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Walking the Stampede Trail to the bus from Into The Wild


To read the no-holds-barred account of Dave’s hike of the Stampede Trail, check out Chapter 25 in his brand new book, Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life  – AVAILABLE NOW, on Amazon. [Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk]


The Stampede Trail is most known for being the trail that Chris McCandless set out on in April 1992 with the intention of living off the land for the summer. It’s home to “the magic bus”, which became Chris’s base during that time. Four months later, in September ’92, McCandless’s remains were found in the bus, where it’s believed he starved to death. His story gained notoriety in January 1993 when Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside Magazine, which was later developed into the well known book and subsequent film, Into The Wild.

It’s a divisive story. Many locals view it as a foolish one, where an underprepared dreamer came to Alaska totally naive to the reality of the wilderness and its challenges. Others are touched by the story and flock to the area in a pilgrimage-like way, from around the world.

A few days ago, I stashed my bike and most gear in Fairbanks, and then hitchhiked back South towards Healy. The plan was to walk to the bus, with the hope there’d be a chance to talk to people and see what drew them to visit. I didn’t expect it to be a profound spiritual journey or anything, and I think some of the criticisms are accurate, but it’s a story that it’s easy to connect with on some levels – questioning our conditioning and a desire for a type of adventure – so being in the area anyway, well, why not? If nothing came of it, it’d at least be a break from pedalling for a couple of days and a refresher course in the art of walking.

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The plan was to do the trip in two days, walking to the bus the first day, camping, then walking out. It’s a slow 20 miles to the bus from the trailhead, basically along well-carved rocky trails, through ponds and open tundra, across a couple of rivers (one of which, the Teklanika River, is known as the point of no return for McCandless – the barrier that stopped him from walking back out to civilisation), and through dense and mosquito-infested tree corridors. And then all of a sudden, it opens up and you find yourself at the bus with sore and aching feet.

It’s in a pretty bad way, bullet holes lining the outside of the bus, most windows put through, and the inside has been torn apart and many parts stolen. But nonetheless it was still strikingly reminiscent of the images from ’92. Inside, it’s a mess but still in good condition is the guestbook for visitors to sign. They range from philosophical messages of people who have seemingly been hugely affected by the story, to “thx chris 4 the inspiration“, to “me and my buddies just drove out here in our 4×4’s and made it in 4 hours. Sick trail!“. There’s also some messages from people who have stayed at the bus for several months during the winter. It’s definitely a hardcore place to be based in the depths of a heavy Alaskan winter.

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Camping outside, it was eerie. There were a lot of noises that were probably nothing but definitely sounded like big critters. You know people say you should make loud noises when you’re in Alaska backcountry? Well it makes you go mad, always saying the same thing, like “HUMAN”, every minute or so. It drives you crazy, especially when the mosquitoes are constantly swarming your face in their thousands too. There’s advice that says you should make regular, loud noises, in a deep voice to let animals know you’re in the area. 3am in the tent and there were big sounds outside. Too late to think clearly, the only loud deep voice I could conjure up were the words from Chocolate Rain by Tay Zonday. Imagining it from another person’s perspective, it must have been really, really weird.

Getting ready to walk out again the next day, Eric from Minneapolis walked into the bus site. He’d flown into Fairbanks for a couple of days with the sole purpose of walking to the bus and was aiming for a single day round trip to make the flight back. Hell of a mission that. It was attempt two, after last year getting turned back because the Teklanika crossing was so high. Split into two days was pretty full on, so I can only imagine what one intense day was like. Sore feet I reckon.

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It was a bit of a slog on the way out. Headphones in and painkillers to dampen the plod. The river hadn’t risen, even though the crossing was late in the day, so getting across was fine. All in all, whilst it’s not the most best walk in Alaska, the Tundra is spectacular in places and it’s a worthwhile trip if you’re in town and have ever felt a connection to the McCandless story or other Alaska wilderness tales.

And regardless of your views on his story, McCandless showed wisdom when, whilst in the severe stages of starvation, he wrote “Happiness only real when shared.

– – –

THE BETA. There’s a lot of misinformation and fear-mongering online about Hiking The Stampede Trail. Here’s some things that I would add to the mix – as of July 2013. If you’re thinking about taking the trip, obviously do all your own research and be safe, the below are only opinions:

  • This piece calls crossing the Teklanika River in July “extremely dangerous”. The truth is it’s luck of the draw – it might be crazy high water, or it could be fine. On the way to the bus, it was waist height and whilst powerful it didn’t seem like an intimidating crossing. The best chance you have is to cross the river early in the morning – think 4 – 6 am – as it’s a glacier-fed river it doesn’t melt as much during lower temps.
  • If the main crossing looks too high, check upstream. There’s places to cross that are easier and the river isn’t as fast flowing.
  • It’s safer and more fun to do a trip like this with other people.
  • Keep it simple when crossing. Make sure you’re not tied into a rope and keep your rucksack unfastened.
  • Use a strong stick, and in high currents face upstream, with your legs wide, and the stick in front of you forming a tripod shape, making small steps diagonally backwards across the flow.
  • The mosquitos in July are hell. You’ll be swarmed. Take the strongest Deet you can get your hands on. Take some kind of mosquito net too, it’s horrible without one.
  • There’s plenty of water, so you don’t need to carry much at any one time. But make sure you take something to make the water safe to drink. Beaver fever sounds awful.
  • Take Bear Bells rather than shouting out every minute. They will save your sanity. 

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Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life.
Available now: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com



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24 comments on this post

  1. Luis says:

    Great story, youtube video + photos.
    As much as I would like to, I could not and probably will never make this journey. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Illinois Sara says:

    I am doing research about a similar trip in September. Was it creepy staying at the bus? What about crossing the river solo?

  3. James Sutton says:

    Thanks for the video and photos from ‘the bus’ trip. Did you see the zip line across the river Jon Krakauer referred to? It’s hard to believe he was just a 1/4 mile from it.

    • Dave says:

      Hi James, the gauging station wire on the Teklanika isn’t there anymore apparently.

    • Will Forsberg says:

      The cable was 8/10ths of a mile downstream from the crossing. And pretty hard to get to on both sides of the river. So it’s not surprising at all that chris did not find it. He could have walked up river for about 10 miles to the Denali Park Road and not crossed the river at all but apparently he didn’t look at his road map closely enough to realize this.

  4. Gill Longway says:

    Hi Dave
    Still loving your blog and found this posting particularly interesting. Whilst I think I agree with McCandless that happiness is only real when shared, I’ve just been reading about Alfred Wainwright (for those of you that don’t know, he wrote extensive guides to walking in the English Lake District and other parts of Britain) and he said “It is a man or woman who walks alone who enjoys the greatest reward, and sees and feels and senses the mood of the hills.”

    I guess doing this trip solo you’re likely to sway between both points of view?

    Take care

    Gill

  5. Barb Barna says:

    Hi Dave,
    Les and I have been enjoying your blog posts and photos. It sounds like you are hooked on the “northern” experience.
    Alex has made it to Manitoba. We here from him sporadically, but he is traveling with others at the moment, taking side trips to see the country.
    Safe travels.
    Barb Barna

  6. Ken Rowan says:

    Hi Dave, still looking forward to every post from your blog and enjoying your shared experiences immensely. Great to see how you are developing your “theme” as you travel and adapt to changing conditions and environs. I was particularly struck by this latest post. I saw the film “Into the Wild” and was one of those that was spell bound by the story despite his relative “naivity”. Thanks.

  7. Jenn says:

    Your blog is excellent. Thanks for the information, you’ve really got a great mix of personal experience and straight facts and advice.

  8. Tom says:

    What was the point of eradicating the bus number and windows with bullet holes? Was there some kind of “I need to make my mark on someone else’s back in the easiest way possible” mentality here? Lazy drunk power trip… Letting it fade into nature would have been much more pleasing and would feel better..

    • Dave says:

      I agree Tom. Think some of it is based around a lot of locals dislike for unprepared and inexperienced tourists coming to visit the bus and getting themselves into trouble, and so if I had to guess it’d be that maybe the bus sees damage as an attempt at dissuasion.

  9. Judy Fong says:

    Hi Dave. Great blog and helpful information. It inspired me to create my own blog for my trip to Alaska in just a few weeks. We plan to hike the trail July 14-16th. It sounds like everyones experience has been different as mother nature is unpredictable. However common sense goes a long ways. We have done extensive research online (videos, blogs, forums, etc..). From your won experience would you give us some reminders, pointers, suggestions please? And did you bring a water filter for the water or just drank from the river & streams? My concern is getting sick.

    • Dave says:

      Hi Judy,

      Awesome, sounds like a great adventure shaping up for July!

      Some pointers would be:

      – be willing to turn around if anything (river levels etc) feel too sketchy.
      – take bear bells and mosquito nets and deet
      – clean the water before you drink it

      I just took a few iodine tablets to purify the water, but it doesn’t taste nice. If you can get hold of a UV filter or something like that. You’ll never run out of water but you do need to make it safe to avoid sickness.

      Hope it goes really well!
      Dave

  10. Vinod says:

    Great article… I could relive the moments of Into the wild

  11. Joel says:

    Two days, that’s pretty intense, I did it in four nights five days, we got stranded for one though

  12. Vivi says:

    Hy Dave, do you think it’s possible to go there on the last week of april? o is it too dangerous ? thank you

    • Dave says:

      Hi Vivi,

      I’ve not been in Alaska during April, so I couldn’t say for sure. It’d be worth checking with a local guide to be safe.

      Getting to the bus really comes down to the river crossing and what it’s like, so if it feels sketchy when you’re on the Healy side of the river, then just turn back and do it again another time.

      But yeah, I’m not sure what it’s like in April. Depending on the year, it may still be very snowy and ice-y. So if you do end up going for it, make sure to take very warm gear and hot food supplies & stove!

      Be safe and if you go for it have a great trip,

      Cheers,
      Dave

      p.s. Travis’ entry here may be worth a read, it was also in April: http://www.stampedetrail.info/trailreports2011.php

  13. chris says:

    Hey there!
    So I’m definitely going out on a limb here. Buying a one way into Fairbanks in June. Never really hiked or camped longer than a week. I have no clue how long I will be there and I will be alone. Do you see many people out there randomly? This is definitely going to be some experience.

  14. rossario says:

    whats the habitat???

  15. Willy says:

    Was there a week before you, never seen a soul, got swarmed by mosquito’s the whole time, hundreds of them. Was an awesome trip, water was waist deep, not bad. Only animal I seen was a 2 beavers, did see Grizzly tracks in the mud and wolf tracks, no weird noises at night or anything like that. Drank the water near the bus without filtering, don’t recommend doing that in the beginning of the trip, it’s beaver infested muskeg. I’m glad I was able to see the bus when it was in ok shape. Now in 2017, it’s in a lot worse shape. I plan on going again and taking my time. Anybody who is planning on going, A.)Mosquito net. B.)If Tek river is sketchy, go upriver and look for an alternative crossing. C.)Have fun.

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