- Ken Ilgunas
Chris McCandless from Another Alaska Park Ranger’s Perspective
[Years after this was entry was published, I adapted and developed it into a tiny book, The McCandless Mecca, which is available on Amazon for $3.]
Several years ago, Pete Christian—a park ranger and my former boss at the Gates of the Arctic National Park—wrote the popular essay, “Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger’s Perspective,” about the wandering youth whose death in the Alaskan wild was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild, and Sean Penn’s film adaptation of the same name.
Pete enjoyed the book, but had little respect for McCandless, calling him suicidal, mentally ill, and his journey, “stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.” Because Pete’s position as an Alaskan park ranger required him to routinely deal with headlong McCandless types, and because he, too, as a young man, wanted to “live a free life in the Alaska wild,” he’s been regarded as a credible authority on, what he calls, the “McCandless Phenomenon”—when “[p]eople, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent.”
Whether Pete wanted it to be or not, his denunciation has become the quintessential anti-McCandless essay. It’s been cited hundreds of times by those who are offended with McCandless’ motivations and who consider McCandless’ apologists to be wrongheaded hero-worshippers. In an interview in which Pete’s views are mentioned, Sean Penn had this to say:
No, I don’t object to a person who wears a brown shirt and a patch on their shoulder and follows instructions all day either. I’m not all that interested in what the park rangers have to say. I accept that there’s an automatic instinct to judge those you envy and who have more courage than you do, and I think that while he (the ranger) rides around in his four-wheeler on a CB radio getting fat, Chris McCandless has spent 113 days fucking alone in the most unforgiving wilderness that God ever created.
Penn’s a bit harsh. Because I know Pete, I can attest that Pete is neither fat nor does he ride around on a four-wheeler with a CB all day. Pete was a backcountry ranger for years, going on the sort of patrols I’ve been embarking on for the past two summers. Now, he’s a ranger-pilot. Before I go any further, I should say that Pete is a really good guy. He and his family were my only neighbors at the ranger station in Coldfoot, and—if it wasn’t for him—I never would have gotten such an amazing job that allowed me to explore the Gates or pay off my student debt.
But with that said, I think Pete is very, very wrong.
It should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the book and movie. I think it’s even fair to say that McCandless and I are, in some sense, kindred spirits. So naturally I can’t help but take Pete’s views personally because, when he calls McCandless stupid, insane, and suicidal, he’s inadvertently calling me these things, too.
But it’s not just Pete’s views. It’s all the people—and there are a lot of them—who agree with Pete. And whenever I speak to one of them, I think to myself, “they just don’t get it.”
Because I am in the unique position as both an Alaskan park ranger and a person who is, in many ways, like Chris McCandless, I feel I can speak with some authority on the subject.
Pete diagnoses McCandless as a suicidal lunatic
When asserting that McCandless was suicidal and “suffering from mental illness,” Pete seems to have disregarded some essential facts.
McCandless, of course, did not commit suicide. He starved to death, accidentally poisoned himself, or a combination of the two. It’s obvious, though, that Pete is not suggesting that McCandless literally killed himself. Rather, Pete implies that McCandless’ decision to come to Alaska “unprepared” and “unskilled” was a suicidal act in itself.
I am not arguing that McCandless was prepared and skilled. McCandless’s inability to preserve the moose meat or properly scout the river makes it very clear that he was unprepared. But unpreparedness does not make someone suicidal. The fact that McCandless tried to cross the Teklanika River and leave the wild in July after three months in the bush should dispel any such notion that he wanted to die in the bus.
Moreover, Pete seems to wrongly associate reckless behavior with suicidal behavior. And this is, I believe, the central defect of his argument. McCandless was, without question, reckless. But shall we presume that all reckless people are suicidal? McCandless, like his adventuring forbears, beheld characteristics unique to explorers, not suicides. Was Heyerdahl suicidal for wanting to cross the Pacific in a wooden raft? Were Hilary and Norgay suicidal for climbing Everest when every capillary and muscle pleaded that they descend? Was Robert Falcon Scott, who died en route to the South Pole, and the millions of adventurers before and after him—who died in pursuit of a dream—just crazy and suicidal?
Pete begins his essay by juxtaposing his Alaskan experiences with McCandless’, insisting that they both wished to “live a free life in the Alaska wild,” but differed because “I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die.”
It’s true that they both wished to live in Alaska, but this is where the similarities end. McCandless and Pete wanted very different things. McCandless wanted a brief, raw, primeval experience in the Alaska wild. He wanted a challenge that would push his limits. I can’t say exactly what Pete wanted, but by no means, did he—at least in comparison to McCandless—“live a free life in the Alaska wild.”
What does it mean to “live a free life in the Alaska wild”? A “free life” can mean a lot of things. Most people—with Alaska in mind—think of a free life as one spent in a remote cabin off the grid, where a man can hunt, fish, and grow his own food—a place where there’s no clock to punch, no forms to fill out, and no one to answer to.
Let me explain a few things about a park ranger’s life in the “Alaska wild.” We live in small Alaskan villages where we’re required to wear a uniform and work 40 hours a week. We live in newly-built, low-cost government housing that includes washers, dryers, fully-functional kitchens, heat, solar panels, and even flat-screened televisions. Backcountry rangers go on eight-day wilderness patrols, but our routes are determined largely by supervisors. We have to call the ranger station every morning on a satellite phone to tell them where we are and where we’re headed. We’re even forced to shave in the field. Before the season begins, we have 3-4 weeks of training. Permanent employees get pensions, health insurance plans, and early retirements. One doesn’t need to go all the way up to Alaska to live this sort of “free life.” You can live this sort of life anywhere in the lower-48.
As for wilderness excursions in the Alaskan wild, I’ve learned that most anyone can survive in the wild. You can experience the Alaskan wild on a sightseeing flight. You can hire a professional guide. You can bring maps, a GPS, locator devices, and every precautionary device imaginable. You can even become an Alaskan park ranger to get a watered-down version of “a free life in the Alaska wild.” While these people may very well be in the “Alaskan wild,” their experiences are anything but “wild.”
Critics call McCandless stupid for not bringing a map, extra food, and proper gear, as if he—bewilderingly—didn’t have the foresight to think that he’d need these things. Depriving himself of these conveniences was deliberate. McCandless knew that to travel with excessive technology is—sometimes—to not travel at all. Wilderness sage, Aldo Leopold, says:
The American sportsman is puzzled… Bigger and better gadgets are good for industry, so why not for outdoor recreation? It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic…; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh.
McCandless hoped to peel off the soft layers of civilization, and harden himself in more austere and taxing conditions. He wanted to see the world through the eyes of the first Alaskan explorer who didn’t carry a map, GPS, or satellite phone. He didn’t want have to squeeze his adventure into two weeks of paid vacation. He didn’t want to have to come back to jobs and bosses and taxes. McCandless wanted a test, a challenge, and—most of all—to immerse himself in nature, that one last refuge of the real in a paved-over, smoggy-skyed century.
The “McCandless Phenomenon”
Pete says the “McCandless Phenomenon” occurs when “[p]eople, nearly always young men, come to Alaska to challenge themselves against an unforgiving wilderness landscape where convenience of access and possibility of rescue are practically nonexistent.”
When Pete first heard about me (years before I got the job as a ranger), he was probably reminded of the “McCandless Phenomenon.” That’s because I was one of these young men. In the Summer of ’05, I drove up to a truck stop (near Pete’s ranger station) in Coldfoot, Alaska with my friend Paul to clean motel rooms. A week after I arrived, we hiked into the Gates of the Arctic National Park to climb Blue Cloud—a 6,000-foot mountain, ten miles from the road, surrounded by nothing but untrammeled, howling wilderness.
Paul joined me for the first few miles, but turned back when his feet began to blister, leaving me in treeless rolling green hills with a cluster of stone-gray mountaintops in the distance. I was alone in the Alaskan wild. And this was the first real hike of my life. Hours later, I’d remember that Paul had left with the compass, matches, and water-filter in his backpack. I hauled a giant sleeping bag, a three-person tent, and a cumbersome camcorder mile after miserable mile. I’d scream at large rocks, thinking they were grizzlies. On the mountain, a band of Dall Sheep walked in front of my passageway. I threw rocks and yelled at them, worried where they’d put those horns if I came any closer. They stared back at me, bewildered, as I traversed to the other side of the mountain.
After miles of swamps, tussocks, scree slopes, rain, and forest fire haze, I made it to the top. I ate the snow atop Blue Cloud and rationed my sandwiches and granola bars as best I could.
The descent was so steep I had to keep my butt and back against the mountain as I carefully lowered each foot into piles of scree that jingled down the mountain like silver dollars. I ripped a hole in the seat of my pants and the bottom of my backpack split open. I lost the map that was in my back pocket.
Once I got off the mountain, I collapsed and slept for half an hour on a pile of rocks. Upon waking up, I wasn’t sure where I was. Looking across the country, I came close to tears, thinking that this might be it for me. I was only ten miles from the road, but I had no idea where the road was.
Paul felt guilty for leaving me, so he got down on his knees and—for the first time in years—prayed. He had driven back to the spot we started from eight hours after we parted ways. I wasn’t there, so he came back eight hours later, and another eight hours after that. I had been walking for over 28 hours straight.
Ranger Pete heard about me when fellow coworkers began conjecturing what carnivorous animal I was inside of. He interviewed Paul to find out what gear I had, whether I had any suicidal tendencies, and what route I may have taken. Pete planned to search for me in his plane, but forest fires prevented him from taking off.
After figuring out where I was, I finally made it back to the road, haggard, tired, and dragging feet that would be covered with blisters for the next few days.
I came back from that mountain slightly different. I didn’t know it then, but that climb would help me define who I was. It would become a precedent—a reminder that I can do anything I set my heart to. Because of that climb, I could go on two cross-country hitchhikes. I could embark on a two-month long canoe voyage. I could live in a van to afford grad school. I could resist melting into mediocrity. And while I could have wound up dead and missing on that mountain, that was no one’s business but my own.
Supposedly, having such experiences is irresponsible. Supposedly, people like McCandless and I are suicidal for taking a risk or pursuing emotional experiences—as old as mankind—that our suburban upbringings could not give us. Supposedly, it’s insane to go into the wild without the latest, greatest technology and every possible electronical gadget imaginable.
I have a different definition of the “McCandless Phenomenon.” I can’t speak directly of Pete, but I can speak of many Alaskans. Many Alaskans—as Pete points out—come to Alaska to reinvent themselves in a rugged landscape, yet few make it past Fairbanks and Anchorage. Despite compromised goals and sorry attempts to live the lives they imagined, these Alaskans—with an electric car starter in one hand and bag of Taco Bell takeout in the other—still proudly proclaim they’re “Alaskan,” lavishing themselves with connotations they don’t deserve—connotations like self-reliance, independence, and a fierce relationship with nature. Even the fattest and laziest among them think they’re expert outdoorsmen.
These people are your standard McCandless-haters. They call him a moron or a stupid kid or a suicide, and they may not realize it, but they hate McCandless—not because he was a foolhardy youth, but because he, unlike them, followed through with his dreams. He didn’t end his journey like they did. He lived alone, killed his moose, and almost made it out alive. The “McCandless Phenomenon” is envy.
Pete’s argument is not without value. It’s no mystery why it’s so popular. It’s well-written, most of it is well-reasoned, and Pete makes many legitimate points. For one, McCandless illegally killed a moose and was unable to preserve the meat. While McCandless may have imagined himself in a different century when there were no restrictions on taking the lives of abounding wildlife, clearly, if everyone disregarded hunting regulations—even for high-minded reasons—we’d have no moose, grizzlies, caribou, or wolves.
Plus, as Pete points out, McCandless lived in a bus, which hardly conjures the image of a wild experience in Alaska. This is a valid point, and one I reluctantly forgive McCandless for because the surrounding terrain, the raging Teklanika, and his struggle to survive makes up for the fact that he settled for a shelter that wasn’t in accord with his original idea of life in the wild.
One could also point to the incredible pain McCandless put his family through by cutting off ties with them so he could pursue his dream.
We can use many words to describe McCandless, but “stupid,” “insane” or “suicidal” shouldn’t be among them. To ridicule McCandless for pursuing his dream—however illogical you may think his was—is to ridicule all dreams. It’s to ridicule the ancient voyages, expeditions across continents, the quest for civil rights, a colony’s fight for independence, and dreams of leaping across distant planets.
There are a thousand excuses not to pursue our dreams. We may have jobs, families, bills and obligations. We have fears and insecurities. We might think: What if it doesn’t turn out the way I expected? What if I find out I can’t do it? What if I die?
McCandless, I’m sure, asked these same questions. And that which distinguishes him from those who hate him is the fact that he had the courage to live a full life before a long one.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s never too late to pursue our dreams. Tomorrow, the twenty-something barista who always wanted to own her own café is going to turn 40. Tomorrow, the runner who wished he’d run a marathon will become paralyzed in a car accident. Tomorrow, you’ll die. Let us not live in fear of death, but in fear of not having ever lived.