A pilgrimage to experience the Alaskan wilderness where Christopher McCandless spent his last days, as portrayed in the book and film – Into The Wild
Guide to the Stampede Trail: Quick Facts
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of Denali National Park, but the scale is too small for navigation.
PERMITS: no permit needed
DESIGNATION: state of Alaska public land
BEST SEASONS: May and September
DISTANCE: 37.2 miles (60 kilometers) round trip
ELEVATION: trailhead 2,150ft – bus 1,900ft
ACCESS: mostly paved roads to the trailhead – the last 4 miles are graded dirt.
DIRECTIONS: From the 49th State Brewery in Healy, Alaska, travel north on AK Route 3 (George Parks Highway) for 2.8 miles. Turn left on Stampede Road, and continue as far up the road as you can. See more details in the article below.
ROUTE: The Stampede “Trail” is actually a muddy, double-track ATV road, but getting to the bus involves two major river crossings.
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook is wonderful for the National Park, but it does NOT include the Stampede Trail.
WARNING: Don’t be a statistic
Hiking to the Magic Bus is a dangerous endeavor!
Young, healthy people have lost their lives on this trip.
Rescuers are called out several times a year, and the locals are tired of it. If unprepared visitors continue getting into trouble (or worse), they’ll have the historic bus REMOVED.
Get some backpacking experience.
The Stampede Trail is not the place to learn how to go backpacking. If you’re reading this guide to find the answer to a simple question like “What kind of food should I bring?” that’s great, but please go get some backpacking experience before coming to Alaska.
Grizzly bears live here.
Learn how to avoid getting eaten.
You must wade through a deadly river.
I imagine that you’ve seen the Into the Wild movie. Do you remember how Chris had to walk through a big river, and he later found it to be impassable? That wasn’t just Hollywood. That’s the Teklanika River, and you’ll have to do the same thing.
The Teklanika River is impassable for most of the summer.
Even when it IS passable, the river is still extremely dangerous. You’ll find some tips here specific to this crossing, but previous experience is preferred.
Carry extra food, and consider a communication device.
A common of cause of rescue on the Stampede Trail is when family and friends call authorities after you’re overdue. Most trips are overdue because of poor planning, and/or hikers getting stranded on the far side of the Teklanika River when the water rises.
Watch the weather. If temperatures are predicted to rise, the river will rise and you’ll be stranded, just like McCandless. For this reason, it’s best to carry extra food (though running out of food is NOT cause for rescue!), and allow extra time for your trip.
A two-way communication device is especially helpful in this scenario. With such a tool, you can reach out and tell the folks at home that you’re alive and well, and just waiting for the water level to subside.
You DID tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back, didn’t you?
RULE NUMBER ONE – Don’t Die.
RULE NUMBER TWO – Don’t Require a Rescue. You’re getting yourself into this, so you’re expected to get yourself out of it.
Magic Bus Location
The Fairbanks Bus 142 is on The Stampede Trail, generally accessed via a serious, 37-mile backpacking trip in the Alaskan Wilderness.
Access begins near the small town of Healy, Alaska. The trail is on state land, but it’s surrounded on three sides by Denali National Park.
Google Maps actually has the GPS coordinates of the bus.
From the 49th State Brewery in Healy, travel north on AK Route 3 (George Parks Highway) for 2.8 miles. Turn left on Stampede Road.
The road is paved for the first 4 miles. The next mile is well-graded gravel, but continuing much farther requires a high clearance, 4 wheel drive vehicle and/or at ATV.
Vehicle travel deteriorates near Eightmile Lake, which is considered to be the trailhead.
After the road turns into gravel, there’s a number of pullouts where you may park – so long as you’re not parking at the entrance to a private driveway.
The entirety of the Stampede “Trail” is actually an old road bed. These days it’s a soggy, often submerged double track that’s suitable only for the hardiest of ATVs.
You’re technically allowed to drive an ATV all the way to the bus, provided that you can safely cross the Teklanika River.
Snowmobile or dogsled passage is an option in winter, when the rivers are frozen.
Stampede Trail Map
Here’s some maps that I made from a USGS quad, showing the Stampede Trail.
The second map is simply a zoomed version of the first one.
You can right-click on these maps to view larger versions or download them.
Timing – When to Go
The best time to hike to the bus depends on the best time to ford the Teklanika River!
The source of the river is a glacier, high in the Alaska Range. So the best time to go is when the glacier is not actively melting.
Okay, so when isn’t it melting?
Obviously in winter (when the rivers are actually frozen), but in winter you’ll have a mess of other problems to deal with, like short daylight hours and bone-chilling temperatures.
Mid-summer (June, July, August) is statistically one of the worst times to go. The sun stays up almost all night long. Glaciers are actively melting throughout this warmest time of the year, so the rivers are at their peak!
This leaves us with spring and fall, which are the best times to attempt this hike.
The timing is still tricky – there’s a short window in spring when the lower snows are melting, but the higher glaciers are still frozen. This most often occurs in May.
You can catch similar conditions in September. Temperatures are cooling at this time, but heavy snowstorms have yet to accumulate.
So that’s the big picture as far as timing, but conditions can change on a daily basis. Alaskan weather can be pretty wild, with heavy rainfall and daily fluctuations in temperature.
Watching the weather is paramount to your success. Immediately prior to your hike (and while you’re out there!), you should constantly be assessing the weather. Determine what’s going on with the high glaciers and the greater watershed of the Teklanika River at all times.
A common cause of rescues is that hikers will cross the river safely, spend a night at the bus, and return a day or two later to find that the river has become impassable!
Some folks have measured the one-way length of the trail at 18.6 miles (30 kilometers), but this largely depends on how far you get up the road at the trailhead, and how well you stay on the trail.
Count on a round-trip hike of roughly 40 miles.
Since fording the Teklanika River is the key to having a successful hike, my recommended itineray is built around the crucial river crossings. The best general practice is do the crossing early in the morning, when cool overnight temperatures have decreased the rate of snowmelt.
- trailhead to the near side of Teklanika River (10 miles, or 16 kilometers)
- Teklanika River to Magic Bus (8.6 miles, or 14 kilometers – cross Tek River this morning)
- Magic Bus to the near side of Teklanika (8.6 miles)
- Teklanika River to trailhead (10 miles, cross Tek River this morning)
- trailhead to near side of Teklanika River (10 miles, or 16 kilometers)
- Teklanika River to Magic Bus and back (17.2 miles, 28k – cross Tek river this morning)
- Teklanika River to trailhead (10 miles, cross Tek river this morning)
Though it’s possible for extremely fit and experienced backpackers to do this in less time, please don’t try it! The terrain is terribly slow.
Expect a wet, muddy slog.
The river crossings aren’t the only places where you’ll have to walk in water. At times, much of the Stampede Trail can basically be its own river of snowmelt.
You’ll find yourself trudging through stagnant water, and sometimes wondering if you’re still on the trail. Expect your feet to be wet for the entirety of the hike.
As previously mentioned, the trail is actually an old double-track road. Sometimes you’ll cross other ATV roads (especially in the first few miles) but the Stampede Trail should be clearly discernable as the main track.
A GPS device can be very helpful, but should never be relied upon as your sole means of navigation. Rather than blindly following a GPS, it’s best to use your wits – only check the device when you’re confused or unsure how to proceed.
Warnings about the Teklanika River rightfully prevail, but the Savage River is no slouch either. Reached approximately at mile 7.5, you’ll likely be deep into your first day when you have to cross it. It’s wider and less swift than the Teklanika, so it will be good practice.
The miles immediately prior to the Savage River are some of the trail’s muddiest, negotiating deep ponds formed by beaver activity along Fish Creek.
The infamous Teklanika is about 10 miles into the hike. Confusion reigns on the far side of the river, where’s there’s a network of beaver ponds that can make it tricky to relocate the trail, especially after traveling upstream to make the best crossing.
Take your time here. The trail on the west shore of the river is found upstream of the place where it meets its eastern shore.
The remaining miles from the Teklankia River to the Magic Bus are primarily high, dry, and straightforward. The bus itself is directly on the trail. “You can’t miss it!”
9 Tips to Safely Cross the Teklanika River
Almost all of the accidents and rescues on the Stampede Trail are directly related to the Teklanika River.
1) If the water is above your waist, don’t do it!
I know you’ve invested a lot into getting this far. At the river you’ll be SO CLOSE to your goal, and you may be tempted to do something stupid. STOP!
That rusty old bus isn’t worth your life. Remember this.
Maybe you had perfect timing… you’re here in May or September, but unseasonably warm temperatures have caused the river to run above your waist. Don’t proceed!
Or maybe you’re in an even more beguiling situation, where the river looks good, but tomorrow’s weather forecast calls for a spike in the air temperature. Likewise, don’t proceed! This is how people get stranded on the west side of the Teklankika.
You can still go back and have a wonderful (and infintely more scenic) hike in Denali National Park, and enjoy a beer at the movie-set-bus at the 49th State Brewery. If you’re still determined to get to the bus, plan another trip for next year, and try again.
2) Never tie yourself into a rope
Both of the deaths on the trail involved using a fixed rope!
If you find a rope tied across the river, you best choice is to ignore it.
3) Take your time to find the best crossing
The best place to cross the Teklanika River is NOT where the trail from the east meets it. Not only is the water swift and deep here, but there’s a series of rapids immediatly below, where the river drops into a canyon.
Go upstream to find finder a wider, more shallow location where the river splits into separate channels.
Before stepping into the water, be sure to have envisioned your ideal “trail” across the river.
4) Use hiking poles, or at least a sturdy stick
Having 4 available points of contact with the slippery riverbed is infinitely better than just 2.
5) Keep your shoes on, but consider removing your pants
Walking barefoot on the stony riverbed is begging for trouble.
By the time you get to the Teklankika, your socks and shoes should already be soaked. Frankly, if you don’t want to get your feet wet and/or cannot backpack for 40 miles in damp shoes without getting blisters, then you shouldn’t be here.
Removing your pants, however, isn’t a bad idea. First of all, you’ll keep them dry. Secondly, soaked pants won’t keep your legs any warmer in the freezing water. Third (and most importantly), loose pants have more surface area, creating more drag and pulling on your precious balance.
Even if you’re just wearing tights or yoga pants, why not keep them dry?
6) Loosen up that backpack
- Undo your hip buckle.
- Undo your sternum strap.
- Loosen those shoulder straps.
If you fail to do this and end up losing your footing, you’re a goner. That backpack will take on extra weight and drown you.
With everything loosened, you’ll be able to shed your backpack in the swift, freezing water – creating a much better opportunity to regain your feet and swim to safety.
7) Move with deliberate, steady speed
After you’ve stepped into the water, face upstream and move in a diagonal direction – upstream and across the river. Move only one point of contact off of the riverbed at a time. Those of you familiar with rock climbing may know the rule of keeping “3 points of contact.” The same logic applies to fording rivers.
If you’re hiking in a group (you’re not solo, right?) then your team may have a few weak links (aka short people, sorry). In this case, where you have a significant difference in the strength of your party members, you may want to try holding a pole as a link between you.
Trust and good communication are essential for this. You and your partner each have a single walking stick for balance. A third stick is held in your free hands, linking you together like a chain, and you move across the river as a team. This way, if a single member goes down (and the others keep their feet), the swimmer has an immediate lifeline.
Under no circumstances should you tie yourself to a rope.
Finally, you must be sure and deliberate with each step, but don’t get stuck standing in the water for too long. It’s freezing, so each passing second increases your chances of an accident. Be decisive and keep moving as steadily as possible. If you find yourself fearing the next step forward for too long, go back!
8) Practice Makes Perfect
Get some experience in fording rivers (with a heavy backpack) prior to your trip. The Alaskan tundra is not the place to begin learning this essential skill!
Two popular destinations that include safer river crossings come to mind – the Appalachian Trail in Maine and the John Muir Trail in California. I’m sure there’s many more, closer to you.
Do a “shakedown” hike in Denali
Since you’re traveling all the way to Alaska to hike the swampy Stampede Trail, you may as well do a practice hike in Denali National Park. If you insist on attempting the Stampede Trail with little previous backpacking experience, this is the best way to get it.
I recommend getting an overnight permit for Unit 4. Spend the first day traveling as far upstream along the Savage River as you can, and retrace your steps on day 2. Be sure to cross the river a few times, so you can get accustomed to the glacial water and backpacking with wet feet.
In addition to the obvious benefits of doing a practice hike immediately before the Stampede Trail, you’ll have the advantage of hearing the local tips directly from Denali’s park rangers when you get your permit.
9) Consider Packrafting
The safest way to ford the Teklanika River is not to do it at all! Why not try investing in a lightweight packraft and learning how to use it?
This is infinitely safer than fording the river. It also opens up the timing of your trip, making a mid-summer hike possible.
Alpacka makes the best rafts. It’s possible that some local retailers may even have them to rent – specifically AMH in Anchorage and Beaver Sports in Fairbanks. Contact the stores directly to inquire about rentals.
Build a fire?
Some folks would recommend building a fire before crossing the river. At first this sounds like a good idea – should there be any trouble, you have an immediate source of heat to revive someone from hypothermia.
But then, of course, there’s the logistical problem of putting the fire out – the last person to cross the river would have to do this. If there’s only two of you, going to all this trouble doesn’t make much sense.
A better idea is to set up the kinding and fuel, but don’t light it – only light the fire if you get into trouble.
Personally, I feel that you should have enough confidence in a successful crossing that a fire should not be necessary. If you feel the need to have the safety net of a fire, then I suspect that the water is too high and you shouldn’t be getting into the river at all.
Hiking in Bear Country
Grizzly bears roam freely out here. Take the necessary precautions!
For a comprehensive take on safe practices in bear country, see my article 12 Ways to Avoid Getting Eaten by a Bear.
Here’s some gear recommendations that are specific to hiking the Stampede Trail.
I’ve mentioned that poles are essential to safely ford the rivers.
Fancy trekking poles are wonderful if you already have some, but a good, sturdy stick can serve the same purpose. Some say it’s actually better to have a wider stick for river crossings, because the pointy end of trekking poles tends to get jammed in stony river beds.
If you’re looking for quality trekking poles anyway, these are my favorite.
I tend to prefer light, low-top shoes as opposed to boots, even in the Alaskan tundra. So-called “waterproof” boots may sound enticing, but your feet will get wet in these anyway! When I hear “waterproof shoes,” my brain hears “non-breathable, slow-drying shoes.”
Wear something that’s comfortable, breathable, and most of all, won’t give you blisters! Using shoes with grippy soles is a great idea, like those found on the La Sportiva TX3.
My favorite backpack for the last few years has been the Hyperlite Southwest 3400.
Hyperlite is making some of the lightest gear on the market right now, and it’s waterproof and durable. So if you should slip at one of the river crossings, regain your footing, and recover your pack, your critical gear should stay dry.
Bear Safety Gear
For food storage I use the Bearvault 500 bear canister.
I think it’s best to wait to get bear spray until you’re in Alaska. The mace is a hazardous item, with consequent travel restrictions. I’ve always carried this, and fortunately I’ve never had to use it.
If you’re especially concerned about bears, consider the color of your tent. A bright-orange tent will draw more unwanted attention than a green one.
Usually I don’t mind bugs too much, but the mosquitoes in Alaska can be horrible.
It’s wise to have long pants and long sleeves. The material used in rain jackets and rain pants is particularly effective at keeping the mosquitoes from biting through your clothes.
If you’re going to use bug spray, the only stuff that even has a chance of being effective is 100% DEET.
It may seems silly to consider wearing a headnet, but it can make all the difference in the world!
Water sources on the Stampede Trail are plentiful, but they must be treated.
The water out here is especially prone to carrying giardia. There’s a reason they call it beaver fever, and there’s a lot of beaver activity out here!
For a basic gear checklist, to make sure you’re not forgetting anything (and/or bringing too much), you can browse my simple gear chart.
For more extensive but straightforward details on backpacking gear, check out my ultimate gear list.
The Stampede Trail’s route was first established by settlers in 1903. Prospectors were searching the area for gold, and primarily trying to access the Kantishna region of today’s Denali National Park.
Colorado native Earl Pilgrim used the route in the 1930s to mine antimony from the region.
Shortly after Alaska won its statehood, a subsidized project was started to improve and/or construct roads to Alaskan mining claims. The project was short lived, beginning and ending with the Stampede Trail.
Yutan Construction got the contract to build the Stampede Road, and the company was responsible for placing the infamous Fairbanks Bus 142.
They were using the bus to haul their employees between Fairbanks and the work site. It broke an axle and was abandoned at its present location, likely in 1960 or 1961 – when work on the road was completed.
Regular maintenance on the road was abandoned shortly thereafter, in 1963.
The Stampede Trail’s swath of State Land cuts conspicuously into the surrounding Denali National Park. It was left out of the Park’s expansion in 1980, and to this day it’s a popular area for hunters, trappers, and now backpackers.
Their are no guided backpacking or ATV tours that go to the Magic Bus 142.
A couple of ATV tours utilize the Stampede Trail, but they only take you to the Savage River.
Stampede Excursions offers a helicopter tour to the bus. They land there at the site, and you get about 30 minutes to explore and experience the bus. The cost for this is listed as $536.
Accidents and Deaths
The Stampede Trail’s crossing at the Teklanika River has tragically taken 2 young lives.
In August of 2010, Claire Ackermann of Swizterland suffered a similar fate, drowning in the Teklanika. She was 29 years old, and backpacking with her boyfriend Etienne Gros, 27, from France.
Taking an objective look at these sad incidents, they have some striking similarities:
- Both were young European women.
- Both drowned in the Teklanika River
- Both were using a rope to aid their crossing. Ackermann had tied herself into a rope, whereas Nikonova was using a rope as a hand line.
Here’s a list of rescue incidents, gathered from reports in the Fairbanks newspaper.
This list is far from comprehensive.
For example, journalist Eva Holland describes her first-hand experience of a “near miss” accident in this article. Healy’s fire chief is quoted to have rescued 12 hikers in a single summer.
July 2010 – Four teenagers were rescued by state troopers, after being reported more than 7 hours overdue. They were local Alaskans, all aged 16 and 17. Their vehicle got stuck, and they were separated. Troopers say they were cold and wet when found, but didn’t require medical attention.
February 2011 – A 24 year-old man from Singapore was found about a mile from the bus, and assisted out by rescuers. He’d been reported as overdue to authorities.
May 2013 – Three German hikers, aged 19, 20, and 21, were rescued after the water rose as they were trying to hike out. They barely made it back across the Teklanika, and chose not to attempt crossing the Savage River. A man in Healy had met them prior to their trip, and reported them overdue.
June 2013 – A group of three hikers successfully used a signal mirror to alert a military helicopter for rescue. An Army spokesman said “One of the females had a twisted ankle, but I guess what was really keeping them in place was the water level of the Teklanika River.” They’d ran out of food and were stranded on the west side of the river after the water rose.
June 2013 – State Troopers received a call for help from a group of hikers at the bus. A 25 year-old female from Florida had a non-life-threatening, lower leg injury.
August 2014 – A party of three hikers called for help near the Teklanika River, catching a ride back to Healy via ATVs (Thanks to the local fire department). One of the group had injured himself with an ax.
June 2016 – Two American men, aged 25 and 27, were reported overdue. They’d accessed the bus by approaching it from the west, but the hike took longer than anticipated. They tried to shortcut out via the Stampede Trail, but found the Teklanika’s water to be chest deep.
August 2016 – A 22 year-old man from Canada activated a personal locator beacon on the west side of the Teklanika. Minor injuries, heavy rain, and rising water led to his decision to call for rescue.
September 2016 – A 45 year-old man from Mexico was found by searchers, after being reported overdue. He was trying to access the bus from Riley Creek Campground in Denali National Park.
June 2017 – A 42 year-old man from Belgium was rescued on the west side of the Teklanika River. He had non-life-threatening injuries that rendered him unable to cross the river.
My Trip Report and Photos
At the risk of sounding like just another Into The Wild movie fan, I must admit that the proximity of the Stampede Trail and the bus sealed the deal in my initial idea to go to live and work for a season at Denali National Park.
After moving to Healy, I locally encountered a lot of negativity and discouragement about wanting to do this notorious hike “Just to see a bus where some kid died.”
Local Alaskans aren’t very happy about the draw of the place following the Into The Wild book and subsequent movie – the bus attracts travelers from far and wide that are prone to getting themselves into trouble.
Before I went up to Denali, an experienced friend made me a list of the best hikes to do over the course of the season. The Stampede Trail was chronologically #1 on the list, with the emphasis that it needed to be done before the end of May (Before the Teklanika River would get too high).
It would be my first backpacking trip in Alaska, so there was this new world of tundra and grizzly bears and river crossings to get used to.
Since I’d just started a new job, it would be difficult to get adequate time off before June. Some employees from our company missed a few days of work the previous year, when the river swelled too much for them to safely return.
Most local Alaskans discourage people from doing the hike, so there was an overall doom & gloom psychology about the Stampede Trail. It was a “weird” spring in Alaska, and the general consensus was that the Teklanika was probably too high already.
I had basically given up on this hike to the bus, figuring I’d have to wait until the end of the season. But then the first days of June came around, and I got the proverbial fire lit under my butt when we found ourselves with a few days off of work.
One local hiker (Who happens to do SAR in area, including a few calls along the Stampede Trail) was especially encouraging, telling me that the rivers were still quite low.
There was so much talk and speculation about fording the Teklanika, but I knew none of that really mattered until we’d have the opportunity to stand on the edge of the river for ourselves.
We found a ride and put it together with just two days off of work, as a two-and-a-half day hike.
Day One – Eight-Mile Lake to the Teklanika River
So we suddenly found ourselves being dropped off by a new friend at the end of the Stampede Road. The scenario already had an eerie subtext, as McCandless was dropped off at basically the same location. The surrounding wilderness appeared vaguely familiar, as though remembered from his photos and scenery in the movie. It was 6pm.
Here’s a link to a photo of Chris before he set off from the same general area.
The Stampede Trail begins as a wide (but rough and muddy) dirt road. The path is often outright flooded, and it’s likely that your feet will get wet long before the first crossing at Savage River.
Despite the two ATV tours that passed us, the overall silence was oppressive.
We started our hike at 6pm, but early June in Alaska means long days… sunset would not be until close to midnight, and the night would never become completely dark.
Thanks to our late schedule, we were lucky to see two beavers! I’d encountered countless beaver dams on my previous hikes, but never spotted any of the elusive beasts until today.
The beaver swam back and forth in front of us, as though it was pacing and marking its territory. Periodically it slapped its tail on the surface of the water with authority, making a sharp sound before diving underneath the surface.
At first it was really neat to see the beavers, but by the end of the hike we were frustrated with all of the destruction they’d made of the trail. I once read that beavers are the second-most destructive creatures to their habitat on earth… second to humans, of course.
After a few hours we came to the Savage River – the first of the two significant rivers that we had to cross. It was less than knee-deep – a good sign – but the water was ice-cold!
It was so cold that I lost all the feeling in my feet, despite a relatively short crossing. I couldn’t feel my toes again until about ten minutes after the fact.
To our relief, the path climbed up and away from the wettest areas as the day grew old.
At times the spruce forest “taiga” closed in about us, creating a passing claustrophobic effect. We tried to make a lot of noise to avoid startling any bears.
It was about 11pm when we reached the Teklanika River. Our rate of travel had felt slow, so it was a surprise and relief to see our destination so soon. We planned to camp on the near shore of the river in order to facilitate an early morning crossing, when the water is supposed to be at its lowest.
Our first impression of the river was that the water seemed relatively low and doable. Yes! Everything hung on the water level of the Tek, and this was cause for some early (But cautionary) celebration!
We found a good spot for the tent and enjoyed dinner in grizzly country.
Day Two – There and Back (To the Teklanika) Again
We slept later than we wanted to this morning, until 9 or 10am. It’s often hard for a weekend warrior to resist the extra hours of sleep in the backcountry. 🙂
The river seemed low enough last night, so hopefully the extra few hours of sleep wouldn’t be a problem.
Soon it was time to ford the Tek.
This is the place where the Stampede Trail officially crosses the river. You may recognize it from the film – especially the clearing seen here on the far bank, where Emile Hirsch hangs his hat.
The best and safest place to cross the river is upstream of here, where it splits into multiple braids.
We traveled upstream and scouted out the best spot. Weighing a few options along the way, we zeroed in on a particular place and got ourselves ready, tightening our shoelaces and doing an extra bit of waterproofing.
Once all the preparations were set, we did a safety overview and just went for it.
First of all, we were sure to unbuckle the hip belts and sternum straps on our backpacks. We each had a hiking pole to use for stabilization. In our other hand(s) we carried a long, lateral stick that kept us together, as we both held onto each end of it.
This was my first time experimenting with such a shared stick method, and it worked well. Finally, I tried to stay directly in the upstream line of my partner to break the current. We were conscious of using a two-point method by keeping two points of contact (2 out of 3) with the bottom of the river at all times.
Soon it was all over, and we’d forded the Teklanika! Besides the fact that our lower limbs were frozen solid on the far shore, it was all fairly simple – the water was only about two inches above my knees (I’m 6’0).
We found it to be a little confusing to locate where the Stampede Trail leaves the west side of the river. This was the most frustrating part of the trip, as we lost about an hour trying to find it.
It looks like the trail disappears into a metropolis of beaver ponds, but after a while we finally found the track that continues to the west.
The remaining terrain was easy-walking, and uneventful. We gradually climbed up through the woods and contoured the crest of a low ridgeline. Water was everywhere, but the trail was forgivingly dry. A stiff, cold wind blew at times, with occasional rain showers.
There was a brisk, sporadic rain throughout the entire trip, and we were lucky that it was never especially wet or freezing. The weather forecast before the hike had us expecting consistent rain and low temps.
This kind of weather may seem negative, but it was actually ideal because it kept the mosquitoes at bay. More importantly, a warmer, sunnier day would have caused the rivers to rise.
All of our time on Stampede Trail was fittingly silent and damp, with a gloomy aura.
After a while the terrain began to look familiar, or maybe it felt familiar because of scenes from the movie.
The film depicts Chris first stumbling upon the bus as it sits on an upper ridge to his right, so we were keeping our eyes open for a similar setting.
The miles wore on, and for a long time it felt as though the bus could be just around the corner. I even allowed myself to begin wondering if we’d somehow passed it.
Consciously making noise and saying “Hey bear,” was getting tiresome.
Suddenly I saw it.
The shape of the bus materialized through the trees.
It sits on the trail in a sizable clearing, slightly to the south. You can’t miss it. My partner went in through the bus’s door almost immediately. I lingered outside, taking in the scene and snapping photos.
We were excited to be here, but soon the somber atmosphere of the place would have its effect.
The bus itself is in really poor shape. The iconic “142” on the side has been shot out with bullet holes. Most of the windows are gone too, replaced by a green tarp that flaps in the idle breeze. The green paint is fading away, revealing a yellow coat beneath it.
Outside the bus – near the back door – there’s a pile of what can be described as nothing more than a sprawling collection of garbage.
The steering wheel has been removed by souvenir hunters, as well as the great majority of Chris’s original artifacts. The dilapidated condition of the place makes it that much more lonely and austere.
The suitcase was left by Chris’s mother, on her first visit here after his death.
Joined by Jon Krakauer, she had it stocked as a cache of survival gear for wayward travelers, hoping to prevent others from suffering the same fate as her son.
Now it just contains a number of odds and ends, including a couple of notebooks for visitors to sign in and jot down their thoughts.
The interior of the bus is adorned in graffiti. It only takes a quick look around to realize that a lot of time has passed since Chris was here, and that hundreds of people have made it a place of their own over the years.
I didn’t realize how deeply McCandless’s story affected so many people until I browsed the pages and pages of thoughtful register entries. There was a significant portion of entries written in French, and I mused that the film must have been a big hit in Europe.
Like so many foreign films that are heavy in meaningful dialogue and family drama, maybe the Europeans championed Chris’s rejection of American consumerism and the like… “Oh, if that boy were only born in Le France…“
In all seriousness, it’s clear that many regard the bus as a memorial and a sort of shrine to a mythical notion of Carpe Diem. I’d even go so far as to paint McCandless to be viewed as a sort of Jesus character who sacrificed himself so that others could learn to live deeper and more fulfilling lives.
Of all the random objects and writing on the walls of the bus, this piece (above) looked most likely to be authentic from Chris’s hand. A well-known quote from Walden by Henry David Thoreau… Chris had a copy of Walden with him during his last days on the bus.
We were here in early June of 2014, so it was neat to see that Chris’s sister had been here so recently – possibly just a matter of days before us.
Finally we had to tear ourselves away from this place and return down the trail. Our itinerary called for a long day today, to be back at the Tek tonight and set for an early-morning river crossing.
Just a couple of hours here felt like it wasn’t enough, but we agreed that spending the night would have been too much.
It was a ghostly place, yet so very real and tangible. The story of McCandless involved everyday people, and it ended here.
The weather momentarily improved during our return hike, allowing for some clearer views of the Alaskan scenery.
We saw our first ptarmigan on the way back to the Teklanika. It’s the state bird of Alaska (Second to the mosquito, of course!), and these birds made up a good part of McCandless’s diet while he was out here.
We also met the first pair of backpackers that we’d see out here – two guys in their twenties that spoke very little English.
We set up camp and cooked our dinner under a light, steady, unpleasant rain.
The above photo was taken few minutes after midnight. The sky glowed deeply like this for more than a full half-hour after sunset, because of the more-horizontal course of the sun.
In other words, sunset in Alaska lasts for a very long time.
Day Three – Returning on the Stampede Trail toward Healy
The skies began to clear overnight, and we woke to the first bit of sun of the trip. The river seemed to have receded a couple of inches since yesterday, so crossing it this morning was significantly easier – especially with the confidence that we’d done it once before.
Being on the homeward side of the river was cause for celebration.
We made it to the bus!
The mood was light as we made our way back to civilization.
All of the biggest obstacles were behind us, and we were happy and satisfied to have experienced such an iconic destination. We speculated a lot about McCandless’s activities.
I admit that I started singing as much as I could remember of the Eddie Vedder sountrack to the movie (To keep the bears away, of course!).
There wasn’t anything left, except to enjoy the walk.
Soon we reached the road and called our friend for a ride back to Healy.
The Saga Continues
Carine McCandless’s testimonials are just one way that the Into The Wild saga continues.
Chris’s parents published a book of material that puts such a spin on Chris’s back-story that Carine felt it necessary to post a sharp rebuttal online, with further elaboration in a subsequent book of her own.
There’s still debate and further speculation about how Chris truly may have died. Does it really matter? The simple explanation of starvation is enough for me.
Finally, there’s a lot of talk about the current state of the Stampede Trail to the bus, and how it’s a hazardous magnet for countless pilgrims who get in over their heads. Most local Alaskans would love to see the bus removed and placed closer to the highway, or rather for the whole Christopher McCandless story to disappear altogether.
A Replica of the Bus, and great food and local beer
For the great majority of visitors who aren’t interested in hiking the Stampede Trail, the excellent 49th State Brewery has acquired the replica of the bus that was used for the movie set.
They keep it on their front lawn, clearly visible from the George Parks Highway. Inside the bus they have a gallery of Chris’s original photos, with detailed captions and pages from his journal. It’s definitely worth checking out.
The author imitates McCandless’s classic pose at the real “magic bus,” nearly 22 years after Chris’s death in August of 1992.