Alaska: Ill Winds Threaten Inholders

Wrangell-St. Elias News

(Note: Follow the ongoing story at Wrangell-St. Elias News )


The State of Alaska and the National Park Service have had a tempestuous relationship since 1980. If current events in Wrangell-St. Elias (WRST) are any indicator, a new storm is brewing. Ill winds threaten to blow inholders right out of the park.

In 1978, then President Jimmy Carter declared this area to be a National Monument. Two years of tense debate in the halls of Congress followed. Alaska’s delegation was not willing to have immense areas of the state turned into lower-48 type parks where hunting, mining and other traditional Alaskan activities would not be allowed.

The result was the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which became law on December 2, and became known as ANILCA. It spelled out the terms that Wrangell-St. Elias National Park would be managed.

Among other things, ANILCA guaranteed Alaskans the right to hunt, fish, recreate and even operate mines in the park. Although the ability to create new roads or trails in the park was eliminated or severely curtailed, the right to use valid existing routes was pledged. RS2477 routes were specifically singled out for protection.

Unfortunately for Alaskans, the National Park Service lost little time before attempting to erode the provisions of ANILCA. For the most part they were able to eliminate or severely curtail mining and hunting through the use of restrictive regulations, ostensibly to “protect the resource.”

Now the National Park Service has sunk to a new low. The administration at WRST are using discretionary powers to single out an individual and his family for punishment. The crime? Superintendent Candela¬ria says there may be no crime. Nevertheless the family has been targeted for punitive action.

As I type these words, the Pilgrim family are trying to decide how to get home over the 14 mile road that connects their home to the town of McCarthy. Park Rangers posted a Public Notice saying that the route was suddenly an “illegal road created by the bulldozer.”

The McCarthy-Green Butte road, which leads to the Pilgrims house, has been in use by Alaskans for over one hundred years. It was at various times maintained by miners, the Alaska Road Commission, and sundry local residents. The bulldozer that created the road has long since been retired. Many bulldozers have come down that trail in the 23 years since the creation of the park. But suddenly, the Pilgrim’s bulldozer is singled out. Why?

By my count, Candelaria and crew have had to violate one Alaska State Statute, at least two specific sections of ANILCA, former 43 U.S.C. 932 and their own General Management Plan in order to harass an innocent family.

Consider the following exchange that occurred on Friday, April 18 at a public meeting in McCarthy:

Question by local resident: “[Superintendent], this is customary/traditional use..if you cannot define it and we view traveling up and down McCarthy Creek as customary/traditional use how can you deny it when you can’t even define it?”

Superintendent Gary Candeleria (GC): “Customary and traditional is something that in many areas is undefined. In many parts of the nation.”

Question: “How can you outlaw what you can’t define? It’s a legitimate legal question.”

GC: “I am not a lawyer.”

Question: “You need to define this issue before you ban an activity.”

GC: “The activity is a result of an illegal action.”

Question: “What is the worst case example of what they destroyed on that road?”

GC: “I don’t know what they’ve destroyed.”

(crowd goes wild! Laughter)

Question: “So they might not have done any harm at all?”

GC: “Maybe not.”

Question: “Isn’t it true that this is all about you guys being upset because they didn’t talk to you?”

GC: “No, no”

Question: “The whole thing is not about them not talking to you?”

GC: “No, the action they took without talking to us is …” (interrupted)

Question: “Action, what action? You said you don’t know what action they took.”

GC: “Because we haven’t had the chance to go over the ground yet.”

Try to imagine two and a half hours of the above lunacy, and you have a picture of the recent town/NPS meeting.

This action follows months of harassment by the NPS in the form of slanderous innuendos and rumors toward the Pilgrim family.

The rangers say that their numerous overflights of the family’s property show that “they may have gotten off their property with the dozer,” then add, “we don’t know where the property lines are.”

Some people charge that what NPS actually wants is the 400 acres the family live on. The Park Service apparently tried to negotiate with the former owner, but were unsuccessful.

Whatever the motivation, the fact is that these people have been singled out for punishment although there is no evidence that they have done any damage. And in America, that is w-r-o-n-g.



The Pilgrim Story

By Dorothy Adler
Wrangell-St. Elias News

With all the recent activity surrounding the Pilgrim Family, access up McCarthy Creek, and relations with the NPS it is difficult to know or begin to understand this family, issues aside. It seems like many people in our community have wondered where the Pilgrims came from and why they chose McCarthy as their home. Although they have been in our community for a year now, The Pilgrims have remained somewhat of a mystery to many of us, and not many of us have gotten to know them on a personal level. I spent the day recently with some of the family members at their camp in McCarthy and was amazed with what I learned. So for all of you curious McCarthyites, here’s the slightly censored version.

It was a sunny spring-like day, breakup in fact when I headed over to meet with the Pilgrims at their McCarthy camp. Leaping over puddles, feet sloshing around in the wet mud/snow, thoughts racing through my mind as to how the interview would begin… anticipation, curiosity; Gosh, I haven’t interviewed anyone since college, let alone write a story on ‘em as well. Oh, well, I think to myself and instantly, as if I snapped my fingers, (remember “I dream of Jeannie”) I was there in their yard, surrounded by Pilgrims, and two cows, a horse and three very big dogs. It was a bit overwhelming, really.

Not too long after I arrive I find myself inside the small, but tidy and organized cabin, their home base in McCarthy. I am greeted with a big hug from Elishaba, the eldest child, who is endearingly called “Sissy” by Papa and siblings throughout my visit. She is also called “Elisabeth,” the English version of her Hebrew name. I take a seat next to Papa and look around the room, realizing that half of the clan is sitting before me. The older children are here with Papa, while the younger ones are at home up McCarthy Creek with Mama (Country Rose). I have a list of questions to ask the Pilgrims so I take out my notepad and proceed to barely write anything down during the next six hours.

Papa Pilgrim is a storyteller. All stories begin somewhere. Papa’s story began when he met Country Rose twentynine years ago in sunny southern California. In his thirties and trying to figure out what to do next, he comes across young Country Rose in the San Bernardino Mountains. She asks him for a piece of cheese, which he doesn’t have but attempts to find for her. A classic love story in the making. “This is getting good,” I think to myself. Not at all ready for what Papa will disclose next. Country Rose stands near a beautiful waterfall and God speaks to Papa and says “This is your wife, she is strong, she will bear you many children.” Talk about prophetic. They get married, much to her parents’ dismay. She is much younger and has been reared in Hollywood of all places, none of which stops them from setting off to create a life together.

Without knowing their direction in life they head out on their honeymoon in their ‘41 Chevy truck. Not too much longer after this they find themselves giving birth to a daughter. To set the record straight, there are actually fifteen children “on earth” as the Pilgrims phrase it. Papa and Country Rose lost one baby, Hope, who they believe they will be reunited with in Heaven and they still include her when they talk about the children.

The interview continues, although there is a bit of a break to eat some lunch that Elishaba, a most gracious hostess, has served up. I am in awe of her throughout my visit as she pulls one thing after another out of a small oven. All of the children (they prefer to be called children) seem to have their roles in the family. That’s what allows them to get along and get the work done. Where so many of us come from families where we fought and bickered with our siblings growing up, the Pilgrim children say they never grow sick of each other. In fact, they really enjoy being around one another and if separated for a while, can’t wait to be together again. They are unique in that they, having lived very remote in New Mexico, (they claim to have more neighbors here than at their Mt. Church Cabin in the Rockies) have come to genuinely rely on one another.

The Pilgrim family is not shy when it comes to their religious beliefs. In fact, I found that the Pilgrims, while modest, are open and honest people. They are quite simply an oldfashioned family living by the Bible. And so Papa began describing how he found Jesus, how he came to live his life as a Christian, and how he ended up in McCarthy.

Still searching for some direction, Papa, Country Rose, young Elishaba and now baby Joseph found themselves driving along in Texas, his home state. Papa described feeling “empty” from being raised with a life of “riches and pride” and not knowing what to fill that void with. Organized religion didn’t work for them. Papa wasn’t sure what to do. He started seeking God. After some time and a calling, the family ended up in Rocky Mountains of New Mexico at 9,000 ft., where they were to live for 23 years. Papa said those early days were filled with studying the Bible for 14 hours a day. They dug a well, built a cabin, and lived a subsistence lifestyle. They worked for themselves raising vegetables, spinning wool from their sheep, making lye soap, sewing clothes, harvesting wheat, making cheeses. They were the hillbilly shepherds, the big Jesus family up on the mountain.

One can’t have an interview with the Pilgrims without the music. So after a couple of hours of heavy conversation, the instruments came out and those sweet bluegrass tunes came rolling off their tongues, but it wasn’t always this way as Papa began to explain.

“I couldn’t carry a tune back in my college days when I was in one of those fraternities. You know the frat boys would get together and sing and I was told to just mouth the words cause my voice was so bad.” Papa in a fraternity? Now that’s something I never imagined.

The only musical instrument for years was a guitar he found somewhere. He took it into “town” once a year or so and had it tuned at a music shop and then would take it home and play it until it went out of tune. It was a long, difficult, infrequent trip to town, so the guitar was out of tune much of the time. So how did they come to play that bluegrass so well? Inspired by a bluegrass festival around 1997, Papa put the names of various instruments in a hat. They gathered and prayed before each choosing a piece of paper from the hat. That piece of paper determined what instrument they would learn. So without any formal training, they set out to praise the Lord with their music. Soon they received a calling for another Pilgrimage. They packed up the ‘41 Chevy, the same one they honeymooned in, and the same truck Joseph was born in, and headed for Alaska.

The Pilgrims were searching for a home. They felt they had outgrown their mountain home in N. Mexico of 23 years. They needed to spread out, they needed “bigger country.” The family had been so remote and secluded for many years. The children had little experience with the “outside world” and this journey would prove to teach many lessons and eventually find them a new home. Along the way Country Rose gave birth to Lamb (in the Yukon), so they stopped the bandwagon and set up camp for three weeks while the baby came and Rose regained her strength. The Pilgrims have a knack for making an impression on folks and they did so to the road crew that was working on that section of roadway near where they were camped. In their joy and celebration of another child, they pulled out their instruments and raised their voices to praise Jesus. Pretty soon they were chummy with the road crew. In fact, the road crew inadvertently helped the Pilgrims obtain a birth certificate for Lamb, which they desperately needed to get into Alaska, their final destination. One of the guys anonymously and unbeknownst to the Pilgrims called for emergency medical services in Whitehorse to travel out to this secluded lake because a woman had just given birth. An ambulance makes the arduous drive to the Pilgrim camp to find baby Lamb and Country Rose happy and healthy and not in need of medical services. But since the professionals from Whitehorse arrived, they went ahead and recorded the birth. Birth certificate in hand, onward went the Pilgrims.

In 1998 they arrived in Alaska, first in Fairbanks with the idea to live out on the Yukon River. While in Homer looking for a boat to bring back to the Yukon River they met some folks, found work (they had never worked for a living) and stayed. They spent some time around Homer, Kenai, and Soldotna, looking for land, searching for a home. They had some tough times with an employer who cheated them out of hard-earned wages, their first big lesson in realizing that the world is not just made up of hardworking, peaceloving folks like them¬selves. Then a friend told them about this place called McCarthy. And the Pilgrims said “Well, can you drive there?” The Pilgrims found McCarthy on a map, loaded up the trucks, some of the family and headed off once again.

And so in the dead of winter, last year, when the temps were hovering at about 30 below, trucks full of Pilgrims headed down the McCarthy road. Papa and the children said “when we got to the rock walls in Chitina, we knew we were home.” The sleepy little town of McCarthy woke up when they arrived, especially after their search for land led them to purchase 400 acres up McCarthy Creek, nearly doubling the winter population. Face it, we were all curious about how they might fair in this often tough bushliving environment, especially living way off the grid 15 or so miles from McCarthy with a big family and Country Rose preparing to birth another child. With some trials, tribulations, (one of their cabins burned to the ground last month), a bit of time under the community microscope, lots of love and support from family and neighbors, the Pilgrims made it through their first year in McCarthy. So what’s in the cards for the hillbilly, Jesus loving family up on the mountain? Probably some more hard work, following the voice of God, praising their calling through music, and trying to build a home and life like the rest of us living in the bush.

(Dorothy Adler is a year-round resident. She and husband Kevin are part owners of Kennecott Wilderness Guides.)

Map showing general vicinity of the area:

Topographical map of the area:

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