Study: McCandless May Have Been a Victim of Bad Timing

Researchers: River he tried, failed to cross may have been passable a day before, after
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 20, 2022 11:35 AM CDT
Study: A Tweak to His Timing Might Have Saved McCandless
A view of the Teklanika River is shown.   (Getty Images / Jonathan Mauer)

A study on the hydrology of Alaska's Teklanika River in the summer of 1992 might seem like a subject that would have limited appeal—were it not for the young man who tried and failed to cross it. That would be Christopher McCandless, whose death that year in the Alaska wilderness became the subject of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild and a film of the same name. McCandless first crossed the river on April 28 and lived in Bus 142. As his food supplies dwindled, he attempted to recross the river on July 5 but found it too high; he died from starvation on Aug. 18. Some 30 years later, Oregon State University College of Engineering researchers say they've determined that McCandless might have made it had he tweaked his timing by just a day. Their findings have been published in Frontiers in Earth Science.

Hydrologist David Hill and water resources graduate student Christina Aragon used computer modeling to compare the hydrology of the area that year to other years, and to compare Teklanika River conditions on the day of the attempted crossing to those on July 4 and July 6. They found that an extended cold spell led to a "significant" delay in the spring snowmelt and associated streamflow increase, which likely permitted his April crossing. The late and quick snowmelt that followed kept the streamflow "more variable than usual." On July 5, they found McCandless likely encountered "a large amount of rainfall-driven runoff," per a press release, raising the possibility that had he accelerated or delayed his crossing by a day or two, he may have found the river passable. (In 2015, Krakauer revised his theory on what killed McCandless.)

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