With bus conservation project, Museum of the North has its priorities out of whack

Once upon a time, I contemplated talking my kids into attending the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. My thought was that our homegrown university, which my Mom attended back in the 1940s, was a good, outdoor-minded place of higher learning. The past half-dozen years of watching some of the university decisions have given me pause. The latest debacle by the Museum (of Natural History?), has confounded me. It is not only me that should be baffled, but every straightforward-thinking Alaskan outdoorsman or woman.

The University of Alaska Museum of the North has applied for and received a $500,000 grant to restore the old beat-to-death bus that was left junked on the Stampede Trail. The bus’s claim to fame was that a totally unprepared tourist died in the bus after a series of mistakes in the Alaskan backcountry. (Though it is a stretch indeed to call the Stampede Trail “backcountry”).

Since when do we, as Alaskans, celebrate incompetence or unpreparedness? We are sorry for the guy who died on the bus. He was a young guy with a dream who got in over his head. Alaska has lots of those guys and always has. Some fall into a stretch of bad luck and don’t make it. Others get lucky through no competence of their own and do — learning to live another day.

On his first solo trapping expedition, a friend of mine got lost, became hypothermic and didn’t make it. I understand the loss of a friend. I am in no way minimizing the death of a man. That is not the issue here. My question is whether a half-million dollars might be put to better use. And it isn’t just a half-million. UAF says it will “need to raise significant additional funds to make the final exhibit a reality.” They are going to replace the windows in the bus but preserve the graffiti. This going to be a free exhibit, so the monies spent will not be recovered.

Every time the state or feds come up with a ridiculous project, one would think it couldn’t be topped. The $350,000 outhouse on the Denali Highway was one such program. That is a real nice outhouse.

But, isn’t there better use for federal funds? Alaska doesn’t have garbage cans on roadside pull-offs. There are almost no hiking trails for visitors. There is minimal informational signage. We have waysides that remain unfunded and unfinished. State campgrounds are minimally maintained at best.

When all is said and done, three-quarters of a million dollars is going to be spent on an old bus of questionable value to the general public. The money will not be spent to benefit the majority of Alaskans but instead on global tourists who will have no idea what they are looking at, or why. Dollars to donuts that an exhibit of three grizzly bears chasing a little yellow-headed girl would get more attention.


The definition of museum: “a building in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are exhibited.” Maybe one can make a tenuous case for the bus out of that definition?

The question then becomes a matter of what is important to our state.

A query among outdoor users will provide this very minimal list: more pull-offs on Haul Road.

Boat ramps on some of the rivers on both sides of Atigun Pass. Closer to home, a decent ramp on Summit Lake, a ramp on the north end of Paxson Lake. A pull-off at the Susitna River Bridge (Denali Highway), a pull-off at the Nenana River (Denali Highway). The list is endless and certainly makes more sense than memorializing a tragedy befalling a young man in the woods.

Museum of the North: Please get your priorities in order. I am not certain what the goals of the museum are, but celebrating the fringe seems on the edge of nowhere.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.