New York Times August 2004

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JOURNEYS Into the Wilderness, Kids in Tow

by Caren Osten Gerszberg

LAST summer, when others on her biking trip through the Grand Tetons had dropped by the wayside, Sophie Conant refused to give in. As biker after biker accepted a lift from the ''SAG wagon'' provided by the outfitter, Austin-Lehman Adventures, she kept peddaling. Then, as one of the nine riders on the trip to make it to the top of 8,400-foot Taylor Mountain, she celebrated her achievement in the bar -- with a Shirley Temple. Sophie was 11.

Whether it's running the Salmon River in a raft, mountain biking in Utah's red-rock country or rock climbing in the Northern Cascades, a growing number of those taking part in adventure travels are still shopping in the children's department. In the last three years, the family trip has become the fastest-growing segment of the adventure travel industry, with some outfitters seeing increases of more than 70 percent in the number of family bookings, according to Larry Mogelonsky, executive director of Adventure Collection, an association of adventure tour operators. ''Successful adventure travel operators are developing specialized itineraries and creating family-style trips to ensure that the demand is met,'' Mr. Mogelonsky said.

Indeed, according to the most recent annual survey by the market research firm Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell, of more than 1,300 people on what types of vacations they take each year, the number of adventure trips doubled from last year to this year. The luxury adventure outfit Butterfield & Robinson started its ''With the Kids'' program in 2000, offering 18 destinations. This year, it lists more than 50 family trips, with destinations broken down by age (children 5 and over can bike Ireland on a tandem with their parents, while teenagers can walk the Inca Trail in Peru with Mom and Dad). Even more spartan operators, like the mountain biking outfitter Western Spirit, have had a steady 30 percent annual increase in their family trips. And OARS, a big whitewater rafting company, had so many families that wanted to go paddling that it added 15 child friendly trips on rivers in Canada and the United States in the last three years. The growth in family adventure is just part of an increased emphasis on domestic travel after 9/11, with families, especially, looking to vacation within the United States. ''In the last several years, adventure outfitters have been scrambling to add domestic trips to their line up,'' said Leslie Weeden, travel director at Outside magazine. Add baby-boomer parents who may have hiked, biked or climbed before they had children, and who want to introduce their offspring to the joys of the outdoor life, and you have the makings of a boom.

''We've seen unprecedented growth in our three-to-five-day family adventures,'' said Steve Markle, an OARS spokesman. ''We're seeing a lot of our loyal boomer travelers now bringing, not only their kids, but their grandchildren, too.''
FOR families, going with an outfitter means they don't have to do all the planning or buy child-size equipment that they may never use again. ''I wanted a trip where I didn't have to cook, clean or take care of the kids,'' said Nancy McRae, a freelance writer from Coronado, Calif., who has taken her two sons, Austen, 15, and Ian, 12, on four family mountain bike trips with Western Spirits, based in Moab, Utah. ''I wanted to go with a guided group so if first aid, rain gear or extra water were needed, it would be taken care of.'' But these expeditions are far from the old-fashioned family camping trip, with a tent and a propane cook stove.

On Mountain Travel Sobek's trips, guests dine on filet mignon and Napa Valley wine and cap off the trip with a dinner that includes caviar and champagne. Families can snuggle in roomy four-person dome tents (pitched by the guides), and kick back in the comfortable camping chairs that are also provided. Other outfitters, like Austin-Lehman and Butterfield & Robinson, forgo tents altogether in favor of inns and lodges. That's what attracted Hope Bennett of Ambler, Pa., to Butterfield & Robinson's bear- and whale-watching trip to British Columbia last summer. ''We always stayed in really nice places, and the guides would do anything to make the trip more comfortable,'' said Ms. Bennett, who took three of her grandchildren, ages 10 to 12, along. ''There were no nitty-gritty details to worry about.''

In many cases, the family-specific trips are scaled-down versions of the outfitters' regular itineraries. On its Trail of the Ancients family bicycle trip, Western Spirit starts off with a flat morning ride of between four and eight miles, then lets children ride in a van to the end of the day's ride. Adult versions of the same trip cover as many as 28 miles in a single day, with climbs as long a six miles. On its family floats, OARS carries double kayaks, so parents and children can paddle together, and the toughest rapid is a class 3, much more manageable than the class 4 or 5 rivers on the adults-only trips. Other outfitters, like Backroads, out of Berkeley, Calif., have come up with special child-oriented expeditions, combining activities like biking, hiking and rafting. ''The multisport concept works well for kids,'' said Tom Hale, Backroads president.
Many outfitters also send along a special guide, so if parents want to take a more strenuous hike or longer bike ride, the children can stay behind and take part in a scavenger hunt or go on a side trip to a hot spring. ''We don't want kids to get frustrated,'' said Ashley Korenblat, an owner of Western Spirit.

Of course, none of this is exactly cheap. For a family of four, a five-day OARS rafting and camping trip on the Lower Salmon River in Idaho will run about $3,500. An inn-based, six-day multisport trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons with Backroads can cost as much as $8,500 for a family of four. Five days of rafting the Rogue River with the luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent runs about $1,700 a person, including automatic membership in the company's Young Explorers Club for children ages 6 to 17. The perks: a baseball cap and a backpack filled with trip-related games, a travel journal, an atlas and souvenirs.

The cost didn't bother Bill Casazza, a corporate lawyer from Avon, Conn., who has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and traveled to a Mount Everest base camp on guided expeditions. Last summer, he and his wife took their two children, 10 and 13 at the time, on a whitewater rafting trip in Idaho with Mountain Travel Sobek instead of a more typical resort trip. ''There wasn't an Ipod, Walkman or DVD player in sight, Mr. Casazza, said happily.

But even though the outfitter made them pancakes for breakfast and carried along a portable heated shower, the Cassazas discovered that even family adventure is not risk free. After Mr. Casazza had successfully navigated his kayak through crashing Class 4 rapids, he looked back to find that one of the group's guides had pulled a raft ashore -- the one that his 10-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, had been riding in. Screaming Kaitlin's name, the guide ran up stream, jumping over boulders along the bank of the river, preparing to throw a rescue line and jump in himself. As he made his way over the rocks, Kaitlin, who had been catapulted from her raft in the rapids, emerged from beneath the water, her life vest still on. At that moment, a college-age kayaker paddled over to the girl, who reached out to grab his inflatable kayak. She held on as he brought her, shaken but unharmed, to calm water and safety. (Mr. Markle of OARS said that about 1 in 50 of his company's rafters ''take a swim'' and that all are aware beforehand of the possibility.)

Would Mr. Casazza's family do another adventure trip? ''Absolutely,'' he said.