Proceed with Caution - Alaska's Wild Can be Dangerous

By Michael Rogers

Photos by: Paxson Woelber

It appears yet another adventurer to the famed "Magic Bus" has perished. 24 year old Veramika Maikamava drowned in the Teklanika River while hiking to the bus with her new husband Piotr Markielau on Thursday (7/25/2019) according to Alaska State Troopers. Maikamava was able to reach his wife a short distance downstream but she had already perished in the strong current.

[caption id="attachment_15137" align="alignnone" width="1019"] The Fairbanks 142, where we stayed the night. When we visited, in 2007 just before the movie came out, the bus was in good condition and - espeically with the stove burning hot - made an excellent overnight shelter. Photo by: Paxson Woebler[/caption]

The abandoned Fairbanks bus has become a mecca of sorts since being popularized in the 1996 Jon Krakauer book "Into the Wild" and later in the 2007 Sean Penn film of the same name. The bus is the site of the death of Christopher McCandless, a trust fund hippy who wandered into the woods in April of 1992 and, essentially, starved to death. His body was found in August that year by a group of hunters who used the bus as a hunting camp.

[caption id="attachment_15139" align="aligncenter" width="377"] The "Tek" is the river that undid Chris McCandless. After realizing his predicament he tried to cross the Tek on the Stampede Trail, but was scared by the fast water and returned to the bus, where he ultimately starved. Where we crossed the Tek, higher up near the park road, it is only thigh-high and a relatively straightforward crossing. Photo by: Paxson Woelber[/caption]

While many Alaskans remain singularly unimpressed by McCandless, his wilderness travels, and his peculiar demise...he has become something of a celebrity among certain circles. While I've said before, McCandless isn't all that different than many folks who wander up here and die in the woods- he did have the benefit of a better than average storyteller. While I have enjoyed Krakauer's work in the past- he wove very little fact and a pile of speculation and some outright fiction into a popular story. 

[caption id="attachment_15140" align="alignnone" width="1020"] Instead of following McCandless' route, which weaves through a swampy lowland on an old road, we hiked in from Denali National Park. Photo by: Paxson Woelber[/caption]

The only problem is, it's that- a story. A story that ignores the very real fact that the Alaskan backcountry is no place for the inexperienced. The price for hubris here is, not infrequently, death.

His fan club however has taken the story and ignored reality and made something of McCandless he never was in life. I remember a long conversation with our guides in Costa Rica- they were positively starstruck with the guy and it's not unusual for folks to come from around the world to attempt a trek to the bus. Searching for meaning in something that was never there to start with. As a local, a somewhat deranged guy walking into the woods and dying isn't romantic- it's dang sad. And folks dying while attempting a pilgrimage to the spot of something so sad, is sadder still.

In fact, it's become something of a regular SAR (Search and Rescue) call in the Interior. Every year, multiple people attempt the trip and become lost, injured, or die and that requires the services of authorities and volunteers who pay the price in risk to pull these folks "out of the wild" and the rest of us pay the price in dollars. A lot of dollars. 

While this isn't the only place a search and rescue occurs, that bus has become something of a loon magnet. A beacon to the misguided romantics with poor risk assessment and poor critical thinking skills. And those folks require saving a lot more often than others.

Maybe it's high time we drag that bus out of the woods and let the willows and time reclaim the place. It was out of place when those hunters drug it out there to start with and even more so today. 

Let's just be done with it.

[caption id="attachment_15141" align="aligncenter" width="672"] Woelber brothers at the Fairbanks 142
I think we were a little too tired to pull off McCandless' famous grin.
Photo by: Paxson Woelber[/caption]

12 comments

Bus has been finally slinged out of there. Cross that off the magic carpet ride. And it’s not in Healy.

Margie S. April 17, 2021

No. The bus was FINALLY (and thankfully) removed last year and I believe is sitting somewhere in Fairbanks. The bus at 49th state is not that bus.

Margie S. April 17, 2021

Yes, a good artist friend of mine, Duke Russell, worked on the replica for the Sean Penn film, “Into the Wild”, which was shot in the more accessible area around Cantwell.

thomas e crowley April 17, 2021

The irony is that anywhere that is accessible enough to drive a bus to is really not considered all that “remote” by Alaskan standards.

thomas e crowley April 17, 2021

The bus you are speaking of was the one used in the movie that Sean Penn directed.

Darlene Trudeau April 17, 2021

Well said! Plus, the the point is more about society and the corruption that made him want to be free of it all. FREE from money, FREE from society’s expectations, and FREE from stress/anxiety to be part of the problem that causes people to be angry, stressed, regretful, sad, anxious, trying to fit in where you DON’T WANT TO and more.

The writer of this article doesn’t get it. Calling those of us who have a kinship with the ideas/ beliefs that Supertramp had “loons” shows that he just doesn’t get it. Sit in your ivory tower and judge.
Meanwhile, us “loons” will continue to try to connect with something/someone who gets us. Who, was a intelligent young man, on the road to becoming a lawyer to “fit in” with society’s expectations (and the prodding from his family). He took the time to research, get familiar with survival skills and learn all he could about Alaska wild life (plants too).

Writer… You don’t get it.

Darlene April 17, 2021

You lost all credibility when you wrote that he was a “trust fund hippy” and that he starved to death. And Krakauer is not the only one that has written about him and a lot of research from various sources was done on his cause of death. Turns out he was poisoned by a seed that a book he purchased in Fairbanks to study the local flora said was safe. The true cause wasn’t discovered until only a few years ago. The kid was actually very smart, had survived up there for months without any issues, and had killed and ate small game up until right before his death. He even attempted to pack out but was smart enough to not cross the river when he saw how hard it was rushing and decided to wait another month. He would’ve walked out of there no problem if it wasn’t for being poisoned by the seed. To say he didn’t know what he was doing is totally ignorant. Nobody knew those seeds were dangerous and why until about 2013-2015.

TM April 17, 2021

I was visiting Denali this past Summer. I thought the bus was relocated to the Brewery up there! If that’s not the original bus. They sure did a great job on the replica.

Terri April 17, 2021

That is the bus that they used on the set of the movie. The original bus is still out in the Alaskan wilderness.

Lynnee Williams April 17, 2021

You need to more than physically strong to survive the Alaskan Bush. Staying dry is everything.

LeRoy April 17, 2021

The mythology surrounding the (mentally unstable) McCandless is similar to the awe in which some Outsiders regard the Kilcher family. Many times I’ve seen the sunken expression on the faces of Kilcher fans when they are told that the homestead is 8 miles from Safeway (also, a small grocery store is just down from their driveway at Bear creek), that East End Rd is a major thoroughfare connecting thousands of people to Homer, and that Atz has a large modern home in town.

thomas e crowley April 17, 2021

I was born & raised in the country in Washington state, but I spent may years in Sitka with my grandparents…my grandpa owned the old Lonesome Pete’s bar at the airport, if you can call it that…a tiny strip of land where Im sure only the best, most talented pilots would land, just seconds before the end of the water & the shortest runway Id ever seen was the “airport landing strip” I called it the 100 yard dash…or crash…lol my first trip up was in 1983, I was 13, I went uo many times, winter & summer, broke my tailbone first time trying to skate on the lake…not quite like rollerskating…beautiful land…my grandma ran the Parks & Recreation for a minute then promoted to some bigshot federal worker up there…as a kid, I thought she was the president of Alaska or at least Sitka…everyone knew my grandparents!! Ive hunted deer & elk all my life but I know how dangerous the backwoods of Alaska can be & shes not very forgiving!! Thank you for creating this site…it brings back some memories I had forgotten…the light all day & night time of year or the dark all day & night also…my sleep schedule was so messed up when I got back home, it took a month to get back on schedule!! ?

Misty April 17, 2021

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