Nick Jans recalls his own encounters with the stories and tragic deaths of Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless. Treadwell is pictured here with Aimee Hugenard at Upper Kaflia Lake, less than 100 yards from where they would die a year later. Photo by Willie Fulton, courtesy Nick Jans.
Seems like just the other day rather than 1992 I sat in my cabin, shaking my head over the Sunday paper. Moose hunters had found a body in an abandoned bus along the Stampede Trail. The poor galoot, long on ambition but woefully underprepared, had set out to walk across Alaska and instead ended up way short, hunkered in and around that bus for several months as he slowly starved to death.
Eleven years later, I stood alone on the crest of a brushy hill overlooking Kaflia Lake on the Katmai coast where a California surfer-type dude and his female companion had been attacked and eaten by a brown bear just five days before. A TV wildlife personality, he’d been hanging around Katmai’s bruins for more than a decade and called them his friends.
The first, of course, was Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame; the other, Timothy Treadwell, the goofy-seeming bear whisperer most folks know through Werner Herzog’s docudrama, Grizzly Man. These two characters seem doppelgangers: both young guys from Outside who came north seeking to paint their stories on the sprawling canvas of the Great Land. Both died hard and gained posthumous, widespread notoriety through the retelling of their sagas. Last but not least, both are held by most Alaskans on a negative sliding scale ranging from lack of sympathy to utter contempt—mostly, far as I can tell, for having the nerve to come to Alaska and die in our collective back yard of seemingly self-inflicted, willful ineptitude.
Tim and Chris were hardly the first to have felt the Great Land’s pull, ventured northward starry-eyed, plunged into the country head-first, and ended up forever gone. Think of the explorers, missionaries, gold miners, pilots, and miscellaneous adventurers over the past centuries that must have followed the same arc. But due to the ghastly nature of their deaths and prominent telling, Chris and Tim ended up getting famous—the hard way.
Though their stories seem so similar, the legacies of these two men are strikingly different, due in no small part to the perspectives of their storytellers. Author Jon Krakauer’s international bestseller Into the Wild casts Chris McCandless’s exploits in a philosophical, heroic light, arguing that the young man’s tragic Alaskan sojourn manifested the same noble, spiritual impulse that has led adventurers across human history into the unknown. Filmmaker Werner Herzog, on the other hand, through edited snippets of Treadwell’s own video diaries, overlain with didactic narrative, presented Timothy as a man teetering on the edge of insanity. No surprise, then, that McCandless has become an international icon, celebrated in a major film directed by Sean Penn, venerated to the point that travelers make their own pilgrimages to the spot where he died. What they find is a brush-ringed clearing where the rusting bus (removed in June 2020) once sat, surrounded by a rather unremarkable swatch of country. Tim Treadwell, meanwhile, is widely regarded as the nutcase-cum-savant that Herzog painted him to be. Hey, the guy’s own videos couldn’t lie, right?
Trouble is, in order to present their artistic visions, Herzog and Krakauer, like lawyers, had to sort and stack the available facts to support their cases. I’m not suggesting that either deliberately misrepresented the truth. Each seemed swept along by the story they believed and filtered what they needed to fit their respective narratives. As in the fable of the four blind men and the elephant, each felt a different part of the animal and came to conclusions that were incomplete at best.
I met Jon Krakauer several years before he broke big, and a few lines of a long personal letter I wrote him are quoted (quite out of context) in Into the Wild. As for Treadwell: After shrugging off suggestions from my friend and filmmaker Joel Bennett to tag along and meet Tim interacting with bears out on the Katmai coast, I ended up years later standing at his last camp, wrapped in the scent of death, and going on to write my own boots-on-the ground take on Tim Treadwell, The Grizzly Maze. In the process of offering perspective on these two tales as told by Krakauer and Herzog, there’s no point in scrabbling through a bone pile of details. Broader strokes will do.
The story of Chris McCandless takes on a different cast when one considers the fact that he really didn’t do a whole lot or go much of anywhere. Despite his grand aspiration to walk across Alaska, he gave up after a few miles and ended up dying in that bus while he could have saved himself if only he’d possessed a skosh more outdoors acumen. I don’t fault him, but I don’t find a whole lot inspiring or heroic, either. His tale rings just plain sad.
Tim Treadwell, on the other hand, survived for the better part of 13 seasons in bear central, camping out, mostly alone, with no gun or even pepper spray, weather-battered and bug bitten, sometimes terrified, standing down charges and threats—something no Alaskan I know of has equaled. Yet he’s cast the incompetent lunatic. Joel Bennett, who spent more time with Tim in Katmai than anyone else, told me Tim was ultra-knowledgeable and careful around bears, a bit odd, maybe a put-on act at times, but certainly not crazy. Bush pilot Willie Fulton agrees. Yet Joel is nowhere to be found in Herzog’s film; and Willie, who is, never got to defend Tim on camera.
And the Great Land sweeps beyond our tiny horizon, eternal and utterly uncaring.