Even before Christopher McCandless' reincarnation in Sean Penn's new movie Into the Wild, hundreds of intrepid admirers had made pilgrimages to the abandoned city bus where moose hunters discovered McCandless' body near Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve in fall 1992.
The 24-year-old rebel died of starvation nearly four months after heading down a former gold mining trail with a .22 rifle and 10-pound bag of rice in a mapless quest to live off the land. He became a backpacker icon when Jon Krakauer chronicled his fate in a non-fiction best seller in 1996
Now, even as they cheer the state's face time on the big screen, many Alaskans worry about a new wave of copycats ill-equipped for the real-life drama of wilderness travel in the Last Frontier.
"If the movie makes more people yearn for Alaska, that's a good thing. But it's our job to channel that yearning," says Deb Hickok of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is co-sponsoring an Into the Wild sweepstakes through Oct. 26.
Grand prize: two round-trip tickets to Alaska, three nights' hotel stay and such "wild" adventures as a train ride to Denali and visit to the University of Alaska's Museum of the North.
Not on the list is the Stampede Trail about 100 miles southwest of Fairbanks, where McCandless slogged some 20 miles from the end of the road to the bus that had once served as a makeshift bunkhouse for road construction crews. Less scenic than other Denali hiking options (director Penn chose more dramatic terrain near Cantwell as a celluloid stand-in), the mosquito-infested trail and bus where McCandless died have nonetheless become rites of passage for some of his most ardent fans.
In what critics who say McCandless was unskilled and unprepared might see as an ironic twist, the interactive map on Into the Wild's website (intothewild.com) includes such tips as "rivers tend to get smaller the higher you hike up a valley."
But old Alaska hands such as Jon Nierenberg worry that it might not be enough.
Nierenberg, a local lodge owner, favors removing the bus, whose instrument panel sold this week on eBay for $177.50, Outside magazine's blog says. Nierenberg says the trail's newfound notoriety could create a safety hazard if inexperienced hikers try to ford a frigid Teklanika River —the same one that kept McCandless from returning to civilization —when it's swollen by summer snowmelt.
"Alaskans respect the forces of nature," says Fairbanks' Hickok, who says the city's 2008 visitor guide will address the movie and its lessons for visitors. "We know just how vast, callous and unforgiving the wilderness can be."