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Deaths prompt Alaska officials to remove ‘Into the Wild’ bus

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An abandoned bus in the Alaska wilderness where a young man documented his demise over 114 days in 1992 has been removed by officials, frustrated that the bus has become a lure for dangerous, sometimes deadly pilgrimages into treacherous backcountry.

An Alaska National Guard Chinook helicopter flew the bus out of the woods just north of Denali National Park and Preserve on Thursday.

Christopher McCandless hiked to the bus located about 250 miles north of Anchorage nearly three decades ago, and the 24-year-old Virginian died from starvation when he couldn’t hike back out because of the swollen Teklanika River. He kept a journal of his plight, discovered when his body was found. McCandless’ story was first documented in Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book “Into the Wild,” followed by Sean Penn’s movie of the same name in 2007.

Over the years, the bus became a magnet for those wishing to retrace McCandless’ steps to the bus to pay homage. But the Teklanika River that prevented McCandless from hiking out also has caused problems for people who came later on pilgrimages. Two women, one from Switzerland in 2010 and one from Belarus in 2019, drowned on such pilgrimages.

State officials said there have been 15 other search-and-rescue operations since 2009, including one involving five Italian tourists last winter, one with severe frostbite.

“We encourage people to enjoy Alaska’s wild areas safely, and we understand the hold this bus has had on the popular imagination,” Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Corri A. Feige said in a statement. “However, this is an abandoned and deteriorating vehicle that was requiring dangerous and costly rescue efforts, but more importantly, was costing some visitors their lives.”

In Alaska, the Department of Natural Resources is responsible for protecting and preserving state land.

“I was stunned when Commissioner Feige informed me,” Carine McCandless, Christopher’s sister, said in an email to The Associated Press. “Though I am saddened by the news, the decision was made with good intentions, and was certainly theirs to make. That bus didn’t belong to Chris and it doesn’t belong to his family.”

The 1940s-era bus, sometimes called “Bus 142” or “The Magic Bus,” was used to house employees by the Yutan Construction Co. when it built an access road about 25 miles west of the Parks Highway, the main thoroughfare between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The National Guard named Thursday’s bus lift “Operation Yutan.”

The bus was abandoned in 1961 and had become an emergency shelter for those using the backcountry to recreate or hunt.

“Seeing those photos of Fairbanks 142 flying out of the bush triggered a flood of complicated emotions for me,” Krakauer said in an email to the AP.

Krakauer said he respects the decision to remove the bus, “but some powerful history is attached to that old bus. A great many people care deeply about what happens to it.”

For now the bus is being kept in a secure, unnamed location while the department decides what to do with it, Feige said. A release from the Alaska National Guard said the discussion includes “possible plans to display the bus for the public to view at a safe location.”

The guard said its air crew also is safekeeping a suitcase that holds sentimental value to the McCandless family. Officials didn’t detail what was in the suitcase.

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