Nestled just outside the boundaries of Denali National Park, off mile 251 of the Parks Highway lies Stampede Road. From afar it looks like a pristine valley, but the Stampede Road and trail is anything but forgiving for those who are not prepared to tackle its rugged terrain.
"The first couple years it wasn't too bad for traveling, but then the permafrost melted, the weather attacked the road and the trail,” said former Denali Borough mayor Dave Talerico. “It got pretty interesting out there, a lot of soft spots, sinkholes and things like that."
Talerico has hiked, biked and four-wheeled nearly 50 miles out into this vast wilderness.
"We used to go to the old mine out there, the Stampede Mine,” Talerico added. “Years ago there were still a few buildings left. There was still some cool stuff out there, some scales and stuff like that."
Earl Pilgrim originally blazed the trail to that mine in the 1930's to access his antimony claims, a kind of precious metal. Hauling the minerals back from the mine was treacherous and tedious.
"He set up tripods along the way because he knew his cat skinners would be going over lakes and ponds,” said Denali Compliance Officer Steve Carwile. “He didn't want these heavy loads falling through the ice, so he could see where he was going in the dark."
In the 1940's, Pilgrim built an air-strip near Stampede to try flying his product to Nenana, but eventually the cost and hassle of moving ore got to be too much and the operation was shuttered.
Shortly after statehood, another attempt to blaze this trail was made under Alaska’s Pioneer Program. Yutan Construction won a contract to build a road so that metals could once again be hauled from the mine to the railroad. Three Fairbanks city buses were hauled out into the wilderness for workers to sleep in.
... Years later, another person would live in that bus, but his experience would have a tragic end. California hitchhiker Christopher McCandless arrived in Alaska in the summer of 1992. He hiked out to the bus with minimal supplies and, according to journal entries, lived off the land for nearly 100 days.
Socked in by the elements and weak from a dwindling food supply, McCandless died sometime in late August of 1992.Video here.
His experience was chronicled in the book “Into the Wild" and a movie would eventually follow.
"That was kind of the thing from the movie. The guy went out with a bag of rice and a rifle, and unfortunately there was a tragic end to his whole story out there," former Denali mayor Talerico said.
McCandless's ill-fated adventure inspired hundreds of other hikers to make the journey to Bus 142, many of them navigating through the perilous Teklanika river--one of the main obstacles facing hikers trying to reach the bus.
"There's been a giant underestimation of the elements,” Talerico added. “ I wouldn't classify it as a walk in the park at any time."
Bus 142 is still 25 miles down Stampede Trail from where it begins at the Parks Highway. It can't be moved due to a broken axle.