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Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective

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Initial post: Jun 13, 2008 5:16:47 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jan 7, 2011 2:59:12 PM PST
81 of 97 people found the following review helpful:
3.0 out of 5 stars Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective, March 5, 2008
By Catherine S. Todd "interested in all"
Excerpted quotes from Ranger Peter Christian are from a document available at George Mason University (pasted below):

Chris McCandless from an Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective
by Peter Christian

Both Chris McCandless and I arrived in Alaska in 1992. We both came to Alaska from the area around Washington, D.C. We were both about the same age and had a similar idea in mind; to live a free life in the Alaska wild. Fourteen years later Chris McCandless is dead and I am living the dream I set out to win for myself. What made the difference in these two outcomes?

There was nothing heroic or even mysterious about what Chris McCandless did in April 1992. Like many Alaskans, I read Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild" when it first came out and finished it thinking, "why does this guy rate an entire book?" The fact that
Krakauer is a great outdoor writer and philosopher is the bright spot and it makes a great
read, but McCandless was not something special.

As a park ranger both at Denali National Park, very near where McCandless died, and now at Gates of the Arctic National Park, even more remote and wild than Denali, I am exposed continually to what I will call the "McCandless Phenomenon." People, 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 no nexistent. I know the personality type because I was one of those young men.

In fact, Alaska is populated with people who are either running away from something or seeking themselves in America's last frontier. It is a place very much like the frontier of the Old West where you can come to and reinvent yourself. In reality, most people who make it as far as Alaska never get past the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage because access is so difficult and expensive (usually by airplane), travel is so hard, the terrain is challenging, the bears are real, and so on.

A very few competent and skillful people make a successful go at living a free life in the wild, build a home in the mountains, raise their children there and eventually come back with good stories and happy endings. A greater number give it a try, realize it is neither easy nor romantic, just damn hard work, and quickly give up and return to town with their tails between their legs, but alive and the wiser for it.

Some like McCandless, show up in Alaska, unprepared, unskilled and unwilling to take the time to learn the skills they need to be successful. These quickly get in trouble and either die by bears, by drowning, by freezing or they are rescued by park rangers or other rescue personnel-but often, not before risking their lives and/or spending a lot of government money on helicopters and overtime.

When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament using one of several routes that could have been successful.

Consider where he died. An abandoned bus. How did it get there? On a trail. If the bus could get into the place where it died, why couldn't McCandless get out of the place where he died? The fact that he had to live in an old bus in the first place tells you a lot. Why didn't he have an adequate shelter from the beginning? What would he have done if he hadn't found the bus? A bag of rice and a sleeping bag do not constitute adequate gear and provisions for a long stay in the wilderness.

No experienced backcountry person would travel during the month of April. It is a time of transition from winter's frozen rivers and hard packed snow with good traveling conditions into spring's quagmire of mud and raging waters where even small creeks become impassible. Hungry bears come out of their dens with just one thing in mind-- eating.

Furthermore, Chris McCandless poached a moose and then wasted it. He killed a magnificent animal superbly conditioned to survive the rigors of the Alaskan wild then, inexperienced in how to preserve meat without refrigeration (the Eskimos and Indians do it to this day), he watched 1500 pounds of meat rot away in front of him. He's lucky the stench didn't bring a grizzly bear to end his suffering earlier. And in the end, the moose died for nothing.

So what made the difference between McCandless and I fourteen years ago? Why am I alive and he is dead? Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide while I apprenticed myself to a career and a life that I wanted more badly than I can possibly describe in so short an essay. In the end I believe that the difference between us was that I wanted to live and Chris McCandless wanted to die (whether he realized it or not). The fact that he died in a compelling way doesn't change that outcome. He might have made it work if he had respected the wilderness he was purported to have loved. But it is my belief that surviving in the wilderness is not what he had in mind.

I did not start this essay to trash poor Chris McCandless. Not intentionally. It is sad that the boy had to die. The tragedy is that McCandless more than likely was suffering from mental illness and didn't have to end his life the way he did. The fact that he chose Alaska's wildlands to do it in speaks more to the fact that it makes a good story than to the fact that McCandless was heroic or somehow extraordinary. In the end, he was sadly ordinary in his disrespect for the land, the animals, the history, and the self-sufficiency ethos of Alaska, the Last Frontier.


6.13.08: Comment by Catherine Todd on the comments:

I just now saw all these comments from where I had originally posted this in the "review" section. I had no idea posting an actual letter from an Alaskan Park Ranger would elicit such a overwhelming response. I agree wholehearedly with the ranger, having had some wilderness experience but not enough to ever attempt to "go it alone" in Alaska or elsewhere.

Being a GirlScout and in the BoyScouts too (when they would let me!) showed me how much I "didn't know." Living up in the mountains in Colorado for a winter's season when I was 18 years old, and being lucky enough to hike out in the snow by myself - when I ran out of food & firewood - and find my way to town - showed me how much experience is really required.

There is nothing "romantic" about the "Jeremiah Johnson" life, no matter how good it looks on film. This film showed that, to me. I'm going to post the Ranger's letter in a discussion area here on Amazon, where it probably belonged in the first place. Thanks for all the comments. Boy, am I surprised! But I absolutely LOVED reading the Alaskan Ranger's Letter (written by Ranger Peter Christian). He knows what he is talking about, "North South East & West, forward backwards over & under." I hope I never have to "get rescued," but if I do, let it be by him!

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 23, 2008 12:25:19 PM PDT
I think the park ranger's letter largely restates Krakauer's book. But it lacks the compassion and understanding of Krakauer. And it lacks the idealism of McCandless. McCandless appears to have done quite well with minimal gear and to have died from a mistaken identification of flora. Nothing about him seems mentally ill. He was idealistic, immaturely so. And excessive in his attempts to break free of the constraints which many of us also feel bound by. He could have shown more wisdom -- but that is hard for a 20-something-year-old. I think what he was and what he did clearly rate an entire book and Krakauer's success with this book bears me out. I think it fairer to say that the above park ranger and girl scout embody those choices which taken as a way of life will never deserve its own book.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 4, 2008 1:01:11 PM PST
M. Conder says:
It seemed like you are jealous that McCandless garnered all this attention while your "success" hasn't. I think you've missed the's not the particular details of his adventure that are compelling; No, no one thinks he's heroic (where did you get that from?) and yes, we get that he wasn't mature enough to take on the adventure he did. The reason we are drawn to his story is that there is a large reservoir of people who at times feel lost in their everyday lives and yearn for a epic adventure. That his story ended in tragic failure (although the movie certainly gives him his redemption when he acknowledges his "sins" at the end) makes it even more compelling. By the end of the movie we realize that our feelings of isolation are based on human relationships and not geographic in nature. I'm glad your adventure turned out well for you, but I think you should also consider why you are diminishing his.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 21, 2008 7:28:31 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Mar 2, 2010 8:29:03 AM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2008 10:52:29 PM PST
Greg S says:
Alaska happens to be the place where Chris died, but it could have easily been any other place. It is much more the story that is relevant, and not the exact location. You either understand the mindset or not. I don't think Chris McCandless was particularly interested in working for the government, so getting a government employee's perspective on the film adds nothing paticularly special. They are two completely different worlds... almost polar opposites. A long dissertation from "an Alaska Park Ranger's Perspective" (as if the title adds some form of weight to the opinion) is just one more review. No more, no less.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 30, 2008 7:44:34 AM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Mar 2, 2010 8:29:01 AM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 3, 2009 2:40:43 PM PST
Greg S says:
"this loser is God's gift to adventuring, but this level of fanboyism is ludicrous." << What is sad and ludicrous is your fanboyism of your self and your own opinion. Give it a rest. No one has mentioned Chris as a Christ figure except you. The real story is about disillusionment and a quest for self discovery. Try to look beyond your cold, callous mindset and you may discover something more important than childish taunts. If there is a "silly joke" lurking around here, it would definitely be your hollow hearted postings.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 7, 2009 12:55:04 PM PST
Octavius says:
Ranger Peter Christian's analysis is interesting. Although he respects his dream of leaving civilization to be one with nature, what he is criticizing is its execution which was foolhearty, completely unnecessary, and ultimately fatal. I however disagree with his judgment of McCandless' character and state of mind.

McCandless was just an intelligent young man with very noble ideals. He had great goals but poor planning without too much forethought as to the irreversible consequences of his actions. I don't think it's proper for Ranger Christian to judge him as mentally ill or conclude that he was suicidal. He certainly displayed none of the classic psychological symptoms of being psychotic or suicidal. On the contrary, McCandless displayed an incredible desire to be alive and love of life. Being so young, from an affluent family, and fresh out of college, I think he was just disillusioned about his present place and naive as to how he could get away from it. He was no different than most men his age who think that they can overcome any challenge simply by will and brawn instead of wit.

McCandless loved the natural philosopy of Thoreaux and was probably enchanted with the tales of Jeremiah Johnson but failed to realize how they really lived and the time they lived in. Legendary trappers like Jeremiah Johnson didn't go out into the unforgiving 19th Century wilderness of Montana on foot with just a .22, a bag of rice, and 100 lbs. of gear. These were men who, by tradition, were already quite knowledgeable about frontier life and went into the wilderness very well prepared. They carried hundreds of pounds of vital equipment and provisions on their horse and at least one mule. In terms of a firearm, they knew that their lives would absolutely depend on something at least as powerful as a .45 long or .50 caliber rifle as well as a side arm. Although often alone, trappers were not total hermits and often worked with other trappers, Native Americans, or nearby trading outposts where they would resupply. They were keenly aware of their environment and all of the potential risks. It is fair to conclude that McCandless probably didn't take the time to think about preparing for these risks because he was too enthralled with the idea of reaching the final destination of his grand adventure.

I also have to disagree with Ranger Christian's judgment of McCandless' being 'disrespectful of the land' in the figurative sense of the word. Literally, yes, he was disrespectful as the Latin term means: failure to look again. Yes, McCandless was disrespectful because he failed to fully consider the environment he placed himself in and what consequences such lack of forethought entailed. I don't think he was disrespectful in the colloquial sense however. I don't think his actions spoiled the land for vain reasons or for senseless excess. He didn't grossly exploit the land for meaningless pleasure or profit or pollute it in complete disregard for nature. He did what he did to survive the best he knew how. There are plenty of institutions and individuals in Alaska that I would accuse of that kind of disrespect before accusing McCandless: the Federal government being on top of the list.

I feel sorry for McCandless and that he had to die such a slow agonizing death that surely crept upon him without him knowing it until it was too late. His strength withering away day by day, slowly realizing that his will to live just isn't going to suffice anymore. I feel sorry for his family's anguish in having to lose such a promising son. No parents desire to outlive their children. He may have been foolish and lived a short life but at least he was brave and had noble intentions and that is far better than living a long safe life as a foolish coward.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 14, 2009 10:12:30 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 26, 2009 8:18:57 PM PST
Beier Drums says:

While not this simple-It boils down to 2 groups of people:

1. People that have had adventures and have travelled-Or taken a chance and taken the one trip they wanted to.

2. People who feel trapped and are afraid to take the chance at the trip/adventure they wanted to take-They love this movie.

This is the primary appeal of this story. Krakauer and Penn know this. They look for stories to capture segments of populations. Statistically, there are a lot of people that feel this way. At least the one post above he/she was honest enough to admit that this is why they liked this movie and admired "Supertramp". Rare in postings on this story....The Truth.

This guy was just screwed up & needed guidance. Period. Yeah....It is like I said in my post on this....Barry Bonds is a "Baseball Hero" as well. Society has become extremely desperate for "Heroes".

Posted on Feb 17, 2009 12:02:03 PM PST
Greg S says:
"People who feel trapped and are afraid to take the chance at the trip/adventure they wanted to take-They love this movie."

Wow, that would be the mother of all over generalizations. I can assure you that I have done a LOT of world travelling to many very wild places over the last half century... and I would expect that to be plenty more than Prometheus ever will. I'm not even close to be done yet either. The movie is fine, go watch something else.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 17, 2009 12:44:15 PM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Mar 2, 2010 8:28:07 AM PST]

Posted on Feb 17, 2009 2:57:38 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 17, 2009 2:59:41 PM PST
Beier Drums says:

As always-They attack you and offer no support for their views. "I have been to many 'very wild' places...". Right. And it was also stated to be: "While not this simple...".

You are correct-The stupidity of this is mind numbing. But-Penn knew that they could present the Inspector Clouseau Of Alaskan Travel and make him a "hero". People are that desperate for someone to admire.

A first year Boy Scout would have known better. Like I said in one of my posts-This is like wanting to sail around the world. Yeah-Hop into the Atlantic with a 6' rowboat with a loaf of bread and a gallon of water. THEN when you sink-Blame the parents.

It really does in essence boil down to several groups of people: People who feel trapped and people who do not. Greg S' post just illustrates that one more time.

Posted on Feb 17, 2009 3:41:24 PM PST
[Deleted by Amazon on Mar 2, 2010 8:28:07 AM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 17, 2009 9:52:01 PM PST
David Rankin says:
I like solojourns, I loved the movie, but would tend to agree. When he was block by the river he kind of gave up, I couldn't help but wonder how the hell the bus made it there, knowing there had to be a trail. I think that it would be pretty obvious to bring a map when visiting a new location or at least have some direction sense. When watching the movie I was personally interested in his journey and somewhat disappointed that he died. I've always want to go on some type of solojourn to learn more about myself and the movie shows you the reality of how hard the world treats those that go against the norm. You can almost see your self in his position of getting out and taking on nature, yet his dying kind of ruined it for me. I would have rather seen him come out of his solojourn with some for of self discovery. But then this would have him eventually enter back into what he was trying so hard to escape. For a while you felt the kid could almost do anything... I think the movie tries to fill a void for those that don't typically try to venture out into nature, showing that the end result could possibly mean death in the end. Thus giving the excuse for those city dwellers who are watching to never venture out and try living in fear of the worst. If you like this movie I would recommend "The Art of Travel" (2008). It's another self discovery movie but at least he doesn't die.

In reply to an earlier post on May 8, 2009 4:59:19 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 8, 2009 5:01:48 AM PDT
stottz says:
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Posted on Jun 24, 2009 4:35:44 PM PDT
Cattywampus says:
I would just like to point out that Chris wanted to distance himself from everybody's wasting their lives making money and so donated his school fund, 24k, to Oxfam. But then he poached the moose in Alaska! Then he kayaked in the Grand Canyon when it should be obvious even to a newcomer that the area has to be protected against overuse. So this is obviously a kid who is too screwed up to have good judgment. I am sure he would have hung his head in shame if he had been able to write a book about his adventures and then had all the other rebels against society point out he was one of the ones screwing it up, by not preserving wilderness.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 14, 2009 7:12:20 PM PDT
Where'd you find the ranger quote

Posted on Aug 10, 2009 10:58:47 PM PDT
Regardless of what the "critics" say, he stepped out and had an adventure on his own. yes he died. Thats the fact and reality. Some of us wear a seat belt, and some of us don't. Some of us check our spare tire for air before we go on a long trip, and some of us don't. We are all guilty for lack of planning, it is just a matter of how we look at it. Seat belt, spare tire, full tank of gas. Give the guy a break. The only thing that matters is he took the step where most of us sit back in our cushy chairs and criticize others when you, in fact, can't take the step. He got out of life what he wanted, rite or wrong.

Posted on Jan 1, 2010 7:36:59 PM PST
JD says:
Some people are really missing the point.

McCandless was on a quest for meaning and understanding. That is something most of us never think about or would even consider given our padlocked mindset. He wanted to identify more closely with his inner self and went on a spiritual quest to do just that. The fact that he was immature, unprepared and misguided is irrelevant. It's his motivations that matter.

He set out to achieve what he wanted and probably knew the consequences.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 14, 2010 7:46:12 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 14, 2010 7:47:36 PM PDT
Linda X. Mitchell: here's a pdf file link for the Ranger's response:

Excerpted quotes from Ranger Peter Christian are from a document available at George Mason University.

Posted on Apr 16, 2010 4:39:09 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 16, 2010 4:43:31 AM PDT
Treehugger© says:
I think what Peter Christian is trying to express is the truth about Krakauer's book and the movie. If many young people try to relive McCandless's experiences they might end up dead and causing a rescue team to risk their lives as well.
Also, although McCandless maybe though he could live in the wilds alone I really dont think he could live without human contact for long without going NUTTY.

'Into the wild' is good for showing others WHAT NOT TO DO

When I was younger, I did consider living in the wilds of the north but I didnt think I had the right mindset. I did enjoy Krakauer's book and love the movie but only for it's entertainment value. Thank you Peter Christian for writing your letter

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 16, 2010 5:44:05 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 16, 2010 5:46:53 AM PDT
Thank you, Richard Monroe, for writing your comment! Finally someone has said what I've been trying to say but couldn't find the words. The ranger IS "trying to save lives" and telling the TRUTH. Amen.

In fact, that is why I posted it. Nature is beautiful, but it's savage too and living in the wild is a matter of "life and death." There is nothing romantic about it. We live a spiritual life in a physical world that demands knowledge, experience and respect.

Posted on Aug 4, 2010 9:31:05 AM PDT
Chris should have taken a map and a compass with him. He would have found the cable crossing basket an hour's hike from the bus that was marked on the map (which spanned the river and was on his side), jumped into it and been on the other side. He made a living for almost four months on a 10lb bag of rice and what he was able to hunt and collect. Had he asked an Alaskan local on how to prepare meat in Alaska (like the guy who gave him the ride to the Stampede Trail), he would have know to cut the moose into thin strips and air dry/jerk it.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 4, 2010 7:16:44 PM PDT
Right, Michael. It's incredible to me that people go off like that with so little experience or preparation, but I saw it over and over "back in the day" when people were hitchhiking all over the country and living out in the woods in the '60's when I was growing up. Nature takes over and lots of things, including people, die from this kind of naivete. Nature gives us just a few chances. We have to be prepared. The ranger is absolutely correct in his assessment, and so are you. It's sad, isn't it?

Posted on Aug 5, 2010 6:50:16 AM PDT
Yes, it is. Very sad. But you have to be prepared, even in the National Parks in the lower 48. If your going to hike in the backcountry of the Glacier National Park in Montana or in Yellowstone, you need to be prepared for and know how to react in grizzly bear country and that the risks go up substantually over hiking in Yosemite or the Rocky Mountain National Park. Chris had a lot of experience hiking in the lower 48, but his lower 48 hiking experience didn't translate well to hiking in the Alaskan back country without a map or compass during the offseason.
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