There has been a lot of publicity lately over Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, a.k.a that overzealous Cheechako who died in an abandoned bus near Healy, Alaska, more than 15 years ago.In September, the big-budget movie ‘Into the Wild,’ directed by Sean Penn, was released first in Fairbanks, and then to the world. The film is based on Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book of the same name. Krakauer’s book recounts the story of a young, educated, privileged man who leaves it all behind to wander the States. He winds up in Alaska, where he was found dead and alone in September, 1992. The true story happened over two years in the early ‘90s.After getting his degree, a 22-year-old McCandless left his family, donated his savings to a charity, burned his pocket money, ditched his car and started his now famous journey north. He also threw out his ID and changed his name. His ultimate goal was to make it to Alaska. First, however, he traveled by foot, kayak and hitchhiking around the country, and met a variety of people. According to Krakauer’s book, McCandless touched and changed people’s lives as only saints had done before him. He wanted the romantic Alaska with its abundant wilderness and glowing aurora, but what he got was the real Alaska; harsh and unforgiving. He perished after a series of errors in this latter Alaska.McCandless headed into the wild via the Stampede Trail on the edge of Denali National Park and Preserve in April of 1992. He had little provisions – a 10-pound bag of rice, a couple of field guides and a rifle – and no experience. He crossed the Teklanika River and found an old, abandoned Fairbanks city bus. He lived in the bus for several months, living off berries, small game and one poached moose. When his body was found that September by hunters, he weighed just 67 pounds. He tried to leave at least once, but the Teklanika River, which he crossed with relative ease just a couple months earlier had swelled during the early summer thaw, growing impassable and ultimately sealing his fate.Recently, the movie has rekindled the McCandless debate. Many Alaskans pigeonhole the young upper-middle-class, Emory University graduate as a dumb, irresponsible kid. While he was certainly not dumb, he was idealistic and irresponsible. Some have even speculated he was mentally ill. McCandless came to Alaska to live off the land and to get away from corporate takeovers and consumerism. Instead, he found the junked bus 20 miles from the highway, scrounged for food, and eventually and inevitably starved to death because he was stubborn, inept and inexperienced. Krakauer’s original Outside magazine article (the story that preceded his book) stated that McCandless died after eating poisonous wild-pea seeds, which was later found to be false. In the book that followed, Krakauer claimed McCandless died from eating poisonous potato seeds, which again was later found to be false. “He was indeed poisoned, but the plant that killed him wasn’t wild sweet pea. The agent of his demise was wild potato, H. alpinum, the species plainly identified as nontoxic in Tanaina Plantlore,” wrote Krakauer on page 193 of Into the Wild. But further tests showed that no plant or seed caused McCandless’ death. The truth is that he died of starvation.Sean Penn needed a more exciting finish to his based-on-a-true-story movie than the truth, so the renowned actor/director ended the movie with McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, writhing around after eating the supposedly toxic seeds. Penn claimed in earlier interviews that he wanted to be as accurate as possible with the movie. Why, then, did he knowingly end the film with a false claim?Regardless of how he died, McCandless is once again painted with the hero brush and the story is glamorized. The movie makes you feel sorry for the selfish young man who, while finding himself and realizing his dream, destroyed his family.“Sean is a seasoned film maker and he had this project in his mind before they started filming,” said the film’s producer, John Kelly, at the September 3 movie premiere in Fairbanks.“I was excited to work with Sean, but I didn’t know the story. Then we went to the bus and I was really shocked by how many people had visited the bus and how many had left notes. It was really a great thing to see.” McCandless’ parents and sister were on set for some of the film’s production, but they didn’t travel to Alaska. “I think the McCandless family was very happy with how the movie turned out,” said Kelly. “They were on set a few times in a few different places. His sister showed up in two different places. They were very supportive. I think they were impressed that all these people came together to make a story about their son.” The movie was about celebrating the journey and not the mistakes he made, Kelly added.“We scouted the whole area but when we came up to Fairbanks, that’s when we heard more criticism about the story. Only a few people have really been critical. A lot of people were really excited about the fact that Alaska was going to be represented, and I think Sean did a great job of showing that this is a destination.After spending all the time on the movie, we went to 36 cities following his path, we got back to Alaska and we got to see what an amazing place this is. It made us realize that he did exactly what he wanted to do in his life. He died tragically because of a few mistakes but he did what most people never do. Sometimes people make mistakes and perish because of them,” Kelly said.The film wasn’t shot at the bus because “Sean didn’t want to take that memorial and disgrace it. Everyone was in awe. Sometimes you forget that this is a real story but Sean was, like, ‘everything has to be exact.’” (Except, of course, the manner in which McCandless expired.) The crew found a replica bus in North Pole and brought it to the shooting location outside Cantwell. The original bus has become a shrine for followers of the story. In March of 2006, the bus contained several notes that were left to McCandless over the years. The mattress is not the same one that McCandless died on and despite the filmmakers’ observations this reporter didn’t see boots or jeans that were supposedly left there by McCandless. (Do they really think jeans and boots would survive 15 years of weather and visitors?)Because of the book and now the movie, the town of Healy wants to move the bus to prevent other McCandless pilgrims from meeting their own fate in the wilderness. Town officials want to haul the bus to a more accessible place where travelers could view it, but wouldn’t put themselves at risk by doing so.While some longtime Alaskans enjoyed the film, many did not.“I’m sort of offended by a couple of things,” said Dermot Cole, a longtime columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the author of five historical books about Alaska. “To me, one possible explanation for the whole thing is that the kid was mentally ill and, if that’s not true, than he was exceptionally cruel and neither of those things are dealt with in a sufficient way in the book and not at all in the movie. The more logical explanation for this is not youthful rebellion but mental illness, and by pretending that that’s not even in the realm of possibility. I just find that offensive. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a family and it didn’t seem to bother him at all. The movie portrays him so sympathetically, just like what he’s doing is normal.”“Contrary to what (professor) Roman Dial says, 95 or 90 percent of people do not come here like that,” added Cole, referring to an interview Dial gave after the film. “I mean, people don’t abandon their families and act so recklessly and irresponsibly.”The now disproved poisoning theory served as Penn’s dramatic ending in the movie, and this bothered many people. “If they were so concerned with accuracy in the movie, why didn’t they deal with that?” asked Cole. “Every time I hear movie makers talk about accuracy, I think it’s absurd.” Cole pointed out a couple other minor yet notable errors in the movie: the darkness in summer and the melting snow in the morning.I must say, for the most part, I agree with Cole. McCandless was selfish and arrogant. He was too smart to be that naïve. Friends have accused me of trying to be ‘a hardened Alaskan’ because of my stance on this now-contentious issue. That’s not it at all. I’m Canadian and have only been in Alaska for a couple of years, and although I’ve lived in the North (first Canada, then Finland) for nearly a decade, I don’t proclaim to be an expert by any means on these northern climes. I do, however, have a family that I love and respect. I too moved far away from them after graduating from college. The distance from Ottawa, Ontario, where I grew up, to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, is nearly 4,000 miles. You have to tack on another 500 miles or so to get to Fairbanks. I still phone every week and let my family know what’s going on in my life and that I’m OK. McCandless didn’t come from a broken or abusive family. It appeared that he had a very close relationship with his sister, Carine, before taking off into the wild, never to be heard from or heard of until his family got word of his death.Why should we glamorize this? What, exactly, makes him such a hero? The movie does just that: it glorifies a foolhardy ingrate. Is this story so interesting because he died? If he had survived, surely, no one would care.“A lot of people think that he was seeking something else out and maybe we all are,” said Gordon Carlson, a liaison for the movie for the Native Village of Cantwell, and lifelong resident of the village. “It was just a lack of experience. Put me in L.A. and I’m out of my element, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid. “I don’t think he was a dumb kid.”Jillian Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks. She has covered sled dog races for seven years before venturing into mushing herself and now owns nine huskies.


More Posts