The Interview: Peter Grubb, ROW Adventures
Thirty years is a long time in any business, but an eternity in the world of adventure travel. Back in 1979, Peter Grubb founded ROW Adventures as a whitewater rafting company. But it soon expanded, with the addition of Peter’s wife and partner, Betsy Bowen, to Turkey and Greece and Croatia.
At a time when the phrase “adventure travel” was just beginning to be used, ROW was pioneering trips around the world. Now you’d come to ROW if you were interested in wetting a fly line in Idaho, seeing the Galapagos Islands from a small boat or trekking the once forbidden turf of Algeria. The company was singled out as one of the Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth by National Geographic Adventure for 2009. I caught up with Peter in Sao Paulo and had a chance to ask him about his company.
Where have you just returned from?
The Pantanal Region of Brazil where I participated in an eight-day tour to explore the area, visit various accommodations and try a number of activities.
Tell us a bit about your background and how ROW was founded?
I grew up the son of two school teachers. My father taught biology and botany and early on instilled an environmental ethic. Travel and time in nature were always priorities in our family and any extra money was spent on these experiences rather than newer cars or more TVs (which we weren’t allowed to watch much of anyway.) When I was seven my folks loaded their five kids, ages 7-18 onto a train and we crossed the US to New York. There we boarded the SS Ryndam of Holland America Lines for a seven-day crossing of the Atlantic. I believe passage was $125 per child and about $200 per adult, round trip.
On arrival in Rotterdam we had a VW Van delivered to us courtesy of two great aunts Olive and Florence. We then spent five months in Europe, from February to June, 1965, staying in youth hostels and living for very little. We spent a month in a small house in Ansedonia, near Orbetello, Italy where there were Etruscan ruins not far away. That trip instilled in me a great love for history and especially ancient history.
Between my junior and senior years in highschool I lived with a French family near Marseille. I traveled to Algeria, hitched along the northern coast to Oran, and continued to Morocco. Later that year, I drove with the French family to Turkey, visited northern Greece, and went through Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia in Yugoslavia. I came home with a pretty good working knowledge of French and without knowing it, the kernals for ROW’s international trip program. I graduated from high school in California in 1975, worked all summer and with about $2,300 set off for a year to explore the world.
And how did you get into rafting?
I went to St. John’s College, the “great books” school in Annapolis, MD. After two years, I started guiding rafting trips in West Virginia and loved it. Rather than going back to school I returned home for some knee surgery and while recovering got my private pilot’s license and a job as a guide in Idaho.
I came to Idaho in 1979 and found a real calling in guiding people on multi-day wilderness rafting trips. I loved sharing nature, the wilderness and the overall experience with people. After my second season as a guide, in the fall of 1979, I established ROW.
I met my wife, Betsy Bowen, in 1982 when she came to work as a guide, and as we were planning our honeymoon in 1984. I suggested we go to Turkey on a yachting trip and visit Troy too (couple below). In researching this I discovered we couldn’t afford to do this alone, so we put it in the 1984 ROW brochure and sent a letter out to the few hundred ROW guests we had (all of whom were on trips with either Betsy or me or both of us) to see if they’d like to go on our honeymoon. We got eight people to sign up for a 12-day trip for $1,100.
This was the beginning of our international division. After the trip the two of us traveled around Turkey on our own for a few weeks. From 1985-90 we returned to Greece and Turkey every year to lead trips. After leading the trips we would then travel to various parts of the world. In 1988 we offered a new trip in Croatia, an idea spawned from my 1974 car trip through the area. We did one in 88 and one in 89 and then the Berlin Wall fell and war came. We resumed those in 1998. We kept adding trips and destinations, at home or abroad on average of one or two every year.
You also have a resort in Idaho?
We built our own resort in 2003-2005, the River Dance Lodge, on the banks of the Clearwater River in central Idaho. This is our base for wild whitewater trips on the Lochsa as well as gentle float trips on the Selway and Clearwater and fly fishing trips.
How would you characterize the ROW approach?
Superlative guides, responsible travel ethics and attention to every detail. The personal handprints of Betsy and myself are on everything we do. I never figured out how to grow quickly or widely like some larger companies have, but we’ve grown bit by bit and have an eclectic collection of trips. It starts when someone calls us and speaks to someone who has actually been on the trip. We do our best to listen and recommend a trip that truly fits a person’s desires and understand their expectations.
What makes ROW stand out in the rather crowded field of adventure travel?
Same ownership for 30 years. When the world throws a curve ball it’s good to have our experience on your side. We run all our trips with a high guide to guest ratio. Our trips are also small trips. Most international trips are limited to 12 guests. We have a strong emphasis on risk management. We embrace “responsible travel” ethics and do our best to operate our trips and entire company along these principles. We provide a high level of service on all our trips.
Our rafting trips feature a cargo raft that goes ahead of the group and sets up camp. Guides are divided into a kitchen crew and guest crew with the guest crew duties being to spend time with guests taking them on a hike, sharing a hot spring or fly fishing lesson.
Domestic and international itineraries are carefully planned and designed to provide an in-depth look at a smaller area rather than a superficial view of a large area. Our US-based guides are all trained in natural and cultural history interpretation and we are the only adventure company I know with over 75% of our guides trained as “Certified Interpretive Guides” through the National Association of Interpretation. Our goal is to connect people in a personally relevant and meaningful way to the resource (river, canyon, place, etc.) so that they will be more interested in taking an active role in preservation and/or conservation of it. Our international guides are quite good in this area as well.
Sailing in Croatia
How about the demographics of your travelers. Where are they from, their backgrounds and ages? Solo, couples or both?
On our domestic trips I’d say ages 30-60 is our most common age range and they come from all over the USA and Canada with 50% on each side of the Mississippi. On our international trips it’s more of a 35-70 age range, again geographically spread. We do get some international guests as well. Generally they are educated white collar types who are curious, flexible travelers. They have various levels of travel experience.
I want to hear more about your fly fishing trips, since you’re based in Idaho and your trips have a Western rivers focus, which tells me you’re tapping local knowledge.
We have a year round fly fishing manager who also guides some of the time along with a local crew of four guides who lead one to three day trips on the rivers of North Idaho such as the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene. These rivers feature western cutthroat trout. We also do wilderness fly fishing trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and Snake in Hells Canyon. These are mostly in the late summer and early fall. We’ve got more details at the ROW site.
How about your guides — do you work with people who are based in a given destination or do you send out your own guides?
Internationally, we work solely with local guides. I sometimes also go on a trip, but as an additional resource. These guides are superb – knowledgeable in natural and/or cultural history, fluent in English, natural leaders, fun and service oriented. Most of our river guides in the US are from the West.
Where are you off to next?
Hopefully to lead our first ROW trip to Algeria (above).
For more information, visit ROW Adventures.