Veranika Nikonova

Veranika Nikonova drowned July 25 while crossing the Teklanika River with her husband, Piotr Markiełaŭ-. Newlyweds, the couple ran into trouble crossing the river after spending two nights at an abandoned bus made famous by the 1996 book and 2007 movie “Into the Wild.” Nikonova, 24, was an actress, filmmaker and political activist in the couple’s home country of Belarus. Photo courtesy Piotr Markiełaŭ 

The husband of a 24-year-old Belarus woman who died while trying to cross the Teklanika River on July 25 said he and his wife were returning from a visit to the famed McCandless bus when she lost her footing.

The bus, also known as Bus 142 or the Magic Bus, is located about 30 miles up the Stampede Trail and can only be reached by crossing the often swift and dangerous river. American hiker Christopher McCandless starved to death in the bus in 1992, an event made famous by John Krakauer’s 1996 book “Into the Wild” and a 2007 movie of the same name.

Piotr Markiełaŭ said he and Veranika Nikonova visited the bus for several reasons.

“I read the book and we both saw the film. I like the idea of living into the wild, and we wanted to hike, and we wanted our hikes to have final destinations. After all, sleeping in a warm bus after nights in a tent is just more comfortable,” Markiełaŭ said in an email to the News-Miner on Tuesday.

The bus engenders different reactions from those familiar with McCandless’ story. Many consider him a romantic free-spirit and the bus a place of pilgrimage. Others see McCandless as a naive, irresponsible young man who died needlessly, and feel the bus is a nuisance that tempts unprepared visitors to embark on a dangerous and difficult journey that often ends in disaster. There have been one death and 15 state-generated search and rescues involving the bus from 2009 and 2017, according to Alaska State Troopers. 

Markiełaŭ, 24, said he and Nikonova successfully crossed the river on their way in, scratched the words “Piotr & Nika / Just Married / 07/19” inside the bus and left notes in a journal left there for visitors to record their thoughts in. Running short on rations, they ate food left there by previous campers and decided to leave after spending two nights there.

They ran into trouble on the way out.

“When we approached the river on the way back, water level went up because of recent rains. We stopped to have a cigarette. We were joking it might be (the) last cigarette of ours. Then I took several selfies of us both on my phone,” Markiełaŭ said in his email.

Using a rope someone had previously stretched across the river to aid in crossing, Markiełaŭ went first and was “tired” and “scared” after reaching the other side. Nikonova had a second rope attached to the main rope with a carabiner, a decision Markiełaŭ said, in retrospect, might not have been a good idea. Though he had trouble hearing his wife over the roaring of the water, he realized she was in trouble when she was midway across the river.

“I think her feet lost grip with river’s bottom. I went to her and started to drag her ... to the bank. She was still floating on the security rope for some time. When I turned around for another time, she was under water ... I kept pulling her, but then myself disconnected from the main rope, tried to get her head out of water,” Markiełaŭ said. “She was a very strong woman. Being under water already, she was holding me with her hands for 30 seconds maybe. She loved me so much. It was horrible.”

Markiełaŭ said it took him about five minutes to completely drag his wife out of the stream and begin artificial respiration and heart massage. His efforts were unsuccessful and he notified troopers of Nikonova’s death at 11:52 p.m. 

Nikonova was an actress, political activist and movie maker, according to Markiełaŭ. She appeared in the 2010 Russian-Belarusian movie “Fortress of War,” studied at the New York Film Academy and recently directed the documentary “Mothers 328,” about relatives of people convicted of drug-related crimes in Belarus.

Markiełaŭ said his wife was a brave woman who lived a full life and wanted others to do the same.

“I was happy every day with her. Nika was a bright flame of love, sharing that love with everyone around. People who even didn’t meet her in person are in grief. Everyone loved her and she loved everyone. She was a free spirit person, she loved freedom, she loved to love.”

Markiełaŭ is staying in Anchorage while he deals with the aftermath of his wife’s death. 

“A waterproof bag with all of our documents, cards, phones with last pictures of her went with the current. If it’s found any time, I just need the pictures,” Markiełaŭ said. “I’m now staying with Larry Day, a schoolteacher from Anchorage. We met him through couchsurfing and spent several nights at his house two weeks ago. He very kindly agreed to host me and Nika’s mother while we decide with funeral and I make replacement documents.”

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.