Sunday, January 13, 2008

Alaska - Magnet for the Batshit Crazy

In his book Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer devotes Chapter 8 to a number of other cases where individuals who were either ignorant, insane, or a combination of the two, attempted to make a go of living in the wilds of Alaska and met with unfortunate ends.

The most tragi-comic of all was the story of "Carl McCunn, an affable absentminded Texan who moved to Fairbanks during the 1970s oil boom." McCunn was also an amateur photographer, and he wanted to spend the summer in a remote area of Alaska near Fort Yukon to shoot pictures of the wildlife. His stay might have been uneventful but for one incredible act of stupidity on his part. McCunn had hired a bush pilot to drop him off at a remote lake, BUT HE FAILED TO MAKE ARRANGEMENTS for the pilot to pick him back up at the end of August!

We know what was going on in McCunn's mind, because he recorded his thoughts in a diary that he kept. By late August, when the pilot did not arrive to pick him up, McCunn confessed to his diary, "I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure." Still, by September, McCunn was filled with a burst of hope. While out hunting for duck, a plane buzzed overhead. It circled twice flying low over the camp. McCunn waved at the pilot, but the plane could not land because the plane was equipped with wheels instead of floats, so it could not land on the lake. So when the plane flew away, McCunn was certain the pilot would bring back help for him.

This past spring, when I was taking scuba diving lessons, one of the most important things I was taught was the proper use of hand signals. For example, when you are on the surface of the water, waving your hands above your head is a sign of distress. To signal that you are okay, you bend your arms sideways and place your hands on the top of the head. If you want to piss off a divemaster, try waving your arms to indicate that you are okay. Under the water, you better not give a thumbs up unless you intend for you and your dive buddy to surface. What McCunn did not realize when he waved at the pilot was that he was giving the signal for "all OK; assistance not necessary." To signal "SOS; send immediate help", McCunn should have had two upraised arms. This mistake sealed his fate. Starving, frostbitten, and bereft of hope, Carl McCunn blew his brains out with his shotgun in late November or early December of 1981.

If Jon Krakauer had written Into The Wild in 2004 instead of 1996, he undoubtedly would have devoted a section of his book to Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers in a row living among the grizzlies in Alaska. I decided to watch Werner Herzog's documentary about Treadwell, Grizzly Man, after having watched and read Into The Wild.

Treadwell shot over 100 hours of footage of himself and the Alaskan grizzlies during his time there, and the better part of Herzog's documentary consists of Treadwell's footage. For those who might not be familiar with Treadwell (who it turns out is from here on Long Island), he was killed on October of 2003 along with his girlfriend, by a rogue bear that invaded their camp. It is believed that the attack happened suddenly, as Treadwell's camera was turned on but the lens cap had not been removed. However, the attack was recorded on audiotape. Herzog does not play the audio for the viewer, but we are informed that while Treadwell was being mauled by the bear, he pleaded for his girlfriend to run for safety. Apparently she ignored his pleas and tried to drive off the bear by striking it with a frying pan, causing the bear to turn on her as well.

The picture that emerges of Treadwell in Herzog's movie, intentional or not, is of a man who was seriously deranged. Below is a segment from the documentary in which Treadwell rants to his camera against the National Parks Service. Be forewarned that his diatribe is laced with gratuitous use of the "F" word. Treadwell boasts of the protection he provides for the bears, but one never gets the sense that the he actually did anything to protect the bears, nor much less that the bears required it. At best, judging from what I have seen and read, the most that Treadwell achieved was to raise public awareness about the Alaskan grizzlies.

And here is an amusing spoof of Treadwell called Hedgehog Man.

It's interesting how the state of Alaska seems to draw so many people to it who seek to live life on the edge in the wild. For some of those who met their death, like McCandless and Treadwell, they seemed to have been blinded by their own attitudes towards nature. Nature is seen as something to commune with, as if nature was a conscious entity that can reward one's love and reverence. Nature is in fact indifferent to us, and does not require our reverence, but it does deserve our respect.


3Boys Productions said...

that story of "oops, I forgot to arrange a pick-up" cracked me up and made the whole Wild book for me, and you gotta admire the guy for being honest and open about it... unlike all the other berry-eating crazies, I was hoping he would somehow be rescued... oh well.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen One Man's Wilderness? A guy named Dick Proenekke went to a remote lake region and built himself a cabin, where he lived to 50 years. He filmed mose of it, and kept a diary. A bit touched in the head, perhaps, but he made sure he had a supply line from the world.

It's a great documentary, and book.

The Conservative Thinker said...

When I click on your links I get a warning.
for malware
Are you aware of that or have you been blocked?

Sarah said...

Mccunn did arrange to picked up - he just wasn't clear enough and it never got confirmed with the pilot. While he obviously wasn't very bright and asked for what he got, it's still a sad story.

Tommykey said...

Thanks for the clarification, Sarah. I agree, it is sad what happened to him.