The History of ROW Adventures by founder Peter Grubb
Celebrating 40 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.
One reason we've earned this trust is that we have an 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 four 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 tracked 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 all things rivers. However, I dreamed of guiding longer trips in a wilderness environment where I would have time to develop a deeper connection to the people I was guiding, as well as the place. That 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 before Idaho's season started in the spring of 1979, they took me on a guide training trip on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, and then provided work 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. In mid-June I headed north to Idaho and trained on the Selway River and then guided six six-day trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon followed by six on the 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."
That fall I talked with my brother David, who is 11 years older, and asked he'd be interested in a partnership. Knowing he was, I headed out on an 11-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains to contemplate the decision. I returned to sea level with a decision 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. I went to Oregon and trained on the Rogue River and got my Oregon outfitter's license. 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 Chronicle 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. I then returned to Idaho and guided trips for other companies, learning something new from each. In the fall I explored some rivers in North Idaho where no one was running trips, then moved in with my brother who had moved from San Francisco to Spokane. That winter I started what became a four-year campaign, traveling from January to mid-March from Bellingham, WA to San Diego, giving slide shows to whomever would listen. I presented at Sierra Club chapters, Rotary, Kiwanis and other service clubs, people's homes, Natural History museums, etc. I drove a Fiat 124 station wagon and stayed with friends, family and river guests. It was guerilla marketing at its finest.
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.
I spent a glorious summer in Alaska exploring rivers. I did two solo trips in an inflatable kayak – one on the Chandalar River and the other on the John River. I also ran the Talkeetna and Kobuk. It was an exciting time with days of full immersion in nature.
I returned to Spokane in the fall to find a letter from the Idaho Outfitter and Guides Licensing Board on my desk that granted 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 this is when I met my wife-to-be, Betsy Bowen, who applied to be a guide.
That winter I took to the road with my slide show with new vigor. I gave over 70 presentations to some 600 or more people up and down the west coast. The effort paid off and in the summer of 1982 over 100 people joined our trips on the Salmon, Owyhee and Grande Ronde in addition to another 250 who joined us as we pioneered rafting trips on the Moyie River, a one-day trip that was a deviation from my original goal of only doing longer wilderness trips. However, the Moyie is too beautiful and we couldn't pass it up. That summer, I was out on a lot of our trips as was a small crew of guides including Betsy. 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 high on life. 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.
In 1984 we were chosen by the United States Forest Service to be one of five outfitters allowed 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 when the rafting season would end in early September and we would travel to the Mediterranean to lead tours; 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.
In 1986 we expanded to the Snake River in Hells Canyon and the St. Joe River. In 1989 we added rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, America's premier alpine wilderness rafting trip. Our business continued to grow both in the U.S. and abroad. 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.
In 1992 we were invited to Ecuador to help develop a whitewater rafting company. We 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 and Andean highland tours.
It's fair to say that there has never been a dull moment at ROW, nor any resting on our laurels. On average, ROW Adventures has added another river or trip every year since we started. Today we are Idaho's largest active travel company. Not only do we run more trips on more rivers than any other outfitter, 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 1999 we forayed into flat water, developing a canoe adventure along the Trail of Lewis and Clark on Montana's Upper Missouri River. That same year we added mother ship kayak tours to Alaska and British Columbia.
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 offer a 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 include camping on the islands and was featured in the New York Times in January of 2006. This has grown into our most popular international adventure and established us as the clear authority on land-based tours of the Galapagos Islands.
In 2011 we expanded to the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon where we offer lodge-to-lodge rafting trips for those that want whitewater by day and a comfortable bed at night.
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.
As decades passed, we spread further across the globe, adding 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 the Transforms™." Transformation speaks to a significant change, an enlightenment of self, a new way of being. It’s a lofty idea to think that travel could offer this, yet it does, if the traveler is willing. Ultimately, transformation is personal and self-directed. Our goal is simply to set the stage that gives you the opportunity and support for discovering the world within and without.
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
P.S. Learn more about our 40th Anniversary!