McCandless-themed flightseeing tour takes visitors 'Into the Wild'

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch News

A Texas businessman pushing a Hollywood image is hoping to profit off an Alaska death made famous by a Colorado writer.

Yes, folks, tourism season has arrived in the North, and it's time to go wild. Or in this case, maybe more appropriately, "Into the Wild."

Texan Brad Benson says he will soon be happy to fly you over the Magic Bus mythologized in the book "Into the Wild" before becoming the movie "Into the Wild." It was in the bus that Alaskans found the body of Chris McCandless more than 20 years ago.

"Alexander Supertramp," as McCandless then called himself, was a lost young man who came north from the Lower 48 in search of himself only to fall victim to the wilderness. Benson believes that the bus has now become enough of an Alaska tourist attraction that he can profit from it.

Officially, the 24-year-old McCandless ended up dead of starvation in the bus. Unofficially, writer John Krakauer, the author of the best-selling book about McCandless's journey to Alaska, has devoted much time to finding a reason for McCandless's death other than starvation.

Krakauer's eulogy to McCandless, "Into the Wild," was first published in 1996 and spent 119 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Afterward, a trickle of pilgrims begin making their way to the deserted bus along the Stampede Road -- more a trail, really -- north of Denali National Park and Preserve. The broken-down bus sits there in a mosquito-filled willow thicket near the Sushana River.

In 2007, for movie purposes, director Sean Penn moved a replica of the bus to a far more scenic location south of the park to shoot the movie version of "Into the Wild." After the movie was released, the trickle of pilgrims to the bus increased to the level of a small creek.

Benson hopes to increase the flow further.

For $250 per person -- $225 active duty military and students; $175 children 12 and under -- his soon-to-be Healy-based Stampede Aviation promises an easy view of the bus -- weather permitting.

"This economical tour gives an opportunity to see the grandeur of Denali National Park from a private, four-seat aircraft. Depending on weather and routing, you may fly though Healy Canyon, among many smaller peaks of the Alaska Range ... and fly over the Stampede Trail and the 'Magic Bus' from the book and movie 'Into the Wild,'" says the company website beneath a photograph of the movie bus in the movie location.

Asked about how that photo came to be used, Benson said this: "That's a good question." Pause.

"It's actually kind of a difficult place to photograph, so all of my pictures were poor." Pause.

"This is probably more of what people are envisioning."

The photo, he added, comes from the "same general area" as the actual bus. It is only about 40 miles from where the movie was filmed, near Cantwell on the south side of the Alaska Range, to the actual location of the bus near Healy on the north side of the Alaska Range.

And it could be argued that the pitch on his website really doesn't take any more liberties with the truth than movie or the book did. The book claimed McCandless died a tragic death after accidentally poisoning himself by eating the seeds of a wild potato. After that theory was debunked, a new one was born claiming a mold growing on the seeds poisoned McCandless.

Both theories later disappeared in favor of a third poison, a neurotoxin known as ODAP. Scientists say the new theory is as sketchy as the previous theories already dismissed.

None of that, however, seems to have done anything to quell the interest in the dead McCandless. Many appear to care little about how exactly he died. They just want to see the bus.

Enter Benson and his two young employees. They're willing to help tourists grab a glimpse without a 40-mile round-trip hike and a sometimes-tricky crossing of the glacial Teklanika River. Benson believes there could be a decent market for such an air tour.

"I've actually worked for Fly Denali and Talkeetna Air Taxi for several years," he said, "and we had a surprising number of people who walk in and ask for it."

Benson doubts "you could make a living doing just that alone." But he is confident a bus flyover could help boost business when he isn't showing tourists the rugged North Face of 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest mountain.

"I've probably taken 30 or 40 people over the bus in the past couple years," he said, and "I've had a fair amount of interest in this" since the website post went up in March. He's even had to turn people away.

"I've actually had two or three calls on people wanting to go early," he said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't accommodate them."

Stampede Aviation won't be in Healy until May 15, which is, somewhat ironically, not long before the date when McCandless moved into the bus permanently in 1992. His emaciated body was discovered inside a sleeping bag there on Sept. 6 of that same year.

Reach Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By CRAIG MEDRED
craig@alaskadispatch.com