Man walking route of Keystone XL

By Dan Wallach
The Beaumont Enterprise

BEAUMONT–Ken Ilgunas will reach the end of a very long walk Thursday that took him from the source of the Keystone XL pipeline in Hardesty, Alberta, a province in western Canada, to its terminus in Port Arthur near the Valero Energy Corp. refinery.

In all, he will have covered more than 1,700 linear miles on his two feet — throw in another couple of hundred miles to include getting lost or trying to pick his way across rivers he couldn’t easily cross where the pipeline route did.

His quest, begun in September, was to follow the actual route of the pipeline that will carry a type of crude oil, melted from tar sands dug up from a remote site in northern Alberta.

Ilgunas, 29, reached Beaumont on Tuesday and was resting for a couple of days at a private home.

At the start of his journey, Ilgunas said he wasn’t for or against the Keystone pipeline, which has passionate defenders and opponents. He just wanted to see the route for himself.

“There’s no good guy or bad guy,” he said of the Keystone pipeline and the tar sands debate.

“It’s a battle of outlook. There are people who want the resources now versus the ones who want a stable environment in the future,” he said.

As his journey continued, Ilgunas began to realize he was against the excavation of tar sands for the purpose of cooking crude oil out of it. He said before his hike, he had taken an hour’s aerial tour of the tar sands site in Alberta, which he said looked nightmarish to him. He observed black pits where the remnants of the sands were deposited after crude extraction and pyramids of yellow sulfur left over from the process.

David Dodson, a spokesman for TransCanada, which is building the pipeline, said he is impressed with Ilgunas’ accomplishment, but said the fact he covered the 1,700 miles doesn’t make him an expert on global warming or America’s energy security. Ilgunas said he never claimed to be an expert. He simply wanted to see the route for himself and talk to people along the way.

Ilgunas said the tar sands crude is destined for export because of tax advantages for a foreign trade zone at the Valero Energy Inc. Port Arthur refinery.

Valero spokesman Bill Day said the San Antonio-based refinery company would only export surplus product and that most of its production is consumed in the United States. Day said refineries along the East Coast continue to shut down and that Gulf Coast refineries continue to expand because they have access to a variety of crude sources.

Ilgunas kiddingly called his trek a “trespass across America” because he followed the Keystone XL route as closely as possible, which took him across private land. He walked from sunup to sundown just about every day, except for days when bad weather kept him socked inside his orange tent and his down sleeping bag. He didn’t experience prolonged weather extremes and noted — perhaps with some irony — that persistent drought across the American heartland kept away rain and snow.

He walked almost the entire route except for 12 miles in Nebraska in which he rode in the back of a police car while an officer escorted him to the county line because he was suspected of breaking into homes, of which he said he was innocent.

On entering towns, he’d head for a church to see where he might safely camp. Sometimes, people would offer him money or rides.

Did he feel like a bum?

“Totally,” he said, “Soulfully, no. I felt like an adventurer.”

He politely declined offers of assistance and depended on food mailed to him by a friend at prearranged stops. The first month was the toughest on his feet and he endured painful blisters and other problems. He’s on his third pair of hiking shoes.

He had plenty of time to think, he said. He kept in touch with the rest of the world via his iPad and cell phone and never was away from human-related activities, even on the American prairie where he was chased by a bull moose.

Ilgunas said the people he met along the way took pride in their land and didn’t want it spoiled by spills, which contributed to changing the pipeline’s route in Nebraska around an environmentally sensitive area of the Ogallala aquifer, the major underground water source for much of the plains.

Ilgunas is uncertain whether he’ll write a book about his experience.

“Money or not, it’s been worth it,” he said. “I’ve had not one problem — except for the cop in Nebraska. I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the men and women who work in oil fields and for landowners who need money for food and home. I have sympathy also for generations to come who have to bear the brunt (of environmental impact).”

Ilgunas said he was struck by people’s kindness — from the start to the finish.

“It makes you proud to be American,” he said.