Before starting the walk, Ilgunas flew over the Tar Sands in Alberta, the origin of the oil that the company wants to send to U.S. refineries. What he saw only strengthened his resolve.
“I flew over the Tar Sands, and from one edge of the horizon to the other, it was nothing but dirt and Armageddon tailing piles—yellow sulfur pyramids,” he said. “They don’t know what to do with the sulfur. (The project) could be developed to the size of Florida. That’s not only devastating to the boreal forests, but it’s just terrible for our climate.”
A key concern for Ilgunas is bitumen, a black, oily, viscous material that is a naturally occurring organic byproduct of decomposed organic materials.
“A barrel of bitumen emits three times more greenhouse gasses than a barrel of conventional oil,” he said.
Listening to others
Despite his strong convictions on the topic, Ilgunas said his intent is simply to hear what other people think about the project.
“When I talk to people I consider myself more of a reporter,” he said. “I’m there to gather their opinion and get a general idea of the country’s sentiment about the pipeline.”
So what has Ilgunas heard?
“It varies per region,” he said. “For instance, in Canada people are much more in favor of it. Alberta is oil country, big time. A lot of the farmers they deal with already have pipeline infrastructure there with one or two pipelines going through their property. They are well compensated. It’s like, yeah, bring it on.”
The story changed once Ilgunas crossed the 49th parallel.
“In the U.S. it’s been a different story,” he said. “There is not the same pipeline infrastructure here. Some people have had land in the family for over 100 years. Their grandparents or great-grandparents homesteaded it. They take that very seriously and have a lot of pride in the land.
“To have a foreign corporation say, ‘We’re going to put a pipeline in there’—they don’t take that well.”
Ilgunas said he met the most resistance to the pipeline in Nebraska.
“It’s a far more controversial subject there because of the Ogallala Aquifer,” Ilgunas said. “If there’s a leak, people are concerned. It’s not just the landowners where the pipe goes through, but the whole state. A huge part of the state relies (on the aquifer) for drinking water and irrigation water.”
So, what has Ilgunas heard in Kansas?
“My contact with people has actually been pretty limited,” he said. “I’ve just been walking down country roads and haven’t seen that many people. From the few people I’ve talked with—one, they weren’t happy about the 10-year (tax exemption). They’re still trying to figure that out; it doesn’t make much sense to me.
“Beyond that, I’ve noticed a certain indifference.”
Aside from his journalistic ambition, the logistic issues that come with a 1,700-mile hike are significant.
Using money from his first check from a book he wrote about living in a van through two years of grad school at Duke University, Ilgunas purchased about $1,000 worth of high-energy food to sustain a daily target of 4,200 calories per day.
Ilgunas packaged the food in 20 Priority Mail boxes, which are mailed by a friend to designated post offices along the route. Each package contains enough food for five days.
Ilgunas, a former back-country ranger in Alaska, walks with a backpack carefully filled with travel essentials such as a small four-season tent, a sleeping back that insulates to 5 degrees below zero, a sleeping pad, wool clothing that dries quickly when wet—and bear spray.
“I haven’t had to deal with a bear, but I was charged by a moose in Alberta,” he said with a chuckle.
Ilgunas packs as light as possible: “You’re literally counting ounces.” The pack weighed about 27 pounds when he started, but with the addition of heavier winter clothing, he’s toting around 35 pounds every mile.
Ilgunas said he’s spent about 80 percent of his nights sleeping in the open country, but he’s not against finding more traditional shelter from time to time.
“In towns all along the way, people have been very generous and taken care of me,” he said.
Two nights before reaching Marion, Ilgunas arrived in Hope just as the recent snowstorm was arriving.
“The ex-mayor put me in this place called the Ladies’ Lounge—a place where they come to talk about books and stuff,” Ilgunas said. “I said thank goodness I’m in here. The snow was blowing horizontal.”
He said churches have been kind, too. “They’ve given me their lawns or let me stay in the basement.”
End in sight
Ilgunas said he expects to reach the end of the trail sometime in February.
“Actually, I’m not looking forward at all to the finish,” he said. “I felt that way for pretty much the whole trip. What I value most in life is a sense of purpose. This journey gives that.”
Ilgunas said the Keystone XL issue may be too shortlived in the public consciousness to merit a book about his adventure and findings.
“Books take a long time from start to finish,” he said. “Keystone XL might be in the news a year or two. Obama’s set to make his decision about the pipeline in the first quarter of 2013. So who knows?
“But it’s good blog material.”