The explanation for how a now infamous young man named Chris McCandless came to die in the Alaska wilderness more than 20 years ago has apparently been found at last behind Door No. 3 by celebrity author Jon Krakauer.
Krakauer, of course, built his reputation on the book "Into the Wild," which made McCandless into a modern-day hero wandering the West in the search of the meaning of life. The book was actually as much about Krakauer wandering the world searching for the meaning of life as about McCandless, but the dead wanderer ended up as the big star.
As a character, Krakauer himself became more of a bit player like Friar Laurence in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Krakauer is the thinner, all-knowing character in this tale of a tragic love affair between our hero and the alluring Alaska wilderness.
"Two years he walks the Earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom," McCandless scratched into a sheet of plywood attached to his last home in a dirty, old abandoned bus along the Stampede Trail not far off the George Parks Highway east of the coal-mining community of Healy. "An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escape from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, 'cause 'the West is the best.' And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white north. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild."
This actually was among McCandless' most cogent observations on life. Krakauer fixated on the "aesthetic voyager" part and started shaping a book around it. McCandless was transformed from a foolish, dead cheechako into a heroic figure who died tragically, as heroes must.
What kind of book would Krakauer have if McCandless merely wandered off into the wilderness and starved to death like some sort of ignorant city kid unprepared? That's not tragic. That's merely sad. No best seller there.
Let's make (up) a deal!
And obviously McCandless starved to death. That's what the autopsy concluded, but Krakauer in the original version of "Into the Wild" found a tragic reason for the starvation -- the killer seeds behind Door No. 1.
These were the seeds of the "wild potato plant" that poisoned McCandless in the first printing of "Into the Wild." Dr. Thomas Clausen at the University of Alaska Fairbanks quickly ruled out the seeds as poisonous.
Enter the moldy seeds behind Door No. 2. Mold on the seeds became Krakauer's poison of the moment when his book was called into question as fictional in 2007.
"It turned out — I've learned, since writing the book, those seeds were moldy," he told none other than Oprah Winfrey while out promoting the movie "Into the Wild." "And this mold created a poison that doesn't actually kill you outright, it keeps you from digesting food. So even though he was still eating food, he couldn't make use of it. And that — so he starved to death because he ate these moldy seeds."
The mold has also since been debunked. For those who are interested in the minutiae, Ron Lamonthe, a professor at Lesley University and a documentary filmmaker discusses all of this in great detail.
Which brings this to what is behind Door No. 3: ODAP, the poison du jour, full name Oxalyldiaminopropionic acid.
It's all laid out by "The New Yorker" in a piece titled simply, "How Chris McCandless Died." This is written, unsurprisingly, by Krakauer. He starts off by pimping his book, conceding his first little mistake with the deadly seeds, skips over the mold, and finally gets to the point:
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. But last December, a writer named Ronald Hamilton posted a paper on the Internet that brings fascinating new facts to the discussion. Hamilton, it turns out, has discovered hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless's death. To appreciate the brilliance of Hamilton's investigative work, some backstory is helpful.
The diary and photographs recovered with McCandless's body indicated that, beginning on June 24, 1992, the roots of the Hedysarum alpinum plant became a staple of his daily diet.
Stop right there. This is a classic Krakauerism and the fundamental problem with the book "Into the Wild." The author is prone to wild conjecture. There is little evidence McCandless was eating roots, let along making them "a staple of his daily diet." When Chip Brown reported the original story in 1993 for the New Yorker (ironically enough), his only observation of roots was this: "...The fact that he (McCandless) may have been eating seeds and not roots is itself a sign of his desperate hunger." Brown notes that McCandless's sparse journal, if the document can be even called that, and the comments McCandless made in the margins of some books found in the bus put squirrels, gold birds, ducks, moose, wolves, berries and seeds onto the table, but not roots.
There are photographs of some roots in photos from film recovered after McCandless's death, but there is no evidence whatsoever to support Krakauer's flying leap to the conclusion that the roots of what most Alaskans know as sweetvetch became "a staple" of McCandless's diet. The fact is, nobody knows exactly what McCandless was eating.
'Fault of potato seed'
As to his consumption of seeds, there is also little known. The journal says this: "78: Missed wolf. Ate potato seeds and many berries coming. 89: Many mushrooms. Dream. 94: Woodpecker. Fog. Extremely weak. Fault of potato seed. Much trouble just to stand up."
Day 89 is now strangely missing from the journal as reported on the Chris McCandless website set up to promote Krakauer's book and the Sean Penn movie of the same name. The site does, however, contain some actual photos of portions of the journal. They are worth viewing just to see the scant evidence on which Krakauer, and even Brown, based some of their reporting.
The days are numbers with a circle around them. Day 3 says "Denali Day," from which Brown deduced that "past the river, the trail gained a couple of hundred feet of elevation, and it afforded Chris a glimpse of the roof of North America – his 'Denali Day.'"
Brown's conclusions based on shards of evidence pale compared to those of Krakauer. From the tiny amount of evidence available, including a photo of a bag of seeds found on film among McCandless's personal effects, Krakauer deduces that McCandless ate enough seeds to poison himself, and then somehow correctly diagnosed this poisoning, though McCandless had no information on which to base a reasonable conclusion that any sickness was the "fault of potato seed."
McCandless did have an Alaska plant book describing how the Athabascan Indians have harvested and eaten sweetvetch roots for centuries. There is no mention of anyone eating the seeds, which would lead to the obvious conclusion they are not very tasty. Because if they were tasty enough to tempt someone to eat enough to poison himself, that fact would surely be noted in Athabascan oral history.
An intelligent reader familiar with life in the wild might here also pause to ponder why McCandless would even be chowing down on seeds when tasty berries were appearing on the scene, but let's ignore that and move on to more of Krakauer's Hamilton-fueled speculation.
Hamilton has a theory about the seeds based on what he says is a historic account of efforts by the Nazis to poison Jews in Romania. As Krakauer writes:
In 1942, as a macabre experiment, an officer at Vapniarca started feeding the Jewish inmates bread made from seeds of the grass pea, Lathyrus sativus, a common legume that has been known since the time of Hippocrates to be toxic.
"Very quickly," Hamilton writes in "The Silent Fire," a Jewish doctor and inmate at the camp, Dr. Arthur Kessler, understood what this implied, particularly when within months, hundreds of the young male inmates of the camp began limping, and had begun to use sticks as crutches to propel themselves about.
Let's stop right there again, and let's ignore the fact that Clausen, the chemist who debunked Krakauer's earlier poisoning theories, says that he is equally skeptical of this one. Let's just put our noses to work.
The Nazis, who were intentionally trying to poison Jews, found this poison disabled them "within months," and yet it felled McCandless in just 16 days? Does this even pass the most basic smell test?
No one has any evidence McCandless was at the bus eating the seeds before he got sick, though Krakauer tries to suggest the young man -- who some want to believe was a modern-day Thoreau -- was in the bus chowing down on seeds for more than two weeks.
"When I visited the bus in July, 1993, wild potato plants were growing everywhere I looked in the surrounding taiga," Krakauer writes. "I filled a one-gallon bag with more than a pound of seeds in less than thirty minutes."
Sadly, he doesn't mention tasting any. This would be useful information since Krakauer himself observes McCandless was at this time surviving "on a marginal diet of squirrels, porcupines, small birds, mushrooms, roots, and berries." I've personally eaten "squirrels, porcupines, small birds, mushrooms and berries," and all of them were tastier than any grasses or seeds I've tried chewing on. Although I do admit I've never tried Hedysarum alpinum.
Is it possible McCandless was gobbling these seeds like popcorn? Yes, maybe. Is it possible he simply tried a handful of seeds again before Day 94 and got as sick as the Richardson expedition reportedly did from the tubers in the early 1800s? Possibly.
And what about those mushrooms? There are plenty of poisonous mushrooms in Alaska. Could he have eaten those and become weak? Again, it's possibile.
Now ask yourself this: Would it make more sense for someone to tie their illness to something they've been eating daily for more than two weeks, or to something new that had been eaten in the last 24 or 48 hours? I don't know about you, but if I believe I'm sick from something I've eaten, I tend to blame the recent and unusual and not the everyday.
Is it possible McCandless gathered some seeds on Day 78, left them stored in a plastic bag, and then decided to try them on a food-short Day 93 only to get sick on Day 94? Certainly it's possible.
But all that is really known for sure is that on Day 94 McCandless reported "Woodpecker. Fog. Extremely weak. Fault of potato seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great jeopardy."
Good-luck deciphering that. The worst Sarah Palin text message is clear by comparison.
Still, there is evidence McCandless did later stand up, if his journal is to be believed. It reports: "104: Missed bear! 105: Five squirrel. Caribou. 107: Beautiful berries."
He might have recorded five squirrels inside the bus, but definitely not a caribou. He had to go out in the surrounding forest to spot it. Brown wrote that "on Day 105, (McCandless) killed five squirrels and saw a caribou.'' I admit to almost making the same mistake. It is a reasonable presumption, but a presumption nonetheless.
The McCandless stories has been written in presumptions. It is so easy to read so much into so little. Krakauer is a master at it. What jumps out now, though, is what is not in the journal. There is no mention of McCandless limping or needing to use a stick as a crutch to get around, as was the case for the poor victims at Vapniarca.
And then, of course, there is the sad, second-to-last note McCandless wrote, when he once again became a man of more than a few words:
"S.O.S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. 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."
He mentions being "near death" and weak, as a normally starving man would be. He mentions being "too weak to hike out of here," which suggests he is capable of hiking, but just doesn't think he can go the 20-mile distance to the Parks Highway. He mentions being "injured," but not sick.
And, of course, he has to be ambulatory to go "out collecting berries," all of which seems glaringly at odds with the description of Vapniarca victims provided by Hamilton:
...Once the (poisoning) effects had begun, there was simply no way to reverse them.... The disease is called, simply, neurolathyrism, or more commonly, "lathyrism." ... (Dr.) Kessler, who ... initially recognized the sinister experiment that had been undertaken at Vapniarca, was one of those who escaped death during those terrible times. He retired to Israel once the war had ended and there established a clinic to care for, study, and attempt to treat the numerous victims of lathyrism from Vapniarca, many of whom had also relocated in Israel.
So, years after the war the victims of Vapniarca were still suffering from the irreversible effects of ODAP poisoning, yet any mention of such symptoms disappears from McCandless' journal after Day 94?
Not once over the course of the next 19 days does McCandless report he is disabled. He does write that he is "too weak to walk out," but not too weak to walk. There is no further mention of difficulties standing up or limping or of making a crutch to help himself get around. And in the last of the many photographs he took of himself, he stands fully upright holding his very last note.
"I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD," it says. "GOODBYE AND GOD BLESS ALL!"
Don't you think he would have wanted to warn the world if he'd been poisoned to death by those seeds? Or did he somehow sense Krakauer would come along to do that?
"Hamilton's 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," the author nobly observes in the last paragraph of his latest tome.
The email lines are open folks. Please send in all your accounts of backcountry foragers poisoned to death by sweetvetch in Alaska in the past 25 years.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com
Alaska Dispatch Publishing