05-Aug-2005 -- "What’s the name of the book? Into the Wild? Where did he die? At the Stampede Road and the Sushana River? So that’s pretty much right where we'd be going. That's a little bit foreboding, don’t you think?" Christopher was on the phone with a woman at Denali National Park's backcountry information office. If we could get to it, we’d be within miles of the infamous abandoned bus where 24-year-old Christopher "Alexander Supertramp" McCandless starved to death in August 1992 – a story chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book, Into the Wild.
We thought we could ride mountain bikes the 25 miles out the Stampede Trail from Healy and then hike another eight miles to the confluence point. Of course, the simple solution often won't work in Alaska. We'd have to ford three rivers – the Savage, Teklanika and Sushana. Jessica, the woman from the park office, told us the rivers were running at least seven feet deep. These are the same rivers that rose up this time of year in 1992 so that McCandless couldn't cross to get back out of about the same spot.
That news set in motion a two-day frenzy of talking with just about every wilderness guide, bush plane operator, helicopter owner, rafting company and ATV owner within a 100-mile radius of the Denali entrance. "I do some dead-guy bus tours sometimes," the horse safari guide in Healy told us. No, we explained. The bus was interesting, but we wanted to get to the seemingly random spot of 64 North by 150 West. "Ah," they said, with a nothing-could-surprise-me-anymore kind of look.
We considered almost every mode of transportation. We thought about floating inflatable pack rafts down the Toklat River, which runs about a mile to the west of our confluence point. But the rapids were supposedly class 5 and no place would rent us rafts (dunno why...), and the float downstream would be about 100 miles to the next possible take out. The horse guy said the rivers were too deep for his animals. The hunting guides said they couldn't get there this time of year. The guys with ATVs were busy (and how’d you get them across the 7' deep raging rivers anyway?). Helicopter? Too expensive. Cheating besides. Furthermore, the helicopter pilot told us he was unfortunately otherwise occupied picking up the wreckage and bodily remains from a bush plane crash in the area.
Our last chance seemed to be Ray Atkins. An old-timer bush pilot based in Cantwell. Starts every sentence with a long, slow, friendly "Well..." His house is decorated with grizzly bear skins, mounted moose and Dall sheep heads – even a stuffed leopard he hunted on an African safari.
Ray said it was 50-50 at best that he could land his Cessna anywhere near the confluence point so that we would be able to hike to it. The only shot would be to land on a gravel bar of the Toklat River, with even slimmer chances he could land on the east side of the river so we wouldn’t have to ford it. We finally decided, all other options having fallen through, to lays down our money and takes our chances on getting lucky finding a landing spot. Even if we can't land, we'll get to flightsee around Denali and maybe see "the bus".
We lifted off in the red Cessna. Ray pointed out a herd of Dall sheep, perched on a sheer mountain face. The rivers snaked beneath us. Ray flew over an abandoned bus by the Savage River. (We learned later it's the wrong bus.) We followed our handheld GPS to try to find where the confluence should be from the air. A low hill of green bushes and black spruce trees. We hadn't seen anything that looked like there was any hope of landing an airplane on it.
Then Ray circled and made a low pass over the Toklat River, checked out a gravel bar, and pulled back up to circle around again. We sure hadn't seen anything big enough between the driftwood and river braids to look like you could hope to land on it. We held our breath as he descended a second time. We thought he was going in for a second look. Not sure if he was going to be able to touch down. He did. We bounced over rocks. When we were on the ground we saw that the wheel touched down about 18" from a large log on either side of the spot he picked to land.
We were amazed and astounded. Ray was humble and no-nonsense. It's probably good that we didn't ask him until then if he had ever had any major accidents.
"Oh yeah, I've had my share," he said. "I plastered one against the side of the mountain about 10 years ago. Broke my neck, 11 of my teeth, my sternum, my left leg. Other than that, I was having a pretty good day."
We arranged for him to pick us up at 9:00 a.m. the next morning, hoping we could make it to the confluence and back in that time. He said the weather sometimes made his arrival time fluid. We told him we'd start cursing his name at 9:00 a.m., and to get there as soon as he could.
Then we were alone in one of the least visited corners of Denali National Park. The area isn't very scenic. There aren't any white-capped peaks, and the cliffs along the river look barren. But we were ecstatic to be there. And the one landable spot on the whole river valley where Ray had dropped us off was really close to our destination.
We tried to figure the best way to get to the confluence, and set off up a dry creek bed, bear bells jangling on our packs and calling out, "Yo bear" at frequent intervals. But the only animal evidence we saw were moose droppings. Then we climbed north a few hundred feet up a steep river bank and onto spongy muskeg. It's like walking on a mossy trampoline. We bushwhacked. It was arduous, but the closer we got, the more exciting it was.
We made it to the spot and zigged and zagged until our GPS read all zeros. Triumph. Especially after all the work and uncertainty if we'd be able to find a way to get there. But the spot is no place to linger – it's all chest-high bushes and 'drunken forest' of stunted Alaskan trees from the permafrost. Plus, it was starting to drizzle. We found water on the way back, headed back to our gravel bar, set up camp, made a fire and read "Into the Wild" until the long Alaskan summer light started to wane after midnight.
"And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white north. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild." – Alexander Supertramp, May 1992
He managed to survive almost four months in the wilderness, hunting squirrels, porcupine and even a moose. But when he decided to head back to civilization, the Teklanika was running too fast for him to cross. He kept hunting, but wasn't getting enough calories and began to starve. Then he ate poisonous potato seeds and became too weak to hunt or hike out. Krakauer writes that he probably died on August 18, 1992.
Christopher said he could relate to this guy who wanted to rid himself of worldly goods and try pushing his limits to find where they lay, traveling, living off the land, deliberately taking on challenge. The outcome showed that McCandless took on more than he was able, and was pretty far out the path. But it's easy for people who've never attempted anything near this themselves to cast off the guy with a quick few words to the effect that he was just crazy, or a fool who was 'unprepared for the Alaskan wilderness'. The story could easily have gone the other way had circumstances differed. He had apparently traveled alone all over the U.S., lived off the land in the Baja desert, arrived in the Alaskan bush when it was two feet under snow and lived off the land for four months, planning to leave at the end of the summer before an unfortunate illness led to his end. Anyone else who's challenged themselves equally is welcome to call him foolishly under-prepared, in our view.
The next morning, we wait for Ray. Downstream, we see a wolf cross the riverbed. Nine o'clock comes and goes. Seven more hours pass, and we’re starting to get jittery. Thinking about self-rescue options. Yelling flowery curses of Ray's name out to the heavens. Then the sound of Ray's plane comes into earshot, he pulls into sight and bounces onto the gravel bar. Fog delayed him. We climb in the plane and head out of the wild. We knew he'd be back. Before we left, when we talked about contingency plans, he'd simply said, "If I get you in there, I’m gonna get you out." The way Ray said it, it was all the assurance you needed.
On the way back, we fly over the Sushana River and see the green and white bus from which McCandless never did make it out.
To hear a radio story of our confluence visit, go to AK Home, click on archives and select the Sept. 10, 2005, show.