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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Backcountry Lemmings: 'Into the Wild' Pilgrimage Blunders Continue

Since publication of the bestselling account of the travels and death of Chris McCandless, "Into the Wild," by Jon Krakauer and the release of the film by the same name directed by Sean Penn, a previously little-known corner of the Alaska wilderness has seen a boom in its backcountry traffic.

"Into the Wild" chronicles the inner conflicts, Kerouac-ian travels and ultimate demise of a well-to-do recent college graduate who abandons his worldly possessions to roam free and ultimately try his hand at survival in the Alaska wilderness near Denali National Park. His final destination was an old, abandoned, 1940's era bus that had been scrapped along the Stampede Trail near the borders of Denali NP. The bus had been converted over time by hunters and hikers into a makeshift shelter with a pipe stove and bunk and it was here, 22 miles from the road that McCandless lived for a short while before dying of starvation related to poisoning form foraged vegetation.

The "Magic Bus" Photo by Associated Press

The "Magic Bus" as McCandless dubbed it, has become a destination for fans of the book and movie who are curious to see the location or wish to pay homage to the story's protagonist, but many, like McCandless are woefully unprepared for the trip.

The most recent lemmings to demonstrate their backcountry ignorance on a national stage were 19-year-old Donald Carroll from Illinois and 21-year-old Jia Long He from China. They set out on the 22-mile trek in cotton street clothes with only minimal food and no equipment. According to a report by the Anchorage Daily News the pair set out on Friday and were last seen by hikers along the trail. On Monday, after being several days overdue, the pair were rescued via helicopter and were reported to be cold, wet and hungry, but otherwise fine. While the trip itself is not particularly arduous, it does require a level of preparation and skill beyond the typical looky-loo tourist. The crux of the trip is the Teklanika River which swells considerably in warmer months with snowmelt from the surrounding mountains and presents a significant challenge to hikers seeking to cross. In fact, it was this river that ultimately sealed the fate of McCandless who crossed initially when the Teklanika was only a small stream before the melt. When he fell ill and attempted to find egress from the wilderness the river had swelled considerably and presented as impassible.

Lessons to be learned?

  • First of all, know your ability level. Carroll and his companion clearly had no backcountry skill at all. These types don't belong beyond a car-camping tent-site until they gain some knowledge and experience, let alone in the Alaska Backcountry.

  • Second, dress for conditions. Cotton = Death. While synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and lycra and natural fibers such as wool continue to insulate when wet, cotton actually pulls warmth from your body when wet. This can occur even from perspiration. Hypothermia results from a drop in body temperature of only 3 degrees which can occur in even relatively mild conditions. Don't wear cotton (jeans, t-shirts, socks), even on a dayhike. The best bet is to dress in layers and add or remove layers as needed to prevent chill or sweating. Base-layer + insulating layer + outer shell (weatherproof) is the best formula for success (hey, its what the Navy Seals use!)

  • Protect your feet. According to reports, Carroll was wearing tennis shoes with plastic bags covering them for the 22-mile trek in wet conditions. During my 7-month AT thru-hike I learned repeatedly that there are times that there's nothing you can do about wet feet - it happens. Even Gore-Tex footwear gets wet. The key is to dry your feet out when you can and don't let them stay wet. Bring at least one change of socks and let your feet dry out in camp at the very least. Wet feet can draw heat from your core quickly, not to mention how quickly wet skin gets damaged while supporting a load over miles of rough trail.

  • Put gas in your tank. Bring adequate food and make sure that it includes carbs for instant energy, fat for stored fuel and protein for building and repairing muscle. One great ultralight and effective diet plan is one developed by Epic Adventurer Andrew Skurka for his 6,875 mile Great Western Loop (click for details).

Perhaps the most pathetic detail about this story is that this is not the first rescue for Mr. Carroll in Alaska....THIS SUMMER! In June he texted Rangers (yes, hes wa that close to civilization) for rescue after getting soaked while hiking near Mt Healy in blue Jeans and a Sweatshirt. The Stampede Trail requires no permit nor special arrangements for Backcountry Travel, so this will likely not be the last rescue story from the "Magic Bus." I personally think these people should be charged for the Search and Rescue effort including use of the helicopter. People who are reckless in the backcountry endanger not only themselves, but the professionals and volunteers that have to save them. Carroll has been warned by Alaska Rangers that if he's spotted hiking in Alaska again that he will be arrested. Sounds fair to me. Hike safe and happy trails.


  1. Once again I really wanted to say that I like this article and I know from backpacking with you that you are extremely detail oriented. Which is much appreciated when 7 to 12 miles from the nearest road. On our last trip I stupidly dropped the coffee on the ground burning my foot before a 2 mile trek up a mountain. Your expertise made the trek not so bad. I placed my burnt foot in the cold stream and laid there for a half hour. I remember getting bored and leaving the stream, then you told me to keep soaking my foot till we were to leave. When we were ready to leave you showed me how to use duct tape and gauze to keep the shoe from rubbing on the blisters. I also took the duct tape as per your instruction and taped the blisters on my toes. Worked wonders! Allowed me to enjoy my surroundings, instead of focusing on my pain. Not one blister broke!

  2. I absolutely agree that people like that should be charged for the rescue effort. There is a difference between well-meaning people who prepare themselves and still get into trouble (it happens), and people like this who clearly don't have any respect for the wilderness or elements. Rangers and Park Service volunteers should be able to charge rescue fees based on their personal assessment of the person's annoyingness!

  3. Hi Peter,

    Great post, I used it during research before setting out on the Stampede Trail. You can see the results of that trip, including a video, here:

    All the best, and thanks for a great resource.


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