Friday, June 20, 2014

Travel memoir entertains, leaves us with hope for planet's future

To label Cameron MacDonald's book, The Endangered Species Road Trip, a "travel memoir" does not quite do it justice.

It is that, but it is more, as well.

It contains elements of humour, science, environmentalism and even a pinch of soap opera.

The book is based on the Vancouver professor's summer-long Odyssey around Canada and the United States to try to see 34 different species - plant and animal - that are endangered, or at the very least, threatened.

Depending on where you look, you may find slightly different meanings (some more convoluted than others) about these two similar but different terms.

To put it simply, according to, "extinct" means the entire species has died out and can never return; "endangered" animals are those in immediate danger of becoming extinct; "threatened" species are likely to become endangered in the future.

The idea for this journey germinated while he was teaching a freshman course in environmental sciences at Langara College. Students kept asking him if the slides of endangered species he was showing were his photos, and he kept saying "no." That prompted him to plan a trip around the two countries to try to see as many species as possible, given time and distance constraints.

A daunting task, when you consider he planned to make the 114-day journey with his wife, a toddler, an infant, and their dog. In a second-hand van. And poor wifi access for much of the trip.

The tale starts out a little bit slow, a little bit ho-hum, but picks up the farther south he goes down the U.S. west coast. His sense of humour starts to seep out and the story begins to become much more alive and personal when he shares his inner feelings, frustrations and doubts about his family relations (we all have difficult family relations), particularly when they stop in his southern Ontario hometown. I can personally relate to some of the angst he describes, having experienced similar emotions regarding my own relations and situations with my parents.

Those are not the only situations I could relate to, either.

At one point, he describes an issue their van has with respect to keeping bugs out. They bought it second-hand for the trip, but it's not designed to sleep in when you're camping in an area that is insanely muggy and hot - and there are mosquitoes galore. They needed fresh air, but didn't want the bugs. So they rigged up some mesh screen with duct tape across the passenger and drive windows, rolled them down and voila! Instant screen door. Of sorts.

The Divine Ms. K and myself did the exact same thing back in 1996 when we drove across Canada in a second-hand van. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Often a source of duct tape sales, too.

And I get the feeling he was practically channelling me, in the following passage from the book:
"...we stop at the Ojibway Prairie Complex in Windsor, Ontario, to take a quick peek at this unique habitat. However, the park interpreters are rude and lazy - too busy stuffing their faces with coffee and donuts and being miserable to discuss the ecological importance of the park and its locally endangered species. Completely disappointed, we leave without even walking a trail. I quietly fume about those useless assholes all the way to Florida."
Yep. That would be me. Except I might not me so quiet about it...I'd probably be ranting about it out loud, then posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

I could really empathize with MacDonald regarding his fear of grizzly bears in Yellowstone, a fear made worse by the fact his family was with him.

Although they did not see every species on the original list (he saw 27 of the 34), he did not really expect to; animals like Florida panthers and Arizona jaguars  are very difficult to see, and no one really knows if the ivory-billed woodpecker still exists in southern forests, or if it has gone the way of the Carolina parakeet, a now-extinct parrot species.

As a conservation biologist, he has some very interesting views on the whole global-warming issue, views that many probably share, as that issue is not as black-and-white/cut-and-dried as people on both sides of the divisive issue might have us believe.

After completing his journey, he leaves us with a message of hope for the future of our endangered species, a hope he himself feels. His views are quite different from some environmentalists, although they are tempered with reasonable skepticism and a recognition of why things are the way they are in the battle for the environment.

Time will tell if that hope is misplaced. Like the author, I hope it is not - and that his next journey of this nature holds true for him, and for our planet.

Although he did not see any gators while paddling in Florida, 
the author did spy some alligators in Big Cypress National Preserve.

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