Claire Jane Ackermann 2010-08-14

Swiss woman drowns in Alaska river near movie site

By TIM MOWRY, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Published: August 17th, 2010

FAIRBANKS-- The fact that a 29-year-old Swiss woman drowned Saturday while attempting to cross the Teklanika River on the Stampede Trail doesn't surprise Jon Nierenberg.

What surprises him is that it didn't happen to someone a lot sooner.

Nierenberg, who owns a lodge four miles from the end of Stampede Road, said it was just a matter of time before someone drowned trying to cross the river to reach the old Fairbanks city bus made famous in the movie "Into the Wild."

Since the critically acclaimed film was released three years ago, the bus where 24-year-old Chris McCandless starved to death in 1992 has become a destination for adventurers following in McCandless' footsteps.

"Honestly, I'm amazed this hasn't happened earlier," Nierenberg said Monday by phone.

Whether backpacker Claire Jane Ackermann was on her way to the bus is not known, but Nierenberg said practically everyone who hikes the Stampede Trail has the same destination in mind.

"It's not a casual place to go hiking," Nierenberg said. "I have absolutely no doubt what she was doing out there."

Ackermann was trying to wade east to west across the swollen stream with a 27-year-old man from France about 1 p.m. Saturday. The pair were headed in the direction of the bus. The two hikers had tied themselves onto a rope that had been placed across the stream earlier this summer. They lost their footing and were pulled under by the current.

The man told Alaska State Troopers and rangers from Denali National Park and Preserve that he was able to cut himself free from the main line and make his way to the bank, where he dropped his backpack. When he turned back, the man said, Ackermann was under water.

The hiker made his way back and cut her loose from the main line. He floated downstream with her for half a mile. When the man pulled her to shore, Ackermann was unresponsive. The man tried to resuscitate her but was unsuccessful.

The French hiker ran into another hiking party, which reported the incident to troopers and the National Park Service. Ackermann's body and the French hiker were flown out by a park helicopter Saturday evening.

Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said a trooper asked the French man whether they were hiking to the old green-and-white bus. "He said no,'" Peters said. "He said they were just hiking in the area."

"It's anybody's guess what they were doing out there," she said.

The bus, about 18 miles from the end of Stampede Road off the Parks Highway in Healy, has become a destination for people from around the world since Jon Krakauer wrote his best-selling book "Into the Wild" in 1996. After the book was adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn three years ago, the number of hikers trying to reach the bus increased significantly.

Troopers and Park Service rangers have conducted several search-and-rescues involving hikers who have become lost or stranded while hiking to the bus in the last few years.

A month ago, troopers rescued four teenagers who became stranded on their way to the abandoned bus. The teens, ages 16 and 17, got separated after their vehicle became stuck on Stampede Trail. The teens were found by a Fairbanks trooper in a Super Cub and a Cantwell trooper on an ATV.

"Everybody has noticed an increase (in the number of hikers going to the bus) in the last three years," said Richard Moore, north district ranger for Denali National Park and Preserve. There is "general concern" because many of the people hiking to the bus are inexperienced in the Alaska backcountry, he said.

"We try to give information to people and tell them that they should be prepared and educated about how to travel in the backcountry," Moore said.

The Stampede Trail river crossing is along the park's northern boundary and park rangers are still trying to determine if Ackermann drowned inside or outside of the park. She was about a half-mile inside the park boundary when she was brought to shore by her companion.

The Teklanika River, about 10 miles from the end of Stampede Road, poses the biggest challenge and threat for hikers on the Stampede Trail. The swift, glacier-fed stream is difficult to cross even at low water.

On Saturday, the river was raging because of glacial melting in the warm temperatures, park spokesperson Kris Fister said.

A week and a half ago, two hikers called Nierenberg on their satellite phone when they couldn't get back across the river after hiking to the bus.

Nierenberg told them they could wade upstream to look for a better place to cross or wait until early morning to cross when the water was at its lowest point. He also gave them the phone number for Era Aviation to call for a helicopter if they wanted to spend the $1,000 or so that would cost.

As it turned out, the two hikers met three others, and the group was able to cross.

For whatever reason, Nierenberg said, he has seen an increase in the amount of bus traffic this summer. Some of the hikers stop at his lodge to talk about the trail and river crossing, but most of them don't, he said. The ones that stop usually don't have a clue what they're doing, Nierenberg said.

"Most of these guys don't have any conception of river crossings," he said. "Most of their knowledge is from YouTube."

The rope across the river, which is still in place, appears to be about 3/8-inch braided, nylon rope and is tied on both ends to small trees and brush, said Moore, who has seen pictures. A rope across the river is not uncommon, the ranger said.

"Every time I've gone out there, someone has put up a rope somewhere across the river," he said. "It either gets broken or taken down or disappears in the winter."

Using a rope as a crossing aid is risky, Moore said.

"If properly used, it could help, but unfortunately a lot of people don't use it properly, and it leads to incidents like we had Saturday," he said.

Most people bring rope to help get them across the river, Nierenberg said. A former park ranger in Denali, Nierenberg said he was trained to cross rivers using walking sticks or a pole pointed upstream held by multiple people.

"Some of these guys are talking about crossing with rope tied around their waist, which is like suicide," he said.

A rope, he said, "is like tying yourself into a raft in whitewater it can help you live or it can help you die."

Nierenberg speculated that a group of five motorcyclists from the Lower 48, who hiked to the bus about three weeks ago, installed the rope. One of the motorcyclists was nearly swept downriver after getting knocked off his feet on the way back, he said.

"He was holding onto the rope and ended up having to let go," said Nierenberg, who talked to the men before they left and when they returned. "His friends ran downstream and fished him out.

"When he came back here his eyes were pretty wide," Nierenberg said. "He knew that he had almost died."

Rangers are still trying to determine whether the rope is inside or outside the park boundary, Moore said.

"Our best guess is one side may be in the park and the other side may not be in the park," he said.

If the rope is inside the park, Moore said, rangers will remove it. If the rope is on state land, he said, rangers will notify troopers.

What action troopers might take is unclear, Peters said.

"I think we will have to await word from the rangers before that would be assessed," she wrote in an e-mail. "I don't know if that would be an appropriate use of our resources, as it would have to be decided if it was an immediate threat to public safety."