In June of 2009, Tristan and Britany Denoncour, Jeremy and Marcy Egger, Scott Ashmore, Jose Cardoso, my wife Jenna, and myself, all hiked to Bus 142 at the end of the Stampede Trail. We wanted to check out the International Harvester that Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild, had lived his final months in. It wasn’t ever about worshipping or defending Chris’ choices; It was about being interested in the story and wanting to see the place for ourselves so we could better understand it.
Somewhat crunched for time, we did the trip in exactly 48 hours. The first day we got on the trail at 7PM and hiked to the Teklanika River. The second day we pushed hard for 20 miles, leaving most of our gear at the Teklanika, visiting bus 142, and then returning to camp at the Teklanika River. The third day we set a slower pace, and made it back to our car at 7PM. I hadn’t had a chance to get back out there since.
Later this year, Jedidiah White and myself will be trekking and rafting from Kantishna to Healy. For that trip, we need some additional supplies along the route. Since the bus is a place we had planned to take a rest day anyway, it seemed like a logical location to set one of our caches. So this trip, was specifically for the purpose of placing that cache; a bag of food, stove fuel, and perhaps most importantly, toilet paper.
Day 1 – May 27th 2012
My pack was loaded down much more than usual, with the additional weight of the cache and packraft. I stepped onto the trail from Eight Mile Lake at about 3PM on May 27th, and was officially on my way. My goal, right out of the gate, was to make it to the bus in one day, and make it back in one day. Since I was starting so late, I knew that was going to be a real push.
Immediately, I felt uneasy about the idea that I was going to be twenty miles out along the trail, alone, with no course of action if anything was to happen to me. The list of things I was concerned about included: bear attack, accident while crossing the river, falling and breaking a bone, sudden extreme illness,
alien abduction, and confrontations with moose. Whenever I am with someone, I never seem to fear any of these things. Furthermore, when I’m in the wilderness around my parents’ house, where I grew up playing in the woods, I can spend the whole day alone and not fear any of those things. Why did it bother me so much there?
Soon though, I was at the Jeep Camp. I saw the tents, and everything looked like it was set up waiting for the arrival of customers, but no one was in sight. “HEY! ANYBODY HOME?” I yelled… no answer. “MIKE! YOU IN THERE!?”
“Yeah, man. Give me a second, I was sleeping,” came the reply as Mike Kramer moved about in his canvas tent. Mike is the camp cook at the Jeep Camp, but he’s also been to the bus more than once. I met him first on a trip to Virginia in 2011. It was good to catch up with him and see how he’d been since I picked him up at the airport upon his arrival in Alaska back in March.
As we talked, a couple of four-wheelers pulled into the camp, two men that worked for one of the other off-road tour groups on the trail. They asked where I was hiking to, and when I told them I got the expected response, “Oooooh. Be careful. The river is awfully dangerous.
While I appreciate the concern, sometimes it irritates me that it’s the first assumption of many locals, that if you’re heading to the bus you don’t know what you’re doing. You must be one of those damn pilgrims that doesn’t know the first thing about backcountry travel in Alaska, and just got done watching Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild.’ The guys were actually very friendly though, and we chatted for a few minutes before I took off down the trail.
Progress to the Savage River was fast. I stopped for breaks very few times, but most notably, to stop and photograph a smashed up MacBook along the side of the trail. Who brings a laptop out there?
Crossing the Savage was easy, and before I knew it, I was at the Teklanika River. I was prepared to do this crossing alone. I had brought my wife’s Alpacka Raft, Yukon Yak. I brought the smaller boat to reduce weight, even leaving the spray deck behind. I hadn’t thought about finding places to put the raft in, and safely land it on the other side though. It occurred to me I would need to find some eddies, and I would need to walk upstream to look for them.
I decided to cross where the river breaks into two braids. The first braid was fast and deep. The second I got the boat into the water I was rocketing downstream. I caught a branch on the far bank, but the force of grabbing it tipped the boat and I took on a bunch of water before the whole bush ripped off in my hand and I was still going downstream. About a hundred yards ahead though, there was a spot where four-wheelers had been crossing at low water, and the tracks formed just the eddy I needed to stop. As I came sliding sideways into the eddy, the force of the deceleration rocked the boat again and even more water poured in.
I stood up and emptied my bathtub/boat, carried it to the next braid, and did the whole thing over again. I was across the Teklanika River. I was also exhausted, but I felt like I should keep hiking. Ten more miles to the bus. I wondered if I could make it if I just took it slow and easy. Walking with my boat paddle as a walking stick, I hiked up through Moose Alley.
As I came around a corner, I spotted something shiny in the mud, right in the center of a bear track. It was a Canon point and shoot camera, caked in mud and soaked all the way through. I opened the door to the battery/card compartment and water drained from the camera. It was obvious it wouldn’t be taking any more pictures, but maybe I could save the ones already on the card. I took the SD card from the camera, wiped it on my shirt and stuck it in my pocket. I placed the camera in my bag and hiked on.
As I reached the top of the hill after Moose Alley, the sun was just disappearing below the horizon. I got some great shots of my own before continuing on. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it was starting to show. I felt weak and each step was becoming an effort. The trail seemed to go on forever, and in my head I kept thinking “Oh yeah, this looks familiar. I think the bus is around the next corner.” But it wasn’t.
A snowshoe hare hopped across the trail and stopped just a few feet from me. It was difficult to get a good photo in the dim light, but I tried for a few minutes before going on. Finally, I rounded the last corner and the bus was in site. I had never been so happy to see such a rusty old vehicle.
I climbed into the bus and laid my pack down. I spread out my sleeping bag and got ready to sleep. I didn’t even want to bother cooking anything to eat. Curiosity did get the best of me though, and I plugged the SD card from the waterlogged camera into my own camera. The card worked, and there were pictures! As I flipped through someone’s photos of taking off-road vehicles to the bus, I recognized one of the rigs as a truck I’d seen in photos on a forum before. I might be able to find the owner. With that thought I went to sleep.
Day 2 – May 28th 2012 (Memorial Day)
The night was rough. It got a lot colder at the bus than I had expected. That combined with my decision to not start a fire in the stove, and not eat anything before going to sleep, meant that I spent a fair amount of time huddled as far down as I could into my bag trying not to be cold. I figure I went to sleep about 2AM.
I woke suddenly to the sound of tarps being moved about furiously. Figuring it was probably
alien abductors bears, I sprang out of my bag and grabbed for the gun. It turned out to just be the wind, which had picked up significantly over the night. It was now 7AM, and it was obvious I wouldn’t be getting any more sleep.
I knew I was running a sleep and calorie deficit. I also knew I wasn’t going to fall back to sleep, so I’d probably just better try and take care of the other issue. I walked down to the Sushana River and filtered some water. There was still a fair amount of ice along the banks of the river, something I didn’t expect to see.
Back at the bus I cooked up two pots of top ramen noodles and ate them. My throat was starting to hurt and I chose ramen, thinking that the broth would help. What I didn’t think about, probably because I was a little exhausted, was that each packet of ramen noodles only has 380 calories (for a total of 760 calories,) and at a rate of twenty miles per day, a guy my size with a pack is burning about 3500 calories per day (above and beyond just the amount needed to keep my heart beating and brain working.) Factor in that I didn’t eat lunch or dinner the day before, and you can see where this is all going.
In the bus, I took note of all the names carved into the walls and ceiling. Unlike last time, I recognized a lot of them. These were the names of people who had emailed me to ask questions, share trail conditions, and announce their success. It was neat to know so much of the story behind so many of the carvings. When I went to the bus in 2009, I did not carve my name. My friend Scott Ashmore had though. I found his name, and this time I carved mine in just below it.
I packed up my stuff and got ready to hit the trail. The last thing I did before leaving camp was to walk around and take some photos and some video of the site, just so others could see the extent of the damage and vandalism.
After that I was on the trail. My pace was much slower than the day before, and my legs were ridiculously stiff. Each slight uphill felt like I was climbing a mountain, and soon I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make it back to the highway in a day if I didn’t do something. I was about two miles from the bus. I thought maybe I should take the day off, go back to the bus, rest, and try again the next day. Then I thought, maybe I should try and make it to the Teklanika, and just spend one night outside. Eventually I decided to just pull out my bivy bag and take a short nap.
The way the wind and the sounds of bugs mixes together, sometimes it occasionally sounds like distant voices. I strained in my bag to try and hear if it was really people or just my imagination. It should be people, I thought. It’s Memorial Day weekend. I can’t be the only person with the idea to hike to the bus. I listened more intently. Nothing.
I wasn’t getting much sleep, so I decided I should just try to continue and make progress, no matter how slow. I went to take a drink of water from my bottle, and realized I hadn’t filled it up again after breakfast. It would be a few more miles before I would reach Moose Alley, and the next water source.
By the time I got to Moose Alley I was utterly drained. As I dropped alongside the creek where it crosses the trail for the first time, I considered just laying out my bivy and going to sleep until the next day. Progress had been terribly slow. It was already well into the afternoon, and I felt incapable of going any further. I decided it was lunch time. I cooked up a packet of Mountain House and ate and drank as much water as I thought I could hold. Almost instantly I felt much better and full of energy.
I made it the rest of the way to the Teklanika very quickly. Once there though, I decided not to inflate my raft. The only eddy I saw on the Healy side of the river, didn’t look very promising. I put everything away into the dry sacks in my pack and selected a large sturdy stick. I crossed the first braid without incident. Then came the narrower, faster, deeper braid. I walked along until I found a place where four-wheelers had been crossing at low water. The braid was a little wider there, and must be shallower, I reasoned. The river was deep and pushing hard, well over my knees. About two thirds of the way across though, I took a step into the main channel. The water was up over my waist and shoving with all it’s might. I braced myself with the stick, but the river rolled me over the rocks on the bottom like they were ball bearings. I quickly took a couple more steps to the left, and all of a sudden I was out!
The joy I felt from being done with the Teklanika River (for this trip) and the adrenaline rush I got from being completely alone and doing something so stupid, gave me the energy I needed to knock out the next six miles or so very quickly. I had my second wind and I was going to ride it all the way to Eight Mile Lake.
My pace was quick and soon I was to the ‘mud fields’ between Savage River and Fish Creek. The weather was great that day, but that was the first time during the trip that I actually got a view of Denali. I stopped and took some photos and video before plunging into the knee deep muck of the mud fields.
Soon I was passing the Jeep Camp again. Kramer was off, so no one was there. I walked a little further up the trail before I stopped and had my dinner. I wasn’t really even that hungry, but I needed to stop and filter more water, so I decided to eat as well.
The last couple of miles I started to think about how I was going to get from Eight Mile Lake out to the highway. It would really suck to have to walk eight more miles after all that, just to start hitch hiking. Luckily for me though, when I got to Eight Mile Lake, I was greeted by some white water guides with a big passenger van, who were just wrapping up a late night campfire. The time was 2AM. I had completed the trek in under 36 hours, 25% faster than the last time I hiked the trail. I got a ride with the rafters out to the highway and hitched my way back south. It was the fastest I think I would ever care to take that hike. Ideally, if I do it again, It will be with friends and spread out over more days.
After the Hike
While flipping through the photos on the camera I found, one in particular had stood out to me:
I knew I recognized the rig in front, as belonging to a guy who comments on a forum I participate in about Christopher McCandless. I contacted a friend, Mike Putman, that I was aware knew how to get in contact with the guy. Turns out, his name is Dusty, and his friend Deric lost his camera on their last trip out to the bus with their rigs. Deric lives in Anchorage, so it was easy for him to come and retrieve his camera once I got back to town.
Alask is a crazy place. So big, yet everyone is connected in one way or another.