Into The Wild Essay
A long time ago, when I first became aware of
the fact that someone had died alone in a bus only twenty miles from
a state maintained road, I, like many Alaskans, was inclined to
believe he must have been not all there. A lot of that had to do
with my limited understanding of the story, and the way it was told
When dless died I was only six years old. As a young boy growing up in Alaska, I always had plenty of opportunity to get my fill of the great outdoors. In fact, it was heavily encouraged by my family, my friends, my schools etc. In school we were required to read books like My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.
My parents property backs up to a large track of mostly undeveloped private land, beyond which is nothing but State land: some lakes, swamps, and then an entire mountain range. By the time I was in seventh grade, my parents were allowing me to go off into those woods with some of my friends and camp on our own.
Those first trips were full of mistakes. We would forget important things, and we would try and carry far too much in our packs. We had no good gear, and we had no concept of lightweight backpacking. Only one of us had ever been in the scouts, and (no offense Olin) but I don’t think he learned much there. Everything we learned we were either taught by our fathers, or we learned it the hard way.
By the time I was sixteen, I’d spent quite a bit of time out in the woods, and I’d learned how to improvise when necessary. Once, against the wishes of my parents, I took my Toyota pickup to the Knik Glacier: an eighteen mile offroad adventure up the Knik River from where the trail leaves the road. It was the middle of winter and I was totally underprepared. I had a .22 rifle to shoot birds with, but I hadn’t brought a knife, or even a lighter.
I managed to get the truck stuck and me and my friend Ben ended up spending a night out by the glacier while our friend on a four-wheeler went back for help. Help didn’t arrive until the next day though. We shot some spruce hens and gutted them with a pair of electrical dykes. We managed to get a fire going by pouring the powder from some .22 shells into some cardboard and arcing the truck battery across it with a wrench.
Learning from that mistake and countless others though, with the help of my family and friends, I managed to make it to adulthood in one piece. I learned by a gradual process of sticking my hand into darn near each and every fire, to learn that it burned me. What I’m sure must have been a full squadron of guardian angles kept me safe.
So by the time I heard about McCandless’ story when I worked for the Alaska Natural History Association at the book store at Independence Mine State Historical Park in 2004, I was pretty confident in my abilities. I couldn’t help but compare myself to him, and think that I could have done it better. Looking back now though, I realize that’s not fair.
Maybe I could have done better than Chris, maybe I would have been able to succeed where he failed. I had every advantage though. Chris was not born and raised in Alaska. That wasn’t his fault though. Maybe he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been. Maybe he didn’t have the right gear, or the right skills. Those things are true to a degree as well.
The realization I’ve come to though, in the last few years, is that Chris is a lot more like me than I would have admitted back when I first heard about him. He had a desire to explore, and experience nature in it’s raw form. He didn’t have the opportunity to gradually make his mistakes and learn his lessons over the course of a lifetime when it came to the Alaskan wilderness, he had to learn on the fly.
Any mistakes that Chris made, were understandable given his inexperience. The difference between him and I (and for that matter most Alaskan outdoorsmen) is that our stupid mistakes never caught up with us. That’s not because we are better people than Chris, or because we were smarter than him. It’s because we got lucky. Chris unfortunately was not as lucky and that’s a tragedy.
Whether they’ll admit it or not, most of the Alaskans I know who spend any time at all in the sticks have done something really stupid at one point or another, and they’re lucky to be alive. Instead of condemning those who aren’t as blessed as us, we should be thanking God that we we’re still here with our families.
I knew a guy in high school that died when he was struck by hockey puck during a game. It hit him square in the chest, stopped his heart and he was dead. Hockey is a risky game. I never heard anyone say “what an idiot that guy is, he should have known better than to play hockey. It’s a risky sport.” Why not? Because under normal circumstances people understand the idea that our lives involve risk, and that if something happens we’re still suppose to be compassionate and understanding.
When Claire Ackermann drowned trying to cross the Teklanika river in 2010 the news sites were filled with comments about how “she deserved it” for trying to hike to the bus. There were comments about the gene pool being cleansed. That’s terrible? Claire was experienced in the outdoors. She made a mistake. It cost her, her life. We should be saddened by that, and we should feel for her family.
Maybe later we analyze what went wrong, and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again but that doesn’t mean that Claire was an ‘idiot.’ I didn’t know her, but from what I’ve heard I would venture to guess she was just like most of us out there running around in the woods enjoying the Last Frontier except that she happened to be on the notorious Stampede Trail. After Claire’s passing, her mother emailed me. In the moment that I opened that email, the immediate reality of the situation was laid on me. It was very emotional thinking about the family and friends she had left behind.
In February of 2006, my good friend Andy Bouwens died of cancer. Andy was one of the most adventurous people I’ve ever known, full of life and always smiling. At a moment’s notice he was ready to head off into the woods with rifles, or saws, or whatever to go hunting, or fort building, or just play around. I always admired that about him and losing him hurt to my very core.
In my mind, I imagine Chris to be someone like Andy was, always yearning for the next discovery or adventure. Though Chris’ death may have been entirely preventable if he had done any of several things differently, I don’t feel that anyone should sit back in their arm chair and drone on about what an idiot he was and how they could do better. First off, most of us (even us ‘real Alaskans’) never HAVE been in the situation he was: trapped by a river with limited resources. So even if we might do better, we can’t know that because we haven’t ever been tested in that way.
I respect Chris. I respect his ideals and principles, and his sense of adventure. His story speaks to me, because it’s about feeding that desire for adventure, something most of us don’t do often enough. Chris was a man who knew that risk of failure shouldn’t stop you from doing something. Beyond knowing it, he lived it. It’s a shame he didn’t make it back to share what he learned out there, but if he had, I would venture to guess he’d have been better for the experience. As it is, we can all take something from his story and apply it to our own lives though, and in that way, even in death, his journey was a success by his own principles.
Sincerely, Erik Halfacre