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WOMANLY PURSUITS\Plunging into adventure, self discovery on women-only tours.

Byline: Katy Koontz Special to the Daily News

"As a group, we don't smell half as bad as I thought we would," Becky casually commented on the final morning of our five-day, all-women sea kayaking and camping trip through Washington's San Juan Islands. Showering was a fond, week-old memory by then, and clean clothes were as rare as snow on the equator.

Eleven other women laughed and snickered in reply, many adding their own remarks on our unhygienic state. We were, indeed, a bedraggled bunch, but none of us cared. We had more important concerns to focus on, such as whether the wind would whip up whitecaps that day, what the chances were of seeing more seals on our final paddle and where the best spot was for finding fossils on the beach.

We didn't sign up for a women-only trip to be babied (we weren't) or to have a chance to complain about men or trade beauty tips. (We made only fleeting references to either subject.) The point was to learn something new in a cooperative and supportive atmosphere where we could feel free to set our own noncompetitive pace. We were after bonding, camaraderie and personal growth - and we got it.

Although sea kayaking was new to all of us, a few in the group were already wise in the ways of the wilderness. Yet no one was elevated to a higher status - each of us made her own contributions. Each day was neither a skill test nor an endurance competition. We were all equals.

We set up camp together, prepared meals together and packed gear together every day. We helped each other automatically, working as a unit, whether it was lending a hand setting up a neighbor's tent or hauling each other's kayaks out of the water.

We shared more of ourselves, too, than we might have in a mixed-sex group. Becky talked about a three-month stint as a Buddhist, Emily taught us a personality assessment tool she learned at work and used on us, and Ruthanne told us about quitting her job and putting her house on the market so she can travel around the world. Several of us discussed feelings and experiences we'd never shared before, and we found that even those of us who seemed complete opposites could enrich each others' lives to some degree.

For-women-only trips first started to gain popularity with small suppliers marketing tours locally in the mid-1980s. As the trend grew steadily, national suppliers began to offer trips, too.

Some companies, like Woodswomen - the supplier that organized our sea kayaking trip with the help of local outfitter Shearwater Adventures - offer women's vacations exclusively. Others offer such tours along with more traditional packages open to both sexes.

"When I started almost 15 years ago, people said I couldn't make a living at this because women just wouldn't leave their husbands and families to do something like this," says Susan Eckert, owner of Rainbow Adventures, a Montana-based company that offers international adventures for women over age 30.

"The first seven years were really tough, but the company's growth has been slow and steady. Now, it's much more acceptable for women to go on vacations alone."

Eckert says that a women-only trip allows participants to try everything, rather than being relegated to a particular role such as mothering.

"Women come on the trips not quite sure what they're going to get out of it, and they leave happy they did something they always wanted to do - like a secret dream they all had. They've stretched their physical limits, and they've also let their hair down and laughed for a week or more with people like themselves."

The growing popularity of women-only tours has prompted individual travel agencies to design their own such trips. One such agency is Travel Experience on Call in Santa Cruz. Owner Marie Henley also publishes Adventure Travel News for Women, a nationally distributed, 10-page newsletter printed three times a year that lists a wide variety of upcoming women's-only trips. (For a free subscription, contact Travel Experience on Call, P.O. Box 2588, Aptos, Calif. 95001; (408) 464-8035.)

"Whether they are high-powered executives or harried mothers with small children, women need vacations that snap them out of the ordinary and put them in a different environment," Henley says.

"When things get tough, women have been conditioned to lean on men," she continues. They soon find that they can't learn if they're with men who want to make all the decisions and do all the tough stuff for them. If they want to grow, women need to know they can do these activities on their own. With women-only trips, there are simply no men to fall back on."

Like our sea-kayaking journey, women-only tours are often adventure-oriented because such challenges show participants strengths they didn't know (or weren't sure) they possessed. Options range from the hard-core, Outward-Bound survivalist type to "soft" adventure tours that visit exotic locations with radically different cultures in relative comfort (no roughing-it required).

"We're seeing growth on both ends of the spectrum," says Denise Mitten, executive director of Woodswomen. "Everyone . . . wants to try it, so we have women who are more novice coming into this who want easier trips to start with. But other women who have done these trips before and are more experienced are saying to us, 'Give me more adventure ' "

While many of the trips are domestic (usually lasting a weekend or a week) the bulk are longer foreign forays - such as whitewater rafting in South America, trekking through Nepal or mountain biking in Mongolia. A few are designed for seasoned outdoorswomen, but most are open to beginners because the idea behind them is to encourage women to try new experiences.

"There are no preconceived rules on women's-only trips - like whose job it is to set up the tent and whose job it is to get everyone fed," Mitten says. "Women's-only trips gently open up a whole new horizon for most women. They're able to relax in a way they can't when they're with their husbands and families. Most women tend to take care of the other gender's feelings, letting them decide where they want to sit in the canoe or set up the tent. Our trips remove that obstacle. Women can put their energy into learning new skills rather than having to juggle for space and place."

Participants are usually single, although many (including both me and my paddling partner, Sue) are happily married and traveling sans spouse. All ages are welcomed (Mitten says the average age of participants on her trips is "40-something," up from 28 in the early 1980s), and even women in their 60s and 70s have signed up for such arduous excursions as mountain biking and mountain climbing. Many group members remain friends long after their vacation is over, and some even plan reunion trips.

Although our trip officially ended after lunch on the last day, we regrouped for dinner that night. Sheri, our Woodswomen guide, had fascinated us all week long with talk of the company's mountaineering adventures for beginners - especially the part about the nighttime climbs to see the sun rise from the summit of Washington state's Mount Baker.

Our questions had changed slightly in focus from the beginning of the week. We'd started out asking where climbers slept, what sort of makeshift bathroom facilities they used and how strenuous the climbing was. On this last night, we wanted to know what type of gear one might need for such a trip and how one might get in shape for the venture.

"Now what did you say those dates are?" Ruthanne asked, not altogether casually, pen poised. She'll have company.

On location

The following outfitters and tour operators offer a wide range of domestic and international trips for women only, covering everything from in-your-face adventure travel to more cushy tours. Costs average between $100 and $200 per day, excluding air fare. Participants may be required to provide some equipment, such as a sleeping bag.:

Call of the Wild, 2519 Cedar St., Berkeley, Calif. 94708; (510) 849-9292: Offers backpacking, walking and hiking trips in California, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii.

Colorado Outward Bound School, 945 Pennsylvania St., Denver, Colo. 80203; (800) 477-2627: Offers five-day, women's empowerment trips in Colorado, combining activities such as rock climbing, backpacking and a ropes course. Also offers 10-day alpine mountaineering trips in Colorado and 10-day expedition backpacking trips in Utah's Canyonlands.

Journeys Unlimited, P.O. Box 22331, Santa Fe, N.M. 87502-2331; (800) 333-7574: Offers mostly easygoing tours of South and Central America emphasizing cultural education.

Kim Reichhelm's Women's Ski Adventures, 237 Post Road West, Westport, Conn. 06880; (800) 992-7700: Founded and operated by a former U.S. Ski Team member who is also the 1991 World Extreme Skiing Champion. Offers ski seminars in Colorado and Wyoming for women of all ability levels.

Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, P.O. Box 248, Point Richmond, Calif. 94807; (800) 462-7424: California's only woman-owned and operated white-water rafting company. Offers rafting trips in California, Oregon, Utah and Arizona, as well as both rafting and land trips in Costa Rica, sea kayaking trips in Baja and adventure cruises in Belize.

Outdoor Vacations for Women Over 40, P.O. Box 200, Groton, Mass. 01450; (508) 448-3331: Offers a very wide range of both domestic and international rafting, hiking, biking, sailing and canoeing trips lead by guides who are also trained instructors for the trip's featured activity.

Rainbow Adventures, 15033 Kelly Canyon Road, Bozeman, Mont. 59715; (800) 804-8686: Offers a very wide range of both domestic and international wilderness adventures, rated according to challenge level, for women over 30.

Sheri Griffith Expeditions, P.O. Box 1324, Moab, Utah 84532; (800) 332-3200: Owned and operated by the first woman president of the Western River Guides Association and the first female outfitter in Utah. Offers float trips and whitewater rafting trips in Utah.

Woodswomen, 25 W. Diamond Lake Road, Minneapolis, Minn. 55419; (800) 279-0555: Offers outdoor adventures such as whitewater rafting and dog sledding in Minnesota, cruising the Galapagos Islands, biking in Cozumel and France, scuba diving in Mexico, trekking in Nepal and the Swiss Alps and skiing on an Alaskan glacier.

Womanship, the Boathouse, 410 Severn Ave., Annapolis, Md. 21403; (800) 342-9295: Offers live-aboard sailing courses in New England, the Chesapeake Bay, Florida, California and the Pacific Northwest as well as in the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Greece, New Zealand and Tahiti. Women of all abilities welcome. Offshore, one-day and specialty clinics (including mother-daughter programs) are also available.

Women in the Wilderness, 566 Ottawa Ave., St. Paul, Minn. 55107; (612) 227-2284: Offers canoeing, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, dogsledding, sailing, sea kayaking and nature study trips in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, Colorado, Alaska, Canada's Northwest Territories and Ontario, as well as Baja, the Virgin Islands, the Peruvian rain forest, Greece, and Finnish Lapland.

Women for Sail, 21676 Superior Lane, Lake Forest, Calif. 92630; (800) 346-6404: Offers live-aboard sailing instruction in Key West, Fla.; Annapolis, Md., and San Diego, Calif., as well as in the British Virgin Islands, Thailand, France and Greece. Courses available for both beginners and more experienced sailors.


PHOTO[ordinal indicator, masculine]CHART

(1 -- color) A Rainbow Adventures guide leads a group of women on a camel safari in Kenya. (2 -- color) A group of hikers celebrates at the top of the Continental Divide in Colorado. Susan L. Eckert/Rainbow Adventures (3 -- color) Valerie Austin kayaks along the Amazon in Peru. Women-only trips like this build camaraderie and confidence, tour operators say. Judith Niemi/Women in the Wilderness (4 -- color) Women pool their skills to negotiate a stretch of whitewater. Without more experienced outdoorsmen to rely on, women discover their own capabilities. Sherri Griffith Expeditions (5) Lynn Davis of Alaska cools off in the Thelon River in Canada's Northwest Territory. Judith Niemi/Women in the Wilderness Box On location (see text)
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 25, 1996

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