Every year, travelers take to the Stampede Trail in search of some kind of survivalist nirvana. And every year, people have to be rescued along the way.
When Eddie Habeck booked a hiking and trail-running excursion through Alaska in 2012, he wasn't planning to visit Fairbanks Bus 142. The 39-year-old Vermont resident only realized in the process of plotting his trip that he was heading to the state that houses the bus where Chris McCandless, the post-college vagabond subject of journalist Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild (as well as the film that followed) was found dead of apparent starvation on September 6, 1992, after spending four months in the Denali National Park and Preserve on a solo adventure into the wilderness.
"I realized, Wait a minute, that story took place in Alaska," Habeck, who works for the state government and runs an aerial photography business in his spare time, told me. "I realized that it might be a possibility to go out there." Habeck mapped out his journey to the bus—located near the Stampede Trail on state land, about a mile east of the 6-million-acre national park's boundary—and hit the trail on his own in May of that year.
His trip wasn't without difficulty—least of which was crossing the waters of the Teklanika River, which were waist-deep around that time of year—but he eventually made it to Bus 142, which has been left in place to serve as a shelter for hunters and trappers. "It wasn't the reason I went there—it was more of an afterthought—but it was a defining moment of my trip.
"I had a lot of time to think about why Chris wanted to leave society, and what it would feel like to be that far away from civilization," says Habeck. "To actually immerse yourself in that surrounding, you don't know what you're going to feel until you're there."
Every year, travelers from across the world take to the Stampede Trail in search of that defining moment that Habeck describes—to achieve a sort of survivalist, solitudinous nirvana, to retrace McCandless's final steps through the Alaskan wilderness without succumbing to the same fate. When it comes to that last objective, not everyone is successful: In 2010, 29-year-old Claire Ackermann from Switzerland drowned while trying to cross the Teklanika with French hiker Etienne Gros en route to the bus, and people have to be rescued from the trail every year.
Because hiking the Stampede Trail doesn't require a permit, there are no official statistics on how many are rescued annually. Lynn Macaloon, the acting public information officer for Denali National Park and Preserve, told VICE that she estimates "several" rescues on the trail take place each year, with park rangers, the local fire department, and Alaska state troopers among those tapped to pitch in.
Late last month, hikers Michael Trigg and Theodore Aslund were the subjects of a rescue operation that involved more than 20 people and one helicopter, after making it to the bus and taking longer than expected on their return journey. "They left with an unrealistic idea of when they'd be back," hiker and Alaska native Erik Halfacre told VICE. "They could've ensured that someone wouldn't launch an expensive rescue for them by having a turnaround time and sticking to it—but they didn't."
Halfacre, 30, is a professional hiking and packrafting guide; since 2011, he's also run the Last Frontier Adventure Club (LFAC), which he describes as "a way to get more information about different hikes online." Halfacre's been to Bus 142 three times over the last seven years. His most recent trip took place in 2014, when McCandless's sister Carine (whose own memoir, The Wild Truth, was published that year) joined him and 11 other hikers on the trek. Over the phone, he speaks with the confidence of someone who, in his words, "can't remember a time [in my life] when I haven't been hiking."
Halfacre claims that local journalists tend to cover Stampede Trail rescue operations by "writing negative and nasty things about anything that happens out there," and the ire felt on behalf of locals isn't entirely misplaced. "We as Alaskans have to spend our tax dollars to bail them out, and that's an irritating thing for a lot of people to look at," he told VICE. His solution, then, is education—specifically, the resources on LFAC's site that prepare potential Bus 142 pilgrims for the challenges they're going to face. It's as much a how-to for experienced hikers as it is a warning for aspiring amateurs who aren't ready for such a taxing journey.
And when it comes to hiking the Stampede Trail, learning when to give up is as crucial as knowing how to succeed. Two years after Habeck's first completed trip to Bus 142, he tried again with his wife the day after their wedding—but this time, the Teklanika's waters were too high and too rough to safely make passage through. "It'd have been a bad way to end up the day after my wedding," he said, chuckling. Halfacre himself has turned around twice during excursions to Bus 142—once because a group he was guiding was underprepared, some of them forgetting such basic essentials as tents and food. "I wasn't willing to continue with them."
Showing up to a difficult hike underprepared may sound ridiculous, but it plays heavily in the narrative of Chris McCandless that many Bus 142 trekkers are most familiar with. The last person to see him alive, Fairbanks-based electrician Jim Gallien, told Krakauer in Into the Wild that while giving McCandless a ride to the edge of Denali National Park and Reserve, he noted the traveler's insufficient supplies—a ten-pound bag of rice, a .22 caliber rifle (too small to kill large animals that would normally provide sustenance), a state map, and tattered hiking gear. Later in the book, Krakauer draws a distinction between other, less publicized bush casualties and McCandless's fate: "Although he was... incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn't incompetent—he wouldn't have lasted 113 days if he were."
It's inarguable that the amount of time McCandless was able to survive in the Alaskan bush is, on a level, impressive. In the grand American tradition of finding yourself by communing with the natural world, it's not unimaginable that traveling souls would find something notionally romantic in the story of his journey—perhaps to the point where McCandless's tragic demise is pushed to the background. "The reality is, we read about Chris's story from Jon Krakauer because Chris is dead," Halfacre stressed, leaning on the last word with seriousness. "Nobody should want to repeat that."
And perhaps amateur adventure-seekers are finally getting the message, Denali National Park and Preserve's volunteer program manager Kathleen Kelly says that incidents like the rescue operation that took place last month are becoming less frequent. "Word is getting out about what it takes to do this," Kelly told VICE. "Either people are going better prepared, fewer people are attempting it, or they're just going out with more information." And perhaps that's for the best, since Halfacre's take on why people persevere in attempting the trek speaks to humanity's innate desire for personal growth: "To a lot of people, [the Stampede Trail] represents a challenge that, if they're able to overcome, they think they'll discover something about themselves."
Others still find that the obsession in retracing McCandless's footsteps is a mystery in itself. "I don't quite get the appeal," Macaloon said, emphasizing that the attraction of vanishing off the societal grid and into the great unknown extends not only to McCandless's tragic story, but Alaska at-large. "We find people not only going to the bus, but wanting to come up here and build a cabin wherever they want to and live off the land. Alaska is the place where people can get to where they think they can live out those dreams—or try to."
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