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Pipeline walker

Ken Ilgunas of Niagara Falls, New York (right), was joined by Rick Hammond of Clarks for a 42-mile stretch of Ilgunas' 1,700-mile walk from Hardisty, Alberta, in Canada to Port Arthur, Texas.

McCOOL JUNCTION -- A lot has happened on Ken Ilgunas’ 1,700-mile trip from Canada to Texas, and sometimes as he puts one foot in front of the other, there’s a quick turn from grueling to gratifying, or from the ridiculous to the sublime.

On the down side in Nebraska, the bearded, grimy-looking guy who took it upon himself to walk the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast got escorted out of Petersburg by a suspicious police officer.

On the up side, 13 miles farther along, he arrived in Albion just in time for a Dec. 4 public hearing on the pipeline -- and in time to attract the notice of hundreds of pipeline opponents.

“Someone yelled, ‘It’s the walker,’’’ Ilgunas said, “and I was surrounded by people. Up until then, I was just a bum walking along the road.”

* * *

Catch up with Ilgunas west of Lincoln at the halfway point on a trip that began in September and one that might end in February, and any illusions about him being a solitary, brooding type give way quickly.

Just ask him about the reason for his trip.

“I’m really concerned about climate change,” said the 29-year-old Niagara Falls, N.Y., native and Duke University graduate, “and I thought this walk would help me understand the issue better.”

His take on his starting point, the oil sands of Alberta, underscores his concern.

“When you see devastation from one edge of the horizon to the other, nothing but black and dirt and Armageddon tailings ponds, you change your mind pretty quickly about what the pipeline means.”

Ilgunas, of course, arrived in Canada with the needle on his indignation meter already drifting toward the high end.

There’s more to know about the pipeline walker than his stance on the Keystone XL and his ability to endure 15 to 20 miles of walking day after day.

He’s a big fan of Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond. He lived in his van for two years to hold down on his college costs. He’s a former park ranger in the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska.

During his trip, he’s been chased by cows, followed by a wayward cat, holed up for three days in his tent during a South Dakota sleet storm, and confronted by a pistol-packing landowner who thought he was up to no good.

* * *

All these adventures come to light as he and his temporary sidekick and fellow pipeline critic, Rick Hammond of Hordville, take a break from their trek along a gravel road south of McCool Junction toward Steele City and Nebraska’s southern border.

The sun is bright. A stiff south wind is in their faces.

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The snowless expanse behind them and in front of them might say something about climate change or it might not, but it definitely says something about good footwear.

Ilgunas points to the fraying seam of the second pair of hiking boots that have carried him more than 800 miles across Canada, the Dakotas and past the pipeline’s proposed entry point into Nebraska in Keya Paha County.

He spent his first night in the state sleeping on the floor of a museum at Mills, population 100 or so.

“There was nothing there but one guy and the museum and he said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’”

* * *

Hammond, farmer/rancher and former Peace Corps and railroad worker, is 30 years older than Ilgunas. He’s quick to admit he doesn’t have the stamina for anything transcontinental. But he does have a soft spot in his heart for the younger man with the waterproof tent on his back.

“I look at the commitment that Ken is making,” he said, “and I just want to reinforce everything he’s doing for as long as I can. I think, for the message he’s trying to get out, the longer I stay with him, that will help the cause.”

They’d been averaging 16 miles a day during their time together.

“On this particular deal,” Hammond said, “we’re fighting a big company with unlimited money and advertising. And this is the only way we have to draw attention to what we think is insanity to the planet.”

* * *

TransCanada spokesman Grady Semmens said company officials have seen some of the media coverage on the Canadian portion of Ilgunas’ trip.

Indications in one news story were that “he met with a lot of people that dealt with us on existing pipelines, as well as our Keystone lines, and they were all quite positive,” Semmens said.

Apart from that, Semmens pointed out that TransCanada is not doing the oil extraction, including creating the “Armageddon tailings ponds,” Ilgunas described.

“We’re simply the transporter of the oil that’s produced there.”

In larger context, “the fact remains that this is third largest reserve of fossil fuels on the planet,” the TransCanada spokesman said, “and it’s by far the largest reserve of petroleum energy open for free-market investment.”

What happens when Ilgunas reaches the other end of the line?

“Typically, I don’t know where I’m going to sleep at night,” he said. “So I don’t know what I’ll do in February when I reach the Gulf Coast.”

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com

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