By Byron Christopher
March 16, 2012
Hythe, Alberta — It’s not if, but when. Eco-warrior Wiebo Ludwig is preparing for death. With his weight now under 150 pounds, he predicts he’ll be gone in just weeks, a victim of cancer of the esophagus. Ludwig has battled the disease for the past year.
The Dutch-born patriarch of a Christian clan “living off the land” in Alberta’s Peace River country is in palliative care.
Ludwig, who turned 70 in December, takes pain medication to get through the night. “I’m trying to stay off pain killers as much as possible,” he reveals. To reduce their father’s pain, Charity, Salome and Mamie ‘Junior’ apply medical herbs wrapped in heated cloths to his chest and legs, now noticeably thin.
Ludwig’s sons recently built him a sauna. Their hope is that the wet heat will help him.
In January, surgeons in Grande Prairie placed a stent in Ludwig’s throat so he could swallow. Two weeks ago, Ludwig was rushed to hospital to have the stent lengthened after food became lodged in his throat.
For decades, Ludwig has stood as an outspoken, implacable, media-savvy foe of the oil and gas industry, as evidenced by Toronto filmmaker David York’s 2011 National Film Board documentary, Wiebo’s War.
Instead of battling energy companies, Ludwig plans to spend his final days with his family. “I feel there’s a time when you have to sign off,” he says, “you have to stop at some point.”
Ludwig’s eyes still penetrate, but he sounds exhausted.
Reverend Ludwig says he’s looking forward to ‘crossing over.’ “[Death] doesn’t bother me,” he says. “It is apparent to everyone there is an afterlife, even though we repress that in our anxieties. I am eager for redemption, eager to see what’s there. I just hope I die without too much pain …”
“I’m quite grateful about my life, in many ways a concentrated series of battles. I enjoyed the battles. They were difficult times, but meaningful. I was seldom bored, put it that way.”
Ludwig, described by his many foes as an eco-terrorist, says, “I have been somewhat persistent. I guess that’s been my one quality that’s been admired, not to give in and compromise with the BS … not to complain all day long either but to work at something that is commendable, a solution to some of our problems, hopefully.”
A carpenter and drywaller by trade, last month Ludwig completed his final project: his coffin. The simple wooden casket now rests on two metal stands in one of the modern chalet-type homes, part of a sprawling complex of industrial shops and barns known as Trickle Creek Farm.
His casket will be placed in a concrete crypt, above ground, in woods close by.
The outspoken critic of the oil and gas industry initially joked the government may go after him if he goes underground, then rationalizes why the crypt should be above ground: “in case we have to move again.”
“It’s not normal for people to build their own coffin,” I offered. Ludwig shot back, “what is normal out there, tell me?”
According to family members, their leader’s funeral will be a private affair, not open to the public or reporters. Ludwig says he wants his people to ‘retreat’ for a while after his death and “not engage much with the public.” “Not so much to mourn my dying,” he says, “but to give them some time to work their way through it.”
“I’m glad this is a bit of a process,” he offers, “I can spend time saying goodbye to the family and give them some direction on different issues. Everybody has a chance to face it … rather than ‘boom, he’s gone.’ We’ve had some beautiful conversations about the reality of us having to give up mortality,” he adds.
Ludwig spends a lot of time resting. He’s either in bed, lying on the couch or sitting in a recliner chair near a wood-burning stove. He says he’ll die at his log cabin, not in a hospital.
When he’s up to it, Ludwig and his wife of 43-years, Mamie, walk arm-in-arm on paths in the forest.
Ludwig reflected on his move to northwestern Alberta in the mid-1980s. “Many people thought I was nuts taking a family out here in the boondocks,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, but I sensed it was worth it. The alternatives looked disastrous … tasted them myself as a young man.”
“I found in the gospel a sense of realism,” he says, steering the topic to religion.
“I know people fuss with that, but I found the gospel more realistic than anything else. Today it’s almost frightening to say you’re a Christian because there’s so much bulls–t attached to it, in the public’s mind. Fortunately, I’ve had some very beautiful insights into the Word of God.”
The Trickle Creek Farm, home to nearly 60 people, many of them children and teenagers, is centerpiece of a 324-hectare parcel of land northwest of Hythe.
“I’ve seen men and women here really taking hold of this vision. They’ve come through. Many talks, many plans … they’ve come to see the beauty of withdrawing from all the riff-raft the world wants you to chase. They’ve pursued something quite steadily that has some character; has some sense again when it comes to practical issues, like raising your own food. That is almost critical.”
Son Josh Ludwig estimates they’re nearly 80 percent self-sufficient. With the addition of a windmill and solar panels, residents can now generate their own power. A large computer-controlled boiler creates heat for the houses.
As it turned out, the farm was smack in the middle of a large oil and gas field.
The people of Trickle Creek discovered that more than water trickled through their property. Sour gas leaks were followed by allegations of poisoned water, stillbirths and dead animals. “We didn’t want to be known for being environmentalists,” Ludwig says.
“We didn’t want to piss around with all their games. We wanted a place to live where they wouldn’t be puking on us … just let us be and allow us to live our lives.”
The Ludwigs complained to the authorities about the toxic leaks. After police did nothing, they say, they took matters into their own hands. Wiebo Ludwig ended up eating prison food for a year and a half after an Edmonton judge found him guilty of using explosives to destroy and vandalize oilfield equipment.
“This started with the industry ‘fumigating‘ us,” Ludwig says of the conflict that vaulted him to national media attention. “How can you vilify people who object to that, and holler to authorities who don’t do anything to help them?”
It’s surprising perhaps, but Wiebo Ludwig does not blame his terminal disease on sour gas emissions. “It’s often hard to trace,” he says of his esophageal cancer, “because it’s everywhere — polluting waters, dirt and food. The oil and gas industry certainly caused a lot of trouble — including cancerous troubles — but who’s to know where we got cancer from?”
The public remains angry about the death of 16-year-old Karman Willis, a local shot in June 1999 while a passenger in a pick-up truck tearing around Trickle Creek in the middle of the night. According to police, the bullet that struck the teen ricocheted off the frame of the truck. Officers couldn’t find the shooter or his or her weapon.
People at Trickle Creek say the intruders sped around, doing doughnuts and throwing empty beer cans out the window. They point out that one of the trucks came to within a meter of running down four girls sleeping in a tent. One described it as “sheer terror” as a pick-up roared by them in the dark.
No one was charged with the shooting. Neither was anyone charged with trespassing at night, causing a disturbance or impaired or dangerous driving.
In January 2010, the RCMP swooped down on Trickle Creek, telling reporters that Wiebo Ludwig was responsible for pipeline bombings in the Tom’s Lake, BC area. Ludwig was held for a day but never charged.
Ludwig shared his thoughts about the news media. “I see the media as much the same shape as the public is in,” he offers. “Despite all of their writings and their efforts to tell us the truth, they can’t do it … they’re caught in a net of all kinds of pressures. The media is about making money and they’re scrambling to keep some clout, sacrificing all kinds of principles.”
In what may be his final advice to the oil and gas industry, Ludwig says, “get rid of this stuff and replace it as soon as possible with alternatives, and stop being so stubborn and stupid about it. My advice is, why don’t you just go for it? — do the right thing.”
“You can tell the oil and gas industry,” Ludwig says, “we knew we were right all along,” adding, “but I’ve come to see they also knew that.”
“In the end,” the reverend predicts, “good will win out over evil.”
Who takes over after Wiebo Ludwig is gone? Ludwig reveals that one of his younger sons — he refused to provide a name — has already been chosen to take the reigns. “He has a good rapport with the next generation,” Ludwig says. “He has shown wonderful qualities and an excellent commitment.”
On his hope for society, Ludwig doesn’t pull any punches. “I hope it ends very soon,” he says. “I yearn for the age to come … I have for many years. I think society is definitely on a suicidal trip.” “It’s been prophesied,” he says, “the end of times are clearly with us today. Just when it all ends, is another question …”
“It’s gone that wild out there. Our social life is in shambles … family, marital … all these things are just busted up. Individualism has wrecked us terribly, made us lonely and isolated.”
Richard Boonstra, Ludwig’s right-hand man, says he’s inspired by how his old friend is handling death. “We’ve made death such a terrible thing in our society,” he says. “We’re scared to death of it, so to speak,” adding, “death has lost its sting, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a sadness around it.”
The last word goes to the dying eco-activist: “I feel very reconciled,” Ludwig says.
“My life has had some sordid chapters, especially my youthful life. But I feel a peace with the Lord and with man in terms of having dealt with those things in my soul, my spirit.”
“I’m not a person who has had small prayers,” Ludwig concludes. “I’ve asked for major things to change my life and the lives of those I’m with. I’m not disappointed.”
*Editor’s note: Journalist Byron Christopher, best known for his award-winning investigative journalism with CBC, is the only journalist Ludwig would speak to in his final days. Christopher was called to the compound near Hythe to do an interview with Ludwig, and upon completing the story he allowed it to break within the pages of the Toronto Star. He has selected the Vegreville Observer to run the follow-up article, with information he did not release to the Star in the previous draft of his most recent encounter with Ludwig. This is not the first time Christopher has been the only reporter that a man in crisis would contact. His previous exclusive interviews with infamous public figures – whether they be infamous because of their actions or due to mishandled reporting on the part of mainstream media – include David Milgaard, Colin Thatcher, Michael White and Richard Lee McNair. At present, Christopher is completing a book on McNair based on personal interviews and letters from the US fugitive who escaped several prisons over a period of years before being captured in Canada. The publisher is Coastal West Publishing Inc. of Vancouver.