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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: The Endangered Species Road Trip

The Endangered Species Road Trip: A Summer’s Worth of Dingy Hotels, Poison Oak, Ravenous Insects, and the Rarest Species in North America.
By Cameron MacDonald. Greystone Books, 2013, 216 pp.

Dismayed that, after years of teaching, he has become an armchair biologist, a “cut-and-paste biologist at best,” Cameron MacDonald revives an old dream: to travel the continent to observe endangered species. But when he first conceived of the plan, he was single and childless. Now married, he has both a toddler and an infant. Nonetheless, he bravely sets forth, the whole family in tow, including even the dog, who, he says, is too neurotic to leave in anyone’s care.

The map of Cameron’s journey from his home in Vancouver, Canada, is determined by the 34 endangered species he hopes to see. The family drives to Big Sur to see the California condor, to Yellowstone in Wyoming to see the grizzlies and wolves, to different parts of Florida to see the West Indian manatee, Florida scrub jay, Florida panther, snail kite, and wood stork, and to the Bay of Fundy to see the Atlantic right whale and the basking shark. Although the list focuses mainly on mammals and birds, it also includes a few plants, such as the bristlecone pine and American chestnut, and one insect, the Karner blue butterfly.

Lasting 4 months and covering 16,000 miles, this is quite a trip for the youngsters, and as you’d expect, the air can fill with noisy wails—not ideal for wildlife viewing, the author drily notes. But on the whole, the children seem to hold together remarkably well, the dog displays no neurosis, and the worst is actually suffered by the parents who get violently seasick on a whale watch—a scene MacDonald manages to describe with great humor.

This is an engaging book. Short chapters and a conversational, easygoing writing style keep the storyline moving and the author involves us in the family’s excursions, as they seek out campsites, land in wretched motels, and set out in search of the species they’ve come to observe. Sometimes they catch only a glimpse of an animal, sometimes they fail to find the species at all, but their success rate is high. We feel the excitement of seeing grizzlies or a wolf or a beluga, and though it is easier to find a plant, which doesn’t move, the ancient bristlecones are nonetheless extraordinary: the oldest, known as Methuselah, estimated to be 4,844 years of age, is “believed to be the oldest living organism in the world.”

For all its enjoyability, The Endangered Species Road Trip is also very informative. As interested in habitat as he is in species, MacDonald lucidly describes the environment in which each of the species live, as well as the causes of their endangerment, which are varied: loss of habitat, hunting and commercial fishing, climate change, the greater adaptability of competing species. Along the way, the author describes efforts that have been made to counteract the threats to these species and prevent extinction. And hearteningly—and remarkably, in this age of dire predictions—he concludes with an optimistic view of the state of wildlife in North America.

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