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'Into the Wild' fantasy claims another victim

Craig Medred

It was inevitable that writer Jon Krakauer, filmmaker Sean Penn and their "Into the Wild" fantasy would get someone killed.

It was inevitable that writer Jon Krakauer, filmmaker Sean Penn and their "Into the Wild" fantasy would get someone killed. The only surprising thing is it took so long. Alaska State Troopers confirmed the first death Tuesday. They said the Swiss woman who drowned in the Teklanika River on Saturday was indeed trying to get to the bus Krakauer and Penn made famous.

Krakauer set the inevitable in motion with his 1996 book about the death of Chris McCandless in a long-deserted school bus along the Stampede Trail near the north edge of Denali National Park and Preserve. In that book, Krakauer did a nice job of doing the reporting required to track the mental disintegration of someone suffering from adult onset schizophrenia. And then he ignored it all to weave a fantasy about the search for the meaning of life.

McCandless was never going to find the meaning of life. He was destined to end up dead because he went to a place that doesn't well tolerate mental illness -- the Alaska wilderness. It was sad. Someone should have gotten him treatment. Schizophrenia is a pretty common illness in the U.S. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 1 in every 100 people over the age of 18 suffers from it. That's about 2.2 million people. There are, in fact, estimated to be about six times as many schizophrenics in this country as there are insulin-dependent diabetics.

Schizophrenics have a bad habit of turning their backs on their families; setting off on long, cross-country treks; doing totally illogical things like burning their money; and sometimes deciding not to bathe. McCandless did all of these things, but Krakauer chose to ignore the meaning of the evidence. Instead, he scripted McCandless' mental disintegration into a noble quest that ended with death by starvation in the Alaska wilderness. That it wasn't really wilderness presented a bit of problem.

McCandless was within a day's hike of the George Parks Highway. And that the 24-year-old McCandless -- who preferred to refer to himself as Alexander Supertramp -- died of starvation presented another problem. Normal people don't usually decide to crawl into a sleeping bag and wait to die from starvation, especially when so close to help. They at least make a desperate bid to hike out to safety. Or they set the woods on fire to draw attention to themselves and their plight. McCandless didn't do either of these logical things, so Krakauer had to find some way to explain the death. The author's answer was to kill McCandless off with poisonous roots or seeds of the Eskimo potato, which turned out to be not poisonous at all. Oh well. It wasn't enough to stop Penn from turning the book into a movie in 2007.

Penn followed Krakauer's lead in making the wanderings, babblings and hallucinations of McCandless into a film about the search for the meaning of life. It took Penn hours to do this on the big screen. It took Krakauer pages and pages to do it in his book.

Having spent most of my adult life in and around the Alaska wilderness, I can do it in two sentences: "Life's a f------- joke, and then you die. So you might as well laugh your way through it.''

Brevity might be why I am not a famous writer, but just some happy, laughing scribbler in Alaska. Although, of course, that reference to brevity will give some of my old colleagues at a certain Anchorage newspaper a laugh, given they are of the opinion every story should be of a length and complexity a six-year-old can digest in 60 seconds, which is about how much attention the first confirmed kill by Krakauer and Penn has attracted locally.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner did more. Writer Tim Mowry, a Yukon Quest veteran who knows a thing or two about surviving in the wilderness, has a pretty good account of the events leading up to the sad death of backpacker Claire Jane Ackermann, along with some observations from those in the Healy area as to how many close calls there have been along the Stampede Trail leading up to this death.

I guess Krakauer and Penn should be proud. There aren't many artists who can lead people to their deaths. Usually, you need to be some sort of political leader or religious nut to do that.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.