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Film and TV

Reality TV cameras set McCarthy on 'Edge'

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 19, 2014

A new Discovery Channel reality show set in McCarthy is drawing fire for heavy-handed treatment of the reviving old mining town's dark past and alleged outlaw reputation.

"Edge of Alaska" premieres Friday.

Advance publicity from Discovery Channel sets up the show as a culture clash between tourism-minded McCarthy Lodge owner Neil Darish -- he wants to "bring this frontier town into the 21st century" -- and dog musher-turned-farmer Jeremy Keller, who "will fight to protect 'the old way' at any cost."

McCarthy, in the Discovery Channel's telling, sits a convenient 100-plus miles from the closest law enforcement in Glennallen. It's "a refuge for people who don't want to be found that's surrounded by extreme wilderness."

A sneak-peek trailer posted on the show's Facebook page teases viewers with hints of a dark past.

"I'm the only one in town that day that didn't get shot," pilot Gary Green is heard saying as an old newspaper clipping about a massacre flashes past. "It wasn't an easy thing to come back to. I cleaned up all the blood."

Too real

Numerous McCarthy residents interviewed over the last two weeks say portraying the admittedly rough-edged community as a lawless refuge is offensive and disrespectful -- maybe even dangerous -- given the all-too-real crimes visited on the town.

Back in 1983, Green landed at the local airstrip to discover a horrific scene: Part-time resident Lou Hastings was in the midst of a shooting spree that eventually took the lives of six of the town's 22 residents.

Another visitor really did turn out to be escaping the law: Robert Hale, aka Papa Pilgrim, the patriarch who brought his family to homestead in 2003, waged a high-profile property rights battle with the National Park Service, and was later convicted of abusing his eldest daughter and died in jail.

The last thing McCarthy needs is "a big gigantic banner" advertising it as a great place for outlaws to millions of TV viewers, says Stephens Harper, a park service ranger and full-time resident who's usually the first person called when things go sideways.

"The truth is that law enforcement is not 100 miles away from McCarthy, but actually one block from main street," Harper wrote in an email circulated among about 65 property owners last month. "Promoting the idea that McCarthy is a place of Wild West lawlessness is fun and entertaining until someone gets shot."

Lodge invite

Some blame lodge owner Darish personally for inflicting reality TV on town. He's widely credited with -- or blamed for -- inviting the Discovery Channel in the first place and encouraging it to film in McCarthy.

Darish, contacted Thursday, at first said he wasn't going to comment on any of the local concerns and started giving a reporter the number for Jackie Lamaj, Discovery Channel's New York City-based senior publicist.

Lamaj had already turned down two requests for comment from Alaska Dispatch News. Production company Twofour America did not return a reporter's call.

Darish, a fixture in McCarthy's recent renewal from copper mining relic toward tourist draw, has bought and renovated numerous properties in McCarthy. He isn't usually at a loss for words.

During a brief interview Thursday, Darish did say his fellow residents are getting all upset over a show they haven't even seen yet.

"The empirical evidence is clear: There's no such thing as a reality TV show destroying a town," he said.

"Edge of Alaska" is the latest reality show to leverage the Lower 48's fascination with the state's rugged country and rough characters. It appears to be the first, however, that puts a whole town into the starring role -- unless Bering Sea crabbers or Nome gold dredgers count as a town.

Changing times

McCarthy, risen from the ghost-town ruins of the Wrangell Mountains copper mining boom, is undeniably Alaskan -- 60 miles down a gravel road laid over rail ties, tucked among mountains and glaciers, dominated by outhouses over septic tanks. There's no government, garbage collection or electric utility. Only 35 to 40 people live there year-round, though that number swells toward 300 with summer's seasonal residents and employees.

Yes, there are plenty of strong personalities and end-of-the-roaders there. But McCarthy isn't a place for outlaws, or even all that rural anymore, locals say.

When pilot and seasonal McCarthy resident Stephen L. Richards started flying to McCarthy 20 years ago, it was remote: no bridge to town, an all-day drive once off pavement, phone service that didn't work more often than it did.

Now tourist traffic is drawn to the largest national park in the country, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, where Kennecott Mine reconstruction also pumps money into the community.

The state over the summer chip-sealed the first 17 miles of the notoriously rough road leading from the highway at Chitina.

In town, a mercantile sells groceries and hardware; a bulk fuel company gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel. Summer brings a weekly Friday-night softball game and plenty of places for visitors to stay, including two lodges at Kennicott and numerous bed-and-breakfasts.

McCarthy now is "like many other entrances to big national parks," complete with visitor information, groceries, lodging, WiFi, gear stores and cell phone service, Richards pointed out in an email.

"McCarthy is not hard to get to," he wrote. "It's not hard to go to the local liquor store or bar and get smashed. What is difficult is to provide is round-the-clock emergency medical service, medevac, or to have the troopers show up in 20 minutes."

Real problems

Along with the broader concerns from some community members about McCarthy's depiction, people in town also had to deal with what's becoming a familiar litany of complaints about reality show production in remote Alaska locales.

Numerous people complained about low-flying helicopters taking aerial shots too close to their homes, Stephens said.

Jeremy Pataky, a member of the nonprofit McCarthy Area Council, was one of several people to accuse Discovery Channel of actively trying to deceive the community. Producers initially said what they were filming was a documentary on life in McCarthy and specifically denied it would follow the hyped-up, quasi-scripted and super-edited format of reality TV.

Now it's the viewing public that is about to get duped, Pataky said in an email. Producers for "Edge of Alaska" suggested script lines and filmed repeated takes until the scenes reflected the McCarthy they wanted to portray, Pataky wrote, based on what he described as personal observation and reports from friends working on and off camera.

"For people who purportedly value freedom and independence, it is surprising that so many were willing (to) yield their identities -- or versions of them -- over to a genre known for tabloid rhetoric, fabricated drama and commercialism," he wrote.

Several community members said a local resident attacked a member of the production crew at the McCarthy Lodge during the summer, though no one would comment on the record about it.

Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said someone was "trespassed" from the lodge -- if they come back, they can be criminally charged -- but troopers received only what she called a "third-hand" report of an assault. No charges were ever filed.

Painting a town

Discovery Channel's advance promo press release describes McCarthy as a "place where young men go to prove themselves and old outlaws go to die."

The diverse residents -- apparently, McCarthy is filled with bear hunters, gold miners, gunsmiths and backwoods survivalists -- are united by just one thing: "Everyone who ventures to this town is trying to run away from something."

That one gets guffaws from Trek Alaska owner and website designer Greg Fensterman, who lives a few miles outside of McCarthy proper. His life was too boring to be featured on the show, he jokes, plus his house isn't a one-room cabin.

"They call it an outlaw town,'everybody here is running away from something,' " Fensterman said, mocking the Discovery Channel pitch. "If you really want to hide out, then go live in an apartment in New York City and never speak to your neighbors, and the guy across the hall won't even know what you look like."

The one thing that really unifies McCarthy isn't fleeing something but coming together, said Thea Agnew-Bemben, a former area council president who grew up in Anchorage and started coming to the area in 1991 for summer jobs. Now she and her family own land almost in Kennicott.

"The way things work, given we don't have a lot of law enforcement, is there's a really strong code of being neighborly and respecting each other's property," Agnew-Bemben said. "It's a lot of people who are maybe even more law-abiding than people in a city because they're able to maintain their lives without that kind of external enforcement."

Contact Zaz Hollander at zhollander@alaskadispatch.com.

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