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Author revisits how 'Into the Wild' subject died in Alaskan bus

Sep. 12, 2013 at 8:41 PM ET

Christopher McCandless died in an abandoned Alaskan bus more than two decades ago, but the mystery of his final days continues to mystify and fascinate. And on Thursday, more information was revealed that may lead to a better understanding of how exactly he died.

IMAGE: Christopher McCandless
Chris McCandless / Villard-McCandless Family via AP
This undated photo provided by the Villard-McCandless family shows Chris McCandless, 24, posing for a self-portrait with a porcupine. McCandless hiked into the Alaska wilderness in April 1992 and died there in late August of that year.

McCandless, of course, was the 24-year-old subject of the Jon Krakauer best-selling book "Into the Wild," which later became a 2007 movie starring Emile Hirsch. On Thursday, Krakauer published a new article in the New Yorker in which he re-examined his opinion on what exactly killed the young man who, in 1992, gave away his college fund, abandoned his car, and survived for 119 days alone on America's last frontier.

Krakauer retraced McCandless' final days in the book, and at first examined the idea that the starving young man accidentally poisoned himself by eating seeds from wild potato plants. That information would seem to be backed up by one of McCandless' own final journal entries, in which he wrote, "EXTREMLY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED."

In 1993, a year after McCandless' death, Krakauer wrote that the young man probably confused wild potato seeds (Latin name: Hedysarum alpinum), which were thought to be safe to eat, with the possibly toxic seeds of the wild sweet pea plant.

"As I began expanding my article into a book and had more time to ponder the evidence, however, it struck me as extremely unlikely that he’d failed to tell the two species apart," Krakauer wrote Thursday on the New Yorker's website.

Krakauer couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. The online writings of a man named Ronald Hamilton seemed to show in a very convincing way that McCandless died not from sweet pea seeds, but from the seemingly innocent wild potato plant.

To confirm Hamilton's version of events, Krakauer sent a sample of wild-potato seeds to a chemical laboratory in Michigan. The results showed that the seeds contained a neurotoxin referred to as ODAP that can cause paralysis and death in starving young men, such as McCandless. It wasn't the lack of food that killed the young man -- though that certainly weakened him -- it was the paralysis-causing poison he was ingesting via the seeds.

"Hamilton’s discovery that McCandless perished because he ate toxic seeds is unlikely to persuade many Alaskans to regard McCandless in a more sympathetic light, but it may prevent other backcountry foragers from accidentally poisoning themselves," Krakauer wrote. "Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis, he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April, and would still be alive today. If that were the case, Chris McCandless would now be forty-five years old."

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