Moving the 'Magic Bus': Should it stay or should it go?

Published: Nov. 1, 2016 at 2:51 PM AKDT
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Should it stay or should it go? Twenty miles down the primitive 'Stampede Trail' near Healy sits Fairbanks Transit Bus 142, a bus that some see as an iconic symbol, a bus that some see as an iconic symbol, and others as an accident waiting to happen.

Back in the 1960s, Fairbanks Bus 142 was originally used by the Yutan Construction Company to transport, house and feed workers. In the process of moving from camp to camp, the bus's axle broke, and the vehicle was left to serve as a back country shelter.

Though the bus has been abandoned since the 60s, it only gained notoriety in the late 90s, following the release of a book and movie titled 'Into the Wild,' a story which chronicled the life and death of then 24-year old Christopher McCandless.

Throughout the years, McCandless' story has inspired people from around the world.

Each summer, dozens make the trip to Healy to walk in the footsteps of McCandless and reach the bus where his body was found in 1992. Locals estimate an average of 50 to 100 people make the trek each summer, requiring average of three or four rescues from Alaska State Troopers. In 2010, Claire Ackermann died while making the trip, and since last June, at least three hikers have had to be rescued.

"People keep going out there," said Jon Nierenberg, who started homesteading off Stampede Trail in 1983.

"There will keep being rescues. Every year it seems like the odds increase that someone's going to die. I used to want it kept out there as a shelter, because any shelter in the back country has a potential of saving someone's life if something goes wrong," said Nierenberg. "At this point now, I think it poses more risk and problems than helping, than potentially helping so I'd like to see it hauled out."

Back in the 80s Nierenberg spent years working as a ranger with the Park Service, decades running dogs in Alaska's back country, and in 1997, opened Earth Song Lodge. Since opening the lodge, he says he's come across many looking to follow in McCandless' footsteps.

"I've talked to so many people over the years, about going out there asking about the route, river crossings and such," Nierenberg said. "Not only talking to people that had poor experience or wrong ideas, like using ropes to cross it, tying themselves on to things to cross this river, the Teklanika, and talking to some of these people when they come back and their close calls. Holding on to ropes and getting tangled and being under the water for a little bit and finally letting go and luckily washing over to the side or someone grabbing them."

Nierenberg isn't alone in wanting to see the bus removed, he says many of his neighbors feel the same way, and according to the Department of Natural Resources office in Fairbanks, calls inquiring about moving of the bus are received from time to time.

The bus currently sits on state property, and is considered an abandoned vehicle. Bruce Sackinger, a Natural Resource Specialist with DNR said anyone who is interested in moving or disposing of the bus would need to go through DNR in Fairbanks and submit a detailed proposal That proposal would need to include what you want from the state, a plan to move to move the bus and what you plan to do with it.

Sackinger said once the proposal is submitted, the bureaucratic process begins, and depending on permitting and whether or not someone wants to take ownership of the bus would determine how long it would take before anyone received approval to move it. They said it would likely take at least a year based on paperwork, the amount of public input and consideration of competing interests.