My 2010 Stampede Story...

Here you can write about the bus, trips to the bus etc etc...
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Joined: Thu Sep 30, 2010 4:42 am

My 2010 Stampede Story...

Postby SteveSalmon » Sat Sep 12, 2015 6:47 pm

Once upon a time, somewhere around 5 years ago, I wrote a short story of my Stampede hike to the bus that was the first to be featured here on this website. I later asked the person who created this website to delete it for personal reasons that I didn't care to share.
I've decided to re-post the story today in the same manner I did back then. I hope you enjoy it and I thank you for reading it should you decide to do so.

~Steve Salmon

Chapter 1: "The Book"
As I've mentioned previously, my hometown is Fairbanks. It's not where I live anymore, but, it is where I'll always call home. My parents still live there and I drove out by myself in 1998. The story behind that is a whole different story to write. I will say that one day I woke up in Kodiak to some kind of spiritual whisper in my ear that it was time to leave Alaska for good. I've been gone now for 12 years and a lot of things have happened in my life since. Like getting married to the best woman in the world and becoming a proud father of 3 to the best kids in the world. In 2009 my family and I planned a trip to see the grandparents. It had been a while since the last time I smelled the clean air of my homeland. So the tickets were purchased as a Christmas family gift to each other and the date was set to a nice four week adventure back to Daddy's hometown. Arrival date June 22nd, 2010. That was the focus; much needed time spent with my folks and their grandkids and quality time for me, spent with my Dad. There was not even a slight plan of any kind of bus hike ever mentioned by me of thought of before I set foot onto that plane for the 10 hour trip. The goal was to share with my family the story of Daddy growing up. My first job, apartment etc.Around the same time as the tickets to Alaska were purchased, my friend Dennis, who is a pilot for Continental Airlines, called me up and asked if I would like to make a rather spontaneous flight with him (he was piloting) to San Diego, California. The plan was to surf, a passion he and I share and chalk up as the best form of exercise. Easily explained as surfing, it's really called Flowboarding and is done on a simulated wave surface created by what is called a FlowRider. It's 3 inches of water sprayed up an inclined surface and is the most addictive activity I've ever known. It takes a special few and Dennis and I are among them. If you have ever been on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, you've seen it, or experienced it, Im sure. In San Diego lies the mother of all wave simulators at a place called The Wave House. To ride that beast is bragging rights, because, unlike the rest, this FlowRider creates a curl of water like a real wave. But you can only tempt it if you can ride a regular FlowRider well. By December, Dennis and I were ready to tame that beast. So on his flight a few seats remained. Perfect for the buddy pass which is the system those in the airline industry use to take friends and family on trips. It's rather cheap and you are only at the mercy of flying standby. Pick the right time to travel and you can go anywhere you want for a really nice discount. The time was right and the flight was non-stop. "It's perfect and I can get us there in about 5 hours" he told me on the phone. The next morning I found myself walking on board a plane that my buddy was going to fly. On board was me smiling from ear to ear and about 170 other people with their own reasons to get to California. I wanted to tell each and every one of them that my buddy was flying the plane. I've flown many times in my lifetime and this was unlike any flight I'd ever taken. Best of all, and for once, I had all the confidence in the world for my safety. As I settled into my seat which was in the first row behind the last row of first class, the cockpit door opened up and out came Dennis. He walked up to me smiling almost as big as I was. "Everything ok?" he asked excitedly. "Hell yeah man, Im ready!" I answered. "Good well listen, since it's a long flight I brought a book for you to check out and read. I think you'll really like it since you're from Alaska. It will make the time on the plane go by a lot faster too." he said. "Thanks." I said as I reached out to take the book. I looked down at the cover and read the title. "Into the Wild" by John Krakauer. 
At that moment Dennis walked back to his driver's chair and at about the same time as the cock pit door shut, the cover of that book opened. I cant tell you what the rest of the flight was like and or what happened during it. All I can say is that from the time I opened it until the time I had to put it away to get off of the plane, I was deeply emerged into the life of Chris McCandless and his story. Dennis was right, that was the quickest flight from coast to coast I had ever experienced. Not because of tail winds etc, but, instead because of a great book. That was the beginning.

Chapter 2 "A Familiar Whisper"
It had been about 7 months since that first page. I hadn't thought about the story of Chris McCandless in about as much time. Now a brief thought passed through my mind as we touched down and the welcome to Fairbanks announcement was made. Mom and Dad's expression as they laid eyes onto their grandkids and their son spoke volumes as we all hugged in such relief that at last we were finally all together.
 We were 3 weeks into our vacation and still not even the smallest thought about the bus entered or crossed my mind. The mission of the trip was to tell the story of Daddy growing up with trips to my first apartment, job location, schools, etc. One night after some delicious Hot Licks ice cream my Mom offered to watch the kids and at the same time offered her car for a trip to Anchorage for Heather and I. We didn't have to think about it, these opportunities were rare and time alone for a date, an overnight road trip date, was too good to pass up. The kids were in great hands and it was great for everyone. Heather and I could go see some friends and the grandparents and grandkids could bond. 
The drive to Anchorage was just as beautiful as it ever was when I would go on a spontaneous whim with a friend or even by myself once upon a time. It was all the better to share it with Heather. She had heard plenty of stories from me, but, now she could fill in all the color with her own sights and experiences of the drive. The weather held out beautiful the whole time and only clouded up a little as we made our way back. Along the way and starving for dinner Heather and I stopped at a roadside restaurant for some much needed dinner. As we waited for a table, I picked up one of those free mini newspapers with the typical advertisements on the cover and I began skimming through it reading the little articles of this town and that. Typical touristy stuff mainly with a few interesting facts about the surrounding towns in the area. Nothing special until I came across the story of the college guys and their "hike to the bus". I read about 3 sentences and was interrupted by the waitress showing us to our table. I started to read to Heather what became a very interesting multi-page tale of the trail and all that went with it. Included in the story, were the tales of vandalism and stolen pieces and bullet holes suffered by Bus 142 etc. In an instant the vulnerabilities of the bus became all too clear. The realization that the opportunity to see it for myself would not be long was alarming as well. It hit me straight in the face like a ton of bricks. I needed to take this hike for myself. It could be done. I was sure of it. The same whisper that told me 12 years ago that it was time to leave Alaska and find my own life trail was now calling me to the trail I had read about. By the time we ate the last spoonful of dessert I had written down a small inventory list of what I had, what I needed, and what I had to buy. I was so excited about this hike 'that I was sure my Dad would join me on' that I must have talked and driven right past the point of where the Stampede Trail meets the highway. I was in such a hurry to get back to Fairbanks to pack my back pack and buy my hiking clothes and dehydrated food. The first thing I did when we got back was I hit the internet for any info I could find out in regard to what to expect, the hike, the trail, the bus, you name it. I understood that preparation was of the utmost importance. 
In my mind my Dad would join me on this trip and would go with me all the way up to the door of the bus. He would even take my picture sitting in the chair as my souvenir. As it turned out my Dad would not be a fan of this "foolish idea" from the start.

Chapter 3 "Wounds reopened"

]Dad look at this, this isn't so bad. We can do this. We can take the 4-wheeler up to this river. That one right there, it's called the Teklanika river. I pointed with my finger and waited for Dad to give me a courtesy glance. I knew his mind was starting to be made up. I was beginning to lose the battle to sell him on this trip. 
I cant do that, my back wont take it. 
Sure you can, we can do it together. 
No there is no way. 
I clicked on a You Tube video of a group making their way to the bus. There was great footage as well as narrated advice, of what to expect and what to take. I wrote a few things down and added a few things to my inventory list. Then the video started to address the bear issue. That's when I believe I lost Dad completely. 
We dont have a gun. There's no way we can go out to that area of the Yukon and not be armed with some kind of bear protection. 
Some kind of bear protection. Some kind of bear protection. That part of what he said rang in my head over and over.
 Dad since there is no way to just make a gun magically appear, and since you sold your 44, I guess our only option is bear spray. I'll pick some up at....
Nope I dont think so. He said with annoyed laughter.
 Dad why are you jumping out of this entirely now? 
Steve it's not a good idea. Look at that river (he points to the computer screen at the raging current breaking around the guy in the video) I cant do that.
 And you cant do that by yourself. You can not go alone.

Everything stops.
My head fills with heat. My ears are on fire.
 What do you mean I cant do it by myself? If you wont go with me, I have to go by myself.
 No you're not going by yourself. That's a foolish idea. If you want to go, go in a group, but, you can't do that hike by yourself. 
Dad I cant just call up a group and go. My friends dont live here anymore. There's no time, I have to do this and if you wont go with me, then I have no choice.
 My anger is starting to boil as my mind puts things in perspective. Not only has he made up his mind, but, he's starting to TRY and make my mind up as well.
 Listen, you have a bad back, I understand, but, that doesnt mean you cant at least go to the river with me. 
And then what?
Then I cross and you wait for me. As soon as I said that I realized the absurdity of the idea. 
No, Im not going to wait on the side of some river as you go on for who knows how long. What should I do, wonder and wait and get eaten alive by the mosquitoes? 
Dad you can turn back at the river and pick me up the next day. 
And where I am I supposed to go? No, it's a foolish idea and I dont want you to go alone. You can not go alone.
 The more he said that, the more I grew determined to do exactly that. 
The volume in our voices grew louder and Mom and Heather came into the room.
 Steve please, my Mom begged, Your father and I just want you to do this when you have someone else to go with. We dont want you to go by yourself. What if something happens? We'll never know until it's too late. You can get hurt and we wont know. That's all she could say before her throat shut and eyes filled with tears. She turned her teary eyes away and walked out of the room. My eyes went to Heather who was also now crying silently. I looked away first. 
Look you guys are making a bigger deal out of this than needs to be. I can do this and I dont need someone else to hold my hand. If something is going to happen, it could just as easily happen with someone else there too! It's not like I can make a phone call and sign someone up to go with me.
 I dont want Heather to go with me, because...I stopped there, if I continued I would have said something parallel to the very reason my parents wanted me to stay. I understood where my parents were coming from, they loved me and didn't want anything to happen to me. I got it. But, I had to go. I didn't even fully understand the urgency myself. What I did understand was the fact that I was NOT going to take no for an answer. I was certainly not going to be told No from my Mom and Dad as I stood before them a 37 year old husband and father of 3. 
How dare they make such a big deal out of this and blow it up into such an issue between us. I brought my family here for this? Do they not see who I am now? I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions. I have my own family and my own kids to say no to. That was just it, I saw my family as proof to go and Mom and Dad looked at my family as proof to stay. I refused to start thinking about risk. I never once had any slight thought to the what if or what ifs. There was no fail in this plan. There was just go when the weather looked good. I programmed the Healy zip code into my iPhone for weather updates. In two days I would go because the weather looked decent only on those days. Anything beyond was out because of rain and after that, our last days of vacation.
Things grew tense to say the least. That big fat elephant in the room was almost too much to bear. It was like living the high school days all over again. The days where I just completely burned my parents out with shitty grades, long hair, and numerous suspensions. Almost everything about my life was continuous bad news to my Mom and Dad in those days and it especially damaged the close relationship my Dad and I once shared growing up. The day I came home and told them I had been kicked out of high school was the final straw. With a raised fist, my Dad told me to get out. Get your stuff and get out! I can still remember his face and I can still hear the words. This led to that first apartment of Daddy's as a matter of fact. Mom cared enough to help me sign a lease. Dad and I didn't talk again until years later when I called him from a pay phone in New Jersey. 
Hi Dad, I wanted to tell you that I got my high school diploma right here in my hand and Im coming home to give it to you and Mom. I graduated! 
That's great Steve Congrats. I miss you and I cant wait to see you. Here's your Mom, tell her your news.
 I returned home and started my new life along with a new beginning with my parents. My long hair was long gone and my diploma was framed. Everything was being finally returned to something that looked like it used to be. That was in 1994.

I was studying a map of the terrain on the computer when my Dad walked into the room. Heather and I were just about to leave to go get a copy of "Into The Wild" from Barnes and Noble. I had planned to leave a copy in the bus with my name in it. I thought it was a great idea. 
Look if you want to go, have Heather take you, I'll pack the truck up and load the 4 wheeler. My Dad said in complete surrender.
 Why cant you just go wit...
Look Im not getting into it again with you, if you cant see my point, go do what you have to do. Dad walked away and closed the door.
 Heather's eyes had again puddled with tears, and as soon as I realized this I left the room myself. In the garage I had gathered all the supplies and I began placing them in the back pack. Socks, a small first aid kit, dehydrated food. I paused to look at my Dad in the driveway tightening the tie down straps. He reminded me of a soldier folding a flag into a triangle at a memorial service. His face and body language were clear to me. I looked back down at the ziploc bag in my left hand and placed another pair of socks inside with my right hand. Everything was in order. As I laid the last of my supplies by the back of the truck my Dad handed his key ring to me, went inside the house, and never returned. 
I loaded everything up and cross checked what my Dad had packed along with what I had remembered. Everything but I cooking pot. Dammit. I crossed off everything on that list but, a rain jacket and a cooking pot. As I walked back into the garage, Heather appeared at the door. Are you ready? I asked her as gently as I could. I guess we'll need to stop at Walmart to get a cooking pot. Im going to need one to boil water for my food.
It was a quiet ride to Healy as you might imagine. There was so much emotion in the cab of my Dad's truck. Anger, sadness, nervousness, excitement, swirled around and conversation for the first time ever with Heather was difficult. I tried everything to lighten the mood. Nothing worked. What stung was the fact that she wasn't pissed at me. If so that would have made it easier, so much easier. I can deal with anger, but, Heather wasn't angry. She was hurt and sad and thinking the worst. As if almost positive she would never see me again. In Heather's eyes was such pain that if I looked long enough I would have turned the truck around. I can only imagine the eyes my Dad looked into from my mother when he said goodbye and boarded a bus to Vietnam. She spoke volumes without saying a word. I was certain that calling off the hike and returning back to the tense environment all of this created between my parents and I was absolutely the last option. We all needed this time away from each other now. Time away was the bandaid that healed before. There were no tearful goodbyes with Mom and Dad this time. I was handed the keys and I left. The only thing that kept my foot pushing on the gas pedal was the certainty that going back was out of the question. It was somewhat comforting to know that with me out on my hike and out of the house, everyone could breathe again and be themselves at least with their daughter in law and grandkids. 
Heather and I stopped in Nenana at a gift shop for a bathroom break. I suppose my whistle, compass hanging from my pocket, and bear spray holstered to my hip, helped arouse suspicion or curiosity by the shop keeper. 
You look official there sir, are you a Denali park ranger? He asked as he hung native made earrings on a display.
 No. I answered with a laugh. No official business, just getting ready to go on a hike.
 Oh I see, where you heading?
 Stampede Trail. I waited for some kind of read off of his face or something resembling an understanding why. But instead he said nothing.
 Ever heard of it?
 Oh have you ever read "Into the Wild" or seen the movie? 
 Oh ok, well there is a nice trail outside of Healy and it was mentioned in this book, so I figured I would check it out while Im in town.
 Oh I see, well, much luck to both of you. 
I went to clarify that Heather was not joining me on this journey but, instead, I just thanked him. 
Heather and I signed the guest book and stuffed a few dollars into the donation jar above it and continued out the door and into the parking lot where we found the shop keeper to be standing smoking a cigarette as if it were his first of the day. 
Are you not taking a gun with you? He asked with exhaled smoke following every word.
 Uh no that's why I have the bear spray. I replied with certainty.
 He nodded and looked me over once more, Well thank you for stopping by to see us today. Good luck on your hike to the bus. 
Thank you. I said as I climbed into the truck.
 Heather and I pulled away and it didn't dawn on me until miles later that I hadn't told that shop keeper anything about the bus. I didn't mention anything beyond naming the trail. Once he answered no to the question of the book and movie I did as I always do, and kept it simple and basic and to the point. Sharing nothing more than I had to. I knew damn well I didn't mention the bus. 
What do you think his motivation for acting like he knew nothing of the story was? I asked myself and Heather.
 Heather didn't seem to be alarmed or concerned about it. Her eyes returned to the place they had been when we first left. She quieted and somewhat shut down again. I turned on the radio quietly.
 Before I knew it, we approached the town of Healy, then Stampede Rd. I slowed the truck to a stop. Here it is I said. It was like finding a piece of a treasure. I know that probably sounds profound but, it was definitely not like finding a road, there was something more to it's discovery. I fired up the camera and took a picture of Heather and I and then asked her to take one of me. 
We climbed back into the truck and just as I began to doubt whether this was the right Stampede Road, the pavement turned to gravel. Then the road became a dirt and pothole filled obstacle course. I forced myself to take it slow as Heather and I bounced around all over the place like a couple in an African safari Jeep. 
As we made our way down the trail, we approached the back of a vehicle through the dust. As we neared closer, the image became developed like a Polaroid picture. There was a rather large truck in front of us and in the back facing us but looking at each other were two college aged men talking, bouncing around, and holding on tight. Occasionally they would shoot a friendly smile at Heather and I and then continue on in their conversation. The speed had slowed considerably at this point and as much as I wanted to go around this truck to blaze the trail myself, I stayed behind in frustration. Just as I figured out how many of these guys in back packs there were in total, the truck they were riding in began to stop. The driver pulled to the right side and Heather and I continued on a little further until the branches started touching the side of the truck. Once it opens up again, I will turn the truck around for you and unload everything. I said. As we continued on I watched the guys in the side view mirror disappear. They had been dropped off and there were 5 of them now walking. It was about a quarter mile down the trail when it opened up again enough for me to turn around. I showed Heather the "4 wheel drive button", unloaded my pack, and had just taken the 4 wheeler off the back of the truck when the guys approached. A few passed on by and the last two said hello and asked if I was going hunting. 
No, Im going to the bus, assuming of course that they knew exactly what I was talking about. 
How about you guys? 
Yes we are eventually going to hike to the bus as well after some (he gestures to the rifle strapped to his buddy's back pack) hunting if we find anything out there. 
Hopefully no bears though right? I said with a laugh and then realized how bad an idea it was to say with Heather standing right next to me.
 Where ya guys from he asked. 
Fairbanks. You guys?
 Canada, we've been planning this for a long time. Great to be here.
 Well, good luck to you and I'm sure I'll see you at some point on the trail or even at the bus.
 You too. He said as he waved and walked away. 
As I secured the remainder of my stuff to the front and back of the 4 wheeler, I looked up again to find Heather's eyes completely saturated in tears once again. I gave her a huge hug and tried to use every word I could think of to form some kind of reassuring sentence. 
I love you. Thank you for bringing me here. You know how to use the 4 wheel drive if you have to, right? 
She couldn't answer, but, instead just nodded Yes through more tears.
 Im going to be fine, I promise. I'll call you in the morning to come back for me alright? Listen, if it takes me awhile or you feel it's been longer than it should have been, just know that Im ok and I will call you as soon as Im back in a coverage zone. Dont call the state police until you are absolutely sure that Im missing. Give me the benefit of the doubt if this takes me longer than I think it will ok? I'll be fine. 
I love you she muttered through closed crying eyes.
 I love you too.
 I shut the door on the truck and kissed her once more and told her once more that I would be fine.
 I'll stand here and watch you to make sure you get through those puddles ok. See you tomorrow.
 Now Heather and my Dad's truck slowly disappeared into a cloud of dust as I stood next to the 4 wheeler and waved with a forced smile. When all sight and sound of the truck was completely gone, I climbed aboard and fired up Dad's 4 wheeler. It was time to head to bus 142. Chris' magic bus.

Chapter 4 "The Stampede Challenge"

The 4 wheeler fired up and things got real all at once. As I turned the machine around to face West, the beauty all around me literally took my breath away. I reached down to the key and turned the 4 wheeler off. Nothing but the sounds of the outdoors. Absolute candy for your eyes and ears. Not even a distant sound of a group of guys on their dream hike. They were quite a bit ahead of me and lost in the distance. Far enough not to disturb the absolute peace and beauty before me that words will never do justice. The only thing missing was the running Caribou.
 Wow. That's all I could say. 
Wow, I repeated aloud once more realizing that my quest had begun and already I was feeling an alluring draw to go further and explore more. An unspoken invitation into the unknown. Right then and there, things were starting to make sense. Right then and there, it sunk in, I was at the very beginning of a life experience that I would never forget. With a twist of the small key, 

the machine fired right back up as if to tell me that it was as excited as I was to get going. Once more I glanced at everything I had tied down under stretchy cargo netting. The only thing that looked as if it would need constant checking up on, was the cooking pot that I could not find a secure place for. Of course there wasn't a hole in it's handle to tie through, so, I wedged it tight under the netting and against the backpack as best I could. After all, I thought to myself, Im not going to race along this trail. Im taking my time. Nice and easy. I convinced myself that if I took it nice and easy, I wouldn't disturb the trail or the animals as much. As the trail grew thick, I started to think about how it was kind of cheating taking a 4 wheeler to the bus, but, I had made a promise to be back in 24 hours. Hoofing the whole way -being a true leather tramp as Jan Burres had named Chris before his feet hit this trail- meant that I would not be back in the time I had budgeted during my promise to Heather. It is still a trail that many 4 wheelers take constantly through the summer and a trail that snow machines use. Well travelled and used as a hunting trail all year round. Clearly by it's looks, I was doing nothing to the Stampede Trail but kicking up a modest dust cloud behind me and the machine. 
The Stampede started to become nothing like a regular park trail. Plenty of twists and turns, plenty of puddles. At some points, the trail grew wide enough to allow passage to two 4 wheelers side by side. Then it would change and get so narrow that the alder on each side of me would bend as my arms and the handle bars sliced through it. 
The Stampede trail was definitely beginning to reveal it's bag of tricks. The rain filled pot holes steadily became deeper and certain parts of the trail starting turning into what appeared to me like a low tide river. As the trail continually changed its level of difficulty, I had to constantly convince myself that I didn't somehow make a wrong turn somewhere. Even though most of it, had given no such option, I remained focused and alert, being real real careful not to make wrong turns. 
What were once pot holes, became complete mini swamps and every time I under estimated their depths, I was up to the fenders in water. Sometimes even submerging the exhaust pipe. Being very careful not to flood Dad's 4 wheeler, after each mini lake, I would come to a stop and let her idle and drip off a bit before continuing on. At this point the trail looked nothing as it did just hours before when I first put the machine into gear. When the deep water wasn't challenging me, the mud left over in the next puddle that had drained was. This was the sequence for a few miles and as the trail eased up on me, I decided to shut her down and check my phone for coverage, as if there was really a chance of getting even a half a bar. Nothing but the words, "No Service" not even "Emergency Calls Only". For the first time, the thought went through my head that Dad may have been right, traveling with someone with me would have been better. Almost interrupting the end of that thought was the sight and sound of a moose cutting through and jumping across the trail so close I could have kissed him. (well maybe not THAT close)

"Holy shit!" I said to myself. "That was a big sum bitch!" I decided it was time to take a pee pee break for good reason. 
I started checking the tie down straps to make sure everything was still tight. Everything looked ok and appeared to be in order. Everything but the cooking pot that was now missing from the spot next to the backpack. Just as I said "Oh Shhhh...", my eyes met the spot just a few yards down the trail behind me where the cooking pot had fallen off of the machine and onto the wet tread marks. It had just fallen off the machine thankfully. I walked up to retrieve it and bent down to pick it up. As I did, I let out the greatest sigh of relief. I wiped the mud off of the rim and sides of my new cooking pot, and then flashed back to Heather and I in line to purchase it hours earlier. As I walked back to the 4 wheeler, my thoughts switched to just Heather and how strong I hoped she was being during the long ride back to Fairbanks. 
I found a new home for the cooking pot, this time in a plastic bag with my rain jacket tied to one of the straps. It wouldn't fall again this time. 
Wow, what a lucky coincidence it was that I stopped where I did, I thought to myself while firing up the machine once again.
 The sun was starting to dip and hide a bit behind some gray clouds that had begun to form in the surrounding sky. Almost at the same time the clouds let go of the sun, the mountains would take over and make things a bit darker and shadowy. For the greater part of the summer in Alaska, the sun never really sets. It gets low, but, comes up again before it ever touches down onto the horizon. That's why they call it "The Land of the Midnight Sun". I wouldn't have to worry about darkness with that advantage, that is, unless there was to be a significant storm. Clouds appeared almost suddenly and started to take away my confidence that the weather was going to be as predicted. The sun burrowed itself into the clouds, and the temperature began to dip. Just as the trail ride was getting decent, dry, and relatively flat again, a new challenge emerged. It was starting to drizzle ever so slightly. Then the occasional thunder became louder than the exhaust. As soon as it had started, it stopped and the sky once again cleared and lit up brightly. 
Just as I started to appreciate the return of the bright sun, and with it, the warm air, l watched the ground below the tires turn into a rather large but shallow river. Instead of crossing this mini river, the trail morphed itself into the river. I checked both sides for any clue of a wrong turn, once more, but, this was obviously the right way. The flow of water was coming right at me all the while making it appear I was going much faster than I actually was. I kept my focus on the various rocks and tree stumps along the river banks ahead of me and stopped looking down at the water rushing by my feet and breaking across the front of Dad's 4 wheeler. It never got too deep, but, never stopped feeling like I would plunge at any minute. The visible river rocks provided a brutal workout to my arms as I navigated the machine and myself around them using every inch of every side of the river. I got used to the rhythm and was feeling rather confident when the trail started to stray away from the river and dry once more. Nice to meet you Savage river, I said out loud to the river that was now behind me. There was no doubt in my mind which river that one was. I learned through a bit of internet detective work how to recognize the Savage river. Pussy cat was a more suitable name for that river I thought. It really never got anything close to what it's name would have you believe.
 Beyond the Savage, the trail turned once again into an up and down, wet at times, dry at times, kind of challenge. Once again, just as the tires would dry and just as my boots lost their wet sheen in the sun, there would be another considerable puddle that would consume the whole width of the trail and then some. The fortunate thing about it was that the mud never had a chance to cake itself onto the machine and the engine got plenty of cool water with which to keep it running at a nice cool temperature. Better than that, every time I glanced at the fuel gauge that barely changed, I would smile a bit at the thought of how perfect for these conditions this monster 4 wheeler was. I didn't even have to use the 4 wheel drive yet. It was like a tank, this Polaris monster of a 4 wheeler! I was beginning to understand why Dad went with brute strength instead of speed in his choice for his first 4 wheeler. Dad knew with his back in it's condition, that a touring model was the best fit. Even though I had wished, the first time I took it for a ride, that it was more race equipped, now I was loving every thing about it as I continued down the Stamped Trail still in 2 wheel drive and sipping ever so slightly from the fuel tank. 
The Stampede trail started opening up again revealing the vast beauty all around it, so, I decided it was time to stop once more to check my gear, drink some water, and take a few more pictures. After checking the gear to make sure everything was in place, I reached inside my backpack and my hand grazed across a rectangular lump as I dug for my water bottle. I returned my hand back to the spot without looking and found that rectangle again. I gripped my hands around it and pulled it slowly out of the pack. It was what I thought it was. Dad's GPS. He somehow snuck his GPS into my back pack at some point while loading everything onto and into the truck. I turned it on, and as it began to load it's maps, I flashed back to the night we put the coordinates of the "Magic Bus" location into it. This was before Dad completely bailed on me and the Stampede Trail. We must have put the coordinates in at least 3 times that night. Once because it died from old batteries and twice more from wrong numbers Dad had entered by mistake.
"Location: Magic Bus?" appeared on the screen on bold font. I pressed the "Enter" button. As it charted the course, I zoomed out to reveal where it was placing me. 
Come on where is the "You Are Here" button? I asked myself in frustration.
 As I zoomed out, it slowly loaded the new screens. Almost trying to think hard of where I was in this vast wilderness. 
Location: Wasilla
 "Wasilla!?" I yelled at it as if it could hear me. I knew damn well I was NOWHERE near Wasilla. 
"Aww ...COME....ON! Are you kidding me?" 
I turned it off and on again and as it loaded once more, I began to lose all faith in the GPS that I hoped would be part of my "Cant Get Lost" insurance policy. Earlier I had assumed it to be still in the garage and forgotten, but dared not mention this to Heather during the ride. 
"Location: Magic Bus?" appeared once more across the screen.



Finally, the "X" appeared on the screen. This time right in between the wishbone that the Savage and Teklanika rivers make up on the map. It was telling me that I was in between the rivers, closer to the Teklanika and most importantly, closer to Bus 142! 
To conserve the batteries, I turned the GPS off again and placed it inside my side zippered pants pocket. I was getting rather excited at the thought of being more than half way there and so close to the famous Teklanika river. That wasn't so bad, I thought to myself. Suddenly the time spent to get where I stood, seemed like very little. Was I really THAT close to my destination? I felt confident in the technological prediction I had just been given, based on my little stretch through the Savage river. The GPS had to be right.

I continued on a bit faster now and confident that I would soon reach what I felt would be my biggest challenge of all, the mighty Teklanika River.
 The foreground started to clear and the sounds of flowing water started to match the machines exhaust as the thunder above had done earlier. 
Before I could ask myself, Is this really it, it became very clear, this was, in fact, it. I rolled up to the river bank where trail met tumultuous water and a point where no 4 wheeler would EVER cross. This river was NOTHING like the Savage river had been before it. This bastard was moving fast. All I kept thinking about was me trying to cross this beast of a river on Dad's machine and then dumping over and watching the machine tumble over and over again as it drifted away and down river perhaps eventually sinking to the bottom of what appeared to be a pretty significant depth. 
The idea of having to explain that one to my Dad made the decision not to cross on his machine, at this point at least, a clear and easy choice. I remembered from several maps I had studied, that the Tek braided out at some points up and down beyond the point at which the Stampede Trail met the river. There was even a trail leading upstream to support that theory, so I decided to take it and do a bit of exploring. The trail started to climb significantly higher than the river and before I knew it, I was looking over a cliff at one point. The trail offered only a few spots to meet the river again and each one proved to be more difficult than the one before it. The river was braiding like I thought it would, but, it was also really deep at it's narrow spots. I wasn't finding anywhere I could be confident enough in to cross safely on the machine. After exploring what turned out to be my last option, a small clearing disguised as a river bank, I decided to hop back on the machine and return to the Stampede Trail/ Teklanika intersection once more. As I arrived again, I noticed a small area to my left that formed a sand island dry enough to ride upon and give me a different point of view of the river. I traveled down it snaking my way around the connecting sand bars and came upon a spot that looked almost perfect to cross on the 4 wheeler. I hopped off and decided to first try it on foot to gauge how deep it got in the middle. That way if it was deeper than it looked, I wouldn't be at a point of no return when I made that discovery on the machine. I walked over to the water and at first felt nothing on my damp feet. I took a few steps more and slowly inched my way farther toward the middle. On the fourth step, my foot plunged futher down than the previous step had taken me and in an instant, I was up to my waist in rushing waters. As I took my next step I sank down even more and this time the waters breaking around me pivoted my body 90 degrees to the right. Now my back was facing the waters and breaking them all around my body. It was clear this was not going to happen on the 4 wheeler either. I quickly took giant steps back to shore and as I was stomping the water off of my boots and pants, the weight of something in my pocket slapped my leg. I gasped as I reached down into my pocket. As soon as my fingers fell into the pocket I realized what it was. Dad's GPS now soaked with a cloudy screen.

"Oh shit, I cant believe I forgot about that damn thing in my friggin pocket. Son of A BITCH!!"

I tried to blow off as much of the water that beaded itself all around the case and the screen as possible. Then I quickly ran with squishing feet to my back pack and pulled out the zip lock baggy filled with socks. I used one pair to dry my hands off and then went straight for the GPS battery compartment to remove the batteries. As I took them out, I noticed more beads of water inside the compartment. So I fished for a small cloth I packed in one of the pack's pockets. WIth the cloth I dried the GPS off as best I could. I then wrapped it in the cloth and placed it inside the baggy with the socks. After closing up the back pack, I focused my attention once again to the river as it's intense volume faded back up and into my conscience. 
Once more it became clear that there would be NO crossing this river on a 4 wheeler. Despite being an impressive machine, it was, after all, a 4 wheeler and not a boat. Now there was a new challenging question that butted its way in front of how to cross the Teklanika river. 
What am I going to do with my father's 4 wheeler?

Chapter 5 "Objects in river are deeper than they appear."
As I stood there and stared into the Teklanika river, the reality of no more 4 wheeler sunk in and settled reluctantly. The other side of the river began to somehow drift further away and the river seemed to start flowing faster. My mind was spinning like a roulette wheel and the marble refused to drop into what to do first. Check this bastard of a river with a few test steps, or focus on the where to put the 4 wheeler, dilemma? I was also determined not to stray off course. I was by myself, and everyone back home knew which way I was heading. The plan was to travel the Stampede Trail, if I went exploring too far off of it, perhaps to find a better crossing point with the machine, then I risked finding my way back to the trail and would immediately lose precious time and even the quest entirely.
 Alright, I'll cross here. I told myself. As the sun disappeared once again behind a bulbous gathering of clouds. Screw it, this is where it has to happen. 
My eyes abandoned the imaginary crossing lines across the river I was tracing and I turned around to look at Dad's 4-wheeler. Then all the shit I had packed. Then the back pack. Then the lone cooking pot sitting there behaving and staying put with mud sneeze speckles all over it. 
Once I cross, I should probably wash that damn thing on the other side of the Tek., I thought, I'd prefer it clean when I prepare my celebratory dinner at the bus. I began to daydream about that spot at the bus that I couldn't picture completely in my head. I could clearly see the fire boiling the water on the camp fire I made. I could imagine a bulky green, yellow and white mass behind me, as if the bus was out of focus, but, I could not see it or any other surroundings clearly. Just the water boiling the dehydrated food, that delicious Mountain House Chili Mac, that was highly recommended on some website I read during a late night of preparation. 
I hopped back onto the machine and drove it to a spot that seemed to be heavily covered in tall grass and alder. As I began to take it out of gear, my eyes found a better spot a few feet further away from the river. I wanted a nice spot that could take the machine out of easy sight, it was clear that no location was going to hide it completely. Then I started to think about the river rising and meeting the spot where this machine was to sit and wait for me. Almost immediately I lost all faith in my chosen spot that seemed to be perfect just 2 minutes prior. Yeah right, Im going to play it safe and park it only to have it stolen by the river anyway? No way. My eyes began to scan higher up along the river. 
I scanned left and right and left again and found the next best spot. Decent and brushy like the goatee of the Teklanika, I thought. I pulled into the middle of it and began taking the cargo nets and rubber hold down straps off. I opened the front cubby hatch of the 4 wheeler and sitting there right on top was a rain jacket and right beside it laid a decent sized black trash bag. The beginning of a plan was coming together. A plan that I felt would enable me to keep my gear dry.
 I placed the back pack on the seat and opened it up one more time as if to find a magic new empty place inside to accommodate the cooking pot and rain jacket. No room unless I took out and left behind a few bottles of water . That was not an option, I needed that water to drink and cook with. I looked back down at the trash bag, unfolded it and shook air into it to test fit the back pack inside of it. There was plenty of room for the pack with a little left over to stuff the rain jacket and cooking pot in as well. I placed it all onto the ground and unhooked the spare gas can off of the back and placed it under some brush a few feet away from the back tires. I got my Leatherman out and cut some brush to cover the can completely. With the gas can completely camouflaged, I began cutting larger pieces of brush down to lay against and disguise the 4 wheeler. This turned into a significant task and began taking more time than I thought it would take initially. I dug out a post-it note pad I had in the outer pocket of my pack and wrote a note asking anyone who found the machine to kindly leave it there, stating clearly that it was not stolen or abandoned and I would be right back for it. Signed, Steve Salmon. 
I reached down, stuck the note to the seat and took the key out of the ignition. I placed the key and the note pad inside the pocket of the pack. I looked once more at the slightly hidden machine that would no longer be traveling with me. The rest of the journey to the bus would not be delivered on a silver platter, instead, it was going to be earned. Now it was time to really step into Chris' boots to experience the remaining miles of the Stampede Trail and all it's beauty on foot like a real leather tramp. 
I placed the cooking pot and rain jacket inside the trash bag and slid the backpack inside the rest of it with the straps facing up. I put it on and didn't have to make one adjustment. It fit perfect and the bag was nice and tight. Now the river water would not be a factor, the back pack would stay completely dry.
That's what I thought.

I made my first few steps into the water and for the first few feet everything seemed fine. The next few feet began to slope down with every step. I started to feel rather confident and I even quicken the pace. I felt as though I reached the bottom, the current was pushing hard, but, I was slicing through. This wasn't so bad. Well, the next thing I knew in my next step, my foot had dropped down like I skipped two steps on an escalator. The water was now up to my thighs and getting deeper. As I reached the middle of the river the depth was significant now and so was the rushing water breaking around my lower chest. I took yet another step, slipped on a loose rock and was spun around and forced to turn my back on the impatient rushing current. My next step dropped down again and this time both legs buckled which sunk me into the waters even deeper at the same time the cold took my breath away. With a violent snap and shove, the fierce current ripped the plastic bag right off of my back pack. 
I glanced only once and quickly at the bag as it floated away. There was nothing I could do. With no time for frustration, I switched my attention to the Western side of the Teklanika river bank. Looking down at the water while keeping my arms above the water line was quickly disorienting me and making me quite dizzy. I stopped looking at these violent waters and began walking like an astronaut toward dry land with desperate strides. I figured out the rhythm pretty quick and mastered my astronaut jog across. I call it the astronaut jog because every time I leapt forward I landed diagonally to the right. I went with it and tightened every muscle in my legs I could to fight back the urge to fall over. A few more steps was all it took and at last I was beginning to feel the water level drop on my soaked pant legs. The muscles I developed in my legs while riding my Flow board had come in handy.
 The water level began to drop as quickly as it had risen on my legs and as I neared closer to the dry land that waited for me feet away, I began to relax my muscles and catch my breath. It finally felt like I was treading through shin deep water again and the resistance was nearly gone when I tripped over another loose rock. This time I fell down and onto my right elbow completely drenching the sleeve of my shirt. The impact nearly threw the back pack completely over my head. I picked myself up and laughed at the thought of what that must have looked like. I continued almost effortlessly up and out of the Tek and turned around to face it once more. 
Standing there with elbow throbbing I stared at the path I had just taken while the water was drained off of me and formed a puddle around my feet. On the other side of the Teklanika it occurred to me that this river was more like a fun house mirror. Everywhere you look at it, and regardless what you see, the reality is something different entirely. What looked like a rather shallow area to cross turned out instead to be quite the opposite I found out the hard way. I remembered from videos I had seen some parts looking as if they were 100 feet deep and watching guys never get more than their pants wet while crossing. I realized right then and there that this beast of a river is and will always be an ever changing labyrinth. A labyrinth that I would have to battle once more on my way back home whether I was ready or willing or not.
I looked down at my elbow, and shook the back pack straps securely to my shoulders and with a smirk I raised that arm and my middle finger and pointed it right at the Teklanika.

I spit into the river and turned back around to face the trail. I figured I would somehow mark the spot with another note and so I fished the pen and pad out of the pocket once more and wrote the following:

"I crossed here. 
Lost my cooking pot and rain jacket. 
Sorry Dad, I owe you a rain jacket. 
~Steve Salmon"

I put the pad and pen away and fished out the water for a much needed drink. As I tilted my head back and swallowed the slightly warm water, the cold air started tracing lines all over my body around the wet areas of my clothes. The sun was still missing and the clouds were still rolling in. Rain was approaching. No point in drying off, or changing into dry socks or clothes. I started to walk and take inventory of what remained on my shirt. Then I remembered the bear spray holstered to my waist under my right arm. I quickly slapped my hip and found the spray securely in place and still complete with safety tab on the trigger. A nice exhale as I appreciated the fact that at least I still had my bear spray on me. My hand continued to feel around the front of my shirt as I found the compass still attached and along with it the bear whistle still clipped to my pocket as well. I took the whistle and placed it between my lips and began to blow. Not surprisingly, a nice spray mist of river water was all the came out on the first test blow. The next was a bit faint and the final test breath blew the whistle loud enough to scare a pair of birds from a tree in front of me. As I watched the birds fly off and out of sight, the silence checked in once again. I stopped walking and within 5 seconds my next battle began. I was being attacked by a massive cloud of hungry desperate mosquitoes and they were everywhere. In the time it took me to pull out the Deet, I felt at least 20 bites on my hands, face and neck. I sprayed every inch of my exposed skin and even though they weren't biting me anymore, they did not fly away. They stayed all around me but above me only high enough not to touch me as if they were avoiding an invisible force field. It was also like they were mapping me out trying to find the area the Deet had missed. I began to walk again and found a pace that kept them swarming behind me. While this kept the mosquitoes off and away, it was brisk enough to make me sweat. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and on top my scalp. As the sweat got heavy and began to tickle, I wiped it away with my sleeve. Then I began to feel bites in those same areas. The mosquitoes had found the areas where I had wiped the Deet away and were feasting away. I swatted them off, wiped my brow once more and sprayed the Deet heavy once again onto my head and face. Living in Fairbanks for all those years and all those summers, I learned real quick about the mosquitoes but never once had I seen them like this. This Stampede breed was no joke. I dont know what I would have done without the Deet. 
Keeping my steady, mosquito avoiding pace, I got some more water out and began drinking it, taking big gulps to quench my thirst and lighten the load on the pack. The pack was starting to keep me well aware of it's existence and was beginning to chafe my shoulder blades. I decided to have a light snack of a granola bar. As I went to tear open my snack a loud crack made me flinch and drop it onto my boot. The loud noise was thunder announcing the arrival of the rain. I bent down to pick my snack up and as I stood back up the rain was coming down harder now. As I stood there and opened my granola bar with rain running down my face, I realized the mosquitoes were overpowered by the rain. Finally the mosquitoes were gone...for now.
 Once more the thunder crashed and the sky grew as dark as the mass of clouds above. My mind flashed back to the back to the image of the floating black trash bag that had been ripped off of my back by the Teklanika. In it a brand new rain jacket.

Posts: 293
Joined: Thu Sep 30, 2010 4:42 am

Re: My 2010 Stampede Story...

Postby SteveSalmon » Fri Oct 30, 2015 2:48 pm

Chapter 6 "Arrival"

The rain continued in light and heavy patterns and before long I was no longer paying it any mind. My attention switched once more to the trail and it's next stretch. The trail started to climb and climb significantly. The front of my feet were starting to drag along at every step. This was telling me that my legs were beginning to clock out. It was good for tracks though, I did make it clear where my foot prints were on the trail just in case someone had to come and look for me. At times all along the trail I made it a point to stop and stomp a good track into the dirt. I learned that from a show I like to watch called "Mantracker".
 The elevation was climbing some more and I began singing "Hey Bear, Any Bear 'Round Here?!!" When that got tiresome and boring I would start belting out 'Welcome to the Jungle' by GNR. As the trail flattened a bit, I came to the first beaver pond of many. It was murky and occupied too. Swimming to my right was a big ass beaver that showed his displeasure of my being there with a violent slap of his tail to the water surface as he dove into the water. He didn't pop again until he made it to the far edge where is dam was being built. There was clearly no way around this "pond" and like the Tek, it was deep. However, unlike the Tek, it put up no such fight. Before I could think about the slimy rocks under my boots below in the dark waters I stepped through, I was on the other side and rising out of it. 
Freshly soaked again, I continued up the trail. The Stampede changed form again as I made my way further, the elevation began to climb again. My walking stick was becoming a nuisance and was cracking at the bottom. I knew it wouldn't be useful for much longer but, I held onto it simply because it beat having no stick at all. As I realized once more that the rain was letting up, the trail started to narrow considerably. Walking through it was a whole lot different than riding through it and all I could think about was a bear or two sleeping just beyond where my eyes could see. I think I began to belt out some of my favorite Metallica songs at this point and when my throat dried I would refresh with another swig from my water bottle.
 It began to annoy me that the water bottle was no longer cold. I dont know what I was thinking leaving my water bottles in the fridge all day and night before I left. The water stayed cold for only the first hour after hitting the trail. Did I really think that it would stay icey until I got to the bus? I was starting to get annoyed at everything and then the rain returned. Not heavy, just enough. At some point I came up to another small sloppy slough of water that appeared to me to be a baby Tek. Nothing major, just something to drench the boots once more and the socks inside along with them. To add to my grumpiness, I tripped on a rock and fell right to my knees. Doing so cracked the rest of the bottom of my stick which made the stick short enough to really annoy me. Like I was some damn wilderness pimp. All I needed was a diamond in my tooth and a fuzzy hat. Stupid stick. 
I was really starting to wonder again if I was actually still on the Stampede Trail. I was constantly scanning ahead of me which wasn't far as the trail was climbing and twisting. 
Being as narrow as it was, it didn't reveal too much of what was next. 
Beating on the bush to my left and right, I began swinging my stick as if I were holding a light saber. As the smack noise popped, I would yell once again at the bears that were starting to form from the tree stumps. My mind was screwing with me now. So much so that when I looked up and saw a stick laying against the bush standing upright yards ahead, I refused to celebrate. As I got closer to what appeared to be a perfect stick, the perfect stick became an even better perfect stick! Just standing there as if it was on a rack at the Perfect Walking Stick Store. "
Ok, what's wrong with it?' I asked the bushes as if they were trying to sell it to me. I looked it over and expected at least SOME kind of flaw. Nothing. Wow. I smiled. 
Why thank you Stampede Trail, thank you kindly for this beautiful fine walking stick that is too good to be true. I placed my old stick in it's place and began to walk once more uphill.
The rain grew heavier and I thought once more about how it would have been so much nicer to have brought a friend. If only one had been available. Dennis would have been perfect I thought to myself. How poetic would it have been to take my good friend Dennis, the very friend who ignited this whole adventure by handing me a book for a long flight to California. Dennis and I never did talk at length about what his take on Chris McCandless was. We never did get to talk about anything regarding Into the Wild actually. He seemed more a fan of Jon Krakauer than anything else. He had asked me if I wanted to borrow 'Into Thin Air' after I returned his copy of Into the Wild. I declined but, said I would probably take him up on the offer another time. Dennis loves the outdoors and loves to stay active and especially loves to run just to keep his body healthy. He would have loved the scenery. He would have loved this hike and...All this walking.

"We've got fun and games!! We've got everything you want, honey..." I sang as loud as my lungs let me.
Thoughts of my family started to pop into my conscience like a slide show. I started to miss my kids and my wife just the same. What had gotten into me? I have kids. Portraits of all of them would take turns popping up before me and each snap shot of all of them was of the most beautiful smile. Doubt was starting to consume me. Doubt of this hike being really worth it. What for? Was this bus REALLY that important to see with my own eyes and feel with my own hands? An old bus that this poor guy died in. It was clear to me that once again my fear of the lost opportunity got the better of me, so much so, that I, THE KING OF ALL WHO SCARE OF BEARS, was now out in their back yard risking it all to see a bus I felt would be ruined by those who couldn't see it's meaning. Im so late to this story anyway I said to myself. I missed THE BUS where all of this is concerned. This happened 18 years ago! What am I doing here! WHERE THE HELL AM I!!?? 

In the spring of 1992 I was an official high school drop out. Living in the smallest apartment paying rent to a drug addict no less. It was about the size of a walk-in closet, but, with a bathroom and it was my first place. In June my Mom asked if I would join her and my sister on a trip to New Jersey to visit family. After a long winter, I decided to take her up on it and go. I moved out and flew away to the other side of the lower 48. Within days of our vacation I met the girl who I would stay in New Jersey for. My Mom and sister flew back to Alaska at summer's end and I stayed in New Jersey with a plan to start over, reinvent myself, and graduate from a "real school". 
In mid August of '92, right about the same time Chris' body was found, I was in Seaside Heights, New Jersey for 2 weeks with my girlfriend and her mother. That was their tradition every year and they rented the same beach house almost on the same week religiously. I was probably laying on a blanket in the sand getting a tan under the hot sun when they found Chris. Of course it made huge headlines back home in Fairbanks and came on their local news channel, and even in the D.C. area, but, I never heard a word. The news is the last thing you watch on TV when you're on vacation at the beach. Besides, the little time that we DID watch TV, it was stuck on MTV. There was a new show on that we became big fans of right away. It was the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house in New York etc. We never caught the news of Chris' death or the story. 
Later in 1993 when Krakauer's Outside magazine article hit the newsstands, again, it slipped right by. 
In 1994, I moved back to Alaska and in 1996, I was working as a game agent for Golden Wheel Amusements the one and only traveling carnival for the state of Alaska which put me on the road and again separated me from media coverage of Krakauer's book release. The book hit the best seller's list and I was somewhere in Alaska trying to get someone to buy three balls to win a prize for their girl. Even in Alaska this whole whirlwind of Chris McCandless never crossed paths with me.

 In 1998, while in Kodiak, I woke up in the bed and breakfast that the owner of the carnival had put me up in. What woke me was the sound of the TV left on MTV. For that entire summer of 1998 they were filming in Seaside Heights, NJ. The familiar scenes of the places I had been 6 years earlier had started a stir within. By the end of the day the whisper had grown louder in my conscience that it was time to leave Alaska and head to Virginia. Destination Newport News or Virginia Beach, but, it was time to go nonetheless. I didn't try to make sense of it then either. It was something I had to do and the time was now. By the end of that very day, I quit the carnival position I loved so dearly and held for 3 years and returned home to say my goodbyes to my parents. I had a new car, only three years young, and had every confidence in the world it would get me to where I needed to go. I drove out of Alaska and never looked back. I never made it to Virginia, but, I did make it to New Jersey and ultimately met my wife Heather.

An image of Heather's smiling face slides across my vision and in front of the trail ahead of me. 

In 2007 when the movie was finally made by Sean Penn and released, I was back in New Jersey and married. Still nothing popped out or caught my attention to go see it. I still believe the reason is due to a horror type of movie, based in Alaska, coming out around the same time. So when anyone ever asked me if I had seen 'Into The Wild', I would say no and assume they were referring to the stupid horror movie set in Alaska. I think the movie I mistook 'Into the Wild' for was titled, '30 Days of Night'.
 For almost 18 years the story of Chris McCandless just missed me until December of 2009 on that flight to California to go surfing. The book is still my favorite read and was like reading something I had already read, even though that was impossible. Later in the summer, all it took was one article in a small tourist newspaper of how vulnerable the bus was to vandals. One article in a road side restaurant punched me so hard in the face that I ended up racing to get to the middle of nowhere AND IN BEAR COUNTRY to find a bus. Like there was something driving me to get there. Like I had been there already and left something behind that I needed to get back. I felt driven mostly by the feeling that the bus wouldn't be there long. Like it was melting or fading away. 

This is all playing through my head forming an imaginary time line as I desperately try to put the pieces together to keep my mind off of my dragging legs. The backpack is the heaviest it's been and almost has me falling forward. The rain is still coming down, but gently. It's still dark a bit but not too much. My reality fades back in. 
Where the hell is the bus? I ask first in my head, and then out loud.

BUSS!? Where are you? Where the hell are you buss? 
The trail is starting to climb a bit more now and there is what seems to be a clearing just ahead.


ANYONE SEEN A BUS AROUND HERE!? I yell to the clouds. 

The Stampede Trail opens wider once more and within a few more steps, I enter a big flat clearing and I stop right there.

I pan my head to the left. My mouth drops and a small smile picks it back up. 
I cant believe it. Chills go through my entire body. I almost fall to the ground. 
I stand there and I cant move one achey muscle.
Tears form instantly in my eyes like they are right now as I write this. It's real. This is all real. 
Poetically, the rain stops for a brief moment in time and the sun returns in beams. I took a picture to prove it. It is so beautiful here in this moment in my life, so much so that I could never find the words to describe it.

There to my left, sitting quietly and as gentle as a wounded animal is BUS 142. I have finally made it to Chris' "Magic Bus".

Posts: 293
Joined: Thu Sep 30, 2010 4:42 am

Re: My 2010 Stampede Story...

Postby SteveSalmon » Fri Oct 30, 2015 3:32 pm

Chapter 7 "The Sky Was Blue With A Violet Hue"

I stood there and I couldn't move until it all sank in completely. The beams of sunlight that had broke through the clouds just a few minutes earlier, were smothered once again by the ever growing clouds above. The rain began to come down harder. The first thought that came to mind was to stay still and call into the bus.

Is anyone in there?


I half expected someone to pop their head up at one of the windows and say something back. Although I was very relieved no one was there already, it kind of felt like there should be someone there. I really wanted to arrive and find no one already there though. I dont know why or how, but, my feeling was that if someone was there, they would take a piece of the discovery away that I could never get back. It was of my opinion that most of whom were making their way to the bus were not worthy of being there. I guess my negative thoughts were being driven by the graffiti I was beginning to take notice of. One name in particular of someone who felt the need to write her stupid name on the side of the bus. Then more graffiti clearly authored by someone who had no right to be there. 
The rain started to push me ever so slightly to the bus. The sound of it hitting the bus was growing louder. It was almost as if whether I was ready or not, I was being urged to take shelter inside. After the few steps it took to reach the front of bus 142, I reached out and at last felt the cold wet iron hood with my hand. I gave it a pat or two and walked around to the back side to find the door. The door was open. Another subtle invitation. A piece of black bungy cord hung from the handle of the door and I used it to open the door enough to get myself between it and the other door. With a deep breath, I stepped inside and onto the rusty step. The first thing I noticed inside was the lack of a steering wheel and the driver's chair. Then the missing instrument panel that was taken and sold on Ebay. I stepped in a bit further and onto the middle of the aisle while at the same time pivoting to the left.

The bed.

I exhaled.
My eyes began to pool again and once more I found it hard to send a signal to the part of my brain that made my legs move.
My backpack slowly slid off my back and onto the floor. The sound of it hitting the dirty rusty floor startled me and made me jump and flinch. 

The bed.
I took another step and then another. With blurred vision from tears that hung onto the bottoms of my eye lids like a slow drip to a faucet, I held out my hand to touch the bed. I couldn't do it. I just held my hand there and collapsed onto a small cot to the right of it. Sitting in a slump facing the bed, all I could do was watch the scenes my mind had painted while reading the book by Krakauer-"I have had a happy life..." Then the scenes created by Penn for his movie. Then the last scene of the movie where Chris, in the blue sleeping bag his mother made him, peacefully takes his last breath while looking to the sky through the window that is inches away from my exhausted body.

The bed is covered in silver due to the emergency blanket that is spread out upon it. Under it and visible where the emergency blanket cant reach is a very tattered, very old, tea-brown stained mattress. My eyes begin to look around and take in the rest of my surroundings. Suddenly Im reminded of the condition of my feet and I look down at them to find them soaked and muddy. With my cold wet fingers, I begin to tug at the laces and untie them. Even as the laces begin to loosen, the boots remain tight. As I pop them off and as they plop to the floor, my feet begin to feel better. I peel off my socks, one at a time, that were once bright white, but, are now the same color as the mattress to my right. To no surprise my feet are swollen, red, and freezing as I hold them above the floor and boots below. 
I look to my right and with my tired eyes I find the back pack in a slump to my left. I reach for it and place it onto my lap. With sore fingers, I find the zipper and open the main compartment. Deep inside I find the ziploc bag that I stuffed my new pair of socks into. The bag I stuffed earlier in the day as I watched my Dad pack his truck so his son had everything he'd need to go on this "foolish hike". Thoughts of my Dad consumed me as I took out the first pair of socks I touched. Those thoughts continued as I stretched the warm cotton over and onto each foot. For just a second it felt like Dad was sitting right next to me. I almost cracked my voice to say something to him, but looked to meet his eyes and he wasn't there. 

I peeled off my wet shirt and hung it onto a string that was strung at the ceiling. A make shift clothes line no doubt I thought. Originally hung by Chris? I asked myself. 
I reached back into my pack to find the baggy with the rolled shirt I had packed. Still dry and still rolled tight, I shook it open like a fresh pillow case and quickly put it on. 
The next order of business was my pants. I stood up and teetered a bit as I peeled them off as I did my socks. Balancing on one foot, I sunk my leg into the dry pair of jeans. Then the next and at last I was in dry clothes from head to toe. Which was great but did nothing for the chill I felt in my core. Shivering but, dry, I started to gather some kindling around the bed and stove. After making a small teepee of little branches, I took some matches I had packed and lit a small fire. Oh how good the warmth felt on my hands and wrists as I placed more and more sticks of various sizes onto the pile of flame. 
The light of the flame illuminated papers inside the big drum but not enough to reveal what they were. As the warmth began to spread, I landed my eyes onto a small blue suitcase propped up onto a cabinet diagonally across from the drum stove. I fished for my camera to take a picture but nothing happened when I pushed the power switch. I brought extra batteries with me but unfortunately they fell victim to the Teklanika's waters. I started to think about how awful it was going to be that I had no way to take pictures and then it hit me. The GPS. 
I dove into the backpack and found Dad's GPS. I flipped it over and slowly took the battery cover off. IT WAS DRY and the batteries were fine! I quickly plucked them out and placed them ever so carefully into my camera. With a few seconds of pause I hovered over the power button and then pressed it. With a whistle, the camera came to life. 

I took my first picture since the last one I took of myself before crossing the Tek. My first picture of inside the bus was of the last bed Christopher McCandless would lay his head down in. I stepped back outside and propped a tree stump to take my picture in front of the bus along with some other shots. When I returned back inside the bus I draped the camera around my neck and slowly opened the little blue suit case. The lid almost fell from my hands as I began to open it. I was not expecting the hinges to be broken so it just about fell right to the floor. After propping the lid behind the suitcase, I began to take visual inventory of it's contents. On the very top was a copy of Into The Wild and next to it a journal. Under the journal, a notebook. Among the many writings was a letter Chris' sister Carine had written for future travelers to the bus. She explained that she was Chris' sister and that her and Chris' other siblings missed him dearly. There was even a picture of all of them gathered together.
Siblings? Chris has more brothers and sisters? I asked myself.

On a following page I read the most amazing poem written by Carine McCandless to her big brother. In handwriting as beautiful as the words she chose, Carine told Chris how much his being gone still affected her and the ones who loved him. The loss was ever present and did not fade with time for her. My eyes began to tear up again for her loss. So I shut the suit case and put away the camera. 
I started to straighten up a bit and turned my attention to the cabinet filled with supplies. Cans of beans, a small cantine, matches, camping stove fuel, a small bag of rice. Lots of tea candles and then there was the old coffee can. For some reason I slid the coffee can toward me, off of the shelf and into my lap. I didn't realize that the can was upside down and so as it landed in my lap, so did what was inside of it. I couldn't believe it, I laughed with my mouth open in disbelief at what I discovered. 
Well, I said to myself, this certainly didn't belong to Chris McCandless. I laughed a bit more and put it back inside the can and then placed the can back in it's spot.

**I guess right now, you might be wondering what I found inside that old coffee can. Well, for good reason Im not going to say. That will have to remain a mystery until you yourself make your way to the bus**

Smoke began leaking significantly out of the pipe on the stove so I decided to put the fire out and get some rest. The windows on the bus were mostly gone now so smoke poisoning didn't pose a big threat but I wasn't going to take any chances. I sat once again on the cot in front of Chris' bed. As I threw my backpack onto the floor and swung my legs around onto the foot of it. I laid my head down and just to my left, my eyes met the brass plaque that the McCandless Family had installed inside the bus. I read the words and reached out to touch it but my arm was too heavy now. My body was quickly shutting down to get rest now and all I could do was stare as I read the words printed on the plaque. My eyes looked around as they grew heavy.

Geez Dad, why couldn't you be here. Why couldn't you do this with me. You could have made it. 

My back would have left me at the river Steve. You know that.

I watched him hand me his keys all over again. And then he walked into the house and was gone.

"Everything ok?" Dennis asked excitedly.

"Hell yeah man, Im ready!" I answered.

"Good well listen, since it's a long flight I brought a book for you to check out and read. I think you'll really like it since you're from Alaska. It will make the time on the plane go by a lot faster too." he said.

Thanks Dennis. I said as he vanished from the bus.

Heather was staring at me in tears. We both looked at the beaver in the pond as I reassured her that I would be back and to not call the rescue police on me unless she was sure I was really missing. I kissed her once more. She got back into the truck and slowly disappeared.

Within minutes after laying on that springy metal cot inside bus 142, I was fast asleep.

I couldn't tell you what time I arrived and what time I fell asleep. Of all the things I remembered and/or wrote down to pack, a watch was not one of them. So the whole time out and at the bus I had no concept of what time it was. The sun does no good in an Alaskan summer because it doesnt set like it does elsewhere. Eleven o clock at night can look just like ten o clock in the morning. Time didn't matter, but, much needed rest mattered. From head to toe, I was exhausted. It was a long hike. A very long, very wet hike.

 My eyes grew heavy.
Daddy. My daughter said gently.


Yeah? I replied.


Yes sweetheart? What's the matter?

Daddy, Emily is trying to tell you that there's a bear trying to reach through the window. Josh interrupted. 

Ok Josh.


Yes Josh?

There's a bear trying to reach through the window Daddy.


For a split second as I opened my eyes I saw a big brown paw. As quickly as I saw it, it was gone. 
I jumped up and looked out of the broken window onto the ground below while trying to catch my breath.

No bear.

Still breathing hard and waking up fast, I looked at my backpack and through the opened pocket noticed the food inside. About the same time my stomach began to growl. 
I was looking around and things were beginning to settle into my brain again. I had fallen asleep inside the bus for who knew how long and now I was hungry.

Holy shit, how long was I asleep? How long was I asleep! I asked myself repeatedly.

I fished inside my backpack to find my cell phone and waited for what seemed like an eternity for it to power on and load up. Only to discover that it also had no idea of what time it was. Nothing but "NO SERVICE" filled it's screen still. 

I had to settle myself down so that I could think of what to do next. I didn't know whether to eat, pack up, or stay. I had no idea what time it was. Was it possible that I had slept longer than I should have and now people were looking for me? I had to get going, and fast. Heather worried and thinking the worst was all I could think of. I quickly threw my stuff back together and inside the pack. I quickly jumped back into my soggy boots and laced them tight. I grabbed my perfect walking stick and without a goodbye, stepped out of the bus and headed once more down the trail. I never even looked back for one final eyeful. It felt just like that feeling of waking up late for an appointment or late for work.
The thought of Heather being frightened out of her mind was helping keep my pace at a near jog. This point of the trail was sloping down this time and so it helped a great deal especially to get the legs fired up once again.
It didn't take long to get winded and thirsty and so at the first little stream crossing, I decided to stop for just a minute to grab a drink of water. Within the first few sips, my stomach began to growl once more to remind me that I hadn't eaten anything in who knew how many hours. I decided to tear open my dehydrated meal of chili mac and I filled it with water from my water bottle. I remembered from reading the instructions before I bought it, that it said you had to place boiling water inside and let it sit. Well since boiling water wasn't an option I just filled it up, sealed it once more and waited as long as I possibly could before taking the first bite.

It was disgusting. Since the water used was cold and not boiling, the little elbow noodles were still raw and hard as a rock. The beef was crunchy too. As hungry as I was, it was still hard to consume. I managed to finish it but not without an occasional gag or two. As a treat for finishing it, I pulled out a granola bar and tried my best to take small bites. It was so delicious though, I had to devour it. Within minutes of this meal on the go, I was feeling the life blood starting to pump within my body once more.
 I was actually feeling energy developing in my muscles again. I drank the rest of my water and kept my pace up. It felt like I was coming down a mountain. Thankfully I was not fighting fatigue on my way back. At least not at this point.

As the miles wore on and my legs began to throb again. My mind started to return to the possibility of a bear encounter. Then of a bear following me. So I began a routine with my pace of a look behind me after every fourth step. I was concerned that since I had eaten, and was carrying the chili mac coated trash on me, I would attract a hungry bear even more. My bear spray at my hip was where I propped my right hand and inside the trigger hoop I clutched my fore finger. I kept the safety tab on the bear spray trigger but thought for miles whether it was better to keep it on or off. 
I started to sing some more GNR favorites of mine as I walked quickly back to the Tek. The slide show of my family started playing again and so I went with it and thought about all the good times we had all shared. The day I met Heather, the first movie we ever went to (The Green Mile), the day she told me she was pregnant, the moment I held Josh in my arms for the first time within minutes of being born. The birth of my daughter and her first words, the purchase of our first home and the purchase of our second. Then there was the year just before when our youngest son Chance was born and meeting eyes with him for the first time within minutes of being born.
 Then I started to think about my parents. So many memories. The first day we ever stepped foot onto Alaskan soil. The first harsh winter, my old dog. I was really aching to get back. All I wanted to do was tell every one of them that I loved them in person. I couldn't wait to hold my wife and kids in my arms again.

A few more hours of fast paced walking went by and I began to hear the faint current of water. To get confirmation I would stop and stand still to listen to make sure I wasn't wishful thinking. Nope I said to myself as I twisted the cap off of my water that's a river!
I started to run and expected it to be right around the corner, but, instead it ended up a bit farther than that. After every twist in the trail, instead of an opening to a river, I was met with a bit more trail to walk down. The sounds of flowing water grew ever louder and the sight of the Teklanika began to finally break through the alder. I was so excited to be close to the river once more. After downing a few sips from a fresh water bottle and a granola bar for strength, I began to tighten my backpack to my shoulders as I neared the end of the trail and the river's edge. It was about this point a few feet away from the water that things began to look different.

I stepped to the last dry spot of the trail and looked out onto the Teklanika river. While I was relieved and certain I was standing in front of the Tek, I was shocked to discover that where I was, was NOT where I had crossed. Somehow and for reasons I will never know, I walked back to the river and somewhere along the way I took a different path than I did on the way to the bus. While it got me to the right river, it did NOT deliver me to the spot I crossed. This time the river was much wider and had an island in the middle of it. It was running much higher and faster AND I would have to cross it twice. The worst part was I could not see any area that looked familiar on the other side. I certainly did not see my Dad's 4 wheeler. 
I was halfway back and officially lost. Suddenly things got serious.

Posts: 293
Joined: Thu Sep 30, 2010 4:42 am

Re: My 2010 Stampede Story...

Postby SteveSalmon » Fri Oct 30, 2015 3:54 pm

Chapter 8 "A Return To The Beginning"

This part of the river was a monster. I wanted to retrace my steps but, at the same time I could not think of a spot along the trail that would have steered me the wrong direction. Thoughts were flooding my head as I kept a blank stare upon the thrashing Teklanika river before me. I began to fight the thoughts of helplessness as I scanned the rivers edge looking for any sign of familiarity. Nothing. Not even at the farthest edge of my sight looking upriver or down did anything look right. 
The thought of turning around and retracing steps completely ceased to exist when I realized that I still had the food on me and if in fact a bear was tracking the scent I was leaving behind, I would only be walking back to meet that bear sniffing and tracking me. 
I crammed another granola bar into my mouth and chewed. Expecting to feel the spinach power that Popeye always had after a quick can for an energy boost on his cartoon show. As I swallowed the last few bites I unwrapped and crammed another one into my mouth. I did feel a slight sugar rush and not wasting any of that boost, I took my first step into the water once more. 
Within a few steps, I was up to my waste in the waters and hopping to counter the push of the current. Hopping and landing to my left now, I trudged through and onto the island. As I looked down to watch the water drain from my pants and boots to form puddles around me, my eyes caught a sight I really didn't want to acknowledge- fresh bear tracks. Im no outdoorsman nor am I an expert, so cant say for certain that these prints were indeed fresh, but, from what I HAVE learned, they seemed to fit the bill more than I wanted them to. The prints were moist and the piles of sand forced backward and out of the print as well as along it's edge had not crusted over.

Again, that was all I needed to see, fresh within minutes or fresh within hours, I knew regardless and without professional certifications that a bear had been here on this small sand island before I was and he wasn't far, my hope now was that he decided to go a different way than I was going. 
I walked along the island for a few minutes back and forth trying desperately to find something familiar along the banks and trees but I could find nothing remotely similar. I began to feel an unexplainable draw down river. Nothing in regard to my vision felt right about heading North and downriver but, suddenly and again, without reason, my gut told me to head that way. As I made my decision and scanned for any signs of bears, people, or trail breaks, I turned my attention to the water once more. There was going to be one last Teklanika river crossing and this time, with the water moving much faster due to the narrow passage break around the sand island, the situation once again forced me to acknowledge that much was at stake. 
I took my first few steps into the deep waters and within seconds was back to fighting the shove of that relentless current. After about 4 steps and at a depth of upper thigh, my legs began to remind me of all the miles walked and were beginning to give out. Suddenly and without warning, my legs were losing the balance battle and my boots below were starting to slide sideways. I took my walking stick and unsuccessfully tried to plant it to use as a third leg but the current swept it too far to stab. I put too much confidence in that idea and I damn near fell over and lost the stick in that one quick motion. Luckily I caught myself with a quick hop and replant into sturdy river bed stones below. I wouldnt be trying that again. From now on, the stick was staying above water to serve as a balance like someone would use walking a tight rope. 
Quick steps found more depth quickly but, the distraction of where to aim and step out on the other side kept me from paying enough attention to care. Once again I was up to my chest and feeling as if there were things wrapped around my legs dragging behind me. The chill began to penetrate my entire body. I was hoping while knowing better that I would get as close as I was and see something familiar on the other side that was now mere yards away.

The river bottom began to rise under my feet again with the few remaining steps and after a few more trips and close calls of falling my body was once again beginning to rise out of the frigid waters around me. Dragging my feet and draining heavily from every part of my body, I finally reached the other side. As I stepped out of the water and onto a sandy ledge, I felt the draw once more to turn left and head North down river. I followed this instinct and walked up the slope of the river bank and into thick trip line like brush. There was no trail to be seen and things were still unfamiliar but, I was across the river for the last time. It was the definition of bitter sweet to be across that monster and done with it, but, the fact remained I was still lost and there was no sight of my Dad's four-wheeler.

Walking and singing a bit more I headed down river through the alder and brush and somehow managed to come across a thin trail. The trail became a bit wider and the the brush began to thin enough for me to scan and scope the areas around me and along the river's edge ahead. 
I was definitely feeling the exhaustion setting in and somehow the thought of a bear encounter just seemed to piss me off rather than concern me. My legs and feet were on fire and the boots below felt like concrete blocks. Thoughts of my Family were motivating my pace once more and somehow with confidence I kept making my way in a direction that I hoped especially now, would take me close to where I needed to go.

The trail was beginning to twist with trees on each side taking place of the brush. It began to inch it's way closer to the river's edge once more. Raging river and the clump clump of my dragging feet were all I could concentrate on. The sun was peaking through small clouds and warming me enough to shed the water chill from my body. I cast my eyes on a few trees just ahead to mark the spot I would stop and catch my breath and get my bearings a bit more. The moment I stepped to the tree to my left, my eyes cast themselves on a most beautiful sight.

Just ahead and down the sloping edge to my left and closer to the river was a blurry blue mass under a clump of cut green brush laying over it. Expecting someone or something playing a trick on me I closed my eyes and opened them once more. The same beautiful sight before me remained even after a few more blinks of disbelief. It was at this very moment that the first wave of relief consumed and rushed in and out of my entire body. You see, that blue mass was my Dad's four wheeler hiding under the very brush I hid it under. I ran to it and like a marathon runner in his last steps across the finish line, I fell in a heap onto the brush covered seat and hugged the handle bars. Keeping my eyes closed and head down, I began to feel around in my shirt pocket for the key. Before I could think about the "what if I lost it" thoughts, I found it right where I pinned to my inner pocket. 
With no time to celebrate and still thinking it was near evening time, hours after I told Heather I would return, I popped the key into the ignition. Then the most beautiful sound of an engine firing up without hesitation filled the air. I made it back and I found the four-wheeler I thought to myself while clearing off the brush with an enormous smile on my face. I secured my soaking wet back pack to the back and with swollen, cold, and sore fingers, I tied my walking stick to the pack and headed back to up the trail. Everything was starting to piece together in my head of where I had been and all that I had been through in those short few hours and long miles of walking. It was filling my body with such emotions that I at one point along the way back had to force from my concentration to focus more on making sure I was riding back the right way. 
There were a few parts on the return ride that made me stop and wonder which was the right way to go but, ultimately I took the right path and on the few times that I didn't, I realized it right away and got myself back onto the right trail. I wasted no time either, I went as fast as I could handle with the wind reminding me of every wet area of clothing on my body. It was cold but, I still tried to hurry. 
After a few more hours of mud bogging and trail riding, the area and scenery around me became reassuringly familiar and before long I was back on the gravel road I started on. As I neared the spot where Heather dropped me off, I stopped to dig out my cell phone in the ziplock baggy inside my pack. I turned it on and easily found enough range to make a call. I killed the engine and pivoted my body to face the trail behind me, and casting my eyes on all that my eyes could see.
I took one more look at the Stampede Trail and began to dial. 

Hi babe, it's me.

Im fine.
Yes, I promise Im just fine.

Yeah, it was beautiful. 

I'll meet you along the Park's Highway Ok?

I love you.

Posts: 150
Joined: Wed Oct 27, 2010 1:01 pm
Location: central/upsate New York

Re: My 2010 Stampede Story...

Postby ellisd » Sat Nov 28, 2015 5:45 pm

Just as great as the first time I read this, thanks for sharing this awesome story again!

Posts: 293
Joined: Thu Sep 30, 2010 4:42 am

Re: My 2010 Stampede Story...

Postby SteveSalmon » Mon Nov 30, 2015 3:04 am

I thought I'd leave it a surprise for you to discover "ellisd".
Yours is among my favorite friendships to come from this writing.
Thank you again.

~Steve Salmon

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