A Walk Through the Alberta Tar Sands

July 4, 2013

From the vestibule of my tent, I put on tennis shoes caked with Athabascan mud. Yesterday’s rain turned parts of the campground along Gregoire Lake into a slick and gooey mess. I crawl out of my tent to greet the gray day and the mosquitoes. The air is warm considering the current weather conditions and for being this far north. Next to the tent, my Earth flag billows in the slight breeze blowing off the lake. The high-spirited voice of Clayton Thomas-Muller, projected through a megaphone, pierces the air. He is our 7am wake-up call. “It’s time to get up everybody. It’s a beautiful day for a walk. There’s a delicious, hot breakfast waiting. Eggs, bacon, potatoes and coffee.” Clayton lets out a boisterous laugh. “Just kidding” he says. I’m sure some of the groggy campers do not find his joke funny. I, on the other hand, find his joke amusing and laugh.  As Clayton makes his way through a  sea of soggy tents, I begin to gather my things for today’s journey and I think to myself, “today is going to be a beautiful day for a walk.”

Hundreds of walkers pile into yellow school busses. They are packed like cans of sardines, some people sitting three to a seat. As we make our way towards Fort McMurray, a tar sands boomtown in Northern Alberta, I watch the dense boreal forest zoom by. This journey to the tar sands has been two years in the making. Sitting next to me is my good friend Joe Solomon.  I met Joe for the first time in Burlington, Vermont only a few short days before we were arrested for participating in a sit-in in front of the White House. Over a thousand people from across the country were in D.C. protesting the Keystone XL (KXL), a pipeline that would carry a substance known as bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be refined and shipped overseas. Over the course of the past two years, in little ways, we’ve each played our part in fighting to stop the KXL pipeline. And now, it only seems fitting we should travel together into the belly of the beast to witness the most destructive industrial practice this planet has ever known; a carbon bomb that would cause catastrophic climate change.

After an hour or so of driving, we arrive at our destination, a tar sands reclamation site. The fourth annual Tar Sands Healing Walk is about to begin. According to the organizers, the idea of the walk is not to engage in direct action or protest, “but instead to engage in a meaningful ceremonial action to pray for the healing of Mother Earth, which has been so damaged by the tar sands industry.” People have gathered from all across Canada, the U.S., and even overseas. These people are from all different backgrounds and religious views. We are walking side by side with the First Nations as one tribe . After a pipe ceremony from the elders of the many Nations  and a press conference with passionate speeches by Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Melina Labocuan-Massimo and the Athabasca-Chipewyan Dene Nation Chief, Allan Adam, it is time to begin the 9-mile trek along the infamous road through the tar sands.

4th Annual Healing Walk photo by Zack Embree

4th Annual Healing Walk
photo by Zack Embree

Starting the walk feels like we are marching off to war; the elders lead a procession nearly five-hundred strong. Our ears are full of the sounds of beating drums and solemn singing in a language I do not understand. Some of the First Nation peoples carry tribal flags, and I, the Earth flag: a symbol to remind me why I am an activist. Thunderous cannon booms can be heard from a distance adding to the war-like feel of the walk. We march past some of the last remnants of boreal forest and the so-called “reclamation” site, which mostly consists of a fancy sign, and some scrabbly shrubs and trees. It will be hundreds of years, if ever, before these sites are restored to their former glory. The sound of the cannons become louder  as we turn a corner, and come into view of a Syncrude refinery. The landscape turns hellish, reminding me of the scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies when Suromon prepares Isengard for war. Instead of orcs, the shores of the toxic tailing ponds are lined with scarecrows in hunter-orange jump suits. Propane cannons fire blanks into the air every few seconds to frighten off the wildlife. Birds and animals would die if they found their way to the water. Where there was once green, lush land, now lies large open pits where all life and earth have been removed. Smokestacks which emit poisonous fumes now dot the landscape where coniferous trees once stood.  Large, black piles of petroleum coke remind me of Mount Doom. This place is Mordor to the people who live here. The elderly, the children and people with breathing problems wear masks with respirators while the rest of us wear bandanas to keep out carcinogenic dust that’s being kicked up by the heavy traffic along the road. With all the cars and big trucks  that hurtle past, it feels like we are walking in a big city instead of on a two-lane highway through shattered landscapes. The rains that fell yesterday are  fortunately keeping the dust to a minimum. Mother Earth is watching out for her children.

At four different points along our route, elders from local tribes stop and make offerings to one of the four directions. They call upon Mother Earth and their creator “to both heal the land and to touch the hearts, minds, and spirits of those responsible for her desecration.” I am easily moved to tears as the heart-wrenching sobs of the elders carry across the silent crowd, even drowning out the noise of the heavy traffic going to and from the Syncrude facility. Looking across I see and hear others weeping. The Earth flag snaps in the breeze as I kneel to the ground. Not being a religious man, I instead think about an animal that is near and dear to my heart, the wolverine, which is threatened with extinction due to a changing climate. I draw on the wolverine’s courage and strength to continue on in this fight. “It is not the walk that’s hard. It’s keeping your head and your heart strong in this long struggle.” -Clayton Thomas-Muller

Walking by the Syncrude Refinery  Photo by Zack Embree

Walking by the Syncrude Refinery
Photo by Zack Embree

Walkers standing in front a large tailing pond.  photo by Ben Powless

Walkers standing in front of a large tailing pond.
photo by Ben Powless

Joe takes a turn carrying the Earth Flag photo by Ben Powless

Joe takes a turn carrying the Earth Flag
photo by Ben Powless


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