September 1, 2013

Author Q & A: Driving to where the wild, endangered things are

From condors to Maine piping plovers, threatened animals lead a teacher and his family on a transcontinental quest to see them.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Cameron MacDonald, a 44-year-old biology teacher who lives in Vancouver, got tired of giving his students the same answer.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

Cameron MacDonald says he traveled across North America to see endangered species and also “to see their habitat and think about them a bit more deeply.”

Courtesy photo

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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