They’re tired of the deaths and multiple rescues near a decrepit old bus whose legendary status continues to lure adventurers to one of Alaska’s most unforgiving hinterlands, and now officials in the nearest town want it removed, something the state has no intention of doing.
The long-abandoned vehicle was made famous in the 1996 Into the Wild book and later in the movie of the same name. Scores of travelers have been rescued and two have died trying to cross the unpredictable Teklanika River while seeking to retrace the steps of Christopher McCandless along the Stampede Trail.
The swollen banks of the Teklanika are what prevented the 24-year-old Virginian from seeking help before his 1992 starvation death inside the bus. The vehicle was left there about 1960, decades before McCandless encountered it and wrote in his journal about living there for 114 days, right up to his death.
“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure,” states an unsigned granite memorial near the bus.
Officials in the Denali Borough based in Healy, 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the bus, solidified their stance this month in a unanimous vote to be rid of the bus. In the same action, officials also rejected a proposal to build a footbridge over a treacherous river for easier access to the bus.
“People would assume it’s a cakewalk to get there,” says Denali Borough Assembly member Jeff Stenger. “And that would encourage more to go.”
Families of those who died proposed the idea for the bridge, and sought sponsorship from the borough, including help with permits and maintenance. But borough officials declined, citing public safety.
“We want to limit the potential of pulling more dead people out of the river,” borough Mayor Clay Walker said.
There would also be the exorbitant expense of maintaining such a bridge far removed in backcountry marked by dangerous terrain, no cell phone service and other rivers to cross, officials point out. And some attempting the trip are ill-prepared.
The bridge would not have made a difference in the Feb. 22 rescue of five Italian tourists — one with frostbitten feet —from a camp they set up after visiting the bus. State Troopers are in charge of such rescues, but the borough is home to the local volunteer firefighters and others who often assist, Walker said.
Instead of a bridge, the borough wants the state to remove the vehicle.
“It’s the state’s bus. It’s on state land,” Stenger said. The vehicle sits in a clearing near the boundary of the Denali National Park and Preserve.
Help from the state is also sought by the husband of Veramika Maikamava, a 24-year-old newlywed from Belarus who died last year when she was swept away by the Teklanika while they were trying to reach the bus. Piotr Markielau, who is leading the footbridge effort, wants to connect with state officials to offer to help develop warning signs for the Stampede Trail, he said in an email to The Associated Press.
“I suspect removing the bus might not solve the problem in full,” he wrote. “People will keep going to the original location and might event erect another memorial there.”
Even though it won’t remove the bus, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Dan Saddler said the state would be open to exploring the warning signage idea.
“DNR would certainly evaluate any proposal according to state law and regulation, and consider the possible consequences for public health and safety of any action, or inaction, relating to the bus,” he said.
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