The “swift current” of the Nenana River as Chris McCandless would have seen it in April 1992/Craig Medred photo

BROAD PASS – The precipitation was falling as slush on Friday, April 27, and it was hard not to think of Chris McCandless, Alaska’s most famous nobody, as the SUV sped south along the George Parks Highway toward Cook Inlet and what was sure to be more hospitable weather.

Back behind was the Nenana River near the outpost community of Clear. The river was still largely encased in ice and snow as Jim Gallien said it was when he drove McCandless south to the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992.

That simple fact didn’t stop author John Krakauer from embellishing a bit when he wrote the best-selling book “Into the Wild” three years after McCandless’s death.

“A hundred miles out of Fairbanks the highway begins to climb into the foothills of the Alaska Range. As the truck lurched over a bridge across the Nenana River, Alex looked down at the swift current and remarked that he was afraid of the water” was how Krakauer recorded it. “‘A year ago down in Mexico,’ he told Gallien, ‘I was out on the ocean in a canoe, and I almost drowned when a storm came up.'”

Alex was Alexander Supertramp,McCandless’s alter ego, or maybe it was the real McCandless. The human brain sometimes takes people on strange journeys into worlds all their own.

Gallien said he doesn’t remember a conversation anything like that concocted by Krakauer, but the reference to a fear of water is a nice setup to offer an explanation as to how McCandless might later have became trapped in the wilderness west of the Teklanika River.

It was there he eventually died of starvation, though Krakauer continues to float various theories as to how McCandless might have eaten something that poisoned him.

“There was a little Hollywood … going on in there” is how Gallien described Into the Wild  in 2015. It was the reality book that preceded the birth of reality TV. Krakauer did a lot of back filling around the 430 words McCandless left behind to record his spring and summer living in an abandoned bus along the then little traveled Stampede Trail.

Since McCandless’s death, there has been a lot more traffic. Some come to worship the poor, lost soul of the character created by Krakauer after McCandless’s death. They usually have the sense to come in the summer when the weather is warm and nice, although the best travel is in the winter when the rivers, creeks and ponds are frozen and covered by snow. It is easier then to get to the bus by skis or snowshoes, or easier still by dog team, or easiest of all on a snowmachine.

As the SUV passed the Stampede Road, still climbing into the wind and gathering clouds to the south around the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve, there were no signs of life on the Stampede Trail.

Glitter Gulch – the tourist strip along the highway outside the park – was, however, awakening. The plywood had come of the windows of some of the shops. The hotels were gearing up to open. Seasonal employees were already visibly on the ground in anticipation of the brief tourist rush of summer.


Mother Nature would, however, remain her fickle self in the heart of the Alaska Range. Winter was rallying for one last show. The National Weather Service was forecasting  snow in the evening with an accumulation up to an inch. Temperatures were forecast to drop into the 20s.

The first week of May looked wholly less than friendly: snow and rain, temperatures in the 30s during the day dropping into the 20s at night, possibly warming into daytime 40s with rain by the weekend.

Cold rain.

It’s hard to say which is worse, cold rain or warm snow. This is something McCandless did understand. Fourteen numbers into his Alaska adventure, his scant diary has one word: “misery.”

Weather records for Denali Park record 4.5 inches of wet snow falling on May 16, 1992, with another 6.8 inches coming the next day. If the numbers in the diary correspond even roughly to those days, misery is a good word for anyone alone in the wild with marginal gear, a crappy tent and not much food.

In such a situation, cold weather and almost a foot of wet, heavy snow pretty much define misery.Even with the best of gear, it’s no fun. It’s no wonder that within a couple of weeks, McCandless jotted down “move bus.”

Shelter, food and fire are the cornerstones of wilderness survival, but judgement is the true foundation of success.

If McCandless had been possessed of better judgement, he would have early on done more exploring to the top of the ridge to the south and found the escape route to the Denali Park Road if the Teklanika crossing of summer became too sketchy.

There is no indication he ever did that, but then his notes on his brief time in Alaska are so sparse there is no indication of much of anything: “Magic bus day; weakness; snowed in; porcupine day; misery; move bus; grey bird; ash bird; squirrel; gourmet duck, MOOSE!” and on it goes in that vein.

Almost anything one wants can be read into the first 100 days, if they were days, of the McCandless journal, and then comes the big moment: “Death looms as serious threat, too weak to walk out, have literally become trapped in the wild – no game.”

His journal reflects he lived at least another seven days, if the numbers from 1 to 107 are presumed to represent the counting of days in the wild. There are no dates in the journal.

The self-proclaimed “Alexander Supertramp” didn’t leave much of a record, but River Wind did.  He spent a lot more time in the wild, remains alive to this day, and never became famous. He simply lived a fruitful life.


Coming Into the Country

River Wind appears in John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” arguably the truest book written about modern-day Alaska but now eclipsed by the more talked about fiction of Into the Wild.

McPhee met River Wind in Eagle as the latter was about to get into a canoe and follow the Yukon River into the country writer Dan O’Neill would later describe fairly as “A Land Gone Lonesome.”

“I asked him where he meant to go,” McPhee wrote. “‘Down the river,’ he said. ‘I’ll be living on the Yukon and getting my skills together.’

“I wished him heartfelt luck and felt in my heart he would need it. I said my name, and shook his hand, and he said his. He said, ‘My name is River Wind.'”

River Wind was a lot more representative than McCandless of the wave of young people who once came north to Alaska looking for adventure and opportunity and a little of themselves.

River Wind eventually went back to his given name, David Cornberg, and led a rich life in and out of the Alaska wilderness over the course of the next 40 years. He would never become famous. He would become successful.

He left Alaska for a while to get a master’s degree in education from UCLA and later a PhD in education from the University of Oregon. There was some time spent in a monastery in Romania and some time in Taipei, Taiwan.

From 1984 to 1989, he was a teacher in Anchorage and the poet-in-residence for the Anchorage School District. Over the years, he taught everything from nursery school to graduate studies.

Along the way, he worked on his art, published more than a half-dozen books, and wrote some interesting academic papers on everything from cross-species communication to chaos as social order. 

And he spent so much time living in the  wild that it’s not even fair to begin to compare him to McCandless. Cornberg was never going to die in a bus. He was a survivor.

He today has a 16-by-20 foot cabin along the Yukon now near Kaltag. He regularly takes refuge there. It is small enough to heat efficiently with wood and big enough to be comfortable.

“I can stand up in it,” he said. “I had to crouch in the old cabin.”

He sees himself a Yukon survivor. There aren’t many of them. Most of those who escaped to the wilderness along with Cornberg in the 1970s gave up and went back to civilization where life is a lot easier.

“I can’t say I’ve run into any of them since the 1970s,” he admitted. “I think it’s to be expected. They grew up on Jack London. It was a fantasy.”

The Interior wilderness of Alaska is good at choking the life out of fantasies. It’s not a friendly place. Cornberg notes that Los Angeles and Fairbanks were chartered as cities not that far apart in time.

The Greater Los Angeles area is today home to 18.7 million people.  The Fairbanks Metropolitan Statistical Area, which covers an area almost the size of the state of New Jersey, is home to fewer than 100,000.

Some of them, like Cornberg, lead rich and successful lives, and yet the man that stirs so many emotions is the one who died young having accomplished nothing. McCandless lives on in a tall tale about a failed search for the meaning of life, although the reality is that a life lived in solitaire has no meaning.

It is a tree falling in the wilderness with no one around to witness. It only takes on meaning if someone comes along, discovers it resting on the ground, and writes a story about what might have been.

Or, more likely, what never was….

But that doesn’t diminish the power of the story.

Correction: This story differs from the original version. A direction was corrected.





11 replies »

  1. Craig,
    You write, “ Back behind was the Nenana River near the outpost community of Clear. The river was still largely encased in ice and snow as Jim Gallien said it was when he drove McCandless north to the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992”.

    Wikipedia states, “In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from South Dakota to Fairbanks, Alaska. He was last seen alive at the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28 by a local electrician named Jim Gallien, who had given McCandless a ride from Fairbanks to the start of the rugged track just outside the small town of Healy.“

    So, Wikipedia intImates Gallien was driving McCandless “south” from Fairbanks when he dropped him off at the Stampede Trail. But you write he was driving “north.”
    Just confused…

    BTW, I was a photographer with the Anchorage Times when it folded in June 1992. That summer, I rode twice with Richard Larson and others, on the Stampede Trail, introducing them to this awesome ride that was featured in his 1991 book “Mountain Bike Alaska: 49 Trails in the 49th State.” We never made it past the Savage River, but now wish, of course, we had persevered to the Teklanika, where there is a tram leading west over the river and close to the Magic Bus. Our sense of adventure would have had us cross that tram, and we may well have encountered McCandless…
    — Cheers, Doug Van Reeth

    • You’re right to be confused. The story had an error. It’s been corrected. You can’t get to the Stampede Road any other way than by driving south from Fairbanks.

      And I well remember you were at the Times in ’92. I’m old, but my memory isn’t that bad. There was a tram. There’s long been speculation as to how McCandless failed to find it or never used it.

      I miss Richard. I had some fun adventures with that guy.

      • I miss him too. I shared virtually every one of my adventures with him during my 15 years in Alaska…hiking, biking, kayaking, camping, skiing…
        It was devastating for me. I last saw him at my wedding in Colorado in 2005, where he was my best man, as I was his in 1997 in Kennecott.
        BTW, love your fact-based writing. A light in the forest in today’s maelstrom of modern “journalism.”

  2. Craig, I wanted to mention the picture of the Nenana River and caption for the picture at the beginning of this article. As I’m sure you know, McCandless entered the Alaska bush and crossed the river on his way to the bus in April of 1992. At that time it was a small stream as pictured. When McCandless attempted to leave the wilderness in July, the river was large and torrential as it always is in summer, so he was unable to cross. Neither McCandless nor Krakauer ever described the Nenana river as having a “swift current” in April; this description was used for the river at the time McCandless tried to cross in the summer. Based on your strangely extensive library of McCandless criticisms, I’m sure you are well aware of these details. Although the picture and caption are a small detail in the article I would advise you to be careful about potentially misrepresenting facts, as this type of thing could likely invalidate some of your more compelling arguments.
    Although I strongly disagree with your views on Alex McCandless, all the best to you anyways, and I hope you will take my suggestion in avoiding this kind of factual manipulation in the future.

    • Clara: Apparently you never read the story, or read carefully the book which is quoted in the story: “‘As the truck lurched over a bridge across the Nenana River, Alex looked down at the swift current and remarked that he was afraid of the water’ was how Krakauer recorded it. ‘A year ago down in Mexico,’ he told Gallien, ‘I was out on the ocean in a canoe, and I almost drowned when a storm came up.'”

      That would be in April and that was Krakauer’s very specific set up to explain why McCandless didn’t later cross the smaller Teklanika River in summer. There are a number of problems with the setup. The river was frozen at the time Gallien drove over it, there thus being no “swift current” to see. And Gallien says he never said what Krakauer said he said.

      As for the Tek being always large and torrential in the summer, this will come as a big surprise to those I know who have forded it. And to this guy:

      I don’t recommend his fording technique by the way, but that’s a different story.

      The other problem with your Tek conclusions is that no one knows what stage the river was at when McCandless hiked to it (or didn’t) and decided he was “trapped in the wild” (or wasn’t). Weather records for the time don’t appear to support the claim of high water, and McCandless’s “diary,” if one can even call it that, contains so little information no reasonable conclusions can be drawn.

      Meanwhile, I’m at a loss as to how one can disagree with the view that McCandless was an ill-prepared young man who sadly died in the Alaska wilderness as have others. His death by starvation defines the term “ill-prepared,” and sad is the only term for his early death no matter what sort of young man he might have been.

  3. Craig, I always enjoy your writings. As a lower 48’er who has covered a decent amount of ground while in Alaska, I always find myself missing and wanting more “realness” to fill in the gaps between trips. I always get that with you. I did have the pleasure of running into Mark and Otto from the show “Alaska, The Last Frontier”, up on East End Road (Homer) and listened to what BS the show was and how most of the stories were made-up. I had the pleasure of making it to the “Magic Bus” to view the “shrine” and see what BS the movie “Into the Wild” was. I only went because it was a “spiritual” quest for my 18yo daughter after reading the book. It was a moving experience. A young man got in over his head and lost his life over poor judgement. Sadly “with youth comes knowledge and with age comes wisdom”, Chris seemed to have brought neither of these. Keep up the good work..

    • thanks Brian. Chris had some issues. if not for those, he might have been another among many young men gone Into the Wild in Alaska only to safely return. sadly, the wilderness does not tolerate weaknesses, mental even more so than physical. i actually can imagine a scenario near the end where McCandless realistically concluded “I just want to die and get this over with.”

      • Craig, I didn’t mean to divert from your topic but, my point was to agree with you in the sense that most things aren’t what they seem. The comparrison between Cornberg and Chris the “noble Supertramp” was a stretch or take the Kilcher’s homestead “where the baby might starve if we don’t get these peaches canned for Winter”, all the while editing out the Safeway sign in the background down on the Spit. Guess it all makes for good TV. I don’t know a lot of Chris’s personal story of the demons he may have been running from but, had he just learned the simplest of game prep and not threw his maps away, or as you mentioned, climbed the ridge to the South, things could have turned out differently. Obviously, a preventable outcome. I don’t think I buy the whole poisoned seed theory.

  4. I lost all respect for Krakauer after he accused Anatoli Boukreev of gross negligence on 1996 Mt Everest rescue when in fact He managed to survive and was also instrumental in saving the lives of others.

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