Into the Wild | Study Guide

Jon Krakauer

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Into the Wild | Chapter 8 : Alaska | Summary



The chapter opens with Krakauer citing parts of letters from readers, many of them Alaskans, responding to his article about McCandless in Outside magazine. They resoundingly criticize his "glorifying" McCandless and his Alaskan quest. They object to McCandless's lack of preparation, his perceived disrespect for the wilderness, his arrogance that he could handle any situation without understanding life in the wild, and the pain he caused his parents. The author follows their letters with detailed anecdotes about Gene Rosellini, John Waterman, and Carl McCunn, eccentric men who also tried to survive the Alaskan wilderness on their own terms with tragic results.

For 30 years Rossellini attempted to prove that contemporary man could live off the land without any modern technology, like a caveman. After he ended that experiment, he planned to walk around the world with only what fit in his backpack but committed suicide in his Alaskan cabin instead. John Waterman, an expert mountaineer and a resident of the Washington, DC suburbs, climbed Mt. McKinley in 1969 at age 16. Waterman successfully completed several other ascents before he disappeared. He was last seen on the Northwest Fork of the Ruth Glacier in 1981. His body has never been found.

Carl McCunn planned to spend from March until August 1981 photographing wildlife northeast of Fort Yukon. While he remembered to take a large number of provisions, he neglected to arrange for a pilot to pick him up in August. In June, believing he would be returning to civilization in two months, he threw away most of his rifle cartridges, not realizing this left him little ammunition for getting food. In September he mistakenly signaled a pilot who flew over his camp by chance that he was okay instead of giving him the SOS signal. By November, freezing and almost starved to death, he took his own life. McCunn's friends described him as prone to daydreaming and fantasy. He believed that someone would appear magically to rescue him, but his expectation was unrealistic.

Krakauer does not agree with the readers who see McCandless as a "kook," or as an arrogant or naïve adventurer. He points out that, while McCandless resembled these three men in some important ways, he "didn't conform particularly well to the bush-casualty stereotype" of "idealistic young guys who overestimated themselves, underestimated the country, and ended up in trouble." Krakauer posits that McCandless "was something else—although what is hard to say."


The author counters the harsh criticisms in response to his January 1993 article, "Death of an Innocent," in Outside magazine on McCandless's journey, by analyzing the stories of three other men enamored of the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer uses the accounts of these three adventurers to establish a precedent for his subject's desire to live an adventurous life in nature unencumbered by society's materialistic and superficial accoutrements, but also to counteract arguments that McCandless was merely a foolhardy risk-taker with no respect for the wild.

Even when he knew he was starving, McCandless never admitted making any mistakes or acknowledged in his journal his naïveté about the harsh climate he chose to face. With each of their missions, all four of these men believed their ideas about surviving the wilderness were realities rather than their own fantasies. None of them weighed the pros and cons surrounding their undertakings sufficiently or accepted the reasoning, logic, and realities others presented to them. A mixture of naïveté, rash choices, and arrogance about their own skills and abilities led to each man's death or disappearance. The three-word sentence at the end of Edward Hoagland's quote that opens the chapter, "This is Alaska," underscores the theme that one should never underestimate the power of nature.

Krakauer acknowledges convincing similarities between McCandless and the three men. For example, like Rossellini and Waterman, he was a "seeker [who] had an impractical fascination with the harsh side of nature." Chris had a surprising lack of common sense "like Waterman and McCunn." But Krakauer argues that McCandless also differed from them significantly as well. Although he concedes that McCandless was "rash and untutored in the ways of the backcountry," Krakauer argues that he was not "a nutcase," "a sociopath," or "an outcast." In fact, the author declares that McCandless was also not incompetent because "he wouldn't have lasted 113 days if he were." In this way a paradoxical portrait of McCandless emerges of a young man who made serious mistakes but was neither purely a foolish dreamer nor an arrogant "kook." Krakauer suggests instead that McCandless is harder to classify and considers that he could have been a "pilgrim," or someone who embarks on a journey to celebrate or discover spiritual truths.

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