UAF gets federal grant to preserve ‘Into the Wild’ bus

Into the Wild bus
Fairbanks Transit System Bus 142 arrives at the Troth Yeddha’ campus Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 at the Engineering, Learning and Innovation Facility’s high bay structural testing lab. (JR Ancheta/UAF)

A $500,000 federal grant will help the University of Alaska Museum of the North preserve Bus 142, popularized by the book and movie “Into the Wild.”

The funding comes from the National Park Service and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, through the Save America’s Treasures program. Angela Linn, a museum collections manager, said the award will help cover the costs for preserving the 1940s-era Fairbanks public transit bus.

Into the Wild bus
Bus 142 is lowered at the Engineering, Learning and Innovation Facility’s high bay structural lab for preservation. (JR Ancheta/UAF)

“Freeze it and document it in its current state, because the most famous part of it was from 1992 when Chris McCandless was there,” Linn said.

McCandless’ death from starvation at the bus 30 years ago drew travelers from across the world, at least two of whom died trying to reach it. In 2020, a helicopter removed the bus from a spot near Denali National Park and Preserve and moved it to Fairbanks.

Linn said the first step in the preservation process is stabilizing the bus’ structure.

“Making it safe for people to walk around in it, for us to move the bus to the exhibit site,” Linn said. “But it’s also about preserving the surface of the bus both inside and outside, so that we can preserve all the graffiti and all the epitaphs that have been placed on the surface of the bus.”

Linn said the grant will cover the cost of hiring a preservation company to do the work.  

Into the Wild bus
A group of students gather to observe Fairbanks Transit Bus 142. (JR Ancheta/UAF)

“This very well-known and well-respected conservation team out of Pennsylvania, BR Howard and Associates,” Linn said. “And they’re the one who came last summer and did the condition assessment of it, and prepared a proposal to us and we used that proposal to get the funding.”

Although the project is focused on preserving the bus as is, Linn notes that because it will eventually go on display outside, missing and broken windows will be replaced. The plan calls for exhibiting the bus behind the museum on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, in a fenced area protected by a shelter.

“So that the direct sun and the snow and the rain and the heavy-duty element exposure will be a little bit lessened,” Linn said.

Linn said another grant is being applied for to build the bus shelter. The museum is also working with the nonprofit group Friends of Bus 142 to raise money. Linn said the museum hopes to open the bus exhibit in 2024.

In the meantime the public can view the bus as it’s being worked on inside UAF’s Usibelli Building, as well as via webcam.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.