Before They’re Gone: Interview with Author Michael Lanza

Photo Credit: Michael Lanza

Michael Lanza’s book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks (Beacon Press), traces his journey to show his kids iconic national parks that could be altered forever by climate change. 

He is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine and the creator of TheBigOutside.com, where he shares his stories and images from his outdoor adventures, many of them with his family, in the U.S. and around the world. So now – here is my interview with Michael Lanza, author of Before They’re Gone


Brian: What was the motivation behind your book, Before They’re Gone, and this idea to take your kids—who were just 9 and 7 when you started—on this year of wilderness trips in national parks?

Michael: I’ve seen for many years how much natural landscapes are changing. Just look at maps, many of which are based on decades-old USGS data—most glaciers are smaller than shown on maps, and lakes have either replaced former glacier-covered ground or dried up. “Perennial” snowfields have disappeared from many mountain ranges. It can be disorienting—I’ve puzzled over my exact location more than once. But more than that, I’ve felt sad, awed, and deeply disturbed over the idea that our lifestyles are actually altering the face of the planet. I worry a lot about where this is leading us.

In April 2007, working on a story for Backpacker, I skied into the Northern Rockies in Glacier National Park with federal scientist Dan Fagre, who forecasts that the glaciers in the park will disappear by 2020. It struck me that my kids will be just 19 and 17 then. I did more research and discovered that many parks face similar threats from climate change that will make them very different places by the time my kids are my age. That’s when I got the idea to spend a year taking our kids on as many national park wilderness adventures as we could squeeze in.

It wasn’t that we had to take all these trips in one year. But as I write in my book’s Prologue, I think it’s easy to get caught up in life and not achieve the goals you set or see the places you want to see. I’ve long believed that you just have to get out and do things, because you never know what’s in store or when you’ll get the opportunity again.

Photo Credit: Michael Lanza

BG: Where does a family that has no outdoor experience start if they want to begin taking their kids outdoors?

ML: I know many parents either aren’t sure where to start or worry about safety or how well their family will handle the outdoors. The good news is that it’s much easier than people often realize.

Start on the Web or at a magazine stand or even ask friends on Facebook for ideas. Many state and national parks are set up for inexperienced outdoorspeople, with abundant information on scenic hikes of all lengths and difficulty levels. Trails are often well marked. Yellowstone is a perfect park for a beginner family, or for very young kids who can’t walk far, because the major thermal features and other attractions require walking only 20 to 30 minutes from a parking lot.

Closer to home, many communities have local trails, parks, nature centers, or other places where parents can take kids for an entry-level outdoor experience. Parents can find outdoor clubs, conservation organizations, school-based groups, and gear retailers that offer clinics, organized hikes, and events where you can meet other families.

Think about what you can do that’s within your family’s physical abilities, skills, and mental comfort zone.

Learning anything is a process. Parents don’t have to figure out all the answers before they try something. Spend more time doing this stuff and you’ll grow more comfortable and independent. No better time to start than now.

Photo Credit: Michael Lanza

BG: What specific tips would you offer parents who want to raise their kids to love the outdoors?

ML:

  1. Don’t wait. Start taking kids outdoors before they can walk. Make it part of your family lifestyle, so it seems normal to them.
  2. Get rid of that baby stroller. Have your toddler walk everywhere you go. Bike around town instead of driving. Get them used to self-powered travel and they’ll be stronger and more enthusiastic hikers.
  3. Unless your kids are older and you’re confident of their physical and mental readiness for a big trip, start small and take baby steps in your progression toward bigger challenges. Work gradually up to longer hikes or all-day outings, and then to multi-day trips.
  4. Bring your kids’ favorite candy bar and stuffed animal.
  5. Establish a rule up front: no whining. But also explain to your kids what you’ll be doing and encourage them to tell you when they’re nervous or not comfortable with something, or tired or hungry. Create a dynamic where you and your child communicate positively and everyone will be happier.
  6. I’ve been reminded many times that a tired kid is often just a hungry kid. They don’t have nearly the fat reserves and muscle mass that adults have, so they need to rest and refuel with food and water much more frequently than we do—sometimes every hour. Look for signs like grumpiness, a slowing pace, growing quiet, or a faraway look. Remind them frequently to take a drink. I have many times seen a kid turn 180 degrees in mood and energy level after a 10-minute rest and a fat chocolate bar.
  7. Use positive reinforcement: compliment them when they do well, encourage them when they’re challenged. Tell your kids they’re good hikers and they will take pride in that.
  8. When your child is a teenager, invite along his or her friend who’s interested in the outdoors.
  9. I like to talk about our upcoming trips with my kids as I’m planning—it gets them excited, building anticipation and setting up a good experience. It also lets them feel they’re part of the planning process, which helps get their buy-in with the plan.
  10. Don’t be wedded to an agenda. Keep it fun for kids, let them explore streams and play. Whether hiking with kids or on a serious mountain climb, I think people get into trouble most often because they focus too much on the destination, overlooking that it’s all about the journey.

BG: You write in detail about the impacts of climate change already underway and accelerating in nature. Is it too late to fix this problem?

ML: That question is central to the whole conversation about climate change. I think that we humans prefer to look at a problem in terms as simple as possible, and to believe there’s a solution. Addressing climate change is daunting and depressing in part because of its complexity and the easy perception that the situation is hopeless.

Of course, if a child faced an unavoidable dilemma that seemed insurmountable to him or her, we wouldn’t say, “You’ll never be able to find a solution to that, it’s hopeless, so just forget about it.” We’d help or encourage that child to figure it out. Our climate dilemma is bigger than anything we’ve ever faced, but many good ideas for addressing it have been put on the table by many smart people. Global warming will not go away, but it will continue to worsen if we ignore it. We can avoid the worst impacts.

As I wrote in my book, “In spite of the overwhelming weight of science, we’ve failed to gather the momentum of honesty required to do what is necessary and right.” We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do much better than that.

BG: What important lesson(s) do you hope that readers of this book will glean from it?

ML: On the surface, my book is about my family and the wonderful experiences we shared, which I know have already benefited all of us in many ways—and especially Nate and Alex, because they’re so young and impressionable. I hope other families will be inspired to take similar adventures. We too often think our kids can’t do something that’s physically challenging, or we worry that it’s unsafe. Kids are resilient and endlessly curious. Nate and Alex constantly surprise and impress me with how much they can do and how enthusiastic they are about our adventures.

I also hope the deeper message in my book, about climate change, helps motivate people to take action. We aren’t complacent about making sure our kids get a good education or teaching them to make smart, safe decisions. If we’re concerned for their future, we have to be equally engaged in this critical issue of climate, which will shape their future.

We have to make the connection between our behaviors and choices and climate—we all make decisions every day that affect those glaciers melting away in Glacier National Park. Beyond that, we have to insist that our elected leaders take aggressive action to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels at a societal level. We have to act with our voices and our votes. Our kids and our parks need us.

Don’t forget to check out Michael Lanza’s book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks (Beacon Press).

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  • The Raj

    Many time reader, first time poster. Brian, I want to thank you for your inspiring posts.

    I agree 100% with what is said here, there is nothing better than starting them young. My three – oldest (just 5) through my youngest (10 months) join me regularly on day hikes up to 10 km. the oldest has been walking the whole way since age 4.

    Take it slow, build it gradual, ensure there is a major draw card along the way (the “giants cave” and the “lighthouse on the hill” and other such features are immense motivator, and so too are snacks).

    Enjoy the time with the kids – there is no rush and there can never be any urgency (or you will end up lugging three of them!).

    Just starting to contemplate my first overnighter with the oldest (it will also be my first – something I always wanted to do growing up, but parents never found the time, and got too preoccupied in my teens). I know he’s going to love it.

    The underlying message is sobering though. Makes me want to research the implications here in Australia.

    Excellent post.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      I could not have said it better. My favorite backpacking trips are the ones I take with my children. Their ability to be inspired by the smallest of details, that I have long since taken for granted, reminds me what is was like to be so inquisitive.

      My children are 6 and 8 yet they still love spending time outdoors and learning new skills. It doesn’t take much to encourage their curiosity and engage with them on just about any outdoor task. They’re excited to learn their own way as long as their is some guidance and help when needed.

      I highly recommend Michael’s book if you are just getting started. He’ll give you a lot of tips and pointers for keeping them excited and interested.

      Please let me know how it goes with you kids, I’d love to hear more form you as you progress, especially after your first overnighter!

  • Backpacking Kids

    Brian, thanks so much for the interview and sharing this book. I might not have found it without you. I checked and they have it at the Nook Book Store, so I will be downloading it tonight!

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      I’m so happy to hear that you found it because of this post. Michael is already very well known in the backpacking community but his book struck a chord with me and I could see parallels with the progress I have made with my two small kids. I wanted to share it with my audience, many of whom have kids that they want to introduce to the great outdoors and hopefully pass along a passion and healthy respect for the places we all love.

  • http://fimby.tougas.net Renee @ FIMBY

    Brian, this is a great interview. Thank you for Michael. I especially love your tips. Start em young, build up to longer hikes, lots of food, and no whining!

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      You guys are way ahead already, but Michael’s book provides lots of practical advise for parents trying to figure out how to start there kids off outdoors. I’ve been doing this slowly with my two kids for years and find almost everything that Michael has mentioned to be spot on. This would be a highly recommended Christmas gift for outdoorsy parents.

  • http://twitter.com/MikkelSoya Mikkel Soya Bølstad

    Brilliant post, Brian. I
    couldn’t agree more with both the post and the comments – kids in
    general love to be outdoors if you let them. It’s one of the best
    gifts we can deliver our kids. And the feeling when the kids start
    asking for the next overnight trip is just fantastic.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Well said. Seeing my own kids go from being nervous, to curious, to inspired was one of the best things I can remember. The hikes I go on with them are some of my favorites even though they’re often quite local. Good times, happy memories!