Rob's Blog Archive

September 15, 2013

Dumbfounded by Nature










One of the things that I realized, both while reading Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and seeing the movie, was just how ignorant Chris McCandless, the bus kid, was.  As much as any story within the book, his attempt at crossing the Teklanika River to return to civilization exemplified this.  He had ventured from his camp to the spot at which he had crossed previously.  The flow in July, probably near the annual peak, was far greater than it had been in April, and he found crossing impossible.  He gave up and went back to his camp.  About a month later, he died from starvation. 

 Books on wilderness travel can devote as much as a full chapter to how to cross rivers.  Alaskan rivers, particularly, can be treacherous, even fatal.  McCandless’ difficulty surprises nobody with any real wilderness savvy.   The problem was that he didn’t even do the first obvious thing, scout for a good crossing point.  If he had simply ventured more than a quarter mile up and down the river looking for a better point to breach the torrent, he would have found a hand bridge and crossed safely.   Beyond scouting for a good spot, nothing says he timed the flow.  Alaskan rivers often have a huge daily cycle based on when the snow melts fastest and where that is.  If the melt of the primary source is a ways away, the peak flow can even occur during the night.  Based on what we know, McCandless didn’t do these.  His not finding the bridge is the smoking gun.

I had arrived at Denver International airport on Thursday, September 12, 2013.  As I walked past the TV monitors in the airport, the word uttered most often by newscasters to describe the rain was, “biblical.” The Denver area had received its annual allotment of precipitation during the previous four days.  Neither the drainage systems of the cities nor the land itself were set up to handle this.  Streets became rivers.  Streams became torrents.  One could believe that if that rain continued for only a little more time, the entire world could be covered with water.

Reports included vast amounts of property damage, isolated communities, and several deaths and near deaths.  And, of course, there were lots of people who had difficult conditions to deal with, though they really didn’t pose much of a threat to either them or their property. 

With all the pictures and network time devoted to what was going on, I never saw clear and accurate descriptions of how to cope with what the deluge had produced.  All they did was say that conditions were dangerous while not saying which conditions or what the dangers were.  As much as anything, the broadcasts I saw propagated confusion and blind fear. 

I wasn’t quite shouting while watching these, but I was raising my voice with my disgust.  I would have at least kept my voice down had broadcasters simply said that, among the conditions that kill people are flashfloods and that these really do come out of nowhere---heavy rain upstream can produce a rapidly moving wall of water even when there’s no rain within several miles.  If you’re in an area being evacuated because of possible flashfloods, get out. 

The fact that newscasters may not have even basic wilderness savvy makes no difference---describing which conditions are dangerous and which aren’t is fundamental.  If a newscaster doesn’t know the answer, he should ask, something I was also making clear to my brother-in-law and his dog.

Instead, I saw blind fascination, probably not too dissimilar from McCandless’.  Newscasts of basically benign conditions scaring people were presented side by side with those of truly treacherous conditions and difficult rescues.  And to the extent that the newscasters I saw expressed anything, it was ignorant wide-eyed wonder.  That neither the broadcasters nor their staff had figured out what was dangerous and what wasn’t disgusted me.  People in the Denver area had nothing from their news sources that helped them deal with the floods. 

A friend recently described a survival course he took where they talked about the rule of fours:  It takes four minutes to suffocate, four hours to die from exposure, four days to dehydrate, four weeks to starve, and four months to die from loneliness.  And, for emphasis on its importance, the list starts with it takes four seconds to make a bad decision that will kill you.  The key to making good decisions is knowledge. 

When I started camping and hiking, I read up on how to do these.  I also practiced in our backyard.  I also joined the Boy Scouts and, later, took climbing courses from the Sierra Club and Caltech.  My parents emphasized the importance of learning from the time I was a kid---that not doing your homework was simply dumb.  That gray haired newscasters showed no more ability to do this than an incompetent 24 year old resulted in me raising my voice and grinding my teeth.

McCandless’ ignorance killed him.  I doubt that the newscasters’ ineptitude caused any deaths, though I’d guess it caused a lot more stress than was necessary, and there was plenty of that to go around.  For sure, it added to the stresses my brother-in-law and his dog felt. 

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