Into The Wild — A journey to the “Magic Bus”

Maxime Malalel
Feb 24 · 7 min read

The plan was simple : walk-in, walk-out. Two days on the path of Christopher McCandless. 60–80 km round-trip. Two rivers to cross. 40L backpack. Solo.

Teklanika River — Maxime Malalel

I was supposed to do a ‘Discovery Hike’ with a ranger in Denali National Park on that day. Unable to register a spot, I had to look around for an adventure.

I was close to Healy, Alaska, and remembered that the bus from Into The Wild was near. I heard that it was dangerous to go there, but I had to research it myself to make up my mind.

The Internet was resourceful :

  • The path is flat, but it’s quite a long journey
  • Take bear spray and enough to eat
  • Two rivers to cross: Savage River & Teklanika River. Those are glacial rivers, which means the hotter it is, the higher they go. The first one should be knee-deep, the second one should be between the knee and the hip. A PackRaft should be used to cross the second river : it’s dangerous. It’s the one that stopped Christopher from going back to civilization.
  • Tell a friend about your journey
  • But mainly : don’t go there. Every year people have to be rescued because they can’t cross back the Teklanika River.

After carefully thinking about it, I thought it was doable.

4th september 2018. A wednesday.

“It’s early september, I shouldn’t need to buy a Packraft for this thing, it’s not that hot and people were crossing the river without it on Youtube, I should be fine!”

The night before, I tried to buy bear spray at the local gas station but they didn’t have any. As soon as I woke up, I went straight to the local store (Three Bears Healy) and bought one. After that, I went for breakfast at Rose’s Cafe to stock up before the journey, and told my friends what I was up to.

The Stampede Trail is the path that takes you to the bus. You can easily join the start of the trail with a car by taking the Stampede Road. The last few kilometers will be on a gravel road.

I parked here: 63°53'00.7"N 149°15'57.5"W , packed, and went into the wild.

The path was easy to spot. It’s a straight line, large enough for quads to go on.

Armed with my phone as a GPS and maps.me for direction, I thought that I would be able to cover the 30–40 km in about 7 to 9 hours, including resting. Starting at around 9 am, I would be at the bus before dawn.

The first 12 km were quite uneventful, it’s a straight road, with a lot of water at some points where you either have to go all in to not lose time, or find some workaround in the trees.

I noticed something strange quite early : nobody was on the trail. I thought that I would at least meet some peers, but nothing. Until I heard motorised vehicles in the background. Quads. Hunters. I didn’t know about it, but september was the beginning of the hunting season. The Stampede Trail is just outside of Denali National Park, so that’s where big-game hunting is happening. We exchanged a few words, they told me to meet them upstream the Teklanika river before crossing, as it was safer, corroborating what I read on the Internet.

The Stampede Trail — Maxime Malalel

I continued the journey.

Sometimes the path was hard to find, as it was just a plain with hundreds of quad tracks. I ventured further into the wild, and saw on maps.me that I was getting closer to the Savage River.

Upon arriving in front of it, everything seemed fine. I walked about 15 km, I was not tired, I was on time.

I noticed a path on the other side of the Savage River and decided to cross there to continue. The water was way higher than knee-deep and the flow was quite fast but still ok : I was able to cross it without issues. I went further into the forest, in what seemed to be the Stampede Trail to my eyes (even though no quad would be able to go there, I later realised). I found myself in the middle of the forest, with no path making sense around me. I was here: 63°54'14.4"N 149°26'41.3"W.

The map is not the territory.

Shouldn’t be too hard to find my way back to the trail, I thought. I checked maps.me to see where I was and where the trail was supposed to be. Up north. So I went there. The information I found on maps.me was always on-point, so I never had to doubt it until that day.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing was here. I just ventured deeper into the forest, with no path in sight.

I was lost, but still had a few tricks up my sleeve.

63.905651, -149.447882 — Google Maps

I had a drone. I was in the middle of the forest and I started connecting it to my phone and up we go. By leveraging the aerial view, and scooting the area for 10–15 minutes, I thought I would be able to easily find the path back. I didn’t. I did however confirmed where the Savage River was, but I already had the information. When I tried to land the drone on an uneven terrain, I couldn’t do it easily, so I tried to grab it with my hands. The Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems wasn’t disabled. Tried to grab it, further away it went. Ended up using my backpack as a landing pad.

Single point of failure.

I realised here and there that going into the wild with only my phone (and an external battery) as a map was stupid, even though the trail was supposed to be easily identifiable. If my phone failed at that point, I probably could have gone back to the river and find my path back, but it’s not a winning plan to count on that, especially in Alaska. You should have a back-up plan.

I went back to the river and decided to go south instead of north. It was quite hard to move around in the forest: lots of trees, have to keep an eye out for wildlife, uneven terrain, and you don’t really know where you walk as the grass can suddenly succomb under your weight.

Savage River — Maxime Malalel

Finally, after wandering for about 1 to 2 hours since I crossed the river, I stumbled upon the right path: a 3.5 meter-wide quad-accessible path. I looked behind me: it would have been way easier to cross the Savage River here. Here being : 63.900247, -149.443089.

The Stampede Trail between the Savage River and the Teklanika river is straightforward. 2 or 3 km, flat, wide : you can’t really get lost if you crossed the river where you are supposed to.

Once I hit the Teklanika river, I went upstream (south) looking for the hunters I met before. There were 4 of them : a father, his son, his son-in-law, and a friend of the family. They set up camp for two weeks close to the Teklanika river.

Teklanika River — Maxime Malalel

The father went with me close to the river. It was a bit late already, but I still wanted to try to cross it. He told me he didn’t see anybody try to reach the bus recently. Heavy rains made the river higher and faster, even though the temperature was not too hot. He showed me where it would be the safest to try :

63.90083300,-149.50555600

I tried to cross it. A quarter into the river, I had water up my hip, and I knew that if I continued I would be swept away. I came back to shore.

I set up camp near the river, close to the hunter’s camp. They invited me to their tent and I was able to dry my clothes and rest. I ate, and went to sleep early. I woke up around 9 am, and they offered me hot chocolate.

The night had been a success for them : they got a bear and a moose. I was impressed.

Soon after capturing their achievement, I packed again, this time to go back to the starting point. It was easy to find my way back, and I crossed path with other hunters on the way back home.

Once in my car, I took the road to 49th State Brewing Co, where the bus used to shoot the movie Into The Wild is and drank a well-deserved beer.

Maxime Malalel

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Thinking about incentives. Strategy, mobility, tech, travel, science.