Review: Before They’re Gone by Michael Lanza

The Campsite Reviews Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.

By Michael Lanza
Beacon Press, Hardcover, 2012
ISBN 978-0-8070-0119-6

Reviewed by: Meghan J. Ward

Before They’re Gone, by Michael Lanza.

It is not uncommon that a person’s wild journey, adventure or ordeal winds up in the pages of a book. But sometimes that person evolves into an author through the experience, and while some have a natural talent with words, others rely heavily on their epic tale to lure in their readers.

In Michael Lanza’s Before They’re Gone, however, we have the pleasure of joining a seasoned writer on his family’s journey through several national parks, all endangered by the impacts of climate change. His mastery with the language brings us to a deeper level, one where a metaphor places us with him at the toe of a crumbling glacier or a detailed description of geological forces has you overlooking the Grand Canyon with the awe and wonder of a child.

A veteran outdoor writer, the northwest editor of Backpacker Magazine and publisher/writer at, Lanza’s personal interest in the impacts of climate change was originally ignited by a story assignment back in April of 2007 that had him skiing high into Montana’s Glacier National Park alongside scientist Dan Fagre. Fagre warned that the glaciers in this revered park “would be gone within a generation,” wrote Lanza. A passionate outdoorsman with a deep connection to these wild places, Lanza took to heart what this would mean for his own children, and felt compelled to pursue the matter further. As he writes in Before They’re Gone:

“…I suppose it was inevitable that a story that consumed me, about national parks and climate change, would eventually meld with my biggest responsibility – that the two small people whose needs and laughter fill my typical days would become part of that story.”

Alex, then 7, and Michael’s wife, Penny Beach, paddling the East River mangrove tunnels on the outskirts of the Everglades. Courtesy Michael Lanza.

In March 2010, Lanza, his wife Penny and their children, Alex (7) and Nate (9), embarked on a year-long journey through ten national parks. Before They’re Gone chronicles the adventures of Lanza’s young family as they meet the lanscape face-to-face on numerous wild excursions – paddling through webs of mangroves in the Everglades, hiking through the parched land of the Grand Canyon and stepping out of their skis for a moment to peer into colourful hot springs in Yellowstone National Park.

Beyond the beauty of these national parks, however, lies a rather concerning story of a change. Lanza goes through the painstaking research to explain how, among many changes, rising temperatures are melting glaciers into oblivion, submerging coastal areas under rising ocean levels and destroying coral reefs. And there is no need for the reader to break from the fascination that comes from Lanza’s compelling narrative when the author’s more scientific observations enter the scene. He flawlessly moves from passage to passage, weaving the story of his own family’s journeys with the stories of the landscape and revealing how they are inevitably intertwined.

Michael’s son Nate, then 9, backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon. Courtesy Michael Lanza.

Perhaps most poignant of all are Lanza’s observations about his children as they power their own way through a rugged landscape. The reader becomes enamoured by these vignettes and finds hope in Nate and Alex’s fresh perspective on places that are undergoing considerable change. It is in these observations that we understand Lanza’s motivations for taking his family on such an incredible journey through America’s national parks. These landscapes as we know them will someday be gone, and so will the next generation of children. They’ll grow up, move out and move on. It may be years before they step foot in Yellowstone, Glacier Bay or the Everglades again.

Time is of the essence, not just for our children but for ourselves. Lanza’s Before They’re Gone invites us – no, inspires us – to experience these national parks again or, in some cases, for the very first time. The author calls us to action and to consider the direct relationship between our own behaviour and the dramatic changes occurring in the wild places we hold so dear.

Thank you to Beacon Press for sending The Campsite a review copy of Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.