Summary and Analysis
Chapter 17 - The Stampede Trail
The author revisits the Teklanika River one year and one week after Christopher McCandless decided not to cross it. Krakauer, however, is well-equipped to ford the river. Accompanied by three accomplished outdoorsmen, the author also is in possession of a detailed topographical map, which reveals that a half-mile downstream from where McCandless tried to cross, there is a gauging station built by the U.S. Geological Survey. The station can't be seen from the Stampede Trail, but after hiking through thick bush, Krakauer and his friends reach it and locate a steel cable. The cable stretches between a 15-foot tower on one side of the river and an outcrop on the opposite shore. Krakauer explains, "Hydrologists traveled back and forth above the river by means of an aluminum basket that is suspended from the cable with pulleys," — a means by which McCandless could have crossed the engorged river.
The author wonders why McCandless didn't attempt another crossing of the Teklanika the next month, in August, instead of staying inside the bus and starving to death. Krakauer and his friends cross the river, and after a long trek they come upon the Sushana River bus. The author inventories its contents: a bag of bird feathers, perhaps meant for insulating McCandless's clothes; a kerosene lamp; Ronald Franz' machete sheath; books; a stove fashioned out of an old oil drum; jeans padded with silver duct tape; hiking boots; toenail clippers; a nylon tent spread across a gaping hole in the bus's window. Krakauer and his companions ruminate about McCandless's demise — was he merely a "loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense?" Small in stature, did McCandless feel he had to prove his manhood by means of extreme physical challenges? Ultimately Krakauer seems to believe that McCandless wasn't consumed by existential despair, but driven by meaning and purpose. He distrusted the value of things that came easily. "He demanded much of himself," the author writes, " — more, in the end, than he could deliver."
The ironies multiply in this, the book's penultimate chapter. The basket that Krakauer and his companions discover at the U.S.G.S. station has been secured by hunters to the side of the river on which McCandless camped so as to make crossing the Teklanika harder for outsiders. "If he'd known about it," the author writes, "crossing the Teklanika to safety would have been a trivial matter. Because he had no topographic map, however, he had no way of conceiving that salvation was so close at hand."
In another irony, McCandless was close to not only the abandoned gauging station but three empty hunting cabins, as well. Did he really go "into the wild" after all? Undoubtedly he was living in a hostile environment during the months he spent in Alaska, but some wouldn't call the area he inhabited the wilderness at all.