ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Three hikers, one slowed by an ankle injury, signaled a passing military helicopter with a mirror for rescue from the Alaska wilderness when they tried to reach a bus made famous by the book and movie "Into the Wild," a U.S. Army Alaska official said Friday.
It's the second rescue this summer of people making a pilgrimage to the abandoned Fairbanks city bus situated north of Denali National Park and Preserve.
The rescue, which was first reported by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, happened Tuesday after the three hikers became stranded by the raging Teklanika River.
A CH-47F Chinook helicopter from Fort Wainwright was on a training mission west of Healy when the hikers spotted it, U.S. Army Alaska spokesman John Pennell said.
"As they were coming along, I guess, the Stampede Trail, the hikers signaled for them with mirrors and other stuff," Pennell said.
The helicopter, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Rafael Calderia, landed and checked the hikers.
"One of the females had a twisted ankle, but I guess what was really keeping them in place was the water level of the Teklanika River," Pennell said.
The hikers told the members of the U.S. Army Alaska Aviation Task Force that they had crossed the river on Monday, but water levels had risen within a day to impassable conditions. They also had run out of food on Sunday.
The military crew assessed the situation, and the helicopter returned to Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks to refuel and to receive permission from the state's Rescue Coronation Center to take the hikers out.
The clearance was given to pick up the hikers.
"They loaded them onto the Chinook and flew them out to where their car was parked on Stampede Road and told them, 'Go report it,'" he said.
Pennell said recently a military crew rescued people from a plane crash after they were contacted by radio, but using mirrors is a different story.
"I would imagine it's fairly out of the ordinary," he said.
The hikers reported the incident as instructed to Alaska State Troopers, who encouraged them to take Nichole Pickering, 25, of Florida, to a nearby clinic to check her leg injury.
In May, three German hikers trying to reach the bus on the Stampede Trail, near Healy, located about 10 miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve on the Parks Highway, also had to be rescued.
They told troopers the river they crossed getting to the bus had become impassable for the return due to high, swift-running water. The hikers had proper gear but only enough food for three days, troopers said.
Troopers flew the three hikers to their vehicle at the end of Stampede Road.
The green and white bus, used for years as a shelter for hunters, has become a destination for those seeking to retrace the steps of Chris McCandless.
"The Bus," as it has become known, has been the source of multiple rescues since it was made famous, first by Jon Krakauer's book published in 1996 and then by Sean Penn's 2007 film, both of which chronicled the life and death of McCandless, a 24-year-old Virginian who hiked into the Alaska wilderness in April 1992 with little food and equipment and spent the summer living in the bus. McCandless was found dead in the bus almost four months later after starving to death.
Since the book and movie came out, troopers have rescued numerous hikers who hiked out to the bus but could not return due to high water in the Teklanika River. A woman from Switzerland drowned in the river three years ago on the trail to the bus, but it was unclear whether she was hiking to the bus or just hiking in the area.
Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters says the bus is a destination like anywhere else in Alaska, and noted they have been involved in farm more rescues of people trying to hike Flattop Mountain in Anchorage.
Like anything else, some people are fine, others have issues.
Getting rid of the bus wouldn't help.
"Even if you remove the bus, I'm pretty confident somebody would do some kind of makeshift memorial or people would just go out there anyway," Peters said. "And it's one of those things whether it doesn't matter whether it's a structure or not, it's the infamy."