(Greek: κρυπτεία / krupteía, from κρυπτός / kruptós, “hidden, secret things”)

Archive for the ‘SURVIVAL’ Category

CyberShockwave = CyberFAIL Difference of Opinons

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From TaoSecurity

I just finished watching Cyber Shockwave, in the form of a two hour CNN rendition of the 16 February 2010 simulation organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). The event simulated, in real time, a meeting of the US National Security Council, with former government, military, and security officials role-playing various NSC participants. The simulation was created by former CIA Director General Michael Hayden and the BPC’s National Security Preparedness Group, led by the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Governor Thomas Kean and Congressman Lee Hamilton.

The fake NSC meeting was held in response to a fictitious “cyber attack” against US mobile phones, primarily caused by a malicious program called “March Madness.” For more details, read the press releases here, or tune into CNN at 1 am, 8 pm, or 11 pm EST on Sunday, or 1 am EST on Monday.

The Rest HERE

So, I already see lots of comments on Twitter and elsewhere claiming Cyber Shockwave was lame or a waste of time. As you can see it raised a lot of issues that I consider very important. I’m glad BPC organized this event and that CNN televised it. At the very least people are talking about digital security. Posted by Richard Bejtlich at 22:11 7 comments

Bejtlich and I differ in opinions on a few things but I think he has some good points. I was reactive that night at the superciliousness of the exercise as presented by CNN. Now that I have had time to think a bit, let me put some more words around what I spewed out on Saturday in hopefully a more cogent way.

Tao’s thoughts will be followed by my own.

  • Others have already criticized the technical realism of this exercise. I think that is short-sighted. If you have a problem with the scenario, insert your own version of a major technical problem that affects millions of people.

I still feel that this was no real exercise. One would hope that in such meetings today, we would have technically savvy people there on hand to talk to the technical aspects of what was happening and what course to take.  If we do not have someone technical in the SITROOM then we are hosed from the get go. You need to have SME’s there to explain the situation technically.

  • I think the real value of the exercise was revealing the planning deficiencies when cyber events are involved. Since this exercise supposedly occurred in the future, I was disappointed to not hear mention of the National Cyber Incident Response Plan, currently in draft.

I agree here. It would have been nice if they had talked about this response plan, but I am not so sure that this will get off the ground. Never mind the fact that were this type of attack to happen within say, the next 5 years, I am sure we would still not have the infrastructure to handle it properly as a country.

The turf wars that have started now likely will still be being fought and there will likely be no clear direction to follow. I really think that this country has yet to really hit by an attack from which it will learn and change. Until then, we will have talking heads in bunkers making bad decisions while the outside world goes to shit.

  • I was disturbed but not surprised to see the tension between preserving the Constitution, individual liberties, and property rights, vs “aggressive” action which is “ratified” following Presidential order. I was impressed by the simulated Attorney General’s defense of the law despite intimations by some of her colleagues that the President could pretty much do whatever he wanted.
  • This is classic talking head NSC blather. It was exacerbated by the fact that there were no technical SME’s on the panel to help the talking heads understand the complexities of the problem. When they started talking about the constitutionality of pulling cell phones offline as well as taking over telcos, I was just beyond rational thought.

    Were they to start doing these things it would only lend to the pandemonium that this attack and the press chatter about it would have caused. This would only amp it up and make the nation go into panic mode.

    Additionally, you could see as is pointed out above, that they seem to think that the president has carte blanche here to “protect the nation” but in doing these things, or even advocating them, they are doing this country a dis-service.

  • To complicate the situation, after the first hour news came of a bomb attack on two power stations, leading to or aggravating electrical grid failures on the east coast. I thought this was unnecessary. In the scenario wrap-up, the participants focused mainly on the cyber elements. I thought the exercise could have stayed focused on 100% cyber without bringing in a traditional terrorism angle.
  • Here I diverge again from Tao’s opinion. The cyber attack in question was a part of a larger attack that culminated with the explosion and taking down of the grid. Of course in the future this may not be necessary because the grid will be “smart” technology that is likely to be easily hacked and taken down in a massively larger plot. This would work even better because of the connectivity planned for these systems.

    In this case though, if this were a nation state actor they likely would take out the northeast grid at a sensitive location to make things worse. Of course the NE has the economic center of NY, so you can see where I am going here. Tao seems to miss that point. It’s not all about the cyber. In fact, I am more worried about a blended attack than I am a straight cyber one simply because, as the panel said, the systems are disparate and segregated. You couldn’t take them all down at once. Unless that is, you have invested a lot of time hacking and back door-ing them all before the attack goes live.

    This is another thing that was not talked about on the panel and may not have been apparent to many in the audience.

  • I thought the role of the simulated Cyber Coordinator revealed the weakness of the position. Most of the other participants relied on one, two, or three forms of authority when providing advice. They 1) offered specific expertise, e.g., the AG talking about the law; and/or 2) specific news, e.g., word from the Intel Community, and/or 3) explanations of what their agencies were doing, e.g., State describing interactions with other governments. The simulated Cyber Coordinator didn’t do much of those, and when he tried to apply expertise, he was wrong or wrong-headed. I cringed when he mentioned having ISPs require user PCs to be “secure” or to force them to apply patches. Just how would that happen? I could see a useful Cyber Coordinator be the person who knows the technology and its limitations, but outside of that role I have a lot of doubts.
  • Yes, there is no authority nor was there comprehension of the issues at hand by the one in charge. I think that we have much more to learn from episodes like this and yes, this was a learning experience, however, it need not have been on CNN. Unless this little event was a chance for the counterintel folks to pass out a healthy helping of “disinformation” we just let the world know pretty well how fubar we are where this attack type is concerned.

    On the issue of Tao’s cringing at the desire for ISP’s etc to enforce secure practices online, I don’t agree fully. I think that we need to get educated, but do stop at forcing people to be secure. However, I do agree that forcing corporations, military, contractors, etc that interface with the “infrastructure” should be forced to practice security. By law we already have rules about securing credit card and personal data, why not go further and audit companies to such standards around INFOSEC in general?

    After all, its all of these places that are the weak spots and getting hacked lately by the likes of China right? How about more legislation, oversight, and action here?

    In closing, I just want to re-iterate that this CNN show was poorly thought out. The whole “War of the Worlds This is a simulation” crap was almost not necessary because it was so patently useless. So yes, it may have brought up some questions that may be usefull to those in power, but mostly, it just led to more FUD for the public.


    The Alaska Experiment: Seeing just how domesticated we as a society have become

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    Recently I got a copy of the first season of “The Alaska Experiment” and decided to have a sit down with the whole series. It took a couple mornings of watching but I powered through the whole season, spending much of that time yelling at the TV because there were more than a couple morons participating in the “experiment”

    First off though, let me cover some territory for you here about past posts concerning Alaska, Chris McCandless, and the whole “Cult” that has grown around his story of erzats survival in the Alaskan bush. So here’s my thing:

    1) McCandless was not the sharpest knife in the drawer where it came to survival in the wilds of AK. Thus, he died.

    2) I am loathe of all those twenty-somethings out there who want to emulate him and wish to trek off to the “magic bus” that he died in. They pose more of a threat to their own lives and perhaps rescuers than anything else. They are just as likely to be as misguided and lacking in true survival skills as McCandless was, if not more so.

    3) I believe as a whole, that we as a society have become too domesticated to survive a day without a latte, never mind being plunked down in the bush and expected to survive past a week nevermind three months. This goes not only for the Alaska bush, but just about anywhere woodsy.

    4) Lastly, this show is just that.. “a show” so, it is likely that there is some jiggering of plot lines etc here. It is noted in big disclaimers that there were wilderness experts off camera to assure that these people don’t just get themselves offed right quick. In essence, they were in danger there from their own brand of stupid, distance from hospitals, and encounters with wildlife that could end them. Aside from that, they were relatively safe with camera crews etc…

    Ok, that said, lets get on to the object lessons..

    The show placed four groups into differing areas of the AK coast. One couple had a canvas tent, another had a exceedingly small shack on a glacier, and the other group of three people had a hunting cabin. All of the groups had little to no real backwoods experience and all were not accustomed to the rigours that they were about to undertake.

    The groups were sent out at the end of the summer when the salmon were running. Each area had differing amounts of natural game available and ALL only had dried stores of food that really lacked protein rich stuffs. In essence, it’s kinda like that bag of rice that Supertramp had and that’s about it. NONE of them started off with guns whatsoever either.

    ** Note here.. Uhh WTF no guns? IT’S ALAKSA!! Bears, moose, etc could whack em as well as uh, how do you get protein other than fish? IF you catch fish? Eventually they get guns but mostly I only saw a .22 rifle.. That ain’t gonna do shit!**

    So, they are plunked down with some stores and some shelter… Go forth and forage! It wasn’t long before these people began to eat too much of their stores, realize that fishing is hard, and that it’s fucking cold in Alaska. Oh, and did I mention that it’s riddled with wildlife that will eat you or stomp you if it wants to? Yeah… AND it’s salmon run and the bears are hungry… But I have no gun… I will just poke em with a stick… Yeah that will work.

    *ok I know there are guides there with guns.. but.. C’mon don’t give people ideas here!*

    Ok, we have a mix for disaster don’t we. Yep…

    I will not go into much more detail, I will let you all locate the series and watch it yourselves. Perhaps you too will be yelling at the screen because some of these people would have been dead dead dead were it not for camera crews and guides. I saw some powerful epic stupid and really, it’s kinda glossed over by the show and that is troublesome.

    The one thing that was nailed home in this series was the BMI needs and the measurements carried out by the volunteers. It quite clearly shows how much BMI is in importance for survival especially in the wild. You are expending a lot of energy to hunt and gather. Unless you do a good job at that and plan, then you will lose body mass and eventually, like McCandless, could die from lack of protein. I am glad that the show at the very least, covered this issue repeatedly. I guess someone learned from the Supertramp experience.

    In the end, everyone makes it out alive. Perhaps having learned a few things, like NEVER going into the bush EVER again! Overall though, it really makes you see rather clearly how ill equipped we are as urban dwellers to really make a stab at survival in the wild..

    Unless you work at it.

    The second season will be broadcast this year with new “volunteers” heh… Donner, party of four now seating!

    Really, if you want to learn anything about bush survival, I suggest you look up the name “Ray Mears”


    Written by Krypt3ia

    2009/12/23 at 15:14

    Posted in EPIC FAIL, SURVIVAL, Tv

    CBRN: Protective Steps

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    Given all the talk lately about Nantaz and the new secret facility that, well, ain’t so secret, I thought this was an appropriate heads up.

    How To Survive A Dirty Bomb

    Written by Krypt3ia

    2009/11/18 at 01:10

    Posted in CBRN, SURVIVAL

    The Cult of Chris McCandless

    with 10 comments

    Alaskans fault Krakauer for romanticizing McCandless, thereby encouraging others to model themselves after his life. Before the film has even been released, it has become common to blame Hollywood for further glamorizing a senseless tragedy. As Dermot Cole, a columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, puts it, “To sell the story, they’ve made it into a fable. He’s been glorified in death because he was unprepared. You can’t come to Alaska and do that.”

    Not to harp on this subject, but I find myself pondering this whole movie and ersatz movement surrounding this story. You see, I too have had those desires to “suck out the marrow of life” that Thoreau wrote so eloquently about. However, I have never been deluded to the fact that by birth in this age, I am nothing but a domesticated animal.

    We all are in fact domesticated animals today I think. We want food, we go to the quickie mart and nuke a burrito. We need clothes, we go to Old Navy. We are, most of us in this country and many others, wholly divorced from the elements that forged our needs and desires so many thousands of years ago, to seek caves and make flint knives to kill and cut meat. As such, many of us would not survive in the harsh world of the Alaskan bush period. With proper planning though, and use of tools, one might live for a while, but without the real “gnosis” of how the wild works, we would inevitably end up dead.

    It’s the realization of this truism, that separates the foolhardy and altruistic, from the ones who would survive because they planned things out a bit better, knowing that the “wild” is a harsh place where its kill or be killed. Chris McCandless I think, was too altruistic and young, to really have the knowledge that he needed to survive the tests he set before himself. In that, he was naive and in no way, even with the spirit he had of “living” he had in mind, was he a hero.

    However, here we are… A major motion picture is coming out (I believe already in select release) and will inspire more insipid teen angst ridden youth, to seek out their inner Walt, or Henry David, and perhaps end up the same way or worse. Chris McCandless did “live” in his freedom I think. His wanderings and meeting the souls along the “path” surely is more of a life well lived I think, than many of us actually get to explore in today’s world. It’s just that, that I think people are grabbing onto and desiring, not the going into the wilderness to “test” ones self against the wild.

    Misguided is what they are. Misguided even more so by the likes of John Krakauer, and now Sean Penn with this siren song of “God he lived!” in “Into The Wild” We all have those times when we feel that there must be much more to life, as we sit in our cubicle and realise that we are no more than domesticated homosapiens. It’s a sad revelation really, and we yearn for more.

    I guess that what I am driving at is this; There is more to life, Chris discovered much of that in the people he met and the places he saw. Chris was young, and perhaps he was mentally unbalanced. Perhaps he was just too much a dreamer, but certainly, he was unprepared and inexperienced for such an undertaking as the wilds of Alaksa *EDIT* (I might remind you too, that he was not that far off the beaten path here. This site is a bit to hump back out of, but completely doable. This was not a 6 hour chopper flight into the dark territory here! Hell, he refused a map before going in!). Ask any Alaskan and you will hear the same thing, with a disdain in their voice.

    So, all of you who go to see this film and walk out feeling that Chris was some kind of quasi Bodhisattva, think twice you domesticated chattel of modernity… Cuz if you try the same thing you are likely to be Grizz food.


    Fifteen years after an enigmatic 24-year-old walked Into the Wild, the site of his death has become a shrine. As Hollywood weighs in with a portrait of the young man as a saintlike visionary, has the truth been lost? Inside the strange life and tragic death of “Alexander Supertramp.” –Matthew Power

    Fifteen years have passed: 15 howling Alaska winters and 15 brief frenzied summers, and the ancient bus on the Stampede Trail still rusts in the wilderness, almost exactly as Chris McCandless left it. Twenty-two miles from the nearest road, shaded out by alder and black spruce on a moraine rise above a creek, the green and white WWII-vintage International Harvester looks surreally out of place, like an artifact from a vanished civilization. The bus doesn’t at first seem a likely time capsule of American mythology, a shrine to which people from around the world make pilgrimages and leave tributes in memory of a young man whom they see as a fallen hero. It doesn’t look to be the sort of place that would inspire a best-selling book, much less a major motion picture. But that’s exactly what it is.

    Fireweed and wild potato grow up in the wheel wells. On the side of the bus Fairbanks 142 is still legible in paint that has been bleached and scoured by the seasons. A few bullet holes have starred the windows; whether they were fired out of anger or boredom is unclear. Other than that, the people who have made the trek out here, out of respect or superstition, have left the site largely untouched. The vertebrae of the young moose McCandless shot lie scattered. The bones, and a smattering of feathers, add to the spooky aura of a charnel ground. Inside, near an old oil-barrel stove, McCandless’s jeans are neatly folded on a shelf, knees patched with scraps of an old army blanket, seat patched with duct tape. And the bed is still there too, springs and stuffing bursting from the stained mattress, as if a wild animal’s been at it. The same bed where they found his body.

    It was a haunting tale, capturing the imagination of the country. September 1992, deep in the bush of the Alaskan interior northeast of Mount McKinley, in an abandoned bus on a disused mining trail, the decomposed body of a man was found by a moose hunter. The remains weighed only 67 pounds, and he had apparently died of starvation. He carried no identification, but a few rolls of undeveloped film and a cryptic journal chronicled a horrifying descent into sickness and slow death after 112 days alone in the wilderness. When the man’s identity was established, the puzzle only deepened. His name was Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old honors graduate, star athlete, and beloved brother and son from a wealthy but dysfunctional East Coast family. With a head full of Jack London and Thoreau, McCandless rechristened himself “Alexander Supertramp,” cut all ties with his family, gave his trust fund to charity, and embarked on a two-year odyssey that brought him to Alaska, that mystic repository of American notions of wilderness, a blank spot on the map where he could test the limits of his wits and endurance. Setting off with little more than a .22 caliber rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice, McCandless hoped to find his true self by renouncing society and living off the land. But, as Craig Medred would note in the Anchorage Daily News, “the Alaska wilderness is a good place to test yourself. The Alaska wilderness is a bad place to find yourself.” No one ever saw McCandless alive again. Fifteen years later his story continues to resonate as a quintessentially American tale, and its hero has assumed near mythic status, blurring the lines between living memory and the creation of a legend.

    When writer Jon Krakauer first heard McCandless’s story, he later told a reporter, “the hair on my neck rose.” Krakauer’s profound empathy for his subject and obsessive research yielded Into the Wild, a heartbreaking portrait that has sold more than 2 million copies and become the authoritative version of the McCandless story, around which all discussions are framed. In Krakauer’s telling, McCandless represents the human urge to push the limits of experience, to live a life untouched by the trappings of culture and civilization. Now that portrait has been taken up by the ultimate mythologizer: Hollywood. The film, to be released in September, was written and directed by Sean Penn and filmed on location in the many places McCandless traveled.

    Woven through with the timeless themes of self-invention, risk, and our complex relationship to the natural world, the enigma of Chris McCandless is once again being debated, more vociferously than ever. Was his death a Shakespearean tragedy or a pitch-black comedy of errors? What impact has the tale and its renown had on our perception of Alaska? And perhaps most tantalizingly: Did Krakauer, and now Penn, get key parts of the story wrong?

    From almost the moment he was found, the meaning of Chris McCandless’s life and lonely death has been fiercely argued. The debate falls into two camps: Krakauer’s visionary seeker, the tragic hero who dared to live the unmediated life he had dreamed of and died trying; or, as many Alaskans see it, the unprepared fool, a greenhorn who had fundamentally misjudged the wilderness he’d wanted so desperately to commune with. If the cult that has grown up around McCandless is any indication, we want the romantic portrait to be true: that he made a series of small mistakes that compounded in disaster. But the truth doesn’t always conform to Hollywood’s ideals.

    The eerie quiet at the bus, broken only by the drone of mosquitoes and the rustling of alder leaves, would be more unsettling were it not for the presence of Brent Keith, a local hunting guide who has driven me out to the bus on his six-wheeled Polaris Ranger ATV. I feel relieved to have the burly 38-year-old Alaskan here, wearing a “Team Glock” hat and carrying a 10mm on his hip to prove it, plus a satellite phone and a six-pack of Moosehead behind the seat. On the way to the bus, a two-day hike from the nearest road, we spotted enormous bear tracks, and Keith had told me about dropping a charging grizzly from 15 feet away.

    To reach the spot where McCandless died we forded two rivers, the Savage and the Teklanika, the latter milky with glacial till and running so high and swift it had come up to our seats when we plowed through, nearly drowning the air intake on the Ranger. As he steered into the rushing water, Keith had shouted to me over the straining engine, “You know what the state motto of Alaska is? ‘Hold my beer and watch this!’ ” An even fiercer torrent had prevented McCandless from hiking out when he tried to leave the bush in July of 1992.

    On the way in we’d come across Kevin and Rob Mark, brothers from New Jersey, who were hiking two days back to the trailhead after staying a night at the bus. They had read Krakauer’s book and wanted to see if they could make it out on foot, to gain some sense of what McCandless had endured. “It was a great adventure getting out there, but crossing the river was terrifying,” Rob told me. They were both knocked down and nearly carried off in the swift icy water of the Teklanika.

    A year younger than McCandless would have been today had he lived, Keith has a distinctly Alaskan viewpoint on his death, unsentimental and unswayed by romanticism. He points to a clear pool in a stream not 50 feet from the bus, in which dozens of foot-long grayling swim against the current. “You could practically shovel those out with a spruce branch,” he tells me. “And I just don’t get why he didn’t stay down by the Teklanika until the water got low enough to cross. Or walk upstream to where it braids out in shallow channels. Or start a signal fire on a gravel bar.” He peers inside the bus and shakes his head at what he sees as a greenhorn in over his head who had retreated to the only sign of civilization for miles when he realized he couldn’t make it. “Tough enough to live out here without trying harder,” he says. “We’re hard up for heroes if that’s what it takes — some guy who starved to death in a bus.”

    The majority of Alaskans share some version of the opinion that McCandless was deeply out of his element. Medred, the outdoors columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, believes that he was suffering from schizophrenia and compares him to Timothy Treadwell, the unstable filmmaker and bear enthusiast who (along with his girlfriend) was killed and eaten by a grizzly in Katmai National Park in 2003. “McCandless didn’t need the wilderness,” he says. “He needed help.”

    Alaskans fault Krakauer for romanticizing McCandless, thereby encouraging others to model themselves after his life. Before the film has even been released, it has become common to blame Hollywood for further glamorizing a senseless tragedy. As Dermot Cole, a columnist for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, puts it, “To sell the story, they’ve made it into a fable. He’s been glorified in death because he was unprepared. You can’t come to Alaska and do that.”

    Butch Killian, one of the moose hunters who discovered McCandless’s body in September 1992, considered it just another day in the bush and doesn’t understand why such a big deal has been made out of the story. He told me he had never read the book and had no idea that it had been a bestseller, that thousands of people had felt a deep identification with Krakauer’s portrait of McCandless. “I don’t know what his problem was, but it wasn’t surviving. If he’s a hero, he’s a dead hero.” Killian doesn’t think that a visit to the site will provide many answers. “So many people have asked me to take them out there. What in the world would you want to go back there for? It’s nothing but an old bus.”

    Old bus or no, Fairbanks 142 has become something of a reliquary, a shrine to which many have come seeking understanding: of McCandless, of the wilderness, of themselves. A memorial plaque to McCandless is screwed to the inside of the bus, bearing a message from his family that ends with the phrase “We commend his soul to the world.” Inside a beat-up suitcase on a table are a half-dozen tattered notebooks. The first entries, from July 1993, in red pen on paper yellowing with age, are personal notes from his parents. They visited the site with Jon Krakauer by helicopter. Krakauer also left a note: “Chris — Your memory will live on in your admirers. –Jon”

    And those admirers came: The dog-eared notebooks are filled with hundreds of entries from pilgrims who traveled the arduous 22 miles out to try to feel some connection with the McCandless spirit. They came by snowmobile, dogsled, mountain bike, and mostly by foot, usually taking two days to hike the boggy, mosquito-plagued trail and ford the freezing rivers. They came from across the U.S. and from as far as Bulgaria, Finland, and the Czech Republic. They came because there was something about the story, and about Alaska, that drew them there.

    Together the entries form a chorus of voices, some questioning, some praising, all trying to wring some meaning out of his story, and by extension, their own lives: I am 20 years old and feel a kinship with Chris . . . This is God’s country and a beautiful place to leave this world . . . We shouldn’t Romanticize or canonize him . . . What went on here, at this bus, transcends the ordinary and mundane . . . Chris was completely awake to life . . . for the first time in many years I am crying . . . Chris may have fucked up, but he fucked up brilliantly . . . he found the serenity of the spirit that most die without . . . pray for Chris’s critics . . . There is something about Alaska that changes you . . . You go your way — I’ll go your way too.

    That last line, from a Leonard Cohen poem, was written by Sean Penn, when he visited the bus in August 2006. Penn had been trying to bring Krakauer’s book to the screen ever since first picking it up years ago. “The cover intrigued me so I bought it, went home, and read it straight through. Twice,” says Penn. “I started trying to get the rights from then on.” Ultimately he wrote the screenplay, directed, and helped produce the film himself, shepherding the movie through every step.

    In an age of digital shortcuts and studio interference, Penn refused to compromise, insisting on filming in the places McCandless had been. Into the Wild takes place in Alaska, and it would be filmed in Alaska. It followed McCandless to locations as far-flung as the Salton Sea in the California desert and Carthage, South Dakota, where the film’s production crew doubled the size of the town. “It just felt like the only way to make the movie. That’s all,” says Penn. “It always felt worth the sacrifice.”

    Alaskans often shake their heads at misrepresentations of their state in the media, and there is a fair bit of anticipatory skepticism about the movie. Dave Talerico, the mayor of Denali Borough (population 2,000, and roughly the size of Maryland), grew up in Roslyn, Washington, the stand-in for the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, in the show Northern Exposure. So he wasn’t surprised when Penn decided to shoot the Alaska scenes 50 miles south of where McCandless actually died, in the tiny town of Cantwell, where the landscape conformed more readily to the Hollywood vision of the Last Frontier.

    “What I don’t understand with all these books and movies,” Talerico tells me, “is why they don’t tell the stories of the people who survive. The ones who have forged a life here?”

    Cantwell lies on the Alaska Railroad line just south of Denali National Park. Filming at the bus was too remote for the technical demands of a movie shoot; the Alaska Range lies low and distant on the horizon. Cantwell, by contrast, is right next to the buttress of mountains that form Denali’s foothills. It’s a picture-perfect vision of the Alaskan wilderness — a stark contrast from the grim, swampy, mosquito-swarmed site of McCandless’s death.

    It was probably an inevitable irony that, despite its best intentions, a production from the lower 48 would have some of the same difficulties in the Alaskan interior as its subject. Wayne Westerberg, a friend, the recipient of the postcard in which McCandless announced that the boy was walking “into the wild,” was hired as a consultant and then as a union truck driver for the production. “There were lots of logistical problems shooting on location,” says Westerberg, a former grain-elevator operator who is played by Vince Vaughn in the film. “We had to drive through four feet of water just to get between base camp and the shoot. We swamped a lot of vehicles and brought a lot back to the rental company in pieces.” Then there were issues with the “wildlife”: the trained grizzly stuck on the wrong side of a river who nearly needed an airlift, reindeer not moving on cue, trained wolves that didn’t act wolfy enough.

    Whatever the challenges, the resulting film is visually stunning, the landscapes of the American West and far north shot in epic scope and intimate detail, the soundtrack haunted by Eddie Vedder’s throaty growl. The part of McCandless fell to 22-year-old Emile Hirsch. To match McCandless’s sinewy, athletic build Hirsch worked out obsessively, losing 26 pounds before filming even began. During the course of production, as he paced McCandless’s descent into starvation, he shed another 15, in a chilling transformation. “By the end I was down to 115 pounds,” says Hirsch. “I had no energy at all. It changes everything about you: the way you think, the way you treat others, the way you are alone.”

    Alongside a busload of famous actors (Vaughn, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener), the real characters and haunts of the American underclass have cameos, giving the film at times a documentary feel. At every encounter in his nomadic wanderings — from soup kitchens and train yards to the vast landscapes of the Grand Canyon and the Alaska Range — we see McCandless flitting through people’s lives, leaving them changed before vanishing. But whereas Krakauer showed both sides of McCandless — the hapless tenderfoot and the enlightened eternal seeker — Penn presents only the latter version. His McCandless is almost Christlike. It is a deeply mythic take on a character who is largely a cipher. Clearly, in Sean Penn’s eyes, Into the Wild is a story about something profound and universal in the human spirit, a longing for freedom and a pure connection to the natural world that’s been lost.

    “I’m not trying to romanticize him,” insists Penn, who has little patience for McCandless’s critics. “There are few people in Alaska who have done anything comparable to what Chris did. We’re not talking about a week with another buddy and ATVs, hunting. This was 113 days, 79 of them by choice. And he did pretty damn well. Did he make mistakes? Sure. A lot of people do. But however many miles he needed to walk to become a man was up to him. So I think he did very well by any standard, including Alaskan.”

    For both penn and krakauer, the mccandless story became an obsession. No one, save perhaps McCandless’s own grieving family, tried harder to understand his journey and, especially, his strange death, than Krakauer, who saw something of himself in McCandless’s youthful passion for risk and remote places. Into the Wild is laid out like a meticulous legal brief in defense of a human soul. There is a mountain of evidence with which Krakauer makes his arguments: interviews, journals, photographs, historical comparisons.

    The book’s Sherlock Holmes moment comes near the end. Seeking to explain why McCandless grew sick and died so suddenly, Krakauer hypothesized that he’d unintentionally poisoned himself. To supplement his fortunes shooting squirrels, porcupines, and woodpeckers, McCandless had been eating the seeds of the wild potato, a native plant whose roots have provided food for the Athabascan people for centuries. Weakened and near death, McCandless had written “Fault of pot. seed” in his journal. The plant was not thought to be toxic, but, acting on a hunch, Krakauer sent some seeds found near the bus to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks for analysis. Initial results indicated the presence of a toxic alkaloid, one that Krakauer made much of, claiming that perhaps “McCandless wasn’t quite as reckless or incompetent as he was made out to be.” It was a small but crucial mistake. As Krakauer presented it, McCandless had been poisoned by a toxin that prevented his body from absorbing nutrients, leading to his starvation.

    But the book was published before the seeds’ testing was completed by Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at UAF. “I was hoping it was true,” says Clausen, in his lab on campus. “It would have made a good story. But the scientific results worked against my biases. I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I’d eat it myself.”

    Of course, this flies in the face of the McCandless that the public has embraced, and Krakauer’s take has survived subsequent reprintings of the book. Now a version of his theory has made its way on-screen. In Penn’s telling McCandless is poisoned by mistaking wild potato for a similar plant, wild sweet pea, though according to Clausen’s research that plant is equally harmless. Brent Keith, my guide, suggests it was poisoned mushrooms, or giardiasis from drinking untreated water.

    There’s additional evidence McCandless needn’t have wasted away. In July, a month before his death, he attempted to hike out of the bush, only to be turned away trying to cross the Teklanika. He failed to anticipate the change in water levels as the summer progressed and snowmelt increased. But as Krakauer noted — and a 9,000-word piece by Chip Brown in a February 1993 New Yorker made clear — had McCandless searched a bit farther downstream he would have discovered a manual tram over the river less than a mile from where he tried to cross, a detail missing from the film. The tragic truth may be that he didn’t find a way out of the bush, couldn’t catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death. But no one will ever know the truth.

    With the mythology that has grown up around the story, it is easy to forget that McCandless was a real flesh-and-blood person, that those who knew him and loved him are still around. Westerberg, for example, has had his life transformed by their brief friendship. He picked McCandless up hitchhiking and gave him a job working at his grain elevator in Carthage, South Dakota. The boy told him his name was Alex, and they became good friends in the nearly two years before he left for Alaska. Westerberg was the one who helped identify the body.

    I ask Westerberg if he feels as if the Alex he knew has been lost.

    “Well, yeah,” he says. “All this shadows the original story and clouds it to a point.”

    And what would McCandless have felt about all this? “I’m sure he’s sitting up there smiling. He liked to write all those diaries,” says Westerberg. “If he wouldn’t have documented it there wouldn’t have been a story.”

    McCandless clearly believed in self-mythologizing, in the power of storytelling and self-invention. Had he lived, perhaps he would have gained enough perspective to tell the story himself, rather than leaving it for others to tell. As it is, he has entered the realm of myth, and myths are shaped by those who can make use of them.

    Penn, for one, doesn’t feel conflicted by presenting McCandless’s life on-screen, despite the mysteries. “I think the things that are most important are there,” he says. “It was clear Chris made the decision to go back to the world. And he left an awful lot of clues, so you go with your gut. That’s what I did.” To criticize Hollywood for being Hollywood, for taking a real story and mythologizing it, is like telling a bear not to shit in the woods. It’s what they do.

    With a year-round population of around 200 and winter temperatures that frequently linger at 40 below, Cantwell is tucked in the shadow of the icy vastness of the Alaska Range. Everyone I met there spoke highly of the movie people. The production, which used almost every available ATV in town and hired many locals, was the biggest thing to happen there since the railroad came through nearly a century ago.

    Penn’s production company acquired a ’40s-era International Harvester bus from a junkyard in Fairbanks, identical to the one out on the Stampede Trail, and set designers modeled it into a dead ringer of Fairbanks 142. It sits now in the crowded yard outside Gordon Carlson’s house in Cantwell, not looking terribly out of place amid rusted machinery and old pickup trucks.

    Carlson, a barrel-chested Athabascan who worked as a tribal liaison on the shoot, shows me around the bus. He chuckles through a handlebar mustache and offers an unburnished appraisal of McCandless: Another fool bit the dust. “We grew up here. You learn how to make a campfire when you’re a kid. This, I didn’t think much of it at the time. That kid’s mistakes started a long time before he got here.”

    And what will happen to this bus?

    “Not sure what we’ll do with it. Make it some kind of attraction. Maybe a cappuccino stand. I know that sounds like we’re profiting off someone else’s story, but you do what you have to do to survive here.”

    Written by Krypt3ia

    2007/10/01 at 21:51