Last weekend, 29-year old Swiss hiker Claire Jane Ackermann died while crossing the Teklanika River along the Stampede Trail in Alaska. She was attempting to cross the stream, along with another hiker from France, in the hopes of reaching the Fairbanks bus made famous in the book and movie Into the Wild, a popular destination for trekkers in the region.
Ackermann and her male companion tied themselves to a guide rope that had been strung across the river earlier in the summer. But the water was swollen, and moving fast, with the late summer melt off, and when they both lost their footing, the powerful current forced them under. The unidentified man was able to cut his rope and drag himself to shore, where he dropped his backpack and turned back for Ackermann, who was already submerged. He returned to retrieve her, but after cutting her safety rope, the pair were washed downstream for half a mile. By the time they reached the safety of the shore, the Swiss woman was unresponsive, and all attempts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful.
The bus that the two hikers were trying to reach is the same spot where Chris McCandless starved to death back in 1992. The 24-year old vagabond had traveled across the U.S., Canada, and parts of Mexico before hiking into the Alaskan backcountry, where he would eventually meet his fate while staying in Bus 142. The old vehicle was parked in the wilderness to serve as a shelter for backpackers, but Chris became trapped there when he was unable to cross the same river that claimed Ackermann’s life.
In 1996, bestselling author Jon Krakauer wrote the biography Into the Wild about McCandless, exploring the reasons why a young man from an upper class family would give up his comfortable life in order to wander across North America. Eventually that wanderlust would lead him into the Alaskan wilderness where he eventually perished. That book helped turned McCandless into a folk hero for many, sparking a trend of other hikers going in search of the infamous bus, and in 2007, the book was turned into a film, which brought even more attention to McCandless’ story, and spurred a surge in people looking to follow in his footsteps.
For many of the local residents, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before someone died making the trek to the bus. Since the release of the movie, traffic along the Stampede Trail has increased sharply, with most going in search of McCandless’ final resting place. The young traveler has been soundly criticized in some circles for going into the backcountry unprepared, and it seems that many of those that follow him are equally lacking in skills and gear. Perhaps this unfortunate story will get future hikers to respect the challenges of the trail a bit more fully, and approach the region with more caution.