By Jonathon Van Maren
After a nine-hour drive north from Calgary through an Albertan landscape dotted with reed-filled ponds and muskeg and miles of bright yellow canola fields, my cousin and I turned down a jaw-rattling gravel road featuring a large, tan sign framed with stripped and varnished tree branches that let us know that we had arrived. “Trickle Creek Community,” it read. And underneath that: “In Him we live and move and have our being, And as a plan for the fullness of time, all things in heaven and on earth shall be reconciled and united in Him.”
Welcome to Peace River Country.
Trickle Creek Farm was founded in 1985, when former Christian Reformed pastor Wiebo Ludwig, his wife Mamie, and their nine children arrived in Northern Alberta to start a new life after Wiebo decided it was time for their family to retreat from society for a decade or so to escape a culture he felt was awash with poison. As journalist Chris Hedges would later put it, “Ludwig grasped the moral decadence of the consumer society, its unchecked hedonism, worship of money, and deadening cult of the self.” The eccentric Wiebo, encouraged in his plans to depart for the wilderness by the ecclesiastical troubles that seemed to follow him wherever he went, decided it was time to withdraw. His clan; Harmony, Ben, Fritz, Bo, Josh, Mamie Jr., Salome, Charity, and Caleb would come along.
The Ludwigs were joined in their quest by Richard and Lois Boonstra and their three daughters, Kara, Dania, and Renee (who would eventually marry three Ludwig sons and trigger a population explosion at Trickle Creek Farm). And for the first few years, Ludwig’s biographer Andrew Nikiforuk writes in his fascinating book Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil, the family set to work figuring out how to live with each other in the wilderness. It was a steep learning curve. Cut off from the world—Ludwig declined a proffered welcome party from nearby neighbors—the clan went to work creating a little society in the wilderness that depended on nobody for anything. The residents of Trickle Creek remember hard work, family time, and experiencing untamed nature for the first time.
It was in the early 1990s that the situation began to sour. Ben Ludwig, the red-bearded eldest son of Wiebo (and in many ways his spitting image), told me that this was just as his father had decided it was time for their little community to begin reaching out to other communities and building connections with like-minded Christians. He began talking to Christian Reformed people from Neerlandia and other communities with similar theological backgrounds to discuss whether various forms of collaboration could be found. “That’s just when the oil industry hit us, boom,” Ben told me as we walked about Trickle Creek Farm. “That took all of our focus. That decision [to reconnect] was cut short by circumstance.”
That “circumstance” was the oil industry’s discovery that Trickle Creek was situated atop a major gas field, and the subsequent discovery by the Ludwigs that they only owned the top six inches of their property—the oil companies owned the resource rights to everything else. Oil wells, flaring, and sour gas leaks followed, resulting first in dying and miscarrying livestock, and finally in five human miscarriages and stillbirths. Tensions flared, culminating in standoffs with the oil companies who were, Ludwig wrote angrily, causing the deaths of his children, poisoning his farm, and violating the Lord’s Day to boot.
What precisely happened next is still a matter of educated speculation. After the Ludwigs felt they had exhausted their legal options, which included lobbying politicians, taking their case to court, and at one point even trying to move the whole clan to Costa Rica before getting turned back in Guatemala—a covert war against the oil industry began. As filmmaker David York highlighted in his brilliant 2011 documentary Wiebo’s War, the family fought back against an industry they perceived as threatening the lives of their children and the health of their community—cement was poured down oil well shafts, some were vandalized, and others were blown up. In a few short years, Wiebo Ludwig went from an obscure community leader deep in the Albertan forests to someone labeled an ecoterrorist by some and a folk hero by others. As York explained it: “Wiebo felt that our society was in a spiritual crisis, rather than an environmental crisis. He felt that our addiction to fossil fuels, rampant consumerism and materialism, addictions, and breakdown of family units were all symptoms of a society that had lost its root connection to God.”
After a relentless, years-long pursuit, the police finally managed to put the wily Frisian in prison, with Wiebo being convicted of five charges related to bombings and other forms of vandalism against oil and gas installations in 2000. By then, tensions had risen sharply—a teenager had died of a gunshot wound on the Ludwig property after joyriding across the lawn in a pickup truck in the middle of the night, narrowly missing tents filled with sleeping women and children, and the Ludwig minivan was blown up during a visit to town. No charges were filed in either of these instances. Wiebo was sentenced to 28 months in prison, and served 18. He used his sentence to begin the translation of a Dutch treatise on angels.
Wiebo denied being guilty of the charges, and the Ludwigs still give vague answers when asked about what happened back then. “A greedy industry caused real harm and posed real danger to people just trying to live their lives, and so there was pushback,” Ben Ludwig told me over a cup of coffee. “The industry still pushes closer to our property, so every once in awhile we have to drop by and remind them of our history.” The specific details of that history are still unknown—Wiebo once suggested that he was planning to write a book on everything for posthumous publication, but he died of esophageal cancer at the age of 70 on April 9, 2012, and nothing has surfaced since then. The police even asked if they could come to Trickle Creek, open Wiebo’s coffin (which he had built himself) and fingerprint him one last time. The family refused, but they suspected that the police just wanted to confirm that Wiebo was really dead.
But that is in the past now, and not why my cousin and I came to visit Trickle Creek Farm. That story has already been told by journalists like Andrew Nikiforuk and filmmakers like David York. The story we are interested in is the story of a religious community striving for self-sufficiency, attempting to reduce reliance on the government, and building a community that resembles the sort of Christian enclave traditionalist writer Rod Dreher was describing in his 2017 book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. The residents of Trickle Creek are known for ignoring the government and the culture to the best of their ability. They are not interested in interfering in the culture, and they chose their remote location so that the culture would not interfere with them.
But what happens when the government becomes so large that it can no longer be ignored? After all, many Christian schools in Alberta had been doing just that when the NDP came to power and decided to begin demanding changes. Homeschooling groups have also come under fire. How does all of this impact Trickle Creek, and what is their strategy for dealing with it? In many ways, after all, they resemble a Dutch version of the Swiss Family Robinson, a family that intentionally stranded themselves in a remote area and then set to work to figure out how to live there. Unlike the Robinsons, however, the Ludwigs are not on an island. Ben Ludwig met us at the front gate to give us the tour as we pulled up in my cousin’s car.
Trickle Creek was buzzing with activity when we arrived, although Ben quickly pointed out that things often slow to a glacial pace during the long northern winters. Because the growing season is so short and the inhabitants of Trickle Creek are so focused on being entirely self-sufficient, it is essential that the summer months be well-used. As Ben walked us around the farm, we were constantly bumping into one or more of Wiebo and Mamie’s fifty grandchildren (there are twenty-five boys and twenty-five girls, ranging in age from infant to twenty-nine years-old). There are 960 acres here, and 650 are usable. The Ludwigs take that as a challenge.
The first impression you get when you tour Trickle Creek Farm is that everyone is so useful. The children—two generations of them now—are homeschooled, after which each person is expected to choose a trade or skill that they’d like to perfect, preferably one that is in high demand at Trickle Creek. Ben does the mechanical work. His oldest daughter Hannah makes soap—bar soap, shampoo, conditioner, dish, and laundry detergent–often infusing them with essential oils she makes from herbs and plants that she harvests from the forest or from one of the vast gardens. She’s also gained an interest in the medicinal quality of various native plants, and jars lining the shelves in the soap-making cabin are forming the beginnings of an extensive apothecary. Others have done amazing work tending to the healthcare needs of the family.
The residents of Trickle Creek grow anything that they can coax from the ground this far north. There are wheat and barley fields, and large greenhouses for tomatoes and a variety of vegetables including corn, which can’t survive outside in this climate. The harvests are stored in a massive, temperature-controlled root cellar built out of two enormous abandoned fuel tanks that they buried underground. It is cool inside, and packed with vegetables of every kind—barrels overflowing with potatoes line the walls. Outside, there seems to be gardens everywhere. Berry patches, too—some of the Ludwig girls are trying their hand at cultivating wild berries, as well, although they still head to the woods regularly to harvest the berries there throughout the summer.
There is also a beautiful stained-wood and glass greenhouse that Wiebo was building when he died—he had last worked on it shortly before he passed away. The Ludwigs are just now beginning to finish the stone wall around the outside of the greenhouse. Ben points to the beautiful glass structure as an example of what they are trying to accomplish at Trickle Creek: Something intergenerational, a community built to last. That’s why the dying Wiebo worked on a project he knew he’d never see to completion. Putting down roots means sticking around for awhile and creating something that future generations can enjoy and improve on. This is something that the Ludwigs believe that a culture that once regularly built churches that took several generations to erect has utterly forgotten—how to work with generations yet unborn in mind.
When we toured the goat barn—there are about 100 goats, with thirty of them being milked daily—a few of the girls and women were milking by hand into buckets, while a headless chicken awaiting butchering lay nearby. Just outside, an apple-cheeked girl was herding a flock of ducks and ducklings towards a little outdoor pen, which was separate from the large chicken coop that houses the laying hens. There was also a flock of sheep, dairy cattle, horses, and surprisingly—at least to me—llamas, which several Ludwig grandchildren informed me are extremely skilled at hocking a vile concoction of spit onto the faces of those they take a disliking to. They do all their own butchering, curing, and meat-prepping as well.
There are bees, too—one lanky fellow named Isaac has become Trickle Creek’s beekeeper and produces nearly 20 barrels of prime honey each year that is now in demand as far away as Vancouver Island. Isaac’s honey operation has received the approval of local black bears, and the Ludwigs have had to spend an ample amount of time trying to keep them away from the hives. Besides bears, the hunting is very good—deer and moose especially (Hannah told us that “we’ve just figured out how to make moose taste good”), as well as some elk. There are pelts hanging on the walls of the log cabins—this far north, a wide range of wildlife frequently comes to visit the Ludwigs. (Ice-fishing is another important winter activity.) There’s also a stuffed snowy owl on the piano inside the enormous log community hall, where the Trickle Creek clan gathers for mealtimes. That one they found, and got a permit to have mounted.
At supper, I discovered that the animals around Trickle Creek do not only become food and furs—sometimes, they can become pets. A little flying squirrel was perched on the shoulder of one of Ben’s young daughters, eying the strangers nervously, and occasionally flying from one girl to the next and then diving down the nearest shirt to remain hidden. The squirrel had been discovered in the woods, and one of the little girls had woken up every few hours to feed it milk from an eye-dropper. The large-eyed creature now resides in her bedroom. This wasn’t the first time a wild pet had stayed for awhile with the Ludwigs—they’d also cared for a young elk abandoned by its mother, and then set it free when it was healed. An owl—not the one stuffed on the piano—had also made a brief appearance.
In addition to the gardens, greenhouses, and livestock buildings and pastures—there’s a recreational field set aside for soccer and volleyball, as well—the clan is outfitted with an enormous woodshop and sawmill, where logs from the forest are transformed into the houses and communal buildings that make up the Ludwig living quarters, which are a combination of logs, straw bales, and stucco. There’s also a building that hosts their bio-fuel operation, which turns cooking fuel collected from restaurants in the surrounding towns into bio-fuel, which they use to run all of their farm equipment and several of their vehicles, as well. Ben took the time to explain the entire process to me, but my knowledge of chemistry is so abysmal that I absorbed very little and instead mulled over the impressive level of self-sufficiency that had been achieved.
And when I say self-sufficient, I mean that Trickle Creek Farm is entirely off the grid. They get their electricity from solar panels that track the movement of the sun, mounted on the chalet-style log homes and other buildings, as well as an enormous wind turbine, all of which are connected to banks of batteries that provide digital readouts detailing exactly how much power has been stored up. The more independent Christian communities become, they explained to me, the less power the government has—after all, the leverage of the secular authorities decreases significantly when you don’t really need them for any of the necessities of life. They have not forgotten beauty in their search for utility, either—there are a number of brightly-colored flower gardens clustered around the log buildings.
When there is something that they need, the Ludwigs get on the Internet, do research, and order training manuals—and then figure out how to do it themselves. If necessary, they consult experts. Babies are delivered by midwives, on the farm. All their cheese—and it is delicious—is made at Trickle Creek. They also have their own mill to make their own flour, and have begun the process of learning how to use looms and spinning wheels. Harmony gave me a tour of the operation, noting that they’ve already begun to make some of their own clothes. I noted with some amusement that a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods was tucked behind one of the looms, presumably stuffed there by one of the girls. It seemed appropriate.
After touring the farm, my cousin and I sat down in the enormous log communal building to chat over one of Trickle Creek’s home-brewed beers. They were very interested to discuss some of the more worrying political developments in Canada over the last several years, including aggressive pushes by the Alberta government to force Christian schools into reshaping their curriculums and permitting Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. Threats to religious liberty, too, are worrying for those in the self-imposed isolation of Peace River Country. These developments concerned them, and Fritz—Wiebo’s second son and Trickle Creek’s pastor—made sure to mention the news to the community when they gathered for supper, which was opened with the reading of Scripture, an invitation to discussion, and then a communal recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Later on, hymns and psalms were sung from blue songbooks that still have Calvin Christian Reformed Church, Holland, Michigan stamped inside the covers. Singing was accompanied by piano, flute, drums, and violin.
It bears mentioning that I have rarely eaten better than during my two days at Trickle Creek. The food was phenomenal—meat on home-made buns, fresh cucumber, and potato salad, among other tasty dishes. The enormous clan also makes up the friendliest and most welcoming horde of hosts I have experienced in a very long time—they were all eager to chat with my cousin and I, and were very open to having long discussions about the philosophy and work of Trickle Creek Farm. More than once Thessalonians 4:11-12 was referenced as the encapsulation of what they are trying to accomplish: And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.
Spending time with the entire family, with dozens of cousins skittering about, reminded me of a secret wish I had when I was a child that I could live with all of my cousins, too. Trevor Schilthuis, Harmony’s husband, told me that it was this family closeness that led him to follow the Ludwigs from Alberta to Ontario years ago. The adults chatted as the children romped about—the matriarch, Mamie Sr., was in the hospital in Grande Prairie for some back repairs—and one of them noted that old age homes are a very sad thing. Aging mothers and fathers, they asserted, should be cared for by the children that the parents once cared for. At Trickle Creek, at least for the time being, everything is still held in common. It is, fundamentally, an enormous family farm supporting an enormous family.
It is that fact that has created a dilemma, a dilemma that was referenced over and over again by nearly every one of the adults: How does Trickle Creek expand from a family operation with everything held in common, to a community? The first and most urgent problem is the fact that there is a growing number of young people on the farm of marriageable age and no prospective partners. After the war with the oil industry had died down, the Ludwigs had just been ready to resume forming networks again to resolve this problem when Wiebo had been diagnosed with cancer—and he had advised them to instead prepare themselves for the inevitable upheaval that would come with his death. The clan should first figure out how to get on without their patriarch, Wiebo advised, before navigating new relationships with other communities.
Six years have passed since Wiebo’s death, and although the clan is thriving, they have yet to solve any of the existential problems. There are many different ideas of what the community should look like going forward, and much disagreement, too. References to what Wiebo might have done are frequent. In order to go from a family to a community, they will need some form of constitution, an authority structure, a statement of faith, a standard for membership—essentially, a method of self-governance that allows them to expand and preserve the principles that their community is built on while recognizing that expansion is impossible so long as Trickle Creek functions like the close but complicated extended family that it is. Because of the disagreements, these discussions have already been put off for too long—if solutions are not implemented, it is only a matter of time before young people will begin leaving in search of partners.
Trickle Creek Farm, roughly speaking, has gone through four key phases. There was the genesis phase, when the two families arrived in Peace River Country to build their commune in the wilderness. Then there was the war with the oil industry and Wiebo’s subsequent imprisonment. Then there was a cooling-off phase, which lasted until Wiebo’s death in 2012. And now, they have entered the fourth phase, one of transition: How do they transform themselves from a family into a community? Despite the challenges, they seem confident that somehow, some way, this will happen, that there will be an influx of people into Trickle Creek, with the next generation fueling the commune’s next explosive expansion. Despite this confidence, the transition phase is likely to be Trickle Creek’s most daunting challenge yet.
The principles that the clan of Trickle Creek hold dear may yet prove attractive to many if they successfully navigate their transitional phase: Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, love of family, a rejection of materialism and consumerism, an emphasis on the biblical stewardship of Creation, the exemplification of agrarian localism, and the rejection of the hedonism that has overtaken mainstream culture. They set off into the wilderness a much smaller group over thirty years ago to prove that people could find a better way to live than the one set forward by modern society as inevitable. And, for whatever else they’ve done, that they have certainly accomplished.