Given the History: A look inside Trickle Creek
Backed into a corner by the energy industry, Wiebo Ludwig fought back with bombs. Now, after his death, his son Josh has taken Wiebo’s place. Just how hard will he fight?
by Tim Querengesser
Photograph Curtis Trent
Josh Ludwig, son of the minister and convicted bomber Wiebo Ludwig, is cross-armed and peering across the line dividing the muddy access road we’ve driven to see a CNRL fracking well. “One of the things you come up against is the pervasiveness of it all,” he yells over the 747-calibre volume of a diesel generator. Signs warn us of potential hydrogen sulfide (H2S) threats, tell us not to smoke, and indicate that beyond the line is private property. In the distance the tall well, like a steel skeleton, seems empty of life – not even a worker for Josh to glare at.
Levi, Josh’s younger brother, stands nearby wearing his trademark jean jacket. He’s driven us in the community’s biodiesel-powered Ford Excursion, down the Etch A Sketch web of dirt access roads that take us close to the back edge of their land. On the way here, we see three wolves and then, seemingly around every corner, what Levi and Josh note is new activity by industry: a new pile of yellow pipes here; a new cut through the forest for another pipeline there. As they drive, it’s almost like they’re angry tour guides.
“It’s very intimidating,” Josh continues. “How can anybody do anything? And yet, on the other hand, you realize that throughout history there’s been that small voice that has started something, that said, ‘You might think that’s the way to go but there’s another way to go.’ ” He pauses. “If nobody’s willing to be that voice, we’re all going to continue like blind men, stumbling our way to our own demise.”
Josh was eight when his family fled Goderich, Ontario, and moved to northwestern Alberta. Led by Wiebo, they were looking for space from mainstream society and to get closer to God. They had little choice. Josh was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where Wiebo and his mom, Maimi, had moved from Michigan for Wiebo’s first posting in a church. Wiebo was a conservative within an already conservative Christian Reform movement, marked by beliefs in the closeness of the end times. When he pushed his views, his Thunder Bay church pushed him out. “They just didn’t want to listen to some of the things he said,” Maimi, 67, says of the decision to pull up stakes. “He wanted to put our faith on the ground but that didn’t go over with people. They said, ‘Stay out of our lives, stay out of our business, preach Christ, don’t apply it to our lives.’ ”
So the family moved to Goderich, Ontario. But two years later, “Basically the same thing happened,” Maimi says (indeed, one man from the church in Goderich – who asked not to be named – describes Wiebo’s tenure as “hurtful”).
Trickle Creek was Wiebo Ludwig’s freedom from that conflict. Here was a quarter section of farmland in Alberta hidden down an isolated dirt road, tucked within the glacier-worn hills of Peace River country. In 1985, he purchased Trickle Creek with another Calvinist family, the Boonstras, for $50,000, and set to put his faith on the ground. The original 14 people were so poor they had to boil discarded bones from local butchers to survive. But Josh says they were happy living out Wiebo’s dream. And for about five years, no one really knew they were there.
“We were city slickers,” Josh says, sitting in his mother Maimi’s log cabin. “Preacher kids.” As the family transformed from “Sunday Christians” to applied Calvinists, who eschew things they can’t make, grow, process or barter, they struggled. They bought pigs to raise and eat, but the piglets kept escaping – Josh and his siblings naively built fences that were too short. “I guess we were teaching pigs how to jump,” he jokes.
That changed in 1990. Sour gas wells close to Trickle Creek leaked deadly H2S. And then many, even outside of Canada, quickly came to know of Wiebo. First there were emergency evacuations at Trickle Creek, burned eyes and skin, and what Wiebo claimed were stillbirths in his livestock. Then, his daughter’s son, Adam Ryan Ludwig, was stillborn. The tragedy galvanized the community against industry, and over the following years it became commonplace for wellheads to mysteriously become encased in concrete and gas facilities to get bombed out. No one was ever hurt and the message was, simply, ‘Give us space.’ Still, the RCMP felt it had an eco-terrorist on the loose. It watched Wiebo and Trickle Creek as it might the Mafia. It took years for them to prove something, but eventually, in 2000, Wiebo was sent to prison for 28 months (he served 19), on five vandalism-related charges.
Today Wiebo is dead. In early 2012 he sawed and hammered together his own wood coffin; he knew he was dying of throat cancer. And before he went, Wiebo summoned Josh and asked him to guide the community he’d built.
Photograph Curtis Trent
Josh mirrors Wiebo. Like his dad, he’s an ox – he stands just 5’9” but weighs 190 pounds, none of it fat. He says his dad felt misunderstood, and talks of how he does, too. Like his dad, he confesses feeling too “weak” to solve the industrial mess surrounding him. “He’d often say, ‘Why me?’ ” Josh says. “You might see him as a schismatic, or a muckraker or a rabble rouser, but it all came out of a deep desire and real love of people. He worked tirelessly for people to find peace, having gone through some real turmoil in his youth.”
How tirelessly, then, will Josh work to find peace?
The first hint of an answer came in December. He sent a letter to Canadian Natural Resources after the company informed Trickle Creek they were going to hydraulic fracture a well close to the community’s water aquifer. And, though CNRL is a relative newcomer to the gas plays in the area, Josh held nothing back, alleging Trickle Creek has suffered “egregious losses of life at your hands” despite protests against CNRL’s “violent incursions.”
It was something too reminiscent of Wiebo for Grande Prairie RCMP Inspector Don McKenna to ignore. McKenna and two other officers drove to Trickle Creek days later. “It was a friendly visit,” McKenna says. The letter was the impetus, but so were reports from CNRL workers that they had been pelted with rocks while driving to the well and of a dead goat left at the work site. As a cop, McKenna says, it’s critical to be in front of potential disputes before they erupt. “It could have been anybody,” he says, “but, given the history, it’s important for us to go in and make sure there’s a relief valve.”
Given the history. Is there any other way to approach Trickle Creek? Wiebo was always surrounded by people who felt just as strongly as he did against industry’s activity beyond his line. Given that he’s gone and that increased fracking is slated for the sour-gas bounty the community sits atop, will Josh act out the way his dad did?
Josh and Trickle Creek says they have “divested” themselves of the oil and gas industry by becoming almost 100 per cent self-sufficient, especially through their use of biodiesel. They live this way, in part, as an example to the industry and the society it enables. The irony is they also live right beside that industry. “It’s very possible that we could wake up tomorrow with an earthquake, or a spoiled water well, and that’s how it happens – all of a sudden,” Josh says of the latest push by industry to frack gas wells near Trickle Creek. “They’ll promise you all kinds of things about how safe it is and, until something happens, they seem right. And then it happens and they cover their asses. We’ve come to learn. We’re not naive anymore.”
Photograph Curtis Trent
Landowners and the energy industry have quarrelled since the 1930s, when the predecessor of today’s Alberta Energy Regulator was created in response to health concerns about sour-gas venting. It was none too early: in 1948, the first wildcat well blowout in Leduc saw more than 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas and one million barrels of oil spew into the air and onto surrounding land. The resulting 100-metre fireball made international newsreels. And in 1982, the Lodgepole blowout 130 kilometres southwest of Edmonton lasted 68 days and vented enough deadly sour gas that the rotten egg odour could be smelled as far off as Winnipeg. Rural Alberta landowners, repeatedly sickened by toxicity on their doorsteps, were outraged. And yet every time they sought justice they realized how little was on offer. They had title to just the surface of the land, while the government owned everything beneath it.
It was this cognitive dissonance Wiebo found in 1985. Before him was the lush, empty land of his retreat from society. Below him, at any depth deeper than six inches, the energy industry could – and still can – drill in what it calls the Montney Formation, which holds an estimated 450 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 14.5 billion barrels of oil. The rules still allow for wells to come as close as 100 metres to residences. At one point, the community considered fleeing it all, again, for Costa Rica, but those plans were eventually abandoned.
It is this world of colliding interests that still surrounds Josh 30 years after he arrived in Trickle Creek. As we get back into the truck, he says he would let the fight go if the oil and gas industry gradually left the area, but he doesn’t expect that to happen. “It would be nice for them to realize there are people taking a different route and not relying on oil and gas, who want some space. It would be nice if they said, ‘We’ll give them that space.’ ” Instead, he says all he sees is an industry “hell bent for leather, fracking like there’s no tomorrow, people be damned.”
We drive back to Trickle Creek on the access roads for a few minutes before a security guard approaches in a white pickup. The mood in the truck shifts from easy-going to tense. Josh and the industry he faces rarely actually talk.
“Are we on the lease?” Josh yells, across Levi, to the security truck’s driver, who’s headed in the opposite direction.
“Well, it’s a drilling site,” says the guard. “Are you from this area?”
“That’s correct,” Josh says. “Trickle Creek. You know the name?” He says this with pride. A desire to be taken seriously. He wants to make a statement.
“Yeah, I know the name,” the guard says. “You got any concerns?”
“Well, we’re pretty concerned about this fracking,” Josh replies. “It’s only a matter of time before it starts doing damage.”
We continue driving back to Trickle Creek and pass a cutline in the boreal forest and a pile of pipes. Beside the muddy road is a red container in a snowbank. “Stop the truck,” Josh says. He jumps out with a swagger I have not seen before, opening the container as if this all was his.
Inside is a licence to build a new right-of-way for a pipeline.
Morning in Trickle Creek: women in skirts and quaint bonnets walk with forward leans from its central gazebo, jokingly called the “coffee shop,” while blonde-haired children appear from within three wood and stone housing complexes and sprint off to help women render soap, spin scarves in the foot-powered loom, learn in a classroom or carry babies for their mothers. At the 4,000-square-foot community hall being built, four tiny boys lay on the ground watching the men pour the concrete floor. “This is all part of our home education program,” Josh says, beaming.
The mood is jovial, joyful even – no quarrels or rushing. Each of the 63 people works to support the whole: Maimi Jr. pulls molars and takes X-rays in her green dental chair; Hannah adds essential oils to her homemade soaps and shampoos; Sebastian and others tend to the goats, sheep, alpacas, chickens and cows; other young people are apprenticing to be a chiropractor, learning to butcher meat or perfecting the homemade biodiesel burned in the community’s vehicles and electrical generator. Ask Hannah if she feels she’s missing out from regular society and she’ll tell you that, actually, she feels sorry for those who don’t live as she does.
Josh is 38. He’s balding slightly and has fluffy eyebrows over top of deep, penetrating eyes. The majority of his learning has been done in this world. He is still unmarried, as finding partners in a secluded community has proven difficult (he shares that he’s tried Christian dating sites, but “all the women want to have kids and travel – how is that going to work?”). He is quiet, stoic even. And spend time with him and you see he’s a man with what might necessarily be two sides. Facing inside his Trickle Creek world, he uses corny humour and quotes from Scriptures to gently lead his flock. Facing the outside, however, those eyes harden and you see a switch flip. “People want to pigeonhole us; people need to put you in a slot,” Josh says. “We’re not Luddites.”
It’s much like a trait he talks of Wiebo having too – of being weak but, when called upon, of being strong.
It comes out as I ask what Trickle Creek should be called. Is it a compound? “Technically it is, I can’t argue with that,” Josh says, defensively. Back in the days of Wiebo, these sorts of words were used by the RCMP. “People tend to right away go there, that it’s a walled off, isolated place that’s scared of the world,” Josh says. He recalls a reporter using the term once and how the reporter called the next day to say he’d done it on purpose to make the community look bad. So what is this place, then?
“We’ve resisted putting a label on it,” he says, batting away the question. “We’re a little coy about it. We say we’re a whole lot of nots.”
The subtle defensiveness continues as Josh walks behind the community’s five main buildings to show me a greenhouse. He says CNRL is ignoring an unwritten rule. The past fights with Encana, who once owned the majority of wells around the community, resulted in several wells being put to pasture and a peace created through a “de-industrialized zone,” as Josh calls it. “We basically said [to Encana], ‘You stay five miles away, because we don’t trust you guys,’ and they actually said ‘OK,’ not so much in a contract form. They have left us alone. But now CNRL is pushing those boundaries. They’re right along the edge of it and we’re saying, ‘Hey!’ ”
In the morning light, the aspens and pines around Trickle Creek look deathly grey. Josh says he notices the forest is unhealthy and blames what the industry calls “fugitive emissions” from gas wells. The smells come and go here like the weather, he says. That’s disturbing since the smell is the warning of deadly H2S. It can burn eyes at 20 parts per million and kill instantly at just 500. The AER says sour-gas venting or leakage is illegal in Alberta and any hint of it is taken very seriously. Yet driving to Trickle Creek, I smelled rotten eggs.
But the defensiveness is most apparent when we talk of working with industry and government to come up with a solution. Why not install gas detectors, I ask? “We did experiments with different detectors,” Josh says, “but we’ve learned that the nose is one of the most sensitive instruments we have. We’ve also learned there’s like 150 different chemicals coming off of the [gas] flares – benzenes and all this stuff, SO2, H2S. To nail [health problems] down to ‘Oh, it’s H2S’ is a little bit premature. We know, anecdotally, that there’s something causing problems. What exactly it is is hard to nail down. And if you try to go down that path, of putting an H2S monitor in, you’d have to have 120 monitors; they’d have to be calibrated constantly. It’s a huge effort.”
Days later I call Bob Curran, head of media relations with the AER, asking the same question. Why no detectors? Like all within the AER, Curran is familiar with Trickle Creek. Told of Josh’s concerns, he says there’s not much the AER can do. “We have received complaints and concerns over the years [from Trickle Creek],” he says, confirming they have come since Wiebo died, too. “We’ve offered to do it ourselves or have third parties do air monitoring, water and soil testing; we’ve offered to connect them to the animal health investigator and put them in touch with the medical examiner’s office because they’ve made claims that there were stillborn babies there.”
What happened? “All those offers were refused,” Curran says.
Josh walks in snow that swallows his knees to a place few know exist: Wiebo Ludwig’s above-ground crypt. “The body is just flesh,” he says, looking at the concrete tomb he helped build. “But there’s something about remembering life through that. It was very unique what he established here in this little community. That’s probably what he would say his legacy was. He had a vision, generationally, to continue that.”
“He’s written in the history books; you can’t reverse that,” Josh continues. “Sometimes legacies are not something you can control. He wasn’t seeking a legacy, but his desire was to see a true Christian community that had hope again, for living life more fully and enjoying life together again as Christians, taking back what it means to be a Christian rather than being caught up in secular thinking.”
Does Josh feel like he has to be like Wiebo? “There’s often that temptation to imitate my dad,” Josh says. “I had to say ‘no’ to it. ‘Don’t do that artificial thing; listen to the voice of the Lord and what He desires.’ You can’t rely on imitating someone because he had a certain aura around him.”
But then comes Josh’s external-facing self. He’s kind and gentle to a fault, but so too was his dad. Wiebo Ludwig saw himself as a man of peace, not one looking for a fight. The fight came to him and backed him into a corner, and God was on his side.
Rather than run again, Josh says, Wiebo did something about it – something that made him a villain to some but a folk hero to others. And it’s true. Few thought Wiebo was wrong. They just didn’t support how he responded.
What few realized when Wiebo died, however, was that Josh was there for most of his battles. In news reports from the time of the earliest disputes, Josh is in the background, supporting Wiebo. Josh manned the camera for Wiebo’s Home Sour Home documentary that showed the family’s illnesses from sour gas. Josh was in the bus along with everyone else, on the way to Costa Rica, when Trickle Creekers were barred entry at the Mexican border and drove back to Alberta. Josh grew up shaped by a man he says was quiet, but who Alberta and the world saw could be loud and bold. Indeed, the only things that have changed at Trickle Creek are that Wiebo is gone, industry has returned after a brief respite, and Josh has 63 people looking up to him as leader.
Given the history, and given the threats from industry you perceive around Trickle Creek, how will you respond? I ask Josh. Could you be like Wiebo if you feel backed into a corner?
“Just watch me,” Josh says.
The author was given lodging at Trickle Creek as well as gifts, including honey and huckleberry jam. CNRL and Encana were contacted but declined to comment.