in 2006 reported "prolonged psychosis'' associated with eating those mushrooms. Writing in the Viennese clinical weekly they reported on a patient who "became confused and uncooperative. Afterwards paranoid psychosis with visual and auditory hallucinations appeared and persisted for five days."

'Many Mushrooms'

McCandless in his own 430-word journal, at No. 89 of 113 numbered entries, wrote, "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.

Scientist Gary Laursen, director of the High Latitude Mycological Research Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said that along with the possibility of hallucinations, Amanita are likely to cause "malaise,'' which might account for McCandless staying at the bus until he starved.

Other varieties of mushrooms identifiable in the photo are known to make people violently ill, Laursen said. That could also have handicapped McCandless.

McCandless' journal is not dated, but at No. 94 -- widely believed to be his 94th day at the bus -- he wrote "Extremely Weak. Fault Of The Pot. Seed. Much Trouble Just To Stand Up. Starving. Great Jeopardy.''

If the numbers in the journal are actually days, the latter posting would have come five days after wrote about the "Many Mushrooms. DREAM.'' Four lines of gibberish follow the DREAM reference in the journal.

The photo of the mushrooms was pointed out to Alaska Dispatch News by McKinley-area resident Will Forsberg when the newspaper began fact checking "Into the Wild," Jon Krakauer's best-selling book about McCandless. Forsberg owns a cabin near the Stampede Trail not far from where McCandless' body was found.

Krakauer in his 1996 book suggested that McCandless was the innocent victim of an unknown poison contained in the seeds of the wild potato. That theory was based on the line, "Fault Of Pot. Seed'' in McCandless' journal.

"From all the available evidence,'' Krakauer wrote, "there seemed little doubt that McCandless -- rash and incautious by nature -- had committed a careless blunder, confusing one plant for another and died as a consequence.''

Krakauer's theory was later debunked. That led him to posit a second theory based on a fungus growing on the seeds. The theory, too, was proven wrong. Krakauer is now pushing a third mystery poison.

All appear aimed at reinforcing the author's belief, stated in "Into the Wild," that if the young man died as the result of a previously unknown poison, "it means that McCandless wasn't quite as reckless or incompetent as he has been made out to be."

What McCandless was or wasn't doing in Alaska is hard to say based on the scant record he left behind. And what this reporter discovered is that the Alaska McCandless featured in "Into the Wild," billed as a "true story," is a fictional character.

Brief journal entries

In writing the book, Krakauer took an individual word or two from McCandless' journal and around such entries created little stories. Where McCandless wrote the single word "caribou" at No. 105, Krakauer reported that "On August 10, he (McCandless) saw a caribou but didn't get a shot off.''

The date is a guess based on the numbers in McCandless' so-called journal. There is not even that thin thread to support the observation that McCandless "saw a caribou, but didn't get a shot off.''

At No. 92 in the journal, McCandless wrote the two words "Dr. Zhivago." From that brief entry, Krakauer concluded "(McCandless) had just finished reading 'Doctor Zhivago' ... 'Doctor Zhivago' was the last book Chris McCandless would ever read."

If the numbers in McCandless' journal represent days at the bus, he appears to have lived for almost three weeks after writing "Dr. Zhivago" in the journal. It is possible he read no other books in that time. It is equally possible he read every book in the bus after that. There is no way of knowing.

"Into the Wild" is full of assumptions like this about McCandless' time in Alaska. It is as if the late writer Ernest Hemingway found a 430-word journal written by Nick Adams containing the words "railroad," "fish," "forest fire," "camp" and a few others -- and from that wrote "Big Two-Hearted River" as the true story of Adams' biggest fishing adventure.

Critique of Mortenson

Hemingway didn't do that. He sold Big Two-Hearted River as fiction. Krakauer, on the other hand, appears to have done exactly what he accused author Greg Mortenson of doing in 2011: making up a story and selling it as a true account.

Krakauer in 2011 attacked Mortenson's mega-bestselling book "Three Cups of Tea" as "an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact." The Alaska section of "Into the Wild" appears to fit that description well.

ADN made no attempt to fact check the sections of "Into the Wild" dealing with McCandless' life Outside before his death in Alaska, but a fact check of the Alaska section of the book -- a book now taught in classrooms across America as "the true story of Chris McCandless" -- makes it clear the Alaska section of the book sprang largely from Krakauer's imagination.

From the start, the author had few facts to work with. He cherry-picked some of those, ignored others, and made things up to fill in the gaps between the few words McCandless recorded in what averages out to a four-word-per day journal.

• One of the book's key sources says he wouldn't have said what Krakauer reported he said, and National Weather Service records appear to support the source's claim.

• Photos in the McCandless family book contradict some claims made in the Krakauer book.

• A Fairbanks adventurer who's now a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks supplied some of the books with underlines found in the bus with McCandless' body and later used by Krakauer to help define McCandless' thinking at the bus. Krakauer was told the books weren't McCandless', but he ignored the information.

• Claims attributed to McCandless' journal differ from what is in the journal itself.

McCandless' time in Alaska is at the heart of Krakauer's 1996 bestseller. And the Alaska story revolves around McCandless' journal.

The journal contains approximately 430 words, 130 numbers, nine asterisks and a handful of symbols. Other than this, all Krakauer had to go on was several rolls of film found with the young man's body and a rambling, cliche-filled, 103-word diatribe carved into plywood in which McCandless claimed to be "Alexander Supertramp" off on a "climatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage."

McCandless' journal contains no descriptions of what he did at or around the bus. About a quarter of the 430 words in the journal are simply the names of animals: squirrel, ptarmigan, porcupine, bear, moose. Some of what "Into the Wild" attributes to the journal doesn't exist.

Krakauer claims McCandless "noted in his journal that it rained for a week straight."

The journal contains no such note. Krakauer claimed it was this period of rain that caused flooding and prevented McCandless from crossing the Teklanika River and walking to safety. Weather records for nearby Denali National Park and Preserve show no heavy rains for what Krakauer specifies as the period of time in question.

Numbers and dates

It could be Krakauer has the dates wrong. The journal contains none. It is merely numbered from 1 to 113. The dates used in "Into the Wild" are another Krakauer guess.

The only real detail in the journal comes after McCandless writes "Moose!" at No. 43.

What follows from there until 50 is a workmanlike description of dismembering the animal he shot and killed out of season. Almost a third of the words in the journal come over the course of what appear to be the seven days after the moose dies.

No. 44 reads "butchering extremely difficult; fly & mosquito hordes; remove intestines, liver, kidneys, one lung, steaks; get hindquarter & leg to stream." No. 45 reads "remove heart & other lung; two front legs & head; get rest to stream; near cave; try to protect with smoker."

After losing most of the moose to bugs and bad weather, McCandless draws only lines in his journal from 51 to 57. At 67, he adds "Depart Bus."

He does not say where he is going or why. "Into the Wild" says McCandless planned to hike back to civilization but was stopped by a "full flood" at the Teklanika, which has no bridge and must be forded.

What flood?

The McCandless family book has a picture of the Teklanika. It is nowhere near full flood. The book contains more than two dozen other photos, but the entire catalog of photos from McCandless' camera have never seen the light of day.

What else they might show is unknown.

The family book and journal do show McCandless was out of the bus for a significant period of time, getting snowed on and living in a crappy pup tent.

His photos also show he started down a snowmachine-packed trail to explore the Stampede country. In his days out of the bus, he likely followed a similarly packed trail to several cabins, at least one of which had food that might have helped keep him alive for months.

Three cabins -- two privately owned and one a property of the National Park Service -- were broken into while McCandless was at the bus. It had never happened before. It has not happened since.

In "Into the Wild," Krakauer dismissed the break-ins, saying that if McCandless had done it "it's difficult to imagine him destroying the buildings without his boasting of the deed in his diary."

The diary contains no boasting of anything. And Krakauer fails to mention the only trail in the area at the time led to the cabins. A man setting off to explore the country around the bus would almost invariably follow a trail, as McCandless clearly did on his way to the bus, because it makes hiking easier.

Krakauer knew McCandless followed a snowmachine trail to the bus that would have looked the same as the snowmachine trail branching south to the cabins just before reaching the bus.

Krakauer wrote an introduction for the McCandless' family book. The introduction says, the "pictures yielded a wealth of crucial information." Those photos show McCandless on the snowmachine trail.

"Into the Wild" does not identify the mushrooms McCandless ate, despite the fact that the danger of eating wild mushrooms is widely known.

"Into the Wild" does not mention the journal's reference to "Many Mushrooms," or "DREAM" or the large, dark arrows connecting the two. The book's only reference to mushrooms is this:

"In the last three weeks of July, (McCandless) killed 35 squirrels, four spruce grouse (a bird of which the journal makes no mention, but which is identifiable in some of the photos), five jays and woodpeckers, and two frogs, of which he supplements with wild potatoes, wild rhubarb, various species of berries, and large numbers of mushrooms."

The photos published to date document all of those foods, along with providing self-portraits of McCandless looking slightly crazed. In one, he waves a machete against the sky. In others, he poses wild-eyed with dead porcupines.

The sources Krakauer used to detail McCandless' Alaska movements are few.

'A little Hollywood ... going on'

The main source -- Jim Gallien -- picked McCandless up hitchhiking along the George Parks Highway in late April and left him at the Stampede Road. Gallien told ADN he didn't and wouldn't have said a key part of what Krakauer reported he said.

In "Into the Wild," Kraukauer claims McCandless told Gallien of fears of water while driving over the "swift current" of the Nenana River. The claim is a setup to explain why McCandless might have later turned back from the Teklanika instead of fording it and hiking to safety.

"There was a little Hollywood ... going on in there," is how Gallien describes the book.

Gallien said McCandless wouldn't have seen a "swift current" on the Nenana because the river was frozen. National Weather Service records appear to back him up, as do records for the Nenana Ice Classic, a lottery tied to the ice going out on the Tanana River in Nenana. It went out May 14 that year. McCandless is believed to have ridden up the highway near the end of April.

McCandless' photos show him crossing an iced-over Teklanika River with some open channels of water. At No. 10 in his journal, he wrote "snowed in." His photos show a cheap, nylon pup tent buried under snow. Weather records indicate 2.5 inches of snow in the area on May 8 and another 6 inches on May 9.

But there was also a later snowstorm that brought 4.5 inches of new snow to Denali Park on May 16 and another 6.8 inches the next day. If that storm represents the "snowed in" day, it's possible McCandless didn't start down the road until as late as May 6.

Or the second storm could have come at No. 14 when McCandless wrote the lone word "misery" for the day. Either way, it would seem he was well into his journey before ice out on the Nenana River, and thus, as Gallien noted, there would be no swift water crossed on bridges over the highway.

Underlined passages in books

Trying to reconcile McCandless' journal with weather records for the area makes it clear just how difficult it is to draw any solid conclusions about McCandless' Alaska adventure, though Krakauer drew many.

"Into the Wild" claims that when Gallien and McCandless parted ways, "the heaviest item in McCandless's half-full backpack was his library: nine or 10 paper-bound books, most of which had been given to him by Jan Burres in Niland (California)."

With so little information in the journal on which to shape a portrait of the wilderness McCandless, Krakauer used underlined passages from various books to intimate what McCandless was thinking and doing at the bus.

But Jeff Apple Benowitz, now a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and once a young adventurer himself, says he is the one who left many of the books in question in the bus. The underline could have come from anyone. Benowitz told Krakauer this only to be rebuffed.

"When Jon did his first book tour and came to Fairbanks, I met with him ... and told him I left a bunch of books at the bus the January before McCandless walked in," Benowitz told ADN. "He seemed far more interested in female company than the truth."

Krakauer drew large conclusions from marks in "Doctor Zhivago" that Krakauer attributed to McCandless.

"McCandless starred and bracketed (one) paragraph and circled 'refuge in nature' in black ink," Krakauer wrote. "Next to 'And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an ushered happiness is not happiness. ... And this was most vexing of all,' he noted, 'HAPPINESS IS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.'"

"Into the Wild" concluded this "can be interpreted to mean that (McCandless) was ready, perhaps, to shed a little of the armor that he wore around his heart, that upon returning to civilization, he intended to abandon the life of a solitary vagabond, stop running so hard from intimacy, and become a member of the human community."

The reality is that the marks and words in "Doctor Zhivago" could be read to mean almost anything, and the stars and brackets could have been put there by anyone.

'Went to hell'

Leaps to conclusions and holes in reporting plague all of Krakauer's work in the Alaska selection of "Into the Wild." Two days after "Dr. Zhivago," Krakauer claims McCandless' "physical condition suddenly went to hell. By Aug. 19, he was dead."

But if the numbers in the journal are actually days (and there's really no telling for sure what they are), the journal indicates McCandless was up and out of the bus four days after his condition "went to hell" at 94.

McCandless wrote "4 squirrel, two baby ptarmigan" at 98, and two squirrel at 99. He photographed many such dead animals. Between the journal and the photos, the one reasonable conclusion that can be reached is that when McCandless wrote moose, squirrel, bird, duck or frog in his journal it was because he had killed them.

At 104 through 107 -- what is assumed to be 10 days after his condition went to hell" -- he wrote "Missed Bear!", "5 Squirrel, Caribou*," "Ptarmigan,'' and "Beautiful Blueberries."

A note McCandless left pasted to the bus pleading for help if anyone came by said he was "out collecting blueberries nearby." It is dated "August ?" McCandless might have been in bad shape by then, but he was clearly ambulatory.

What happened after that note was written no one knows. McCandless claimed in the note to be "injured'' as well as "weak.'' A later autopsy found no significant injuries.

About all that can truly be said of what was going on with McCandless at the bus is that nobody knows. Krakauer almost admitted as much in "Into the Wild" when he wrote his "sense of Chris McCandless' intentions comes, too, from a more personal perspective."

The Alaska section of "Into the Wild" is all about intentions. It is Krakauer's view of the intentions of a dead man who left no significant record of his Alaska adventures and who the author never interviewed. It is something invented by imagination.

"Something invented by the imagination" is the phrase the Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses to describe fiction. Though taught in some American schools as a true story, there are study guides that describe it as a "novel."

That might be closer to the truth. The dictionary defines a novel as "a fictitious prose narrative of book length."

In a teacher's guide, the publisher of the "Into the Wild" -- Random House -- says one of the things teachers and students should ponder is this: "Does the truth matter?" It is the question that should have been asked about "Into the Wild" long ago.

CORRECTION: This story was corrected on Jan. 10, 2015 to clarify that the Nenana Ice Classic actually tracks breakup on the Tanana River near where it joins the Nenana River at the roadside community of the Nenana.

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com.

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments
Sponsored