I recently finished reading Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods by Cary J. Griffith - a gripping account of the experiences of two hikers in Minnesota's Boundary Waters.
I earnestly recommend this book to anyone interested in hiking in the wilderness. We all like to think that we travel prepared and intelligently into the wild, but what the book subtly explores is that it only takes a simple mistake or misjudgement to send one heading towards disaster.
Cary Griffiths's easy, journalistic style makes no judgements on the mistakes that Jason Rasmussen and Dan Stevens made on their separate journeys. He relates the events in a matter-of-fact manner which somehow increases the tension. As you read of their actions, you cannot help but cringe, knowing that they are making critical errors - yet errors easily made - that will get them deeper into trouble down the line.
Both Rasmussen and Stevens are not inexperienced hikers. Rasmussen has all the necessary gear with him as he heads along the Pow Wow Trail alone. Stevens, an experienced guide, leads a groups of scouts a canoeing trip.
Having hiked in the areas described, I well understood the conditions each of the young men experienced. The unmaintained trails through often dense and overgrown forest can be very hard to follow. Old logging trails and animal tracks often appear to be the more obvious route, and you can easily find yourself standing amidst thicket, the trail vanished from sight.
Without wanting to give away the whole story, it is fascinating to read how Rasmussen continues hiking, sensing he is on the right trail, but in fact heading in the opposite direction. This can happen easily in the woods. On a cloudy day, one's sense of direction can become confused. But what is startling is that, although he carried a compass, he never checked it, and as a result, before long, he winds up stumbling through the forest, through the bogs, around in circles. Lost. When he eventually finds a viable landmark - a lake - he sets up camp in his bright orange tent. But the next day makes the most horrendous error that left me cringing as I read it. He decides to leave his pack, tent, and ample food at the campsite while he scouts for the trail.
Stevens also makes a critical error on his search for a missing portage path. He heads off into the forest to sweep for the path (portage paths, when you hit them, are hard to miss - they experience far more traffic than trails), but leaves his group and goes alone. Then - and this is the part from which we could all learn - he trips, falls, and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes, concussed, he stumbles off confused and delirious. This could happen to anyone travelling solo.
I will say no more about the book, except that it is a great piece of journalism, and fascinating to read the events that followed. Heartily recommended.
In many ways, Lost in the Wild owes a debt to perhaps the most famous book about wilderness misadventure, Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. I've not yet read the book, but the other night I watched the movie, directed by Sean Penn.
Both the book and film detail the life and journey of Christopher McCandless, a young guy who appears to model his life on the inauthentic adventures of Jack London. I'm not going to review the quality of the film, except for saying that it is well made and worth seeing.
The story is quite fascinating though. McCandless leaves home, giving away his substantial savings, to travel America. He renames himself Alexander Supertramp, and sets off on journey across the continent, working here and there to get money to travel to Alaska.
This kind of hobo adventure seems to be a quite common in the USA, and I wonder why that is. His adventure is somewhat reminiscent of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and that fact that he renamed himself Alex Supertramp remind me of a book I was forced to read (but enjoyed) at school, The Autobiography of a Supertramp by W.H. Davies. In Minneapolis I often see people living down by the river, or a bunch of pseudo-Anarchists travelling through and living under one of the bridges crossing the Mississippi, begging for money to continue their journeys. What I find interesting is that we don't really see much of that going on in Europe, and the 'road' literature doesn't really exist to such a extent that it starts to define the culture, as it dies in the States.
To me, McCandless's actions seem supremely ignorant and arrogant, yet the film romanticises him as being almost wise beyond his years. In the book, apparently, Krakauer is more critical of his actions, and suggests that he suffers from some kind of attachment disorder, causing him to bolt before becoming too close with the people he meets.
It's a very sad story, the ending of which again reiterates the need for caution in the wilderness, where a simple mistake can lead to a horrifying end.
Incidentally, talking of horrifying endings, Danny Boyle's latest film, 127 Hours, is just out here, based on another excellent book - Aron Ralston's Between a Rock and a Hard Place. I plan to see it this week, but if you don't know the story, check it out. It's another account of a trip where things didn't go according to plan.