The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Husband recalls trying to save his wife in fast-moving river during trip to ‘Into The Wild’ bus

Christopher McCandless starved to death in 1992 in this bus on Stampede Road near Healy, Alaska. (Jillian Rogers/AP)
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A Belarusan woman died trying to cross a fast-moving river in Alaska during a trip to see an abandoned bus made famous by the book and movie “Into the Wild.”

At close to midnight on Thursday, Piotr Markielau, 24, called the Alaska State Troopers to tell them his wife, Veranika Nikanava, 24, had been dragged underwater in the Teklanika River, just outside of Denali National Park. The two had married in New York less than a month earlier.

After spending two nights at the bus, the couple had run low on food and decided to cross back, Markielau told The Washington Post. By 6 p.m., they had reached the river and the water was higher than when they crossed days earlier. Markielau traversed the river first and said his legs were tired by the end.

About two-fifths of the way across, Nikanava called out for help, Markielau recalled. He waded into the water, and then his wife lost her footing. She hung on to him as he attempted to drag her to shore.

“I felt really horrible at that moment,” Markielau said.

About 75 to 100 feet downriver, he was able to pull her to land, and he said he believes she died in his arms.

He left her body by the river and walked four hours before he was able found other people on and called authorities.

“She was really loving,” Markielau said. “She was the most kind person I’ve ever met. She was really sharing this love with everyone. I got the bigger part of this love.”

On Monday, authorities confirmed they are investigating the incident but did not suspect foul play.

The water was rapid and waist-high, said Ken Marsh, a spokesman for the Alaska State Troopers. The segment the couple tried to cross was higher because of recent rainfall.

Situated along the Stampede Trail, the abandoned Fairbanks City Transit Bus 142 has become somewhat of a pilgrimage spot in recent decades, sometimes with a devastating ending. The trail is more than 100 miles southwest of Fairbanks.

Christopher McCandless, who hitchhiked to Alaska after graduating college and donating his life savings, lived in what he called the “Magic Bus” for about four months. The story of his travels, and his death within the bus in 1992, was captured in a book by Jon Krakauer in 1996 and later in a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn.

Since then, the bus has drawn curious visitors to its rugged site.

Some hikers come to the bus because of deep emotional feelings they have toward McCandless and his story.

“I spoke to people who said they felt like the bus was a sacred place,” said Eva Holland, who has written about “Into the Wild” pilgrimages. “They felt like it had a special kind of magical aura about it.”

Others, such as a group of hikers whom Holland profiled, are just curious about the site.

Locals’ sentiments about McCandless and the pilgrimages he inspired vary. Some feel quite negatively about him, that he approached a journey in an unforgiving area of Alaska and was not prepared for its hardships. Others are more understanding.

The state of Alaska rescues many people who are stranded, all at taxpayer expense. There were 15 bus-related search-and-rescue operations by the state between 2009 and 2017, according to Marsh.

This is not the first time someone has lost their life to the force of the rushing river. In 2010, a 29-year-old Swiss woman drowned while trying to cross it.

The river kept McCandless from crossing back because it was too high, which in some ways also makes him one of its casualties. McCandless’s cause of death was thought to be starvation, though Krakauer and others have hypothesized about what led him to that state.

Nikanava graduated from the New York Film Academy in September 2018. One of her professors, Andrea Swift, recalled a talented filmmaker.

“She was a truly lovely human being and completely unique,” Swift said. “She lived all out. She had probably done more in her 24 years than most will do in 90.”