The History of ROW Adventures by founder Peter Grubb
Celebrating 43 Years of Active, Transformational Travel!
ROW Adventures is the life passion of myself and my wife, Betsy Bowen. Since 1979, we have poured our heart and soul into creating adventure travel experiences that enrich lives and exceed expectations. The result is a loyal following of travelers who trust us with their vacation dreams time and time again.
We've earned this trust through our ability to operate high quality tours that are built on a foundation of intimate connection to every adventure we offer. Behind each itinerary there is a story, and we, or trusted staff, have personally researched and developed them all. While we began with a focus on white water rafting trips, we've grown to become the ROW Family of Companies, with different specialized companies offering an eclectic collection of adventures around the world.
The inspiration for ROW goes back to a childhood where love for nature was paramount and travel was valued far above possessions. A number of our destinations today can be traced back to travels in my younger days. In 1978, after my sophomore year at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, it also led me to a summer job as a whitewater rafting guide in West Virginia. After 111 one-day trips I was in love with rivers and river canyons and dreamed of guiding longer trips in a wilderness environment where there would be time to develop deeper connections with both people and place.
This dream took me to Idaho, the state with more whitewater miles than any other in the United States. I was hired by a company called ARTA and in the spring of 1979, they took me on a guide training trip on Idaho’s Salmon River, as well as a journey on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. After these trips, the month of May was spent training and guiding on the rivers of California including the American, Stanislaus and Tuolumne. These were exciting days and I fell more in love with rivers with each mile floated. Mid-June took me north to Idaho to train on the Selway River and my first season guiding in Idaho. During trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon and Main Salmon, I had many long conversations with guests about the idea of starting my own adventure company focused on wilderness rafting trips. The advice was invariably the same - "Why not? You're young and have nothing to lose." In preparation for the possibility, I spent the early fall on Oregon’s Rogue River and got my Oregon outfitter's license.
ROW IS BORN
My brother David, who is 11 years older, was interested in partnering to start a rafting company and knowing this, I headed out on an 11-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains to contemplate the decision. I returned to sea level and in November of 1979 my brother and I formed ROW, an acronym for River Odysseys West, registered as a partnership in San Francisco, California. Over the winter, my brother's good credit rating allowed us to get a loan for $10,000 with which we bought a used school bus, some used rafts from another outfitter and did a little marketing. I worked as a waiter to get through the winter. A small article in the San Francisco Examiner by Georgia Hesse announced our "Grubb-stake." We had no business plan and frankly, not much sense of business.
1980 was our first season running trips and we took about 13 people on three different trips on the lower Owyhee and Grande Ronde rivers in eastern Oregon. The rest of the summer was spent guiding for other companies, always learning something new from each. I returned to San Francisco for the winter to work as a waiter and build the business.
THE EARLY YEARS
In 1981 we saw modest growth and took some 52 people on six different trips, again on the lower Owyhee and Grande Ronde rivers, finishing up by late June. Our star group that year was a bird-watching group from the California Academy of Sciences. After our brief season, I headed to Alaska! At the time I didn't fully understand the Idaho licensing system for outfitters but knew that all the famous rivers had limited numbers of permits and licenses and that businesses on those rivers cost much more than we could afford. Alaska on the other hand was wide open. Before heading north, I did apply for an Idaho outfitter license just the same.
It was a glorious summer in Alaska, exploring rivers and being immersed in nature. Two solo trips in an inflatable kayak – one on the Chandalar River and the other on the John River – were highlights, as were adventures on the Talkeetna and Kobuk. It was an exciting time.
OUR FIRST IDAHO PERMITS
After the summer in Alaska I moved in with my brother in Spokane, and we received a letter from the Idaho Outfitter and Guides Licensing Board granting us a license on the last 52 miles of the Salmon River, the Upper reaches of the Owyhee in southern Idaho, as well as some rivers in North Idaho suitable for day trips including the Moyie, Priest and Kootenai. This was a critical turning point. Prior to this we could only run trips on the Owyhee and Grande Ronde which are not well known and have short seasons running from May to late June. Now with the Salmon, we had a river that was legendary and flowed all summer long. The fall of 1981 was significant in another, more personal way, as Betsy Bowen, my future wife and partner, applied to be a guide.
That winter was the start of what became a four-year campaign, traveling from January to mid-March each year, from Bellingham, WA south to San Diego, giving slide shows to whomever would listen. Traveling in a Fiat 124 station wagon and staying with friends and family along the way, I presented at Sierra Club chapters, Rotary, Kiwanis and other service clubs, people's homes, Natural History museums, etc. It was guerilla marketing at its finest. I gave over 70 presentations to some 600 or more people up and down the west coast.
It was an exciting summer as the slide show effort brought in over 100 people for our trips on the Salmon, Owyhee and Grande Ronde. In addition, another 250 joined us for our pioneering rafting trips on the Moyie River, a one-day trip that was a deviation from the original goal of only doing longer wilderness trips. However, the Moyie is so beautiful we couldn't pass it up. Both Betsy and I were out on a lot of our trips along with a small crew of guides. We were all passionate about rivers and sharing with our guests. While we offered a few trips in Alaska, they proved to be a hard sell and we eventually gave up on that idea.
The summer of 1983 saw business grow and we had a tight-knit group of guides creating life-changing experiences for our guests and ourselves. We all loved what we were doing and connected with our guests in wonderful ways, sharing our enthusiasm and passion. On a spring Owyhee trip, soaking in a hot spring next to the river, I proposed to Betsy. Later that year I bought my brother's share of the business and he continued on with his medical practice.
THE LOCHSA, WEDDING BELLS & A UNIQUE HONEYMOON
In 1984 we were chosen by the U.S. Forest Service to be one of five outfitters permitted to run rafting trips on the Lochsa River. We had a great season on the rivers. A wedding date of September 1st was set, and a plan brewed to spend our honeymoon in Turkey aboard a yacht. Since we couldn't afford to charter a yacht for just the two of us, we sent a personal letter out to all our guests, who numbered a few hundred and all of whom had been on a trip with me, Betsy or both of us. We invited them to join us for our honeymoon for an 11-day trip in Turkey and Greece. Eight willing passengers signed on, knowing this was a ROW first and trusting us to provide them with a fantastic travel experience. We had a magical trip of discovery, culture and history and when it was done Betsy and I spent another month exploring Turkey and Cyprus. This started a pattern that continued for the next eight years. After the close of each rafting season, we would travel to the Mediterranean to lead tours and then spend additional time visiting new destinations.
Ever since Betsy walked through the door and picked up her guide paddle, she has been critical to our success. She has tirelessly worked getting things done behind the scenes. We would not be the company we are today were it not for her extraordinary guiding skills, problem-solving, developing our menus, adding a softer touch and much, much more.
From our honeymoon trip grew our international trip division and a new meaning for ROW – Remote Odysseys Worldwide. Our yachting trips in Turkey and Greece became such a success that in 1988 we offered our first Croatia yacht cruise (in what was then Yugoslavia) and we continue these yachting adventures today with an unparalleled knowledge of Croatia.
MORE IDAHO RIVERS THAN ANY OTHER OUTFITTER
In 1986 we expanded to the Snake River in Hells Canyon and the St. Joe. Peter was elected to the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association Board of Directors, beginning a 12-year term of service with this effective organization.
In 1989 we acquired a company on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, America's premier alpine wilderness rafting trip. Our business continued to grow and then and now, we run more Idaho rivers than any other outfitter. Not only do we run more trips on more rivers, but we have many other unique adventures offered by no one else. These include our award-winning multisport and bike tour, the Bitterroot Bonanza, as well as our Superlative Idaho tour that climbs Idaho’s highest peak, rafts its deepest canyon and paddles its deepest lake. We have a great variety of wilderness river trips including several exclusive combination trips such as our Snake/Lochsa and Bruneau/Lochsa raft tours.
In 1990 low water left us high and dry by the end of May, unable to perform our planned trips on the Moyie and St. Joe. A quick scouting trip to Montana’s Clark Fork River, which we had reconnoitered some years earlier, led to the beginning of a new operation there. We remain one of the longest-operating outfitters on the Clark Fork.
PARENTING & SOUTH AMERICA
A new adventure in life began when our first child was born in 1991. The next year we were looking for a European travel idea perfect for families, so headed to France where we took a barge cruise in the fall of 1992. This resulted in the addition of European barge vacations to our offerings. Today we feature a barge trip cruising France's Nivernais Canal aboard the Luciole.
Later that fall we also traveled to Ecuador to help develop a whitewater rafting company and made first descents on several rivers, including the remote Rio Upano. In the midst of this, in 1993, our second child was born. In 1995 we added Galapagos cruises, Andean highland tours and adventures to Peru. In 1996 we launched our first website and started to communicate more and more via email. The world was changing.
UNDAUNTED COURAGE, THE BRUNEAU and 9/11
Inspired by the book “Undaunted Courage” and the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, in 1999 we offered the first-ever voyageur canoe trips featuring guest historians along the Trail of Lewis and Clark on Montana's Upper Missouri River. That same year we added mothership kayak tours to Alaska and British Columbia.
In 2000, our good friend and fellow outfitter Bob Sevy was ready to retire from operating trips on the Bruneau River in southern Idaho. We took over that permit and added this spectacular desert river to our repertoire of world-class Idaho rivers.
Peter joined the Board of Directors of Idaho Rivers United in 2000 and served until 2013 working on conservation issues related to Idaho’s many rivers. This was a fulfilling role related to protecting Idaho rivers from hydro projects and other threats as well as efforts to restore salmon to our rivers, educate people about the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, and much more.
In September of 2001 the world was rocked by the 9/11 attacks. We had people in Europe on trips, and others about to leave. U.S. air space closed, and plans were upended. It was a challenging time for the world, and our phones ceased to ring. Times like this cause reflection, much like the pandemic of 2020-22, and Betsy and I decided it was time to realize a longtime dream. After the rafting season of 2002, we took our two children to live in France for six months. It was a special time we will always treasure.
RIVER DANCE LODGE
Our next huge project came in 2004 when we built the River Dance Lodge – Idaho's Outdoor Adventure Resort. From our rustic luxury log cabins and "glamping" tents on the banks of the Clearwater River we offered fantastic adventure-lodge experience, with a wide variety of active options including rafting, gentle float trips, mountain biking, fly fishing, hiking, and more.
In late 2005 we obtained permission from the Galapagos National Park Service to conduct the first-ever Galapagos sea kayaking adventures that included camping on the islands. The trip was featured in the New York Times in January of 2006 which led to a flood of reservations and was the beginning of a new trend in land-based tourism in the Galapagos. This has grown into our most popular international adventure and established us as the clear authority on land-based tours of the Galapagos Islands.
MORE RIVERS & SEA KAYAK ADVENTURES
In 2007 we cemented our commitment to fly fishing trips with the addition of our ROW Fishing Adventures, featuring catch-and-release fishing trips on the Coeur d’Alene, St. Joe and other regional rivers.
In 2011 we expanded to the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon where we offer lodge-to-lodge rafting trips for those who want whitewater by day and a comfortable bed at night. In addition, our Rogue River options include raft-supported hiking trips and in September, camping trips.
In 2012, we were proud and very thankful to be named by Travel + Leisure Magazine's World's Best Awards as the Number One Tour Operator. This is also the year we acquired Sea Kayak Adventures; a great company that had been founded by two former ROW guides in 1993.
In late 2014 President Obama shifted US Policy and relations with Cuba, and we immediately saw an opportunity and need. Traveling to Cuba during the summer of 2015 we laid the groundwork to begin operating the first-ever sea kayaking tours for U.S. citizens, launching our first trip in November. Recognizing the demand for outdoor experiences for Americans, we soon became the first active travel company to offer sea kayaking, hiking and biking tours under the People-to-People educational travel licenses of the U.S. While the pandemic put a damper on worldwide travel, we continue to operate in Cuba with our brand Cuba Unbound.
As decades passed, we spread further across the globe, adding more hiking, biking, sea kayaking, wildlife and cultural journeys. In 2017 we grafted a new branch named Adventure Unbound® to be the home for these international adventures. Unbound because, together with you, we travel with unfettered hearts filled with love, open minds eager to learn, and arms wide, ready to embrace people and places around the world.
The mission of Adventure Unbound® is “Travel that Transforms™." Transformation speaks to a significant change, an enlightenment of self and a new way of being. It’s a lofty idea as transformation is personal and self-directed. Our goal is to set the stage and help orchestrate the opportunity and support for discovering the world within and without.
THE PANDEMIC AND OUR NEWEST BRAND, RIDE OUR WORLD
It’s been rough to be in the travel business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being nimble and committed has helped us navigate these choppy waters and we are delighted to see the world opening again.
Demand for trips within the U.S. led us to add a new division and meaning for ROW, “Ride Our World,” focused on E-bike and regular bike tours. With tours in Idaho and Cuba (the Hemmingway connection) we bring you cycling trips with our superlative ROW quality and class.
SHARING YOUR WORLD
We invite you to share this world with us! Within our various companies we have over 100 itineraries in more than 25 countries on six continents. With your help we will continue to build community within and across borders, to spread smiles and hope wherever we go and be a positive force for good.
Betsy and I are still very much involved in ROW and our passion for creating meaningful, life-changing adventures hasn't changed a bit. With our talented team in the office and in the field, we continue to set the high watermark for adventure. We all take ROW's mission of "Sharing Nature - Enriching Lives" seriously and work hard to provide the best in active travel within a framework that embraces sustainable, socially responsible travel and business practices.
We invite you to browse our selection of high-quality adventure travel options and hope that you'll join us to share the warmth, not only of our campfire, but also of our hearts.
Peter Grubb, Founder