Cameron MacDonald, a 44-year-old biology teacher who lives in Vancouver, got tired of giving his students the same answer.
Whenever he would talk to them about endangered species, invariably a student would ask if he’d seen the animal himself.
Seen a polar bear? No.
A California condor? Um, no.
The result was a four-month, 16,000-mile road trip across the North American continent. The mission: See as many endangered species as possible on a list of 34 that MacDonald made before leaving British Columbia.
Along for the ride were his wife, Briana, and their young children, Brora and Finn.
MacDonald recorded their journey in “The Endangered Species Road Trip: A Summer’s Worth of Dingy Motels, Poison Oak, Ravenous Insects, and the Rarest Species in North America” (Greystone Books, $17.95). Between stories of screaming kids and dirty diapers, MacDonald writes about the endangered species the family is searching for.
With the 2011 trip now in the rearview mirror, MacDonald took some time out to reflect on what it all meant.
Q: Why did you decide to take this trip?
A: It really had to do with my students asking me, “Have you seen a polar bear before?” There were pictures I’d put up — most of them were just scavenged from the Internet — and I was feeling a little dislocated from the species that I talked about. And so I thought the trip was kind of an opportunity to try and see them, and you get to see their habitat and think about them a bit more deeply.
So the trip really provided me with an opportunity to really strengthen my lectures a little bit and have some fun. For the kids and Briana, it was a fun trip. I think my wife enjoyed the trip more than I did, because she wasn’t worried about the endangered species and where we were staying. I’d pick the route and she’d organize things and get the kids ready.
Q: Yes, she seemed really game for the whole thing.
A: She was. She was the heroine of the story, for sure. Most people don’t think (a woman) on maternity leave like that, with young kids, would have been game, and she was incredibly game.
Q: Can you talk about your original endangered species list and how you whittled it down?
A: I guess the way I whittled it down largely was to pick species that were more globally endangered rather than locally endangered. I know in British Columbia there are all kinds of locally endangered species that are actually common in the U.S., and so I didn’t put those in the list. There are some of those on the list, certainly, that have interesting stories, like the wolves in Yellowstone. (They) are an example of a species that’s reasonably common across Canada, but the Yellowstone population’s been quite controversial and interesting.
Mainly, I tried to pick species that were globally endangered for the list — California condor, spotted owl, manatee, those types of species.
More work has been done on them, so there’s more research on them generally, too, to build lectures around.
Q: What was it like traveling with such small children? Did the kids get into it at all, or were they too young?
A: They were a little too young to know exactly what we were doing. They knew we were looking for animals at various places, but for them it was about the camping. They liked the camping. I think it would be harder now. They’re a little older and they’re a little more difficult to get quiet in the car, where when we went, they could nap for two or three hours.
We would only drive for four hours a day. The kids primarily changed how long we could drive in a day. If it was adults, you could drive for 16 hours and get to the next species. For us, that was like a four-day trip, because we would only drive four hours a day. So we basically would drive for two hours, take a break, then drive for another two hours and then look for a campsite.
That, for me, was one of the great things about the trip. The kids forced us to go slow across the continent rather than go across in a week and come back in a week.
Q: Of all the species that you were able to see, which was the most thrilling for you personally?
A: The California condor was pretty cool. We’d had bad weather, so we hadn’t really seen it. It was really socked in, and they weren’t soaring. And then suddenly we had a nice day, and we saw a few and they were circling below us on the cliff — we were looking over the Big Sur area, so you’re looking down. And then one came up just over the cliff and almost hit Briana. It was probably 10 feet over, but they’re such big birds. You could really get a sense of how big it was when it was that close to Briana and sailing right over her head.
That was one of the coolest things for me, and California condors are certainly one of the federally listed species that are in real trouble. There’s only a few hundred of them — a couple hundred in the wild and a couple hundred in captivity — so they’re a species that are in real trouble.
And I knew that if I didn’t see them now, then maybe in 20 years they won’t be there to see.
Q: Any others that were particularly exciting?
A: The spotted owl was pretty exciting, because I had looked for a spotted owl on my own in British Columbia. They’re one of the species that are pretty much gone from Canada now. There’s only a few pairs left nesting in British Columbia. There probably used to be 500, but the logging has forced them out.
And so I’d looked for them in British Columbia a few times, pretty hard, and finally in Oregon, I was able to pair up with a biologist there and she took me out and we saw a pair. Even with her, it took us much of the day to find a nesting pair, even though she knew the sites. A few of them were abandoned.
Q: Were there any points on the trip that were scary?
A: Probably for me, one of the scariest things was hiking in grizzly country with my kids. I found that scary. I’d worked in Alaska in grizzly country, and I’d spent a fair bit of time in reasonably close contact with grizzlies, and it didn’t really make me nervous.
But when I had my little kids there, it made me nervous. A little kid sounds like an injured animal. They’re running around screaming, and oh, that’s the wrong noise to make when you’re in bear country. I’d go out myself and it didn’t even cross my mind — I was hoping to see a bear from a distance across the valley — but with the kids, I really almost didn’t want to see one, even from a distance, because I knew it could go bad pretty quickly.
Q: I know you saw the piping plover in Maine. Isn’t that a gorgeous beach (at Reid State Park)?
A: It’s a great beach. One of the best beaches of our whole trip, really. It was quiet. That was nice, because that was after we’d done the whole Eastern Seaboard. We went to Walden Pond and we couldn’t actually get out of the car, it was so busy.
Q: Would you do another trip like this sometime?
A: I think we’re definitely going to do another trip. I’d like to recreate that road trip in maybe 25 years, maybe try and do almost the exact same route and see how things have changed over that time frame.
We definitely hope to do another trip, and maybe another book, in some other place, some other location.
I’d like to do something different, but maybe along the same themes — biology- and travel-related. But I still don’t know what that idea is (laughing).
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: