USA — One day shy of the anniversary of Chris McCandless’s shriveled body being found in a bus near the north edge of Denali National Park, Robert Faber decided he would do the somewhat unthinkable to live, rather than just curl up and wait to die.
Faber, a 39-year-ol Canadian, set afire a stand of birch trees in the corner of one of Alaska’s most popular national parks. Smoke from the fire poured into the northern sky. On Sept. 5, a pair of National Park Service rangers returning from a hunting patrol saw the smoke and promptly went to investigate.
By the eve of the 17th anniversary of the discovery of McCandless’s body, Faber was in an airplane being flown to a Fairbanks hospital for treatment of broken bones he suffered in a fall prior to setting the lifesaving fire.
There was no word on whether author Jon Krakauer was on his way to Fairbanks to meet the rescued hiker. Krakauer made McCandless posthumously famous in the 1996 book “Into the Wild” by painting the America-wandering college dropout as something of a modern-day Thoreau felled by eating poisonous seeds. As it turned out, however, the seeds he ate weren’t poisonous, and the question of why McCandless didn’t simply start a signal fire to attract attention to his plight in an abandoned bus along the Stampede Trail was never really addressed.
Filmmaker Sean Penn only added to the McCandless myth when he made “Into the Wild” into a movie in 2007. “If, like Penn, you mourn Chris’ tragedy and his judgment errors but also exult in his journey and its spirit of moral inquiry, then this beautiful, wrenching film will take a piece out of you,” Pete Travers opined in Rolling Stone.
McCandless wasn’t around to pass judgment on either the book or the movie. He was long dead. The same fate could well have befallen Faber, who was found within 25 miles of McCandless’s last resting place. McCandless’s body was in a sleeping bag in the bus along a regularly traveled trail; near it was a diary in which he had written his pleas for help.
Faber was a long way from any trail or road when found, and there is no report that he’d written anything. But he was near a big, smoky, easily visible forest fire of about four acres.
Rangers say the smoke was spotted in the late afternoon of Sept. 5 about 10 miles south of the park road in the drainage of the Sanctuary River. A helicopter on contract to the park just happened to be in the area at the time to pick up backcountry rangers returning from a moose-hunting patrol along the park’s northern boundary.
According to Denali chief ranger Peter Armington, rangers Dan Fangen-Gritis and Matt Smith diverted the helicopter to check on the smoke. As they approached the area of the fire, Armington reported, “the rangers saw a man on the ground waving at them with one arm.”
The man turned out to be Faber, who had taken a 20-foot fall the previous evening. He lost most of his gear in that fall and suffered fractures to his upper arm and lower spine, rangers reported.
Despite that, he continued to try hiking out. He made about 10 miles, according to rangers, but then found himself running out of strength. Meanwhile, efforts to attract the attention of passing airplanes proved futile.
With his strength waning, rangers say, Faber decided to take the ultimate Alaska backcountry step to help an airplane spot him. He set a stand of dwarf birth on fire. Faber burned up about four-acres of forest, but he was found.
The park reported it took 40-water bucket drops from the helicopter to put out the fire. That was done while Faber was on his way to Fairbanks in an air ambulance, they said.
Both federal and state wildland officials in Alaska generally recommend against setting signal fires because of the danger of burning yourself up or creating massive wildfires, but all note that in an emergency a lot of smoke is one of the best and quickest ways to signal for help.