In Which, NPS Works ‘Em Over

By "McCarthy Annie"

FRIDAY, AUGUST 29, 2003—  

Pilgrim family at home

Pilgrim Family at home, August 22, 2003
Back Row:  David (age 21), Papa Pilgrim, Mama Country Rose, Jonathan (10 mos), Hosanna (13), Elishaba (28), Jerusalem (14)
Middle Row:  Moses (18), Joseph (25), Job (11), Noah (9), Abraham (8), Israel (16), Joshua (23)
Front:  Bethlehem (3), Lamb (5), Psalms (6)


A little old-fashioned cabin nestled between forbidding, ragged peaks. Papa’s guitar and Sissie’s fiddle in their places on the wall. The old .375 rifle hanging over the porch, a safeguard against bears. Chuckling stream running purposefully through the yard. Suggestions of wood smoke and wildflowers on the breeze. A tall, quiet young man leading a string of horses to that pleasant little mountain meadow—just over there. Rooster crowing nearby. A small generator shed sitting out back, quiet now, but always ready to do its daily work. A mammoth-sized black-and-white dog laying her sad-eyed, faithful old head on your lap. Happy, busy sounds, sounds of singing, sounds of love and laughter. Sounds of children playing and working, not much caring which is which.

Abraham Pilgrim “Look, Mama, I found four eggs!” Work-worn yet gentle hands cradling his trophies. Boyish glee radiating out from beneath the dirt and freckles.

“Good, Honey. Put them in the bowl. We can stir them into a batch of cookies later.”

Psalms Pilgrim “Here’s some flowers, Mama. I brought them for you.” Small, careful hands offer up a blazing riot of color, as trusting eyes the hue of faded bluebells search earnestly for approval.

“Thank you, Sweetheart. They’re beautiful.” Just like you.

In this isolated mountain paradise, this Hillbilly Heaven, there is no store, no hospital, no school, no cushy nine-to-five jobs. Not even any neighbors for fifteen rugged, bone-crunching miles.

All they have is each other… and a little piece of ground to call their own.


* * * * *

Country Rose & Jonathan Pilgrim Tuesday morning, August 19. Country Rose smiled as she worked over the smooth, elastic mound of bread dough in her big, homey kitchen. Kettles and pots of water hummed pleasantly as they gathered heat from the imposing wood cook stove which dominated the corner. Most likely Pilgrim and the boys are talking to those politicians by now, down in McCarthy, she mused.

Pilgrim woodstove A visit from the office staff of the Congressional Delegation had been scheduled for this day, and Pilgrim was their top priority appointment. It seems that news of heavy-handed tactics by our local National Park Land Acquisition Team had reached all the way to Washington, and they were coming to our own little ol’ McCarthy town to check it out.

As she pushed and punched, kneading the dough, Country Rose breathed a quick prayer for her husband and older sons. She was glad they were the ones down in the hubbub and bustle of McCarthy to address the political people and try to scrape together enough of a living to put food on her enormous supper table. As for her, she loved the homestead, the quietness, the simplicity of chores and raising the little ones. It was peaceful up here, at Hillbilly Heaven.

Or was, until recently. She tried not to let her mind dwell on how vulnerable she was—a woman alone on the mountain, with half a dozen of her youngest children to care for.

Far from help. Far from Pilgrim and her sturdy, capable older sons.

With a suddenness that made her head jerk up, the heavy wooden door flew open. An excited voice called out, “Mama! The helicopter! I can hear it coming! Hurry, come on!”

Alarmed, Country Rose left her bread bowl and scooted out the door. What in the world are those parkies up to now?

* * * * *

It seemed like, ever since the NPS had done their land survey in June, there had been trouble. When the survey team had finished their work, it was clear that the Pilgrim / NPS boundary line cut the Pilgrims’ house in half somewhere between the kitchen and living room.

For the millionth time, Country Rose fumed, Oh, that man Wigger! You’d have thought he could have told us about the buildings when he sold them to us. Why, the house is only halfway on our property, and the shed isn’t anywhere close!

The house, at least, was fixable. Not a big problem, since Wigger had built the structure on skids, knowing that it would someday have to move. The Pilgrims would need to get Wigger’s aged bulldozer running and use it to pull the building onto their land. Since last April, when Park Superintendent Gary Candelaria had summarily declared the McCarthy Creek Road illegal and closed it, the dozer had sat near the house—useless, except as a dandy clothesline anchor.

Wigger's dozer as clothesline anchor

Soon after the survey team went home, however, Country Rose had been surprised by another helicopter visit. This time, the park rangers had transported to the homestead—not a survey team—but Old Man Wigger himself. The elderly man strode determinedly up the hill, crossed over to the rusting, decrepit bulldozer, and without so much as a ‘howdy do’, he had grimly locked up the controls with a heavy chain and padlock. Then he had turned abruptly around and made his way back to the waiting helicopter.

That was that. No moving the house now.

* * * * *

There had been other incidents with park people over the summer.

With the dozer no longer usable as a method for getting groceries and supplies up the long trail home, the Pilgrims had bought a string of horses to serve as the family freight wagon. The only problem with horses, however, is that they are significantly more expensive to fuel and maintain than the average bulldozer. So the horses went to work to earn their keep.

Visitors on Percheron's on the McCarthy Creek-Green Butte Road Have you ever gone promenading through an antiquated, history-steeped town under the white canvas of an old-fashioned horse-drawn covered wagon, or explored the backwoods trails astride a two-thousand-pound Percheron? It’s an unforgettable experience, one which your savvy, adventure-loving tourist would gladly pay money to have.

On more than a couple occasions, park rangers had stopped Pilgrim family members and their paying horse riding guests on the road to McCarthy.

“You should be aware that these folks aren’t allowed to do business on park property,” was their terse message to bewildered tourists.

Never mind that they were nowhere near park property with their horses and guests, but on the public road used by all.

* * * * *

Early in the summer, Park Ranger Stevens Harper and some of his local buddies began raising a hue and cry: The Pilgrims’ McCarthy Camp is on someone else’s private property! THEY’RE SQUATTING!

A survey was quickly called for, and just as quickly executed. The lines were drawn, and soon the news began filtering down the community grapevine. The Pilgrim Camp, as it turns out, was not on private property at all, as Old Man Wigger had said when he passed it on to them.

Rather, the camp was found to be squarely within the road easement between lots.

 Not good. But on the other hand, not trespassing, either.

A red-faced Stevens, however, had some explaining to do—and some fast shoveling—for it seems one of his buildings was well over his neighbor’s line.

A small but, er — odorous —building. With a cute little crescent moon cut out of the door, and, uh… well… not much inside, except a seat and some paper.

Pardner, this lends new meaning to the term ‘squatting’.

* * * * *

Pilgrim Infoshack site donated by Steve & Kelly Syren When your average tourist reaches the Kennicott River at mile 60 of the McCarthy Road, he’s tired, hungry, discombobulated, and wondering where to sleep and what fun things there are to do in the largest national park in America.

Enter the Pilgrim Infoshack.

Quaintly constructed of fresh rough-sawn lumber, the Pilgrims’ “local information station” is conveniently located just a few steps away from the footbridge, and features brochures from many local businesses, local news, hot coffee and goodies. Two or three welcome-smiling Pilgrims are usually on hand to answer your questions, connect you to folks who’ll show you the park in whatever conveyance or fashion your adventurous heart yearns for, and make you feel at home here in the Wrangells.

Why doesn’t the National Park Service do that job? you ask.

And rightfully so. They used to do that job at their standard-issue government-construction NPS-style information kiosk, located half-a-mile before you reach the Kennicott River. Great location—inviting building—all it needs is one or two welcome-smiling rangers to answer your questions, connect you to folks who’ll show you the park in whatever adventurous fashion you desire, and make you feel at home here in the Wrangells.

So why not this year? Well, it seems they just don’t have enough money to justify a full- or even part-time ranger to welcome visitors and help them find their way around the Park.

No money for welcoming American, taxpaying visitors, but plenty of money to cart their flak-jacketed hatchet men up and down the mountain in helicopters every day for weeks on end—to the tune of around ten thousand taxpayer dollars a day!

Closed NPS McCarthy Visitor Information  

One day a stranger stopped by the Pilgrims’ info shack, accompanied by WRST Superintendent Gary Candelaria. Or at least he thought he was a stranger… Sitting in the shadows, David recognized the man he and his father, Pilgrim, had met with in Anchorage earlier this spring.

The meeting was at the NPS Alaska Headquarters.

In the Director’s office.

Rob Arnberger NPS Head Honcho Yes, the man in tourist-style clothing talking to Joseph just outside was none other than Mr. Rob Arnberger, NPS Head Honcho for the Forget-Me-Not State.

No time to clue in Joseph. Guess I’ll just watch and listen.

“Hi! I’m Joseph.” Joseph greeted the man amicably and extended a friendly hand. “I’m already acquainted with Gary, but what is your name?”

Joseph Pilgrim Why isn’t he wearing his park uniform?

“It’s… uh… Dave, yes, that’s my name, Dave.”

Not too convincing.

“Well, uh, Dave, are you here on business, or…”

Bless you, Joseph, you figured it out!

“Oh, no! At least, er, well… I’m, uh, on vacation.”

Right. Alaska’s Big NPS Boss takes his vacations with WRST’s Little NPS Boss. Top destination: The Pilgrim Infoshack. Go figure.

* * * * *

Jerusalem Pilgrim They had done the undercover ranger trick on other occasions. Once, it was Jerusalem who welcomed the stranger to our neck of the woods. This ‘stranger’—who was actually NPS Special Agent Richard Larrabee—arrived in a cowboy hat and checkered shirt tucked into jeans, with a big, shiny belt buckle.

Only, Rich’s name wasn’t “Dave”. Turns out, much to Jerusalem’s astonishment, his name was “MR. I DON’T CARE!”

Same story, second verse. A little bit dumber and a little bit worse.

I ask you: Is this typical park ranger behavior? Or do they reserve sophomoric idiocy just for inholders and locals?

* * * * *

Flackety-flackety-flackety-flackety-flackety… The ominous reverberations bored relentlessly into Country Rose’s head. The helicopter seemed huge—must be one of those six-man choppers. Her ears and eyes told her the machine was landing near McCarthy Creek just downstream from the homestead.

Country Rose walked hastily to the phone and dialed.

Ring. Ring.


“Pilgrim?” Her voice trembled slightly. “There’s a gigantic blue helicopter up here, and it just landed on the river!”

“Hmmm… well, Honey, you’ll just have to go out and meet them, and figure out what’s happening.”

Noah Pilgrim Better go see what’s up. Oh, where are the men in this family when you need them?

She turned and laid her hand on the young boy’s shoulder, as he stood there next to her. “I guess it’s up to you and me, Noah.”

He stretched his 9-year-old frame to its full height, eagerness in his innocent eyes. What lay in store for them out there?

* * * * *

NPS Ranger Marshall Neeck, Dressed to Kill The scene that met Country Rose’s eyes as she stepped outside made her hair stand on end. Four men, dressed in what looked to her like riot gear and carrying heavy backpacks, marched grimly toward her. Each carried a wicked-looking holstered pistol at his side. Then she saw, protruding menacingly out of one of the packs—was that a machine gun? Instinctively, she stepped in front of Noah.

Then, one of the armed men spoke. “Hi, Kurina. We are not here to harm anybody.”

Kurina? Where did that name come from? Oh! He’s calling me by my legal name. But no one has called me ‘Kurina’ for at least 25 years!

Realization stole over her, and Country Rose knew that these warlike apparitions were actually NPS rangers. Under the heavy, bullet-proof gear, she recognized Stevens Harper, her next-door neighbor down in McCarthy. His face had been obscured by the video camera he held up. The one who had spoken, then, must be Hunter Sharp, Head Ranger and Assistant Superintendent of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park.

Hunter spoke again. They were bringing with them a team of geologists, biologists, historians, archaeologists, bug squishers, dirt diggers, and weed pickers. These “ologists” would be working near the Pilgrims’ house, but, he promised, they would not cross over to their private property.

A lot of help that is, Country Rose mused, when my porch, front door, bedrooms and kitchen are all on park land! Not to mention the water pump, shop and generator shed…

A few of the "Ologists"  

They would be gathering evidence of “damage to the Park” for a lawsuit against the Pilgrims. Never mind that until the survey was completed, the Pilgrims believed they were on their own property, since Old Man Wigger had sworn upon his honor that the parcel encompassed all the buildings. Never mind that this same ranger who was speaking to her had personally seen to it that the only means which the Pilgrims had for moving their house had been locked up and disabled. Never mind that a gentleman’s handshake had been utterly trusted by trusting folks. Never mind good faith and good intentions. Never mind nothin’.

Hunter continued. The “ologists” would be under constant armed guard, and were not to be interfered with, spoken to, or approached by the Pilgrims. Never mind that there would be about a dozen of them swarming all over the Pilgrims’ belongings. Never mind that they would be in the yard, digging through the scrap pile, between the house and generator shed, all over everywhere! Never mind NOTHIN’!

“We don’t want any trouble,” he told her, “and if your family will just leave us to our work, it’ll make things go just that much faster.”

Now, why wasn’t that very reassuring?

* * * * *

Within half-an-hour of Country Rose’s frantic phone call, she heard footsteps pounding toward her from the direction of the airstrip. Thank God for kind neighbors. Someone has given the boys a mercy flight home!

David Pilgrim Coatless and weaponless, Joseph and David burst around the side of the house, where they found their mother.

“That way!” She pointed them on down the hill. With hardly a pause to catch their breath, they were off again.

As soon as they crested the hill, Joseph and David could see several green-suited men striding purposefully toward them on the road. The two brothers slowed to a walk, and as they neared the rangers, David lifted a small camera to his eye and snapped a couple pictures of the uniformed men. Joseph called out a “hello”, and…

Joseph Pilgrim They kept walking.

Right on by those rangers.


Fellas, you should have seen those parkies slam on the brakes and fall all over each other trying to do an utterly unpremeditated, unrehearsed about-face.

Might’ve done your heart good.

Then suddenly, as if on command, the brothers began to RUN straight toward the helicopter, which sat a little ways distant and was, at that moment, disgorging several “ologists”.

As they ran, David threw a glance over his shoulder. What he saw made his eyes sparkle with glee. Huffing and puffing, with fists tightly clenched and guns and equipment flapping spastically, their pursuers were laboring along behind them… waaaay behind them.

By the time the distraught rangers caught up with them, David and Joseph were sitting a little apart from the chopper and its former occupants, chewing thoughtfully on tender green grass stems.

His face a study in deadpan, David approvingly drawled, “Good to see you boys getting some exercise!”

* * * * *

How can I describe the scenes which played out in the next week? Hunter and his stone-faced platoon of bodyguards, jackboots planted wide, forming an inward-facing circle around Joseph and David in a “Bubble of Protection”.

Joseph Pilgrim in a "Bubble of Protection"

Bearded brothers, sitting on the dirt back to back, calmly facing their tormentors.

So-called scientists, going about their “evidence gathering” with unreadable, inscrutable faces — automatons. Never turning their faces toward the Pilgrims. Afraid to speak to—or even look at—the children. These people are dangerous, they had been told.

Stevens, our ‘neighbor ranger’, with his video camera, shooting close-ups of a bunny, grazing on park property. Evidence! Never mind that the bunny was wild.

Hunter Sharp shoves Joseph Pilgrim A seething Hunter, with eyes narrowed and jaw clenched, chest to chest with an outraged Joseph. Hunter’s words spit out like venom, “I saw you with a gun… and what I’m telling you is, don’t you ever point your gun at my people!” This last, accompanied by a rough shove. Never mind that when the rangers show up, all guns get put away, despite the danger of going unarmed in these mountains. Never mind that the Pilgrims have been avowed pacifists since who flung the chunk.

“Ologists” digging through 30-year-old scrap piles and trash… for evidence! Never mind that much of it was Old Man Wigger’s trash, not the Pilgrims’.

“Ologists” digging through rubble heaps of buildings that had been built long before Papa Pilgrim was born, and had fallen to decay not long after.

Job Pilgrim Oh, how can I describe the scene, Dear Reader? 11-year-old Job, whose shy freckled smile could make your heart sing, valiantly making his way to the generator shed, flanked by two men, each more than twice his size and armed to the teeth. Barring his way, telling him to get back, or else… Job doggedly walking on, finishing his chore—shutting the shed door to keep the rain and prying eyes out—then making his way back to the house. Job, his youthful features etched with fear yet shining with courage, with the baleful stares of those big bullies at his back.

How can I explain?

Hunter Sharp to Psalms, "Get Back!" How 6-year-old Psalms, in her unswerving belief that cookies and a smile can heal any rift, went early in the day to the big kitchen, cracked some eggs, added sugar and flour, and some of the carefully hoarded chocolate chips. Gathered wood for the cook stove. Stirred and stirred and stirred the stiff dough. How she put her cookies ever so gingerly into the hot maw of the oven and kept diligent watch over them until they were just right.

How small, careful hands offered up a sweet labor of selflessness, as trusting eyes the hue of faded bluebells searched earnestly for approval.

How her small, delicate form seemed to wilt as her offering was rejected, and she herself was pushed roughly away back toward the house, with a brusque, “Remember the rules! You can’t go near the workers! Get back, get back!”

Not once.

Not twice.

Three times that day did sweet Psalms, with her delicious gifts, try to soften the rancor of the men in her yard. Three times she was sent none-too-gently back. Half terrified, thoroughly crushed.

And the cookies? They remained untouched.

* * * * *

Papa Pilgrim When Papa Pilgrim arrived at the homestead a few days later, he decided to take matters into his own leathery, peace-loving hands.

Hunter Sharp had stated both publicly and often, “The Pilgrims just won’t talk to us. We’d love to work with them if only they would talk to us!”

And so, with this in mind, Pilgrim set out. I guess there ain’t no time like the present for us to talk, what with them being in my yard an’ all. Guess I’ll just amble on over there and say hello.

Ranger-neighbor Stevens Harper with his Cyclopean eye “Hello, neighbor. How are you doing?” This first attempt at conversation he directed toward Stevens, but his gentle greeting was met only with cold, stony silence—and the ever-present Cyclopean eye of the video camera.

Not one to be easily defeated, Pilgrim turned to the man standing a few steps away from Stevens. The man stared maliciously at Pilgrim, his features tight and unfriendly.

With an easy grace that belied his misgivings, Pilgrim stretched out his wilderness-hardened right hand and cordially introduced himself. “My name’s Pilgrim,” rumbled his mild Texas drawl. “I don’t believe I’ve ever officially met you—I understand you’re Hunter Sharp.”

Now, fellas, this next part may make you set back on your heels a mite. Instead of the civil reply you’d expect in response to such graciousness, Hunter’s words slashed and cut with an odd mixture of restraint and belligerence.

Hunter Sharp - sullen hostility “What you mean is… your name is Robert Allen Hale.”

“Why, no, Hunter,” Papa gently corrected. “That was my name many years ago, but now my name is Pilgrim.”

He waited for a response, but none was forthcoming. Hunter’s gaze had shifted, and he was no longer looking at Pilgrim. Quiet belligerence had been replaced by sullen hostility.

Pilgrim tried again.

“I would just like to talk with you, Hunter, and get acquainted. Seems to me a man ought to be given the honor of being called by the name he prefers, and I hope you’ll give me that honor. Won’t you talk to me?”

Once again, Pilgrim waited patiently for a reply, but the only one he received was thick, obdurate, impenetrable silence.

End of subject.

Well, boys, for a guy who’s been pulpit poundin’ and preachifyin’ well nigh half a year about his overwhelming need to palaver with the chief of the Pilgrim tribe— I’d say ol’ Hunter sure played hell with his big chance.

* * * * *

I do not know what causes men to do what they do. To an already hardened heart, I know that power-lust, envy, anger and hatred will do strange things.

Ugly things.

And when envious, angry hearts walk around inside bullet-proof uniforms—backed by the money and authority of the most powerful government on the face of this earth—when they yearn after that last little piece of ground that they can’t seem to finagle their way into controlling, why, I believe it’s a sure recipe for someone innocent getting hurt.

Someone with small, careful hands and wide, trusting eyes the hue of faded bluebells.

Someone who is tall and quiet, and gentle with the horses.

Someone whose shy, freckled smile could set your heart singing.

Someone who has earned the title “Mother” by a lifetime of self-sacrifice, patience, and encouragement.

* * * * *

Home at Hillbilly Heaven. The Pilgrims have it. The National Park Service wants it. And they’re workin’ ‘em over somethin’ fierce.

Storytime with Papa


Previous Installments of McCarthy Annie's incredible but true chronicles of the Pilgrims:

In Which, NPS Gets A Spanking
Thursday, February 13, 2003

In Which, NPS Rewrites History & Law
Saturday, April 19, 2003

In Which, NPS Gets a S.W.A.T.
Monday, June 23, 2003