The frozen feet of an unnamed Italian have the deadly legacy of writer John Krakauer once more back in the news.
The Italian was one of five lucky to be rescued from along the Stampede Trail north of Denali National Park and Preserve after a winter journey to the abandoned school bus featured in Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” went bad.
Coke Wallace, a guide from the community of Healy just east of the bus, said the poor judgment of the Italian was in line with that of Krakauer protagonist Chris McCandless. McCandless died of starvation in the bus in 1992 at the age of 24.
Wallace said the injured Italian, whose name and age Troopers said they did not know, was hiking in uninsulated summer boots in temperatures that dipped below zero early Saturday morning. As a result, he seriously froze his feet.
Luckily, Wallace said, the people the Italians stayed with the night before they set out for the bus made them take a Garmin in-Reach – a handheld, satellite communication device.
“They made it all the way to the bus as the story goes,” Wallace said, but were forced to camp out on the way back to the coal-mining community of about 1,000 that passes for civilization in the wilds of central Alaska.
“It was cold out here,” Wallace said. “We had some 20- 25-below. The guy might lose some toes I guess.’’
Push for rescue
When the Italians realized how much trouble they were in, they punched the SOS button on the in-Reach to alert the International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center. Eventually the Tri-Valley Fire Department and Troopers were notified and sent out a group of snowmachines riders from Healy to retrieve the Italians.
The Italians thus joined dozens of others who have been rescued while on bus-bound pilgrimages that began not long after the publication of Into the Wild in 1996.
A wanderer who renamed himself “Alexander Supertramp” and left a scant record of his travels, McCandless was portrayed by Krakauer as a thoughtful young man who ventured Thoreau-like into the wilderness of Alaska searching for the meaning of life.
What McCandless was really looking for is unknown. Henry D. Thoreau wrote down more in a day at Walden Pond than McCandless recorded in his months squatting in the bus preceding his death.
He had a different description for the long-abandoned bus that hunters, dog mushers, snowmachiners and hikers had been using for shelter for years: “Magic bus.” Given the weather conditions in the April and May when McCandless stumbled on it, the bus must have indeed looked like a magic haven.
Along about the time McCandless was jotting down misery, weather records for the nearby Denali Park headquarters recorded 4.5 inches of cold, wet, heavy snow falling on with another 6.8 inches to come the next day.
But these realities of Alaska’s wild have never been able to overpower the myth Krakauer created and a Sean Penn movie later helped hype.
Lost in Alaska
Wallace, who does business as Midnight Sun Safaris, said he has personally rescued 10 or 12 bus adventurers over the years, and others in the Healy area have pitched in to rescue many others. There is no official tally.
Many of the rescues that happen in the winter – when it is often easy to retrieve someone by snowmachine (or snowmobile as the rest of the world calls the tracked, ski-equipped vehicles) – seldom get reported.
Wallace remembers one man from China who approached him about a snowmachine ride out to the bus years ago. The man balked when Wallace said it would cost him $350. The fee has since gone up to $500.
The man eventually set out for the bus on foot. He got lost in a maze of snowmachine and dogsled trails. A local dog musher found him and brought him back to Healy. The man eventually returned to Fairbanks, Wallace said, “where he practiced his winter camping skills.”
Then he returned. Unfortunately, he had not worked on his navigational skills.
“So he goes out there and gets lost again,” Wallace said. “This time the Park Service finds him. They take this dude to the bus. Then they bring him all the way out, and then buy him a burger and send him on his way.”
Apparently satisfied with finally having made it to the bus, the man did not come back again. But there have been plenty of others to take his place.
What to do
The rescues have prompted off and on discussions about search costs and how to avoid future deaths. The latest idea has focused on a bridge across the Teklanika, where both fatalities have occurred and where there are now rescues every summer.
But some local residents point out that a bridge won’t make any difference in the winter when the river is frozen and the cold is more likely to kill people. And others have noted there are plenty of ways to get into trouble once beyond the Tek, as they call it.
“A bridge would make it worse,” Wallace said. “I’d rather they spent the money to work on the frost heaves (in the George Parks Highway) between here and Anchorage (260 miles to the south) or Fairbanks (115 miles to the north).”
Veteran dog musher Will Forsberg, the man who found McCandless’s wallet after his death and who has always been suspicious McCandless vandalized a shelter cabin Forsberg maintained not far from the bus, has a simple idea for what to do with the bus:
Cut it into pieces and haul it away.
“The bus is still occasionally used as an emergency shelter,” he said, “but it’s presence has become more of a hassle than a help. It is essentially just a big piece of garbage. Moving it to any other location seems silly. It cannot be burned to the ground or blown up because it is made of steel.
“The way to remove it is to cut it into small pieces with torches and saws and haul it out with snow machines. The Park Service has done this exact thing with an old van that was abandoned near the (Teklanika) river on park lands. It might even be enough just to cut off the cabin of the bus and haul it in while leaving the heavier frame and wheels to rust. Once removed, a campaign to let everyone know it is gone may lower the interest in going there.”
There is no doubt this would end any interest in going there to take a selfie with the bus because there would be no bus to put in the photo.
Tri-Valley Fire has the tools to do the job, Forsberg added, and paid staff who could accompany volunteers to the site to oversee the deconstruction.
Jon Nierenberg, another dog musher who runs guided trips in the area, admits to mixed feelings about that idea.
“I was for hauling it out,” he said, “but one of my trips last winter ended up using it. They were unable to get the last mile or so to Forsberg’s cabin due to overflow (water on ice), and turned back to the bus.”
With temperatures at 25-degrees-below-zero and two 70-year-old women as clients, Nierenberg said he could have had a disaster on his hands “if I didn’t have a great guide working it.”
The guide settled the women into the bus, made them comfortable there, and all was fine.
“So now I can’t say I’m in favor of hauling it out,” Nierenberg said. “(But) I do want to paint it such a ridiculous color that it takes any dignity away from the BS story” Krakauer told.
As for the bridge, he doesn’t see it going anywhere.
The idea has been “funded and pushed by survivors’ families,” Nierenberg said. Local residents are sensitive to that, but he said the “overall consensus is absolutely not.”