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Environmental Author and Advocate Ken Ilgunas Kicks off Gray Colloquium
Environmental Author and Advocate Ken Ilgunas Kicks off Gray Colloquium

The 2021-2022 Gray Colloquium speaker series kicked off on Thursday, October 28, with Ken Ilgunas, a travel and environmental author, journalist, and hiker who has written the memoirs Walden on Wheels and Trespassing Across America, as well as the advocacy book, This Land Is Our Land.

Ilgunas has hitchhiked 10,000 miles across North America, paddled 1,000 miles across Ontario in a birchbark canoe, and walked 1,700 miles across the Great Plains, following the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline. This five-month journey along the pipeline's path from Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas was the focus of his talk in the Putnam Family Arts Center's Class of '45 Hall, where he spoke to the School community about this year's Gray Colloquium theme: "Democracy in the 21st Century."

"Democracy cannot function without a free press. Journalists are the guardians of truth. If there is no free press, there is no democracy," Ilgunas said in his opening remarks. Then, with equal parts humor and candor, he set the scene: Deadhorse, Alaska, "one of the more miserable places on earth." At 28 years old, he was broke and washing dishes for a living, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The situation was grim, but as Ilgunas explained, it is often in the "worst moments of purposelessness" that we are "ready to make a big change" in our lives. "That's when we are ready to commit to lives of purpose and meaning," he said. "The soul must be caged before it can be set free."

Ilgunas was working in a restaurant kitchen and watching the nightly news with the chef, his friend Liam, when the protests to the Keystone XL pipeline came on the television. He recalled being struck by "the peaceful assembly of free speech." Then Liam said to him, "What if we were to walk that pipeline? What if we were to walk every mile?"

At the time, Ilgunas wondered, "How does one even follow a pipeline?" It would involve travel across the Saskatchewan prairies, Montana hills, South Dakota plains, and Nebraska cornfields—across croplands, grasslands, and private property. In other words, noted Ilgunas, "We would have to trespass across America."

He started to plan. He researched how Appalachian Trail hikers handle their food and supplies, then boxed up food to mail and pick up every seven days along the route. Since there were no pipeline trail maps, he had to create his own guidebook. He purchased topographic software for printing maps, along with a compass, medical kit, headlamp, chlorine dioxide pellets (for water), bear spray, and a light tent. In addition, he brought a third-generation iPad and a keyboard for blogging, emailing, and editing videos.

There were a few hiccups at the start; he broke his left pinkie toe a week before leaving, and his friend Liam realized he was banned from Canada. "So, suddenly," said Ilgunas, "it was a solo adventure."

First, he hitchhiked 1,000 miles north to Hardisty, Alberta, the northern terminus for the pipeline. Before embarking on foot, he purchased an air tour of the tar sands. Processed tar sands—a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, a dense, molasses-like substance used to produce gasoline and petroleum—are dug up from the ground, refined on site with chemicals and boiling water, then separated and sent down the pipeline in three foot diameter pipes. The bitumen contains toxins, and the refineries produce harmful emissions and pollution.

From the air, Ilgunas first saw the beautiful boreal forest, but then the human-made tailing lakes, which had once been forest, came into view. At these tailing lakes, oil is refined and migratory birds often die. Petroleum coke is burned as nasty secondary fuel, and from the air, Ilgunas could see sulfur pyramids in the sky, as sulfur is a byproduct of the refining process. "On our quest to find oil, we...erase a whole landscape," he told St. Markers. With this concern for the land and ecosystems, he set out to walk across the great plains of Alberta.

By day three, hiking 20 miles a day, Ilgunas had blisters, shin splints, and gashes on his ankles. He spent the first three weeks "walking in a constant state of fear." As a "suburbanite from Buffalo" he was even scared of cows. Advice from a rancher named Doris, who picked him up while hitchhiking, did nothing to quell his bovine concerns: "If a bull charges you, step to the side of him," she said. "You can tire him out like a bullfighter does." According to Ilgunas, that was "the most terrifying advice" he had ever been given.

In addition to learning how to coexist with cows, Ilgunas learned to camp, and drank water from ponds, lakes, streams, and windmill springs (just like a cow). He also knocked on doors and asked for water. This gave him an opportunity to talk with people in rural Canada and hear what they thought about the pipeline.

Many said the pipeline had provided income and felt positively about it, but as he made his way south, he found more resistance. In Nebraska, citizens were concerned that the oil would contaminate the water supply, since the Ogallala aquifer ran below the pipeline. One rancher named Rick felt bullied by the pipeline company, and decided to join Ilgunas on his walk.

Rick lasted four days, but it was nice to have company; plus, Rick's relatives called several news outlets, which led to interviews from media outlets including the New York Times, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, and CBC broadcasting. "It was working," Ilgunas said. He was pleased that word was getting out and he was "furthering the conversation." He was giving a voice to people who did not have one.

"Maybe I wasn't a journalist, but I was a citizen journalist," he thought at this turning point, and noted what an "amazing freedom" that is, considering journalism is restricted or blocked in 132 countries, according to the World Press Freedom Index. "This is our home. It needs us," Ilgunas reminded the audience. "It needs us to protect us."

After 146 days, Ilgunas reached the southern terminus of the Keystone XL pipeline: Port Arthur, Texas. As he walked through the city, wearing the same pair of pants and sporting a 146-day-old beard, he took in a toxic, synthetic stench "like smoldering fireworks then a bonfire with Windex on it." He noticed "pipes everywhere" and "billowing towers spouting fire" and felt guilty for being impressed—by the labor and engineering and ingenuity of the place, "not because it was good, but because it was amazing."

In that moment, at the conclusion of his 1,700 mile hike, amidst the pipes and smoke, Ilgunas wondered: "If we can make this, what else can we do? What else can we make? What else can we build? What other future can we forge for ourselves?"


Ken Ilgunas has also written articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Backpacker, Smithsonian magazine, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and his adventures and books have been featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The New Yorker, National Geographic, and NPR. You can learn more about Ilgunas on his website.