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AdventureWomen Trek Across the Globe

by Rachel L. Miller

Susan Eckert admits she's pretty jaded.

As the president of AdventureWomen, an adventure travel tour company for women over 30, she's seen places most of us have only dreamed about — from Nepal to Indonesia, Alaska to the Serengeti, the Virgin Islands to the Galapagos Islands — and she doesn't hesitate before stating it takes quite a bit to impress her.

But then, in February, she went on the first AdventureWomen trip to Antarctica.

Susan Eckert in Antarctica
Photo © AdventureWomen

"It's the most awesome experience," she said during our telephone interview. "You can see pictures but it's not the same as actually being on a Russian ice breaker, looking up at all of these gigantic icebergs. It's just beyond comprehension until you're there, looking at it."

The trip, which took over five years to research and plan, is the one that ranks as most memorable for Eckert, not only for the magnificent scenery but for the 20th anniversary celebration of AdventureWomen that took place on the boat.

"On the trip, there were 11 women plus me," Eckert, 55, says. "The women on that trip were repeat customers, having been on 70 trips with us in the past 20 years. It was like family — we made a banner, had sparklers. What better place to celebrate than in Antarctica, at the end of the Earth?"

She's definitely come a long way in the 20 years (figuratively and literally) since she launched the business in Chicago in 1982, specializing in weekend getaways for women to nearby Wisconsin.

"The idea originated when I was in my 30s, in grad school. I used to go away hiking, rafting, canoeing. I didn't have the money for that so I'd have people pay my way and I'd be their guide. I noticed that many of the people were married women who just wanted to get away for the weekend."

Eckert soon became discouraged with grad school and quit, ("I didn't want to quit because I'm not a quitter, but I was very determined to start the business.") plunging her lifelong savings of $25,000 into her new business.

"Financially, it was very difficult," she said. "The $25,000 was my whole life. It was very hard to use it for lawyers and PR firms."

She had gone to banks for a loan, but wasn't met with a positive response.

"The people at the bank laughed at me," Eckert said. "They said, 'No one's ever going to give you money to do that.' It seemed like this little niche market, little did they know that 20 years later it'd be the hot thing."

An AdventureWomen trip: canoeing the Lewis and Clark trail on the Missouri River in Montana
Photo © AdventureWomen

Eventually, Eckert branched out her tours (five to seven a year) to include hiking in the Grand Tetons, canoeing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters and down Utah's Green River, but those trips were a far cry (in terms of luxury level) from those she runs today.

"They were what are now called extreme adventure - we carried our canoes, our food and clothes and I cooked for everyone. We don't do that anymore — we use llamas, sherpas and camels to carry our things. People who have been traveling with me for 20 years still say, 'Remember when we did that?'"

Business continued to slowly build for Eckert and in 1994, she moved the business from Chicago to Montana.

"I moved because Montana is the most beautiful place in the United States," she says. "I used to come out here for my personal vacations — I did that for 10 years and every time I came out, I felt that I had to live here."

So she did, building a log house on 20 acres of land in Bozeman, at the base of the Bridger Mountains, which rise to an elevation of 10,000 feet. The business continued to expand until this year when she offered a total of 30 trips.

And then the events of Sept. 11 changed everything.

"We had to cancel our Vietnam trip and a trip to northern India because of 9-11," she says. "This is not your typical travel year. People are sticking closer to home — our domestic trips are still doing well. But I'm not really feeling a resurgence yet. We could lose a full year because the uncertainty of everything has affected people — and trips like ours take some planning."

Susan Eckert in Kenya with Samburu Dancer
Photo © AdventureWomen

Although she admits the past few months have been "a bit depressing," she is eagerly looking forward to the 2003 schedule of AdventureWomen trips, which include another voyage to Antarctica.

"So many people think normal people can't go to Antarctica. They ask, 'Why would you want to go there?'"

Here's Eckert's answer, spoken with extreme enthusiasm: "There are all of these animals: penguins, whales, seals, sea lions and so many birds. We were standing on the bow of the boat one evening and 30 whales were jumping around. And we're talking 30 huge whales. No matter where you looked, you saw whales. It was amazing."

The Antarctica trip is priced at $8,995 and is all-inclusive from Miami, but if that's too rich for your blood (or if you'd rather explore a warmer climate), there are plenty of other options.

For example, there's always Africa. A two-week excursion to East Africa, exploring Tanzania, features a walking safari, glittering beaches and a killer view of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Or how about sailing in the Caribbean? This voyage includes lodging on the world's largest trimaran, snorkeling in the turquoise waters of the British Virgin Islands, sea kayaking and more.

It was actually following a past trip to the Virgin Islands that Eckert received some of the best praise in the history of AdventureWomen.

"A working-class woman from Massachusetts told me, 'Y'know what? This is the single best thing I've ever done for myself.' It's comments like that that keep me working hard at putting on quality trips. Women go home, feeling refreshed and confident."

It's probably those feelings that keeps them coming back for more — Eckert says 60 to 70 percent of her travelers are repeat customers.

But if you want to jump on board for a future excursion, you must meet two requirements: you must be a woman and at least 30 years old.

"We had a mom who waited 13 years to bring her daughter on one of our trips," Eckert said. "They just celebrated her 30th birthday on our Nepal trek."

As far as physical condition is concerned, Eckert says participants need not be athletic. "We've got trips (such as the Virgin Islands voyage) that are rated easy and are perfect for beginners."

Other trips Eckert recommends for beginners are the Montana Cowgirl Experience (horseback riding, fly-fishing, rafting), Horsepacking in Banff and the New Mexico Sampler (moderate walking and paddle rafting). All AdventureWomen trips are rated as easy, moderate or high energy, so it's simple to find one that fits your physical condition and needs.

But why would a woman want to take an AdventureWomen trip instead of one with her significant other or a co-ed adventure trip?

"The majority of the women on our trips are married. Going on a coed trip wouldn't be as comfortable, plus their husbands are more comfortable with them going on an all-women trip. They come because they can let their hair down, they don't have to compete. It's like a big pajama party. The camaraderie is amazing. They laugh and have fun and don't have to wear make-up or look good for anyone."

The typical AdventureWoman is, according to Eckert, "a pretty ordinary woman who decides she wants to do something different on vacation."

Her customers are mostly in their late 40s, early 50s, but she gets women as old as 79 traveling with her.

"When women are in their middle years, they're more likely to try different things," Eckert said. "We are the quintessential Baby Boomers, this huge demographic blip. Some women go on their first trip with us and are smokers, are overweight and are not eating right and before you know it, they come back for another trip, changed. They want to do something to say, 'Look, I've changed. I don't want to just sit on a beach for my vacation.'"

AdventureWomen exploring Antarctica
Photo © AdventureWomen

As for other women, Eckert says, "their husbands travel all the time for work and don't want to go on a vacation. And the woman are left saying, 'I've stayed home, I've raised the kids, I want to do something different. I want to see the world, be active.'"

Eckert joins about five of the tours each year, usually going on the new ones and those that are offered abroad.

Her job may sound perfect, but she is quick to mention that most of her time isn't spent on the road traveling, but in the office, planning and researching.

"There are times when I tire of it all," she admits. "I get sick of being in the office — people don't understand what it takes to put together thirty trips a year. It's 99 percent office work, one percent going on the trips."

Eckert does much of the trip planning, having only one full-time office manager and a temporary worker to help out. "Sometimes I get sick of the 16-hour days," she said. "Yes, it's a dream job, but I don't think most people would want to work this hard for it."

Not having remarried since her divorce in 1978, she says work keeps her too busy. "I'm married to my business," Eckert says, laughing. "Working consumes me since it's such a high-energy business. It wouldn't be the same business if I had a family."

She hopes to cut back on the trip schedules next year so she can have some free time, which she'd eventually like to spend with her Icelandic horse and enjoying the view from her Montana home.

"Right now I'm looking outside and watching a red-tailed hawk land on a Douglas fir tree," she tells me.

Being a suburb dweller, I emit sounds like "ohhhhh" and "ahhhhh," completely amazed and envious.

But wait, there's more.

Eckert continues, "I see moose walking through my backyard. I look out my window at the Bridger Mountains and see bald eagles, mountain lions, bears."

With such scenery as a backdrop for her everyday life, Eckert has just cause for being a little jaded.