What Really Happened?

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What really happened to Chris McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s book called INTO THE WILD, and the subsequent movie? Twenty years later, someone has finally figured it out.

Krakauer did a great job depicting the life of twenty-four year old Chris McCandless, who got rid of most of his worldly goods and took off for the wilds of Alaska in search of himself and a life woven into nature. Four months after leaving for the remote spot, moose hunters found his body near the rusted out bus where he’d been living. He’d lost more than half his body weight and left a strange note taped to the door of the bus.  Even after an autopsy revealed that he died from extreme starvation, many were left wondering what had happened to this “lost” young man.

There were claims that he was ignorant of how difficult it would be to live in such remote wilderness, and even more claims that drugs might have been a big factor in his death.  But no one could say for sure. Even the detailed journals he left didn’t tell the entire story, and so Krakauer did his best to piece together the events.  His book, however, was subject to quite a bit of criticism after Krakauer made claims that he was pretty sure McCandless had died of some kind of poisoning.  It seems that a lot of people just didn’t want to believe that, instead proclaiming his “back to nature” lifestyle and lack of preparation were the only things that led to his death. In essence, the only person they felt needed blame was McCandless himself.

Krakauer never felt satisfied with this conclusion, however, and had many studies done with his poison theory in mind. His biggest idea came from the abundance of wild potato in the area where McCandless lived. It is very difficult to distinguish from wild sweet pea—a plant/seed that is quite poisonous—and Krakauer and many others believed maybe McCandless had eaten the wrong thing and perished because of it. His extreme weight loss might have been explained by his poor diet of squirrels, nuts and berries etc., but it couldn’t be proved that a poisonous plant had been his downfall. And so the mystery remained for more than twenty years.

But then a paper written by author Ronald Hamilton seemed to change everything. Hamilton was well versed in research done on a particular concentration camp in Germany where they fed prisoners bread made from wild pea seeds as an experiment. As it turns out, the seeds were especially toxic to young men who did hard physical labour, who were extremely thin, and whose diets were very deficient in vitamins and minerals—all things that were found in that concentration camp, and which applied to McCandless at the time of his stay in Alaska. Once the concentration camp prisoners got this seed into their digestive systems, it broke down their nervous systems in a way that specifically paralyzed their legs, forcing them to use crutches and eventually, crawl.  There was no turning back once they had the problem, either.  Hamilton believed McCandless became a victim of this same type of amino acid, which would later also be found in the wild potato seed that he was eating plenty of during the last months of his life.  Hamilton claims McCandless probably became paralyzed, and then eventually just couldn’t get around in order to collect food, and eventually died of starvation.

In some ways, this was welcome news. It showed that yes, maybe the young man was ignorant in how difficult his life in the North would be, but it wasn’t really his lack of being resourceful that killed him.  He honestly was poisoned. The results are important because the wild potato plant grows in abundance in Alaska, and identifying a problem with it might make others more aware of its toxicity when presented to the wrong subject. But it also takes the onus off McCandless. He wasn’t just careless or young or clueless. Scientists couldn’t figure this out. It was a mystery as to how he died and took decades to solve.

You can read the fascinating article Jon Krakauer wrote about the problem right here.  And Ronald Hamilton’s research and eventual solution to the problem can be read in his article here.

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