When I visited the bus in July, 1993, wild-potato plants were growing everywhere I looked in the surrounding taiga.
I filled a one-gallon bag with more than a pound of seeds in less than thirty minutes.
So I sent some Shortly before my book was published, Clausen and one of his graduate students, Edward Treadwell, conducted a preliminary test that indicated the seeds contained an unidentified alkaloid. Clausen was an esteemed organic chemist, and the results of his analysis seemed irrefutable.
Making a rash intuitive leap, in the first edition of “Into the Wild,” published in January, 1996, I wrote that this alkaloid was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation. But Mc Candless’s July 30th journal entry couldn’t have been more explicit: “” His certainty about the cause of his failing health gnawed at me.
On July 30th, Mc Candless wrote in his journal, “” Before this entry, there was nothing in the journal to suggest that he was in dire straits, although his photos show he’d grown alarmingly gaunt.
After subsisting for three months on a marginal diet of squirrels, porcupines, small birds, mushrooms, roots, and berries, he’d run up a huge caloric deficit and was teetering on the brink.
After his body was flown out of the wilderness, an autopsy determined that it weighed sixty-seven pounds and lacked discernible subcutaneous fat.
The probable cause of death, according to the coroner’s report, was starvation.
When Clausen and Treadwell completed their analysis of wild-potato seeds, though, they found no trace of swainsonine or any other alkaloids. Clausen explained to in 2007, after also testing the seeds for non-alkaloid compounds. I began sifting through the scientific literature, searching for information that would allow me to reconcile Mc Candless’s adamantly unambiguous statement with Clausen’s equally unambiguous test results.
Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when I stumbled upon Ronald Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher Mc Candless,” which Hamilton had posted on a Web site that publishes essays and papers about Mc Candless.