Author and journalist Ken IIgunas traveled to SUNY Plattsburgh on Nov. 3 to give a speech about his journey walking over the Keystone pipeline. The debate regarding whether or not to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which would be an extension of the original Keystone pipeline, has spanned more than 10 years and three presidential administrations. Barack Obama was the first president to not issue a permit to the energy company TransCanada to construct the pipeline, Donald Trump reversed that decision and then Joe Biden rejected the permit during the first few hours of his presidency.
Supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Hardisty, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska, say that it creates jobs, strengthens the economy and brings more crude oil into the United States. Critics say that it will corrode, leak into waterways that people use as a source of drinking water and only contribute more to climate change.
IIgunas loved hiking and writing and he wanted to have a voice in this controversial issue. He was anxious about climate change and wondered how people can fight a problem this vast.
Ilgunas set off for his journey in late September 2012 after a revelation when working for an oil company in Alaska that he referred to as an “arctic labor camp.” At this point in his life, he was 28, broke and needed to find a purpose in his life. The idea to trespass the country by walking over the entire Keystone pipeline was the light bulb that went off in his head.
“The soul must be caged before it can be set free,” Ilgunas said, describing one of his central philosophies in life.
IIgunas’s journey would require him to traverse from the Alberta prairie to southern Texas. He refers to his long walk as trespassing because his route technically required him to trespass onto private property.
He exclaimed, “this is how I’m going to escape Deadhorse,” the town he was working in at the time while living out of his van. The original plan was for him and his walking buddy, Liam to travel together, but Liam found out he wasn’t legally allowed in Canada.
IIgunas set off on the journey himself. He wanted to travel as light as possible, so he prepackaged food and arranged a plan for a friend, Josh, to send 5 days worth of food to various Post Offices along his route. His equipment included a 1-and-a-half- pound tent, headlamp, compass, a bear spray canister and chlorine dioxide to purify water. He also brought an iPad and a notebook so he could document his adventure.
First, he began his walk through the Alberta prairie, which he describes as the best ground to walk on because it’s hard and relatively flat. He planned on wrapping up his journey by the beginning of winter, but things didn’t go according to plan. His goal was to walk 20 miles every day, but IIgunas quickly realized that he couldn’t handle that physically. Adding to his struggles, he broke his toe shortly before he was set to take off.
His feet took most of the beating. By day 3 he had 8 blisters, gashes on the back of his ankles and athlete’s foot. However, he pressed on, but not at the same pace he was planning on. Sometimes he’d walk 8 miles, maybe twelve, even taking a day off when he felt it was necessary.
He spoke about the beautiful scenery he encountered and the wealth of wildlife he saw. He told the crowd about how he saw what looked to be 5,000 ducks swirl up like a twister and speedy pronghorns hop barb-wire fences with ease.
He also described how he saw firsthand the destruction of the Boreal forest in the Alberta province. As a new way of acquiring oil, companies are now extracting it from tar sands, which are a mixture of sand, clay, water and oil. To get to the product, companies first need to cut down parts of the forest and after the oil is separated there is a by-product that gets discarded right where it originates from.
He recounted flying over the forest beforehand and at times seeing “weird black fields” and “sulfur pyramids.” Sulfur, also being a by-product of the collection method.
To stay well hydrated along the trip, he would drink out of cattle troughs, natural bodies of water and knock on strangers’ doors to ask for the essential resource. He tried to find cover from the extreme winds by camping out near abandoned houses, using them as shields. When a snowstorm hit, Illungas found a barn to stay in until it had passed.
When in the province of Alberta he met a man named Carl, who described the Keystone pipeline as the best thing that ever happened to him. The pipeline netted Carl a handsome sum of money for letting the company build through and under his property. IIgunas said he didn’t find many naysayers until he hit Nebraska.
“Climate change is a dirty word on the plains,” said IIgunas.
Nebraskans say that the pipeline has the potential to leak into the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 81 percent of the state’s population, according to IIungas. While in Nebraska, a man named Rick chose to accompany him for 4 days. The media ate it up and it finally gave IIgunas the platform he was in search of.
What started with local news appearances turned into phone calls from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, all wanting to hear his story.
IIgunas said that he advocates for free-to-roam laws, which would give anyone the right to peacefully walk across private property as long as they don’t come too close to private residences and are not exploiting the land by hunting, logging, or being disruptive. That is starkly different from the United States wherein some states people believe they can shoot someone just for being on their property, but there is a distinction between the lawful use of force and the lawful use of deadly force even in states like Texas, where Illgunas ends his journey.
He experienced an America that is not as divided as the media make it out to be. Throughout his trip, he was the receiver of many acts of kindness. People offered him rides and cash and brought him McDonalds.
“I felt like a little girl picking blueberries,” Ilgunas said, describing feeling innocent on the hike although he was nervous at the beginning.
Read through all the details in his book, “Trespassing Across America: One man’s epic, never-done-before (and sort of illegal) hike along the Keystone XL pipeline.”