As It Happens

Why another death on trail to 'Magic Bus' from Into The Wild won't stop adventurers

A tourist from Belarus drowned on Thursday trying to cross the Teklanika River near Healy, Alaska, to make it to the bus where Christopher McCandless met his death in 1992.

A 24-year-old woman drowned Thursday trying to reach the Alaska bus where Christopher McCandless died in 1992

The abandoned bus where Christopher McCandless starved to death in 1992 is seen in this March 21, 2006, photo on the Stampede Road near Healy, Alaska.
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It's been almost 30 years since Christopher McCandless died hungry and alone in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness — and people are still following in his footsteps. 

Veranika Nikanava, 24, a tourist from Belarus, drowned on Thursday trying to cross the Teklanika River near Healy, Alaska. She and her husband were headed to the bus where McCandless died in 1992.

McCandless spent a summer living off the grid in the Fairbanks City Transit System Bus #142, which he called the "Magic Bus," after hiking into the Alaska wilderness with little food and equipment. He was found dead four months later. 

His story was made famous by Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into The Wild and Sean Penn's 2007 film adaptation of the same name.

Since then, countless people have made the pilgrimage to the bus. Some have had to be rescued by Alaskan officials. Nikanava is the second person to have died trying. 

Whitehorse-based journalist Eva Holland wrote a feature about the people who make the dangerous journey. It's titled "Chasing Alexander Supertramp" — a reference to the moniker McCandless adopted for himself. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton. 

Why are people so drawn to this site? 

That's something I've never entirely understood. I understand the appeal of the story of Chris McCandless more than I understand the draw specifically to the bus. 

I think people really admire his sort of spirit of rebellion and freedom and getting away from it all.

But the thing that I've never understood is ... just continuing to go to the bus. I think there are better ways to find that spirit of freedom.

Emile Hirsch played McCandless in the 2007 film Into The Wild. (Paramount Vantage)

For people that don't know Christopher McCandless, just remind them who he is. 

Chris McCandless was a young man from Georgia who left his home to go travelling across North America. He had all sorts of adventures over the course of a couple of years, which are documented in the book and movie Into the Wild

He eventually made his way north to Alaska, intending to live off the land for as long as he could. 

He hitchhiked to the Denali National Park area and then hiked in along the Stampede Trail and made his home in the bus for, I think, three or four months before he died of starvation.

Have you been to the bus? 

I have not. I've only been as far as the river. 

I went to the river to see it for myself when I was reporting on this whole pilgrimage phenomenon a few years ago and I watched a group of hikers cross that were headed to the bus and three of them were swept downstream and one of them almost drowned.

And did that make them reconsider? 

They didn't go to the bus, no. They came home after they got safe and warm and dry.

What do locals, people in the area, think of this notion that people want to venture out to see this abandoned bus where a man died? 

I think they find it fairly frustrating.

Some people are very hostile and angry about the whole phenomenon. Some people in Alaska are very angry about Chris McCandless more generally, and others are just sort of concerned and hope that they won't keep having to rescue these young people.

It's primarily volunteer firefighters that execute these rescues. And there have been numerous rescues.

There's been talk of moving the bus. I saw some quotes [in your story] of a guy wanting to just burn it down. Do you think that this latest death may cause those talks to continue or start again? 

I think it will renew the discussion. But I think if nothing has been done in the 23 years since the book came out, I don't think that anything will change at this point. The bus is increasingly dilapidated, is my understanding.

I don't even know if it would survive a removal attempt, so I think that probably what will end up happening is they just wait for it to disintegrate on its own.

 

The people that you've met who've tried to make the trek, what was it ... that pulled them toward this story?

The hikers that I met that day were just kind of checking it out for fun. They'd seen the movie, they were curious. 

I did speak to other hikers who'd been there previously who were really, really inspired by … the story of Into the Wild and wanted to try to sort of touch that spirit and connect with what they felt was sort of the magic of the story. 

It's not something I entirely understand, but it does seem very, very earnest and genuine. 

Do you think it will continue?

I think it will in some way. Sometimes I worry that another death will actually make it worse. 

What do you mean? 

People like to feel like they're taking a risk. 

Sometimes this kind of thing can draw people in rather than push them away.

Written by Sheena Goodyear and Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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