Stampede Trail 'magic bus'

A group of hikers take a break at Bus 142 along the Stampede Trail on June 21, 2009. 

Families of people who died while traveling to or from the infamous bus on the Stampede Trail are funding a feasibility study for building a foot bridge across the Teklanika River.

An environmental engineer with WSP Engineering gave a presentation to the Denali Borough Assembly last week in hopes the Denali Borough will act as a sponsor for any required permits and will help build local relationships for contracting and vendors.

“We are seeking feedback from the borough on the best way to solve this problem,” said Catherine Billor of WSP Engineering. She said the company was initially contacted by the Ackermann family and now two additional families support the project — Piotr Markielau and the McCandless family.

“The trail has been the site of numerous search and rescue calls and deaths,” she said. “The trail has gained popularity since ‘Into The Wild.’ The danger hasn’t deterred hikers.”

“The bus” is an abandoned 1946 international Harvester K-5 that is parked in a clearing along the Stampede Trail north of Denali National Park, about 18 miles from the end of Stampede Road off the Parks Highway near Healy. It is all that is left of the Stampede Mine operations in the 1970s. Chris McCandless died in that bus in 1992 and is the subject of the book “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer and a subsequent movie. Since the book and movie came out, the number of hikers trying to reach the bus increased significantly. The number of search and rescues has also increased. And so have fatalities.

Backpacker Claire Jane Ackermann, 29, of Switzerland, died trying to cross the river in August 2010. Veronika Nikonova, 24, died in July 2019 trying to cross the river. Her new husband, Piotr, was with her at the time. He addressed the borough assembly via phone.

“My wife, she drowned in the Teklanika River on the way from the bus,” he said. “We were on our wedding trip. Nika is not the only one who lost her life. People keep going there.”

The river is rough, fast and extremely cold.

A bridge, Billor said, would improve safety, reduce the risk of loss of life and of stranded or injured hikers. It would also reduce the ongoing nuisance for neighbors, she added. Additionally, it would reduce rescue costs, she said.

“Current costs for rescue in this area run in the tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “In addition to 40 to 60 hours of labor for each rescue. A proposed bridge is a way to address these rescues each year.”

She said the National Park Service estimated rescues there cost $8,000 to $13,000 and usually involve helicopters. Local rescue personnel have responded to calls there two or three times in the past five years, according to Tri-Valley Fire Chief Brad Randall. Usually the National Park Service or Alaska State Troopers respond.

A bridge feasibility study is being entirely funded by families of victims. The project coordinators hope the borough will help with land ownership and with acquiring any needed permits in the vicinity of the crossing and maybe even help find a better location for a bridge. Design of the bridge would blend into the natural landscape, she said.

The company is looking at private financing as well as individual and family contributions to cover costs of construction, operation and maintenance. The company said groups like the Alaska Conservation Corps and Alaska trail groups are being considered to include in the project.

Design of the bridge and permitting could be completed in nine months, she said. Once permits are secured, construction would take about two years.

The big question then is who would manage and maintain the bridge. Denali Borough Mayor Clay Walker pointed out that the state department of natural resources has already declined to participate in this project.

“They’re not set up to own or inspect bridges,” he said. “We also don’t have any experience owning or managing bridges, but we’re open to listening.”

Assembly member Jared Zimmerman worried that building a bridge and making it easier to reach the bus might encourage more ill-prepared visitors. Some might think the trip is now easy and that is not the case, said Jeff Stenger, who described that area as a hostile environment.

“A bridge doesn’t address the ill preparedness of other hikers,” said Erik Haugen during public comment. “I run into all kinds of clowns out there, totally unprepared.”

He recalled one hiker in particular, who wore five pairs of blue jeans, cotton shirts and a jacket that was not water repellent.

Jill Boelsma wondered how many people make the trek to the bus successfully.

“The popularity of the area will continue to bring people out,” Billor said. “The bridge is a way to remove one of those risks.”

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at kcapps@newsminer.com. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.