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Wilderness devours the deluded, ignorant and ill
Anchorage Daily News


August 31, 2005

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Wilderness shows no compassion for those who struggle with life, so we should take a moment to contemplate the sad fate of Richard Hasbell.

The 34-year-old Anchorage man struggling with mental illness disappeared into Denali National Park and Preserve in July. An extensive and costly search for him largely ended earlier in August.

"Our thoughts are with the family, who don't yet have an answer to the question of what may have happened to Richard and where he is," Park Superintendent Paul Anderson said.

Nobody knows for sure why Hasbell went into the wilderness. A brother has speculated that maybe "he had a breakdown and maybe went into a paranoid schizophrenic mood and tried to get away from society."

The Alaska wilderness is a good place to get away from society, but you had best have yourself together before you go. The Alaska wilderness is a good place to challenge yourself. The Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself.

The Alaska wilderness is a bad place to find yourself.

Not far north of where Hasbell disappeared this year, 24-year-old Chris McCandless went looking for himself in 1996. His badly decomposed body was later found in a bus along the Stampede Trail on the north side of the park. He had starved to death.

Jon Krakauer, the climber and author, wrote a book about McCandless, "Into the Wild." It was about the young man's ultimately fatal search for the meaning of life. It also quoted at length from the journals of McCandless and in so doing revealed a young man wrestling with delusions and paranoia.

Delusions can get you killed in the wilderness. Paranoia, on the other hand, sometimes can be helpful, but only when it functions under some degree of control. The paranoia that leads you to set up a campsite you can defend from bears is healthy. The paranoia that causes you to run from every bear you meet could get you hurt or worse.

Delusions, though, be they big or small, are generally more dangerous than paranoias. And we are all prone to delusions to some degree. Delusions of invulnerability or infallibility probably kill or maim more people than anything in the Alaska wilderness. Three young men who tried to run Campground Rapids on Eagle River in a vinyl raft can attest to that. The raft sank. The three young men ended up stuck on rocks in the middle of the rapids, which was a good thing given that none of them had the sense to put on personal flotation devices before disaster struck.

Who knows if they would have made it if they had been forced to swim the 43-degree river to reach safety. Luckily, the Anchorage Fire Department's swift-water rescue team showed up.

Full of the inherent invulnerability of youth, the three probably thought running Campground Rapids didn't look difficult. Their plight showed that you don't have to be as deluded as Timmy Treadwell to get into trouble.

For people like Treadwell, it's usually only a matter of time before their delusions get them killed in the Alaska backcountry.

Treadwell believed he had a special relationship with grizzlies. The fantasy lasted for 13 years until a bear killed and ate him in 2003, along with girlfriend Amie Huguenard.

There are people who still can't seem to understand what happened.

"Tim never wanted anyone to do things the way he did," friend and former business partner Jewel Palovak told The Associated Press. "It's very dangerous. (But) Tim had a relationship with those bears and was unscathed."

Unscathed? The man was killed by a bear.

Why? Because he had a sad delusion that was fed, unfortunately, by friends, supporters and businesses primarily in California. These were the enablers who made it possible for him to come to Alaska every summer to hang with the bears.

Almost all of them knew, or should have known, how dangerous it was. Palovak, who co-wrote a book with Treadwell about bears, was so scared of the animals she wouldn't even come to Alaska.

And yet everyone thought it was cute that Timmy came.

The guy was playing Russian roulette, and many knew it. But instead of trying to stop it, they supported it because Treadwell said it made him feel better.

If you have a friend like Treadwell, show a little more concern. Get him or her some help. And don't encourage wandering in the wilderness in search of self. They won't find it there.

And if you meet someone in the wilderness who seems mentally disconnected, don't dismiss any odd behavior. Find a park ranger or an Alaska state trooper or someone to at least go talk to them.

Had someone done that for Hasbell, he might be among friends today. It's bad enough we leave mentally unstable people to wander the streets of America's cities. It's worse when we let them simply stroll off into the wilderness to die.


Contact Craig Medred at cmedred(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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