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Should the infamous McCandless bus near Healy, Alaska be removed?

Sean Doogan
The 1946 International Harvester K-5 bus some 20 miles down the Stampede Trail near Healy, Alaska, where Christopher McCandless of "Into the WIld" fame perished. Wikimedia user Erikhalfacre photo

I must admit up front that as an Alaskan, raised in Fairbanks, I had long ago made up my mind about the 1946 International Harvester K-5 bus some 20 miles down the Stampede trail, near Healy. The now (in)famous metallic husk was the site of the 1992 death of Christopher McCandless -- the inspiration for a book, and successful movie - were a siren’s call, it seemed to me, for people who, like McCandless himself, were woefully ill-prepared to handle everything the area had to throw at them. 

“Two cans of gas and a match would solve all our problems,” I used to say. The May 27th rescue of three German tourists from the area, after they made a poorly-planned pilgrimage to the bus, only seemed to reinforce my dark opinion of the bus and the people who visited it.

McCandless: counter-culture hero or foolish wanderer?

McCandless has been called a crazy, end-of-the-roader who walked into the wilderness to die. Others believe he was a solitary soul, shedding the bridle of society and all its material trappings to find true meaning in life. One thing is certain: McCandless was often poorly-prepared and underequipped for his undertakings.

In 1991, he paddled down the Colorado River to the Gulf of Mexico, got lost, and had to be rescued by duck hunters. A year later, after disposing of the last $24,000 of money he was given to use for law school, and calling himself, “Alexander Supertramp,” McCandless showed up in Alaska.

In April, 1992, McCandless hiked some 20 miles down the Stampede Trail, a muddy ribbon cut into muskeg and bushes south of Healy. After crossing two rivers, he came upon the old bus -- left there years before by a construction company to be used as a shelter for its workers. One hundred eighteen days later, McCandless would be dead. His body, weighing just 67 pounds, was discovered by a local hunter a month later. 

Most believe he died of starvation. A few still insist he died from eating toxic potato seeds. Everyone agrees McCandless’ death was preventable. Why didn’t he just start a fire and wait for help? Why not try to cross the Teklanika River and find aid, instead of basically withering away, alone, inside that bus? Why did he go there in the first place with nothing but some rice and little gear?

McCandless’ story has become well known, due in large part to his untimely end and a logbook he kept, detailing his deteriorating condition. His escapade was popularized by a 1996 Jon Krakauer book, “Into the Wild,” and a 2007 movie of the same name. Ever since, people have made the trek into the wilderness to retrace McCandless’ steps, and visit his, “Magic Bus.” Most make it there and back safely. Some, like the three German tourists, need rescue.  

The quest has proven fatal once. In August of 2010, a Swiss tourist drowned trying to cross the Teklanika River -- at the same place the German trio got themselves into trouble last week. Twenty-nine-year-old Claire Jane Ackermann had followed McCandless’ story, and ended up, just like him, dead in the wilderness. Had she been lured there, as some claim, by the bus itself?

What should be done with bus?

“I would say that most people who live out here want the bus gone,” said Jon Nierenberg, who runs a dog sled tour that stops by the bus during the winter, when the river crossing is frozen-over. “I used to be opposed to removing the Sushana Bus,” Nierenberg said. “Sushana” is the name given the bus by locals, because it sits near the Sushana River.

Nierenberg says he, and others in the area, used the bus as an emergency shelter while sled dog mushing, and hunting and fishing. “I used it many times over the years, and it was good to have it there in case someone got into trouble and needed an emergency shelter,” Nierenberg said. But Nierenberg’s opinion of what to do with the bus has changed after years of dealing with requests for information about the trip to it. “I think it should be hauled out and put somewhere in Healy where people can see it safely,” he said. 

The bus has seen better days. Years of visits and some tourist token-taking have left it little more than a rusted out hulk. Someone took the steering wheel a few years ago, then the dashboard. Other pieces also disappeared. Its windows are all gone, and the bus is showing signs it may rust into oblivion. Time, and more visits, may do the rest.

“I don’t think, with the current condition of the bus, and the amount of people who go there and take a piece of it with them, it will last very long,” said Kris Fister, spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve, which envelops parts of the Stampede Trail. Park land contains the place where most people cross the Teklanika River, and despite some calls for a permanent river crossing, the Park has no plans to build one. 

The bus built to film the 2007 movie “Into the Wild” is in already Healy. It is a major attraction for a local beer-maker and restaurant called the 49th State Brewery. But it is just a movie prop. The real thing keeps drawing visitors. “I get a call at least once a week from people who want to go out to the bus,” said Nierenberg. “I usually try to talk them out of going when conditions are bad. The same week the German tourists got into trouble, Nierenberg says he convinced a French tourist, travelling alone, to wait until September when the river crossing was less dangerous. Still, Nierenberg says, he sees people making the trek with little more than “a confidence God, or the spirit of Chris McCandless, will help them through it.”

Debate continues

The fate of the old bus is rehashed every time people get themselves into trouble on the trail.

I used to believe it should be crushed, or burned, and its remnants hauled away – to stop the flow of ill-prepared visitors. But, the bus isn’t any more a draw to the foolish than any other place in Alaska. “We get one, maybe two calls a year to go out there,” said Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers. That’s about as many as are rescued from Flattop Mountain -- a popular Chugach State Park hiking destination minutes from downtown Anchorage, or the Granite Tors trail system near Fairbanks. 

A quick Internet search shows that many of those who feel the same pull that enamored McCandless to the wilds are taking the trip seriously. Web forums and blogs are full of people who want to go together, in large parties. There are several videos talking about the Teklanika River crossing and offering advice on how to do it -- although many of those are dangerous because they advocate “hooking in” to a rope anchored on both banks.

Nierenberg says that technique contributed to the bus’ only victim besides McCandless -- Claire Jane Ackermann, the Swiss tourist who drowned three years ago. She was dragged underwater after slipping on rocks. “The rope she was attached to, prevented her from standing back up, and kept her face under the water, contributed to her drowning,” Nierenberg said.

I used to believe McCandless’ bus should be destroyed because it was a beacon for stupidity. But then I remembered a short story I read as a child, growing up in Interior Alaska. “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, features a Cheechako whose hubris and inexperience ended up costing him his life. I always thought of the story as a powerful example of two things: Alaska’s intrigue with people who have never before been here, and its absolute reign over those who call the Last Frontier home.

McCandless’ story, is similar. His fascination with the Far North was much the same as the protagonist of London’s short story. The outcome was also, sadly, similar.

Alaska is a beautiful and dangerous place. While the “Magic Bus,” or “Sushana Bus,” may tempt travelers into trouble, so do many other parts of the state. And tourists aren’t the only ones that get caught in Mother Nature’s web. Most of the search and rescues attempted in Alaska are for locals, not tourists.

For better, or worse, Fairbanks City Transit Bus #142, has become a part of the landscape of the Interior. McCandless’ story is part of its lore. Both are worth remembering. 

Leave the bus where it is. It will fade away eventually -- whether by nature, or packed out, piece-by-piece, by McCandless enthusiasts themselves.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com