Monday, November 12, 2007

Skiing into the wild - A night at Bus 142

A copy of "Into The Wild" signed by Krakauer, Carine McCandless and others was tucked away in a small suitcase filled with tattered notebooks inscribed with thoughts and signatures of previous visitors.

I skied out the Stampede Trail to Bus 142 -the magic bus - with Brian and Dan over the weekend. Its ironic that I ventured out there now especially with the increased publicity and interest in the bus since the recent release of the film Into the Wild. I read the book in the mid-90's and had never felt the desire or motivation to trek out the dilapidated bus perched above the Sushana River.

I remember reading about the discovery of Chris McCandless in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 1992 and had similar thoughts as other Alaskans--another careless person went out into the wilderness unprepared and suffered the consequences. Krakauer's book changed my initial opinion of McCandless because it provided insight into the life and ideals of this young kid who perished just beyond the edge of civilization. It put a name and in a sense, a life, to the dead body which was so simply reported by the newspaper.

Even so...I feel that Krakauer went beyond just giving me the story of McCandless and instead sensationalized his life which in turn made this kid some sort of prodigy or hero of sorts-which I don't completely understand. I suppose this is the intention of an author in order to grab his readers and suck them in....which is understandable. The book sucked me in but certainly not to the point of idolizing McCandless. I very much admire his sense of adventure and I can relate to his desire to remove oneself from the pressures and expectations of society--and live simply in the wild where the chores of survival become daily routine. I am intrigued and inspired by the powerfulness of the wilderness and I understand the allure this has for others making there way north to see the bus and wilderness that McCandless found so special.

Brian and I are planning to do the winter Wilderness Classic Race through the Wrangell Mtns from Nabesna to McCarthy this spring. We thought an early winter ski out the Stampede Trail would present us with some of the conditions we may encounter during the wilderness classic(open water crossings or overflow, breaking trails, etc) and also allow us to continue to fine tune our winter camping skills. The bus suddenly seemed like a good destination because this gave us a goal to shoot for...something to keep us pushing forward through the uncomfortable times, be it cold extremities, fatigue or malfunctioning equipment.

Stampede Rd is maintained for the first 8 miles or so - beyond that it becomes a rough 4-wheeler trail that crosses bogs, rivers, and traverses up small stream beds. According to my GPS its about 19.0 miles from the beginning of the trail to the magic bus # 142.
Here is the profile of the route. Some long gradual ups/downs but nothing really hair raising.

Getting ready to depart the truck and head out the Stampede Trail. Even though there was a cleared trail the skiing was still quite challenging the deeper we went into the wild. The snow cover was thin and the trail was super bumpy and uneven. Rivers/creeks are still freezing up and ice conditions are unstable and highly variable.

We encountered large areas of inclined overflow ice which would easily throw us off balance, especially with the 30 lb packs on our backs. We crashed down and slammed onto the icy surface a handful of times.

Some type of 4-wheeler had traveled out the trail and we were able to ski in the tire tracks. The snow in the middle of the trail was littered with rocks and was nearly impossible to glide across. The trail narrowed considerably after the first few miles and the thick brush would continuously grab our packs, ski baskets, slam into our shoulders, slap our faces and throw us off our feet--it was really frustrating especially after it got dark.

The Savage River--our first river crossing. We had to suck it up and walk through the icy water. The worst part was forcing our cold feet back into the confines of our ski boots.

Descending into the Teklanika drainage and our second river crossing. Our feet were just beginning to warm up after our little dip in the Savage River.

The late afternoon light on the Teklanika River was quite beautiful. This is the spot Chris McCandless was unable to ford in July 1992, the season when this glacially fed river runs high, fast, silty and cold.

Just below an eddy in the river the ice had accumulated and formed a narrow bridge which we were able to ski across. The water wasn't very deep but would have totally sucked to take an unexpected dip.

Water and bindings don't mix--bindings froze up numerous times

This plaque was mounted on an interior wall of the magic bus.

The first rays of sunlight shine through the windshield

The bus is on a linear knoll (probably an old moraine or esker) above the Sushana River where we could collect fresh water. It was quite a serene and beautiful spot and I can understand why Chris found this location quite special.

Smoke billows from bus 142's chimney on a cold frosty morning. The stove heated the bus up quickly but was so drafty it didn't take long to burn up the wood we had collected.

All aboard...

I didn't have any expectations prior to arriving at the bus. I was overwhelmingly surprised at how cool it was sitting there deep within the boreal forest in the shadow of the Alaska Range. It was hard to imagine this hunk of steel careening down the streets of Fairbanks back in the day. It seemed virtually untouched since the summer of 1992 when Chris McCandless spent his last days here living off the land. I was intrigued sifting through the various notebooks with words from fellow visitors and reading the inscriptions etched into the walls. I believe McCandless pilgrims will be completely satisfied, or perhaps, spiritually enlightened after visiting this site.

The hunter that found Chris's body said there was a red leg warmer, the type that would be worn by a dancer, hanging outside the bus. I was amazed to see a red leg warmer still at the bus.
Some inscriptions on the ceiling of the magic bus

We were able to warm up and dry out all of our gear in the bus. A small note asked visitors to respect this site and leave enough firewood for the next guest, sweep the floor, etc. We fully respected the bus as a memorial.

It took us 7 hours of steady skiing to get back to the truck.

The Teklanika River had risen some since the day before and we were forced to ski through an icy slurry on top of the river ice. We slipped plastic trash bags over our socks to keep them from getting wet but the frigid water still poured into our ski boots. The water froze instantly in the 0ºF temperature and Brian and Dans boots were permanently attached to their skis. We still had to cross over the Savage River.

So the ski back turned into a series of intervals of racing forward to keep warm, then stopping quickly to stuff food in our faces, stop again to shake our hands to warm up our fingers and toes. At one point I had to sit down and pull my feet out and change socks. As I was sitting there alone in the dark I heard wolves howling not far off through the woods. As I swept my headlamp around me the ice crystals on the trees looked like eyes peering at me from all directions. All in all it was a great trip full of a lot of unknowns--which is exactly what we were looking forward too.

I revisited Bus 142 in August of 2008 to find it totally vandalized. Details of that trip are here.

If you want to see even more pictures from our trip to the magic bus I posted them on Picassa.

Check out Brian's blog post about the ski out to the Chris McCandless magic bus on the Stampede Trail.

Listen to this weeks podcast from the Alaska Public Radio Network show "Talk of Alaska": The McCandless Bus - Move it or Leave it?