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  • Ken Ilgunas

7 observations from the Stampede Trail

In June 2011, my friend Josh Spice and I went on a pilgrimage to the “Magic Bus” of the Stampede Trail made famous in the book and film, Into the Wild. Every since then, I’ve been trying to publish an article I wrote about our trip–which is also about how the bus has become a major pilgrimage destination and how the locals despise the pilgrims, yet also profit from them (it really was a good article)–but I’ve been unable to sell it, so I thought I’d finally share the photos of the trip on the blog. (Note to aspiring writers: Even if you have a book deal, a couple of popular magazine articles under your belt, and a great idea for an article, it’s still effiin hard to get magazines to print your stuff.) I’m still holding out hope that I can sell it–otherwise I’d just post the story on here–but until then, here are some pics and observations. (Thanks go to Josh Spice, who took about 95% of the photos.)

Observation #1. The trail is a mess. There are ATV and Jeep tours along the Stampede, and the locals ride giant mudboggers along it, plus any other motorized device imaginable. Consequently, I spent 1/5 of the trip with my feet in water or mud. Tip for future hikers: Don’t bother going through the hassle of keeping your feet dry; you’re bound to get soaked up to the knee.

Observation #2. Gosh, it’s pretty out there. The Stampede Trail runs north of the Alaska Range and the border of Denali National Park. The trail is mutilated, but the scenery is stunning.

This is lupine, I’m pretty sure.

Observation #3. The mosquitoes, like most anywhere in Alaska, are terrible. You can expect for there to be hordes of mosquitoes anytime between mid-May to mid-August. (I have no picture of mosquitoes to accompany this observation.)

Observation #4. Man, for a random trail in rural Alaska, there is a lot of activity between the various local guiding companies and local pilgrims. A local told us that he’d counted about 35 pilgrims in the previous two weeks headed out to the bus.

Here’s a convoy of ATVs on a tour along the Stampede. They don’t go far–maybe 5-10 miles–nowhere near the Teklanika River or the bus.

Jeep tour.

We bumped into these Frenchmen, who were coming back from the bus.

Beaver in his/her pond kingdom.

Here’s a couple of locals, heading across the Savage River, which is much smaller in breadth and weaker in current than the Tek.

I can’t remember if Josh wore those shorts the whole trip or not.

Observation #5. The Tek is one scary river. It was a really dry summer up until that point, so the Tek was really low for that time of year. Yet it still wasn’t easy to cross. I tried to cross at the point where it intersects the Stampede (first picture below), but had to turn back because the current was too strong. We hiked upstream about half a mile, where the Tek branches into two, where we crossed successfully. But even there, I thought I might be swept in.

Me looking crazy in my underwear.

Me Iwo Jima-ing past another branch of the Tek.

We came across a group of seven on the other side (six men and one woman, all in their 20s). Here they are using the millipede method.

Past the Tek, we ran into this giant mudbogger. Printed on the side of his truck was “North Slope Militia: God, Guns, and Oil.”

Observation #6. The bus is a mess. Fourteen of the 26 windows are gone and the other 12 are shattered. It felt a little eerie and haunted inside, but other pilgrims have said that they felt as if the bus was full of magic.

Observation #7. McCandless would be 44 this year and the book has been out for 16 years, yet people are still inspired by his journey. Some bus-journal entries as proof:

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