Missing in Alaska

alaska phtographer
Joel Sartore/National Geographic/Getty Images
In 2007, 19 rescues were performed for Mount McKinley climbers in Denali National Park.

In July 1993, 24-year-old Chris McCandless set off into the Alaskan wilderness determined to live off the land. After 112 days, he died of starvation, and four months later, a moose hunter accidentally stumbled upon his body.

The subject of the best-selling novel "Into the Wild" and 2007 motion picture by the same name, McCandless' tale symbolizes to many the romanticism and brutality of nature. Twenty-two miles from the nearest road, McCandless removed himself from the typical man-made dangers often associated with premature death. Nevertheless, it didn't take long for him to succumb to the will of a potentially greater threat -- the environment.

More th­an half of the nation's federally-designated wilderness lies in Alaska [source: National Agricultural Law Center], and many of the permanent disappearances in Alaska are linked to the pristine, yet sometimes perilous, natural elements. Bound by 33,000 miles of coastline, the land contains more than three million lakes, untamed wildlife, and winters that blanket vast reaches of the state in snow and ice. Likewise, of the hundreds of search and rescue operations performed each year, a majority are the result of people literally becoming lost in the middle of nowhere.

Acciden­tal injuries are the third-highest cause of death in Alaska, twice the national incidence rate [source: Alaska Division of Public Health]. In addition to car accidents, this category of fatalities can also include people falling down mountains or slipping in the spaces between glaciers, called crevasses. Of those accidental deaths, drowning is the third-highest cause [source: Alaska Department of Public Safety]. Many times, the cold temperatures cause bodies to sink to the bottom of the water rather than float to the top, adding another challenge to finding missing people.

grizzly bear
Eastcott Momatiuk/National Geographic/Getty Images
Grizzly bears are just one threat to safety in the Alaskan wilderness.

The Denali National Park, where Chris McCandless set up camp, sits in the middle of the so-called Bermuda Triangle and gapes across an area slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts. Home to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, yearly temperatures fluctuate between 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12.7 degrees Celsius) in the summer to a mere 2 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 16.6 degrees Celsius) in the winter.

The brief climbing season lasts only from April to June, but at least 28 people have died there since 1996 [source: Associated Press]. According to the National Park Service, 19 people were rescued and two people died out of the 1,218 Mt. McKinley climbers in 2007.

Each year, scores of tourists visit Alaska to see that unspoiled land found in the so-called Bermuda Triangle and experience none of the dangers detailed above. Nevertheless, the Alaska Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation urges those who visit the more remote areas to be prepared for the natural elements -- and dodge the clutches of the Kushtaka.

For more information on surviving in the wilderness, read the links on the next page.

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