McCARTHY — Like most people who meet the Pilgrim family for the first time, Walt Wigger was mightily impressed when they showed up to buy his mine in the Wrangell Mountains.
Wigger, a crusty Fairbanks miner in his 80s, was struck by the size of the family and its energy and obvious unity of purpose. He was also impressed by the $30,000 in $100 bills that Papa Pilgrim pulled from his coat pocket — money from cashing the family’s Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks.
The Pilgrims are used to making a strong first impression: the 15 children raised on horseback bearing biblical names, such as Bethlehem and Moses, with their flowing hair, hand-me-down clothes and home-tooled leather hats, fanning out in wings beside their parents and listening attentively as Papa speaks.
“We brought what the epitome of a wilderness family really is in Alaska,” says Papa Pilgrim, who carries a Bible, matches and heart-attack tablets in a buckskin holster on his belt. “We’re just modest, simple folks, not some strange religion.”
“Most people really feel a love and a warm compassion when they meet us for the first time,” says Country Rose, the beaming 45-year-old mother of the brood.
Not everyone feels that way. The powerful impression can be intimidating, say various law enforcement officers and others who wound up getting crosswise with the family in Alaska and the Lower 48.
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“They’re nice guys when they want to be. But they’re Jekyll and Hyde,” says Hunter Sharp, the chief ranger for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, who feels the Pilgrims have blustered and snarled to get authorities to let them live by their own rules in a remote corner of the park. “In our not responding right away, maybe they thought we were people they could push.”
Wigger counts himself today among the disenchanted after a dispute developed over the sale. But when he met the Pilgrims two winters ago, Wigger remembers liking the family even though he didn’t think much of their plans. The steep-walled, shadowy upper valley of McCarthy Creek seemed a high, hard place to build a subsistence farmstead for such a big family.
Then again, his 420 acres wasn’t much use any more as a mine. The property, 14 miles up a muscular glacial creek from the tiny settlement of McCarthy, included an airstrip and several cabins on the valley floor and the Mother Lode Mine — once part of the world’s richest copper mine, producing ore that was three-fourths pure copper. Now the old mine was a huge cavity in a mountaintop, abandoned with the rest of the McCarthy-Kennicott diggings in 1938. Wigger got it at a state auction in 1968, but decades of dynamiting and drilling had turned up no new rich veins of copper.
More importantly, the McCarthy Creek valley was now inside a national park — at 13 million acres, the nation’s largest. Congress had said in 1980 that Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve was supposed to allow access to mines and other inholdings, but Wigger had decided new park regulations would make it too hard to haul ore from a working mine.
“There’s too many things I would have to do, and I don’t have Bill Gates’ money to fight it,” Wigger says.
But to the Pilgrims, who had spent two decades on a remote mountain ranch in New Mexico before coming to Alaska, the valley’s isolation and natural beauty were a powerful draw.
“They would have paid anything for this property,” Wigger says. “They had some religious conviction toward it, for some reason.”
THE FARTHEST-OUT POINT
Papa Pilgrim has long felt God directing his hand. The omens, dreams and inner feelings had been there even before his born-again experience 24 years ago, when the Pilgrim family’s destiny began to take shape.
He’d grown up as Bobby Hale, the son of a Texas football hero and top FBI agent. His quest for meaning had begun in his teens, he would later say, propelled by a tragic tie to one of the most important figures in modern Texas history. Bobby Hale’s name has also been authoritatively linked to astonishing allegations involving a plot to blackmail President Kennedy — an episode Pilgrim categorically denies.
But once Hale found his way to Jesus after years of communal living, he heeded the call from God to abandon his hippie name, Sunstar, and lead his young family away from civilization.
“We wanted to get to the farthest-out point where we could live,” Pilgrim says of the search that led to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe and then deep into the Wrangells. He speaks with a slow Texas drawl. “The Lord had spoken to me years before about Alaska, but he said to wait until the children were older.”
Wigger assured them they could use an old mine access road to haul supplies up the valley to the cabin on a five-acre creek-bottom parcel known as the Marvelous Millsite. In the old mining days, the road, including two tunnels blasted through rock, made for an easy truck drive from town. But now it presented serious challenges. The right of way was so overgrown with willow and alder that backpackers had a hard time finding some sections. Its many bridges were gone without a trace, and floods had torn away the gravel roadbed above cutbanks.
The biggest challenge, however, turned out to be political.
Last fall, six months after the family moved in on snowmachines, Papa Pilgrim took Wigger’s bulldozer down the old road to McCarthy. He said he was following the Lord’s guidance once again. National Park Service officials said they were stunned to discover someone had been driving a bulldozer through the park. They launched an investigation of damages, put the family under surveillance, filed criminal charges and closed the road to further travel.
The dispute over Pilgrim’s right to use the old road has turned into a political battle with consequences not only for the survival of the Pilgrim homestead but for the future of inholdings in Alaska’s national parks and for access and road issues across the American West. The escalating fight has brought into focus still-unresolved issues about when landowners need permits, who controls historic roads and whether the onset of winter in the Wrangells constitutes an emergency.
Early fears of an armed showdown have dissipated in the face of the avowedly pacifist family’s contention that their hunting rifles and bear-country pistols were being misrepresented by the park. But environmentalists, property rights activists and federal lawyers continue to be drawn to the story of the unusual family at the Mother Lode Mine.
“We’re going to turn this into a poster child for the country,” says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association, who portrays the Pilgrims as innocent victims of jack-booted park rangers. “Every interested person in the country is going to know about this.”
In McCarthy, the ghostly tourist mecca where the Pilgrims’ arrival nearly doubled the year-round population, conversations were drawn all summer to the family’s compounding troubles and the muddy camp of goats, snowmachines and tents in a right of way in the middle of town.
To some residents, the Pilgrims are naive and peaceable victims of arrogant federal bureaucrats out to make an example for other inholders.
“We wondered about the family at first, but as we got to know them we knew there was no maliciousness in them,” says Rick Kenyon, a local preacher and publisher of a bimonthly newspaper. “There’s no question the Park Service has had tunnel vision to break the Pilgrims and force them to sell.”
To others, the family are shrewd renegades with a highly developed sense of aggrievement and little respect for property lines, public or private.
“It’s theater you’re seeing, performance art,” says Ben Shaine, a park advocate living in Kennicott. “If somebody drops a blade and drives 15 miles through a national park illegally, how can you not take action?”
A VISIT TO THE MOTHER LODE
“Hallelujah, Jesus!” Elishaba called out from her horse as the cabin came into view at the end of the McCarthy Creek trail. “Hallelujah!” came the return call as small children spilled onto the porch.
It’s the family’s traditional greeting, she explained. Her name is the Hebrew word for Elizabeth, she said, though her legal name, Butterfly Sunstar, still dates from the family’s counter-culture days.
At 28, Elishaba is the oldest of the Pilgrim children. They descend more or less in two-year increments from 26-year-old Joseph to Jonathan, the 10-month-old infant.
In cowboy hat and denim skirt, Elishaba had just accompanied two brothers and three journalists by horseback up the 14-mile trail from McCarthy. Since the park rangers closed the reopened road to motorized vehicles last spring, the only way up to the Marvelous Millsite that afternoon was by horse or by small plane landing on Wigger’s old airstrip.
Neither method seemed a practical way of transporting building supplies or winter provisions, or, for that matter, the family patriarch. Papa Pilgrim, 62, with diabetes, heart trouble and a bad knee, is unable to ride a horse and spent most of the summer in McCarthy.
Now Papa Pilgrim wanted to tell his story, and he had flown home to break his long policy of saying no to curious journalists and other outsiders. Country Rose, Kurina Hale’s adopted name, greeted her guests at the door with her hands clasped behind her back.
“We Pilgrim girls don’t shake hands,” she said, smiling.
It turned out to be one of many rules and practices, based on Papa Pilgrim’s interpretation of Scripture, that have served to bind the family tightly together in the home they call Hillbilly Heaven.
The children appeared bright, healthy from their outdoor lives, at ease riding horses, shooting rifles and repairing rural machinery. They have learned to play bluegrass music, choosing the instruments they would learn to play by lot. They have limited exposure to the outside world. They read little other than the Bible and don’t own a television. While the journalists mingled on an overnight visit, there was no sign of teenaged rebellion or wise-cracking — just a calm focus and wide-eyed stares from the younger children.
Even the children of marriageable age said they have no desire to leave the family, that taking care of their siblings is their fulfilling work. The family counts 16 children, always including the one miscarriage, Hope, named like all the others by Papa in a moment of divine revelation. They say they still hope to reach their goal of 21 children.
Marriage is still possible, Pilgrim said in answer to a question, if someone believes what the family believes and is willing to join them. The children are all virgins, he said. They bathe fully clothed and have never seen a naked human body, he said — that was why he wouldn’t let the Wrangell Mountain Center pass through the homestead. The nonprofit science group brings college students to McCarthy in summer and used to make annual backpacking trips down McCarthy Creek. Pilgrim had heard the students sometimes camped in the nude.
In McCarthy, associates of the college program acknowledged a certain infamous long-ago incident but noted the irony of the Pilgrims denying access to a longtime user of the valley.
It’s all too much for the family’s closest living relative, according to Kurina’s mother, who lives in Los Angeles and hasn’t been in touch with her grandchildren in five years.
“He is like Svengali. He’s building his own cult,” Betty Freeman said. “I don’t condemn it, but I do not approve of their lifestyle because they will not allow the children to be individuals. They don’t know anything about the outside world. I don’t think you bring people into the world and keep them illiterate.”
She said her daughter was only 16 when she met Hale, who was twice her age.
“I have always loved her. I still do. But he has turned all of them against me,” Freeman said.
Along the trail that afternoon, Elishaba had spoken of her grandmother as someone with narrow, conventional views.
“I feel sorry for her. I wish she could see us and understand who we really are,” she said.
Papa Pilgrim says he cut off communication with Freeman when she wouldn’t stop pressing them over contraceptives. He bristles at the word “cult.” He says he knows that’s how some would interpret their simple, godly life.
Even so, he explained later that evening in the large kitchen heated by a wood cookstove, the family has rules. One is that no one ever goes anywhere alone.
“It’s a godly principle also,” he said. “Because he sent the disciples out by twos. He required a witness.”
As Elishaba checked the fruit pies in the woodstove, seven other children gathered behind the journalists to hear Papa tell the story of the family’s travels and how they first came to the Mother Lode in the “first month” of 2002. The family does not use the names of the months or days of the week, believing they violate the Commandments because they are based on the names of pagan gods.
They had started north to Alaska in 1998 when the mountains north of Santa Fe had become too crowded, he said. At that point he adopted the name Pilgrim, though the family’s legal name remains Hale.
“Somehow we thought Alaska would be some old wooden hotels and dirt roads. Our vision was trappers and people living an old-fashioned type of real life,” he said. Instead, because of their gentleness and naivete, he said, they were taken advantage of in Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula. When they went to Anchorage to play at the folk festival, they got a tip to check out McCarthy.
“We consider this, McCarthy here, the last part of the real Alaska. You got to admit McCarthy is pretty down-home.”
They thought living in a national park just meant living far from neighbors, he said.
One way Alaska has lived up to expectations, he said, is the giddy abundance of its natural resources. The family gets a long way on moose, bear and jars of salmon caught at a subsistence fishwheel on the Copper River.
“Alaska is a land of provision. It just provides for its people,” he said.
Alaska has provided more than food from the land. Permanent Fund checks from the state made it possible to offer $450,000 for Wigger’s land, twice what the Park Service had offered him a year earlier. Wigger is financing the interest-free deal himself. It’s a new financial realm for a family that scraped by on several thousand dollars a year shearing sheep and tanning hides in New Mexico.
“We got on it and they OK’d it and we couldn’t believe it,” Pilgrim said of the dividends. “Thirty thousand dollars. That was more money than we’d ever had in our life.”
There have been hardships, he said. Their bunkhouse burned to the ground during a stormy night last winter, forcing the whole family into the living room of the main cabin. And now, the road dispute and the escalating fight with the Park Service.
The family offered to play some of their bluegrass-gospel music on fiddles, guitars and mandolins. But first it was time for a dinner of potato chowder, fresh bread and salad from the garden. As the children stood about and closed their eyes, Papa offered a prayer of thanks for the visitors’ safe arrival and of hope for a fair settlement with the Park Service in the matter of Revised Statute 2477.
END OF THE ROAD
McCarthy has long been Alaska in the extreme.
Alone in the heart of a vast ice-age valley, McCarthy was the scene of Alaska’s biggest turn-of-the-century industrial development. The copper mines and railroad to the sea were the Prudhoe Bay and pipeline of their day. Then the mines closed after three decades and the rails were torn out. A silence descended over the valley of craggy peaks and sinuous glaciers.
In latter days, a few dozen settlers remained at the foot of the snowy Wrangells, scratching out a Bush life far from civilization. A rough summer road followed the old rail route to the Kennicott River, where until recently the only way into town was on a hand-pulled tram car suspended from a cable.
Creation of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in 1980 started bringing slow change to the area. There are more summer visitors, drawn in part by the mining ruins, what historian William Cronon called the “symbol of romantic decay in the midst of deep wilderness.” Tourists and summer cabins brought business opportunities for the year-round residents, most of whom view the changes with mixed feelings.
The park meant new rules for an area that had been left alone for decades, and this brought friction and resentment. Local differences of opinion were magnified in isolation; local people rebuilding the tram in 1983 self-deprecatingly named their organization “Kennicott Cross Purposes.”
Yet the area had pulled together in recent years, agreeing to replace the dangling tram with a footbridge and to support federal purchase and preservation of the historic millworks at Kennicott.
Now the Pilgrims’ predicament, coming with the rise of a Bush administration perceived as friendly to property rights, has revived access issues dating from the park’s founding and split the community into camps.
Ironically, the Pilgrims bought the old mine hoping to get along without a road, they said. That was the way they wanted to live, the older children said.
For all their wilderness experience, the family had underestimated the challenges of living in remote Alaska.
By last fall, with no more money for plane flights, faced with the need to haul in supplies and make money, perhaps by developing a lodge, Pilgrim said he “could see the handwriting on the wall.” God’s plan for the family included better access.
What happened next has come down in part to a dispute over verb choice. Park officials tend to say Pilgrim “carved out” the road with Wigger’s D-5 Caterpillar, wandering on and off the right of way. Pilgrim supporters speak of his “maintaining” an existing road that had become overgrown. Papa Pilgrim, facing potential civil charges for damages, will only concede that he “used” the road.
Even the most ardent Pilgrim backers concede, however, that some of the ensuing furor might have been avoided had Papa Pilgrim not chosen to shun the Park Service and return its letters unopened and stamped with boot marks.
Right from the start, said Pilgrim and his oldest sons, Joseph and Joshua, it was apparent that the Park Service wanted Wigger’s land and was spreading malicious rumors to ensure their homesteading venture would fail. People were being told to lock up their belongings when the Pilgrims were present, he said.
“What I’ve always thought was they created things about us and came at us that way because they don’t want people living in the park. That’s their history. Their guise is they’re doing it to protect the land,” Papa Pilgrim said. “We prayed and the Lord just told us to stay away from them.”
Sharp, the chief ranger, denies that the park spread rumors.
He said the family was surprisingly hostile from the first day he approached them to discuss park matters. Two Pilgrim sons told him to stay off their land and watch out for their big dogs.
To enter and explore their new mine, the Mother Lode, the family dug open a shaft on park land high above the valley, claiming it was a historic access route. The Pilgrims say the blue-columned cavern would make a great tourist attraction. When rangers tried to land a helicopter nearby to close the shaft, they found the only landing site blocked by a tent.
Rangers who rode snowmachines up the McCarthy Creek valley were shadowed by the older sons and found their return ice bridges collapsed, Sharp said. He said he even worried about ambush, though he’d found no evidence of violence in researching the family’s past.
“I felt like I was back in the 1800s scouting through hostile Indian territory,” Sharp said.
The two sides were reduced to communicating by posting public notices on sign boards in town.
APPEAL TO FEDERAL LAWS
Some area residents, eager to see more road access in the park, welcomed the Pilgrims and told them they had a good legal claim to their road.
A key point of argument was the law that the Pilgrims have learned to pray about: RS 2477, an 1866 mining statute getting new attention as a way for states to claim historic rights of way across federal land.
“It took me so long to memorize those numbers, two four seven seven,” Papa Pilgrim said. The next moment he was describing his case with all the savvy of a veteran land-rights lobbyist.
“I have a whole map of all the 2477s in Alaska,” he said. “We’re simply using what’s been here 100 years. This road is a perfect example of a 2477 right of way.”
The Murkowski administration is eager to press its RS 2477 claims with a friendly Bush administration. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims, the state would prefer to establish precedents without generating headlines about bulldozers in national parks.
“I am going to be the last one to argue they shouldn’t have the right to go back and forth to their land,” said Murkowski aide Jack Phelps. “But it’s not a good test case for RS 2477, and that’s why we’ve been fairly low key.”
Even if the state can eventually establish a legal right of way up McCarthy Creek, Phelps said, residents need to get federal and state permits before they set forth astride a bulldozer.
Neither do environmentalists, on the other side, seem eager to make a high-profile case against a family of beautiful children who look like they just tumbled out of a Conestoga wagon.
Environmentalists consider many of the state’s historic 2477 claims to be bogus. But the McCarthy Creek road, whatever its recent state of disrepair, clearly once provided access to Model T’s.
Ray Kreig, a property rights activist who has worked on park inholder issues in Alaska, contends that the Pilgrims should set aside the RS 2477 argument for now and fight instead for access under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the 1980 law that created Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The law guaranteed “adequate and feasible” access to inholdings, subject to “reasonable regulation” by the Park Service.
That language, expressing a novel idea of co-existence between national parks and frontier settlements, called forth a set of rules for Alaska that has evolved slowly and often controversially.
Park critics like Kreig see the Pilgrims as prime examples of how inholders are being harrassed and thwarted by federal bureaucrats.
“This is probably a moment of truth as to whether there was anything to the ANILCA compromise,” Kreig said. He said the Park Service has a long history in the Lower 48 of forcing out inholders and breaking promises about protecting rural lifestyles.
“I don’t think (Park Service officials) are following even common decency, much less the law,” said Kenyon, publisher of the Wrangell-St. Elias News. “These parks were supposed to be different. They’re becoming less and less different.”
But environmentalists say the Alaska process has worked well for people who take it seriously.
“I have a hard time understanding how someone can say the existing ANILCA process is broken when they haven’t tried to use it,” said Jim Stratton, Alaska director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “It does take some time. These are national parks.”
In an interview, park Superintendent Gary Candelaria said the park had taken a “light touch” with local residents since 1980. But over time, he said, it’s natural for rules to be more strictly enforced, as memories of pre-park days fade and new residents like the Pilgrims move in — “people who never had anything to lose in the first place.”
The Alaska park law made no distinction between old inholders and new ones. Even so, Candelaria, who has been posted in Alaska for nearly five years, said public attitudes are changing. Eventually some children of early park protesters will be working for the park or running concessions, he said.
“The thing about the park is, it’s here forever,” he said. Even so, he added ruefully, “we still have people in the Shenandoah Valley arguing that their great-great-grandfather lost a farm to the park.”
NO ‘RUBY RIDGE’
The case of the Pilgrims is not about ANILCA rules, in any event, Candelaria said, but about “people blatantly violating the law.”
“We have a pretty good record when people come in and have a need and follow the rules,” he said.
The Pilgrims might even have gotten a permit to run a bulldozer seasonally up the old road, since any lesser vehicle couldn’t make the dozen or more crossings of the boulder-strewn stream, said Sharp, the chief ranger.
Finally this summer, with the Pilgrims still insisting they had needed no permits, the Park Service got tough. Park officials said their patient, nice-guy approach seemed to be encouraging the Pilgrims to break other park regulations.
Surveyors flown in by the park in June found that two-thirds of the family’s cabin was over the five-acre parcel’s line — the kitchen’s cookstove was in the national park. The family had also cleared an acre or so of alder to plant oats in what proved to be the park.
The Pilgrims blame Wigger, saying he assured them the buildings were on private property. Wigger says they never asked. He says the lines were always vague, based on long-lost corners, and the house was built on I-beam skids so it could be moved.
Ironies multiplied. The federal survey’s lines, cut with chain saws, left a highly visible rectangle in the woods of the national park. And with Wigger’s bulldozer padlocked, the family had no way to skid their building onto their property.
For two weeks in late August, park biologists and other specialists were helicoptered daily to the Pilgrims’ site and followed the old road to assess bulldozer damage and build a civil case against the family, noting particularly where the bulldozer might have strayed off the historic right of way. Armed rangers in bulletproof vests stood nearby to keep the Pilgrim children from meddling with investigators. Both sides wielded video cameras as well. Park officials said that without guards, investigators could never discuss the case in the field because the Pilgrims were always in their midst taking pictures and notes.
“We’ve kind of had it. We’re not going to back up and go away,” Sharp said. “I represent the people of the United States, and I’m going to do my job.”
Joseph, 26, was cited for trespassing and vandalism, accused of breaking into the park’s mine shaft after rangers chained it shut. He was written up by a ranger who staked out the mine shaft entry from a nearby ridge with binoculars. Joshua, 24, and his mother, Country Rose, were cited for leading a commercial horse trip in the park without a permit or insurance after an undercover agent contracted for a ride. Park officials say the family was warned they needed permits to work in the park, just like other McCarthy businesses.
Critics are calling the park’s response absurd. They estimate the cost of the investigation, including helicopters and staff time, at $200,000 to $500,000. The park superintendent, Candelaria, acknowledged the cost was in that range.
“They’re waging a heartless and fanatical war against the Pilgrims,” Kreig said. He said the effort, given the minor damage, seems intended to intimidate other inholders and their defenders.
But environmentalists who follow park policies closely say it’s important for the U.S. Justice Department to follow through in exacting consequences.
“There are people around this state watching this and saying, ‘Hey, if those guys can get away with it, I can too,’ ” Stratton said.
The park superintendent said environmentalists might sue the Park Service if federal managers don’t try to stop Pilgrim’s precedent-setting use of a bulldozer.
“If they’re allowed to do this without permits, just drop a blade and take off, you know how many bulldozer tracks I’m going to have across this park?” he said.
The dispute reached the public eye in early summer, with Internet alarms sent out by Kenyon and others over a park plan to dispatch a special team of armed rangers with the surveyors. The park and its critics accused each other publicly of encouraging a “Ruby Ridge” type armed showdown, with children in the line of fire.
The Park Service quickly backed down and sent in the survey team without guards, according to a June 4 park memo, to reduce risk of a confrontation “being deliberately constructed to serve the narrow interests of some of the citizens of McCarthy and the Hale family.”
“We think the family is worth fighting for,” said Cushman, whose Battle Ground, Wash.-based property rights association has offered to help with the Pilgrims’ legal defense.
Cushman argues that Pilgrim is innocent — though perhaps not entirely in the courtroom sense.
“What we have here is a guy who was innocent in the sense of dealing with bureaucracy,” Cushman said. “The park is killing a fly with a sledgehammer. These are not those kinds of people, violent people.”
In McCarthy, where divisions over park policy go way back, some residents say the Pilgrims are being used by anti-park elements for their own ends.
“They just listened to the wrong people around here,” said Bob Jacobs, who has run a wilderness guide service in McCarthy since 1977.
“They’re allies of convenience,” said Sharp, the park ranger. “I think we have people in this community who hate authority and the government. (The Pilgrims) are the poor pioneers just trying to live in the old-fashioned way. There are people who think you can drive the federal government out of here if you do this just the right way.”
Kenyon denied using the Pilgrims for his own agenda. He called them his friends and said he counseled them to work with the park’s requirements rather than ignore them.
In his newspaper and on the Web, Kenyon describes the family as peaceful, respectful neighbors. Their coming to McCarthy, he said, was “a match truly made in heaven.”