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How a newlywed couple's trip to Alaska's Into the Wild bus ended in tragedy


The bus, made famous by the book by Jon Krakauer and later movie, has long been a destination for many fan trips

Piotr Markielau had a sense of déjà vu as he and his wife Veranika Nikanava stopped for lunch before trying to go back across the Teklanika River in Alaska, which they had crossed two days earlier.

At the time, there was a trail paved with stones, which Markielau realized was the bottom of a creek. In the two days since, however, heavy rainfall had filled up the creek to the point where the couple, both 24 and newlyweds from Belarus, couldn’t find the trail anymore.

“(The first time we crossed), I was thinking that after the rain, we won’t even recognize this place because of the water,” Markielau told the National Post by email this week. “It happened exactly like this. We passed this point and didn’t notice because it had changed visually.”

The river, mild when they had first crossed, was running swiftly on July 25.

Before crossing the river, Markielau rolled a cigarette and the two shared it, joking that it “could be their last.”

After smoking, they took some selfies on his phone, then made their way across the river. That was when Nikanava was swept away by the water and drowned.

“We knew the river was wild,” Markielau said. “But didn’t realize how dangerous it was, and how wrong it is to use the ‘safety rope’ Nika used.”

An investigation was launched by the Alaska State Troopers. Spokesman Ken Marsh said the probe has now concluded, and no foul play is suspected.

A dispatch by the Alaska State Troopers details how they received a call from Markielau after he pulled his wife out of the water about 20 to 30 metres down the river — but by then she was already dead.

The couple were in Alaska visiting what was known as “The Magic Bus” along Stampede Trail. The bus was once an operating Fairbanks City Transit bus — number 142. Now it lies abandoned, parked in Denali National Park, just across the Teklanika River.

The bus was made famous by Into the Wild, a book by Jon Krakauer that was published in 1996 and adapted into a film in 2007. Into the Wild tells the true story of Chris McCandless from Annandale, Va., who ditched his old life after graduating from Emory University and hitchhiked across America, eventually ending up in Alaska.

He journeyed to Denali National Park where he crossed the Teklanika River and came across the abandoned bus, has become the destination of many fan trips. McCandless made camp inside, living off the land around the area for 122 days. He eventually died of starvation when he ran out of food and wasn’t able to go back across the Teklanika River because the water level had risen due to rainfall, much like how it was for Markielau and Nikanava.

Before their own tragedy struck, the couple spent two nights on the bus, resting on the bed provided, eating dry noodles someone else had left there, and dreaming of living together and their future travels.

When food started to get low, they walked back to the river.

Markielau crossed first. He told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in an email that he was tired and scared once he made it to the other side. He turned to see his wife struggling but the water was too loud to hear her.

“I think her feet lost grip with the river’s bottom. I went to her and started to drag her,” Markielau told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“Being underwater, she held on to me for around 20 seconds,” he told the Post. “We were together and she loved me until the very end.”

Her last words were “Help me,” Markielau said.

“I didn’t manage to help my wife.”

Markielau and Nikanava first met in 2018 after Nikanava travelled to Belarus that summer to shoot a final project for her program in the New York Film Academy. Though she filmed with Markielau’s colleague, he didn’t meet her until he reached out to her on Facebook in the fall, asking if he could watch her project Generation 328, a film about the so-called Mothers 328 fight in Belarus, in which women went on a hunger strike to protest prison sentences given for drug-related crimes.

They started chatting daily until she invited him to visit her in New York and suggested they go on a trip together in the States. Markielau arrived in December, a day before her birthday.

They embarked on a two-week long trip to Miami and Florida Keys. Without much money, they camped on public beaches and couch-surfed. Eventually, they ended up alone on a deserted key, where they fell deeply in love and decided to get married.

The couple had watched the film Into the Wild together and Markielau had read the book a few years earlier. They originally decided to visit the Stampede Trail in September, when the Teklanika River would be mild.

Two weeks before their wedding, however, they were both fired from their jobs and decided to go to Alaska the day they wed. They got married on July 1 and the next morning, flew to Alaska.

“We were heading to Healy Mountain, when the driver suggested that it might be possible to cross Teklanika at that time,” Markielau told the Post. “We quickly made a decision to give it a try.”

On the bus, they scratched their names on the wall inside, adding them to the names of past travellers. A notebook on the bus was also filled with messages from others, and Nikanava wrote a message in it before they left.

“Feel free to send me email where we should all meet next! Who knows maybe we will become best friends one day!” she wrote. “Hope to meet you one day somewhere else in this beautiful world.”

Markielau talked about the adventures they had together, and the amazing trip they had before arriving to the bus — how they stayed in Anchorage, Alaska, for a few days before moving to the most northern point of the state.

“Nika was very afraid of bears, but for the whole trip we only had to see some grizzly claws that an old man pulled out from a bear he killed in his backyard,” he told the National Post.

At Prudhoe Bay, they tried to sneak through a security post to see the Beaufort Sea but security caught them before they could reach the water.

“Nika was very loving, adventurous and open-minded,” Markielau said. “She gave me the strength to believe everything is possible.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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