SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


When the call of the wild turns deadly
Toronto Globe and Mail


September 24, 2007
Monday PM

TORONTO -- In the spring of 1992, a 24-year-old Virginian tromped into the woods three hours west of Fairbanks, Alaska, to live off the land for a season. Four months later, Christopher McCandless was packed out of the bush a 67-pound corpse.

The tale of his horrifying decline was soon frozen into North American lore, popularized in news articles and "Into the Wild," a best-selling book by Jon Krakauer.

On Friday, a movie version of the book directed by Sean Penn is to open, cementing McCandless' place in Northern mythology as a tragic hero who courted death for a chance to live free of civilization.

His folly isn't so uncommon.

In Canada, the backcountry wanderings of solace seekers turn fatal on such a regular basis, their exploits rarely merit more than a few column inches in community newspapers.

"These types are fairly common in the North," says writer Farley Mowat, who has spent stints as both subject and documenter of survival in the wild. "All humans have this deep hunger to reconnect with nature, to feel symbiosis with the natural world. ... That puts you on the edge a lot. Sometimes over the edge."

Take 19-year-old William Sommer. Shortly after graduating from high school, the Ancaster, Ontario, teen bounced from auto-plant to construction jobs in search of deeper fulfillment. That quest eventually drew him north to Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in the spring of 1999.

Sputtering across the region in a beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit, Sommer befriended a number of locals who taught him basic survival skills. By July, he'd pronounced himself ready to run the torrential South Nahanni River by kayak.

Ignoring the advice of two Nahanni National Park wardens who were concerned he was unprepared to survive the rapids, Sommer put in on turbid Little Nahanni River.

A month later, his concerned mother called the park office. They dispatched a helicopter, which soon spotted Sommer's overturned kayak containing only food and a Bible.

His body was never found; his story rarely recounted.

The federal agency Parks Canada has reported that as many as 40 people die in the country's national parks every year.

Sommer falls into a broad category of adventurers who've gone north heeding the call of the wild, a tradition that goes back to centuries past and the ill-fated explorers who volunteered to go aboard ships seeking the Northwest Passage.

When Peter Harmathy put a call out for crew members to join him on a daring walk across the Arctic in 1986, he received more than 400 eager responses. He chose four men to join him, all of them eager to escape their problems.

Over the course of their trip, they risked death on a daily basis. They hiked across breaking ice floes and often traveled on empty stomachs. One crew member fell through ice and nearly drowned.

"We were insane," admits Harmathy, who's now a teacher in southern Ontario. "But this has remained the focal point in all our lives even 20 years later."

Just like so many anonymous crew members aboard exploration ships, the names of those who have died more recently in the wilderness go unknown.

In the fall of 2002, a 29-year-old Montrealer named Yan Gulevych set out to cross Newfoundland's mountainous Northern Peninsula to Great Harbor Deep, a remote outport on the east coast. What he and the five friends who joined him didn't know was that Great Harbor Deep had been abandoned that summer in a government resettlement program.

At some point during the poorly planned adventure, Gulevych wandered off into the snow and floating bogs wearing only cotton pants and a light nylon coat. His remains will likely never be found.

"That's territory so rugged that hunters and outfitters don't even go there," says Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Wayne Newell, who was involved in the search. "He was poorly equipped, had inadequate clothing and a lack of nourishment. It was a lot of bad choices."

Bart Schleyer, 49, a renowned bear and tiger expert, moved to the Yukon in 2002 to escape the pressures of work and society. In 2004, Schleyer, a veteran outdoorsman and avid bow hunter, was flown about 175 miles north of Whitehorse to go moose hunting alone. When the pilot returned three weeks later to retrieve Schleyer, there was no sign of him.

Search teams later found his skull and other remains. His death warranted but two brief mentions in Canada's daily papers.

Even with so many cautionary tales, there's no extinguishing some people's innate desire to commune with nature -- and risk their lives doing so -- according to Mowat.

"Some of us have to escape our own kind," says Mowat, who retreated to the North after fighting in World War II. "For me, I had such a revulsion of my own kind. ... I wanted to get away from them."

And for those who've outlived their perilous exploits, the experience was worth tempting death.

"This was the answer to all our confusions," Harmathy says of his trek across the Arctic. "I totally sympathize with McCandless and those like him. They have a very special place in my heart."

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Ketchikan, Alaska