Exploring National Parks Threatened by Climate Change
21 Apr, 2012
When writer and outdoorsman Mike Lanza realized climate change was staking a full-scale assault on our most beloved national parks, he didn’t just lament about how his kids wouldn’t get to experience them the way he did. Instead, he saddled up his entire family — wife Penny, son Nate, 10, and daughter Alex, 7 — with packs, kayaks, and climbing gear and embarked on a year-long mission to visit them all. His new book Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks chronicles the adventure. He took some time to answer a few questions about our changing parks, life-list trip planning, and educating the next generation about climate change through adventures in the great outdoors.
Q. What moment did the idea to take your kids out for this book hit you?
A. I had been researching and writing stories about the impacts of climate change on national parks and wilderness, and increasingly understanding that much of this fallout will occur within my kids’ lifetimes. But in September 2009, I returned to Glacier National Park to backpack for six days and met briefly with a leading federal scientist there, Dan Fagre, whom I had interviewed two years earlier for a story about the park’s glaciers. At that time, his models forecasted the glaciers in the park all disappearing by 2030. When I spoke with him again in 2009, he said they had revised that previous forecast because warming and glacial recession had sped up faster than anticipated: The projected year for no more glaciers in Glacier National Park was now 2020. I thought, Wow, my kids will be just 19 and 17 then. This is not far off in the future — it’s right around the corner.
I started thinking more and more in the fall of 2009 that we should get the kids to these places that mean so much to my wife and me as soon as we can. It wasn’t as if glaciers were going to disappear the next year. But it’s easy to get caught up in life and not achieve the goals you set, not see the places you want to see. I’ve long believed that you have to just have to get out and do things because you never know what’s in store for the future.
Q. A lot of people would love to do something like this, but they couldn’t ever dream of pulling it off. How’d you do it? What were the biggest logistical hurdles?
A. Part of the answer is that this is what I do for work. But I did this even years ago, before I made a living at it. Planning 11 major trips in a year’s time is definitely a lot of work. I researched where to go, reserved permits, arranged travel (some trips involved flights and lodging), packed and sorted and dried out and repacked gear numerous times, wrote hundreds of emails to outfitters and other people in the know, and figured out where to shoehorn each trip into the calendar. We made six of the 11 trips between late June and late August 2010; we weren’t at home very much that summer, and that alone can get tiring. In the busy lives that most people lead, to do things like this you have to plan months in advance and put dates on the calendar, or it’ll never happen.
But that said, we don’t look back on that year and think about the hassle of trip planning and travel. We think back on all the amazing experiences we had and the places we saw. At one point during our last trip for this book, canoeing in the Ten Thousand Islands of Everglades National Park, right after my son, who had turned 10 by then, and I had sat in our canoe watching a dolphin swim laps around a small bay for about 20 minutes, he said to me, totally unprompted: “You know, Dad, thinking back on this past year, and all the trips we’ve done, I think it might be my best year ever.”
My kids gleaned a rare kind of perspective from this experience that I believe will guide them for the rest of their lives.
Q. Were you worried for your kids? How did you deal with issues of safety?
A. I think it’s natural for any parent to worry more than necessary and it’s probably impossible to cure yourself of worrying. Penny and I had long, serious conversations about the wisdom of taking young kids backpacking in grizzly country; or sea kayaking in waters patrolled by orcas, where capsizing could mean dying of hypothermia within 15 minutes; paddling among alligators in the Everglades; or rock climbing, among other concerns. We’ve had the misfortune of seeing people die in backcountry accidents, so we know how dangerous the wilderness can be.
But frankly, I’m more worried about my kids growing up without a love of the outdoors than I am about their safety in the backcountry. I take the same approach when they’re with me in the wilderness as I always have on my own trips. I want to know as much as I can about the environment we’re entering and how to manage its potential hazards. I explain this stuff to them; they’re remarkably good about avoiding dangers, although I still keep a close eye on them. I think that, statistically, they’re at greater risk on the drive to the park than they are on the trail.
Q. Which place was your favorite? How about for Nate, Alex, and Penny?
A. We’d all rank sea kayaking in Glacier Bay, Alaska, among our favorites. Incredible scenery with glaciated mountains rising thousands of feet straight up out of the sea, glaciers calving bus-sized blocks of ice with explosive cracks, and wildlife like you can’t see in many places: brown bears, sea lions, seals, bald eagles, an abundance of bird life. We all loved backpacking in the Grand Canyon because it’s so spectacular; the Everglades for the exotic birds, alligators (though Penny was petrified of them), gorgeous sunsets, and wilderness beach camping; as well as cross-country skiing to frozen waterfalls and thermal features in Yellowstone. I’m a big fan of Glacier National Park, where my kids saw their first mountain goat up close. Penny really liked backpacking in the North Cascades, a place where the two of us have a lot of personal history. Our kids considered backpacking the Olympic coast one of their favorites, for the fascinating sea life found in the tide pools, and, of course, because they played on the beach every day.