Another “magic bus” rescue


The Stampede Road bus and its most famous victim/Wikimedia

The National Park Service was at it again in the Alaska Interior on Monday, chasing after yet another adventurer missing on a trip to the “Magic Bus” made famous by actor-turned-director Sean Penn.

This time the missing man was 45-year-old Carlos Castrejon  from Mexico. Earlier this summer,  it was a 22-year-old from Canada. Just before that it was a couple twentysomethings from the American South.

All survived, thus besting the fate of the most famous occupant of the bus.

The Magic Bus arrived on the national stage in 1992 when some moose hunters found the emaciated body of 24-year-old Chris McCandless inside. McCandless, as his few writings made clear, was a young man lost in more ways than one.

Author John Krakauer made up a story out of the few words in McCandless’s tell-nothing journal, and later turned the story into a book: “Into the Wild.”

The book, for reasons hard to fathom, is now taught in some U.S. educational institutions. It was destined to become one of those books adults look back on year’s later as “something I was forced to read in school.”

But then along came Penn to eulogize McCandless in a 2007 movie about the book. Wikipedia calls the “Into the Wild” the motion picture an American biographical drama survival film,” though film  is hardly that. 

A.) McCandless didn’t survive; he fell victim to his own failings and died.

B.) Neither the book nor the movie is biographical. Nothing is known about McCandless’s time in Alaska, because he was alone and left no coherent description of what he was doing or did. And much of the rest of what is known about his life after he turned his back on his family and ran away is sketchy

Little of that matters now, though, because the movie helped to make the bus a shrine, one easier to reach than Mecca or Jerusalem. The bus is about 30 miles west of the George Parks Highway via the Stampede Road out of  Healy, but that route requires fording the glacial Teklanika River which can be difficult.

Krakauer theorized that high water on the Tek trapped McCandless in the wild, but no one will ever know. What is know that the river killed a Swiss woman in 2010. Claire Ackermann was tied into a “safety line” across the river when she lost her footing and was swept under by the current and held there.  She died.

To date, none of a significant number of others swept off their feet and washed downstream have died, but a few have lost gear. When crossing Alaska rivers, it is always smart to unhook waist and chest straps on backpacks so that if you get knocked down in current you can get out of the pack and swim for your life.

Ackermann’s death came three years after Penn made the movie that really brought fame to the bus named “magic” long before McCandless got there.

Old-timers in Healy say deserted Fairbanks Transit bus124 was first called magic by some wanderers on the trail who found it when in need of shelter in bad weather. It was regularly visited in the fall and winter seasons before McCandless moved in for a summer at a time when the bus was little visited in that season.

It now gets plenty of summer traffic with an increasing amount of it coming from the Park Road in Denali National Park and Preserve. The route from the road to the bus is shorter, only about 15 miles, but it requires climbing up and over mountains. That said, it does avoid crossing potentially deep water on the Tek.

Park officials said it was this route that on which Castrejon departed Wednesday. When he failed to return to the park’s Riley Creek campground by Sunday, friends notified officials that he was missing.

Park officials, who said Castrejon had been advised that three days wasn’t enough time for his planned hike, began a search for the missing man early Monday. They had a team of rangers on all-terrain vehicles scouring the Stampede Road and two teams working north from the Park Road into the mountains along the Tek by Monday morning.

Only hours after the search began, however, Castrejon was found walking along the Park Road.

“His trip just took him longer than he expected, and was considerably more difficult than he expected,” park spokeswoman Katherine Belcher emailed. “When he came out, he said the conditions were much tougher than he expected and he should have taken Stampede Road.”

The two Southerners who secured their five seconds of fame for becoming the subjects of a June search said much the same.  The Canadian, Matthew Sharp, followed the Stampede Trail and nearly became another Ackerman.

“Once I was about halfway across (the Tek), the current overwhelmed me and dragged me and my [50 pounds of] gear down stream…. I got pretty beat up. While being dragged, I was able to grab a fallen tree and get to shore,” he told the CBC.

Sharp pulled himself ashore, continued his hike to the bus, camped out for a night, then got up and punched a rescue beacon to summon help because he was sore from being bounced down the river.

“It took a lot for me to do it, but I activated my locator,” he told the CBC.

An Alaska State Trooper helicopter picked him up. The Troopers and Park Service do not keep a tally on how much they’ve spent on bus-related rescues, but search-and-rescue operations have become a summer norm.

No one is charged, but Penn, who opened the tap on the flood of visitors to the bus, is worth an estimated $150 million and would appear easily capable of picking up the costs of the SAR operations.

CORRECTION: This story was corrected on Sept. 13, 2016 to reflect that Claire Ackermann died when swept under by the current of the Teklanika River. An earlier version of the story described her as being swept away.





5 replies »

  1. Claire wasn’t swept away. She tied in to a fixed rope to cross the river and when the current knocked her down she was held in place by the rope and held under by the current till she drowned. Everybody who gets swept away by the current has managed to get to shore.

    This latest guy wasn’t even overdue. He was found by a search party of Park staff on their way to look for him. His gal pal got worried and reported him overdue prematurely. The search party people are mostly Park trail crew and others who are on the payroll anyway so it doesn’t cost much more than having them at work doing something else.

    • you’re right, Will. she was swept under and held there, not swept away. i corrected the story. thanks. but we might want to add that “so far” everyone swept away has made it to shore alive. a packraft is clearly a good idea, if for no other reason than if it rains a lot after you cross you can always make it back with the boat, and packrafts don’t weigh that much. Sherri Tingey is now making a sub-4-pounder that would work great: what do one of those bear cannisters weight?

  2. Claire Ackerman wasn’t swept away. She drowned because she tied herself into a fixed rope strung across the river. When she lost her footing the current held her under water while the rope held her in place. People who get swept away by the current have all managed to dog paddle to shore and get out like a wet puppy. People with some experience take a small raft and paddle across the Tek. This latest guy wasn’t even overdue. His friend just reported him missing for some reason.

  3. Alaska needs a search and rescue card like they have in Colorado. You buy the card and there is no charge for SAR. No card? You’re on the hook for all costs. The money from sales of the card is used for equipment and training for SAR teams. There are tens of thousands of ways to get into trouble in the Alaska backcountry, and we can’t eliminate those. But we could spread the costs out over all responsible backcountry travelers.

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