My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Years ago a newspaper reporter asked my mother, “Are you not afraid when you’re son goes off into the Amazon wilderness alone in his canoe that something might happen to him and that you’ll never see him again?”
My mother gave what I have always thought was a good answer.
She told him, “Of course I am afraid something might happen to him. But I know he does not just go off into the jungle unprepared; that he has thought about what he is doing, that he has learned gradually over many trips and from many guides and people with experience. He uses good equipment and is cautious. When he goes off alone into the forest he is taking a calculated risk that he has prepared for and which he does his best to minimise.
“I worry that something untoward might happen but I take comfort in knowing he has tried to reduce the risks as much as possible. He has learned to live with the risks and at the end of the day this is what he wants to do.”
In 1992, just a couple of years after my own adventures in the Amazon, a young man called Chris McCandless headed off into the wilderness in Alaska. He lived for 16 weeks off berries and small mammals he was able to hunt. But in the end he ate something that inhibited his body’s absorption of nutrients and starved to death alone in an abandoned bus. The story of his two years before reaching Alaska and those find weeks is told by Jon Krakaeur in this book. You may have seen the movie that was made based on it.
For many people, question remains – was he stupid or reckless? Did he create his own tragedy or was he unlucky?
Jon Krakauer’s book is a fascinating portrait of Chris. Krakauer doesn’t seek to give easy answers but he tells a carefully crafted tale and invites readers to think about what we know of Chris and to find answers to our questions for ourselves. Or at least to delay judgement and to try to understand.
Just this week in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, while I wait for a new or renewed transmission for the boat, I met a man called Mark who lives in an old van with a woodstove and travels around where ever his whims take him.
(His latest project was to try to get to Ellesmere Island in the Arctic to meet up with arctic wolves. However he had no clear notion of how to get there.)
Mark and I talked about Chris McCandless. Turned out Mark was in Alaska at the same time as Chris with much the same ideals. The difference is that Chris went into the wilderness and never came out. Mark never made it in.
Many people might think Chris McCandless was crazy, but, for me, it’s not hard to understand his desire to leave civilization, to experience raw nature and discover the deeper parts of oneself that are covered over so easily by our consumer society. Any young person who wants to live needs to take time out and not just accept the illusions marketed to us.
If Chris had made it out alive – and written the inevitable book – he would have been hailed as a hero by many people. But circumstances turned against him and he died. At least he died while attempting, however misguided, to be alive.
On a couple of occasions in the Amazon I came perilously close to losing my life. And each time I returned to the rain forest I understood that a simple accident when I was alone and in a remote region might prove fatal. I took the risk because I wanted to see the remote areas, wanted the experience of being alone in the forest without the voices and vibrations of other outsiders (I always enjoyed meeting local people). For me, as perhaps also for Chris McCandless, staying home was not an option. To have given up in my early 20s would have also been to give up on life.
I look back today in wonderment at the risks I took – sleeping alone in a hammock slung between two trees, with no gun, radio and no-one knowing where I was. That must have been a different person – I certainly have no stomach for such risks today.
Chris McCandless was a highly intelligent young man – too intelligent for his own good perhaps. He didn’t understand that brains aren’t enough in the wilderness. He was an extremist who declined even to take what others with real wilderness experience would consider essential equipment.
There is a certain hubris in Chris’ story. He seemed to think that because he was smart, well educated and came from a wealthy suburban family (he gave away his $25,000 for his bank account) that he was a match for any circumstance. He lacked humility in his approach to wilderness.
Is it not a terrible arrogance (very common in these decadent days) to imagine that you, ignorant of the country and all wilderness skills, can survive in a land where native people have been learning for thousands of years how to live off the land.
That Chris did survive alone in the wilderness for 16 weeks is a testament to his courage and tenacity. His tragedy is that this was not quite enough.