‘Into the Wild’ Just Down the Trail from Earthsong Lodge
With the release of the movie “Into the Wild” , there has been a renewed interest in the Stampede Trail and traveling to “the Bus.” EarthSong Lodge is about the last spot along the Stampede Trail before the four miles of dirt road begin, and after that, the old mining trail. Most of our guests are familiar with the story of young Christopher McChandliss, and his fatal adventure out the Stampede Trail. As residents of the Stampede Trail since 1983, there are few people more knowledgeable about the route and logistics for a hike to the Bus than us at EarthSong, and we are more than happy to offer navigational assistance to any backcountry adventurer.
The movie, and to a lesser extent, the book, take some great liberties with actual events. Fans would be interested, and some disappointed, to learn that McCandliss did not accidentally poison himself with local flora, but only died from slowly starving to death. While the movie and book depart from reality at some points, the difficulty in crossing the Teklanika River cannot be understated. Hikers going out in the summer months should be willing to turn back if the river is hard to cross…anything less may end up with a fatality. We usually recommend hikers go out in the early summer months of May and early June, or the fall months of September. Weather is better, mosquitoes less annoying, and the river is crossed with greater success. The hike usually takes about two days to the Bus on the Sushana River, and two days back to the pullout at 8 Mile Lake (where the road ends).
A much easier way to get to the Bus is to go out in the winter months, when the rivers are frozen and the ground solid. Denali Dog Sled Expeditions at EarthSong Lodge, our winter dog sled guiding business, will get you to the Bus in about 4 hours. Stopping at the Bus is included in almost all of our overnight dog sledding trips, on the way to a cabin upstream on the Sushana River. Other ways to get there is to ski or even mountain bike when the spring dog trail is solid. Once you see how relatively easy it is to get around the Alaskan backcountry in the winter, you can understand why so many gold miners during the gold rush at the turn of the century did their long travels in the cold season.
Once at the Bus, many visitors are a bit disappointed…after all, it is not the “Bus” from the movie. In fact, most of the movie was filmed along the Denali Highway near Cantwell, south of the Denali National Park entrance. Rumor has it Sean Penn, film director, thought that area was more “Alaskan!” Locals would certainly disagree. But the Bus has seen better days, many windows are gone, and it has little to offer inside. Parts are even disappearing as souvenirs or money-making artifacts, such as the dashboard. The Bus is considered State of Alaska property, and removal of anything is against state law.
The real value of the Sushana Bus is as a shelter for fall and winter travelers, not as a shrine to a wayward young man trying to find himself. Dog mushers (including myself) have used the Bus in the past, and may in the future. Hunters in the fall stay there. But for hardcore fans of “Into the Wild”, it is a pilgrimage site, and will continue to be a goal for many for years to come. That is fine, but be prepared when going into the Stampede backcountry. After all, one ill-prepared individual ending up as a fatality is enough. If you go out, have a healthy respect for the wilderness like most Alaskans do, and you will be able to tell people about your adventure for many years to come.