The History of ROW Adventures by founder Peter Grubb
ROW Adventures is the life passion of myself and 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 and have personally researched and developed all our vacation itineraries. While we began as an adventure travel company with a focus on white water rafting trips, we've grown to a company with an eclectic collection of adventures around the world.
One could say that 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 place, as well as those I was guiding. 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. Today, our trips outside of river rafting are branded under the name Adventure Unbound®which I will talk more about later.
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, where we continue to offer a six-day rafting trip in the Amazon basin. We added Galapagos cruises and Andean highland tours in 1995.
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 adventure 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 and Rocky Mountain Inn-to-Inn adventure. 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 guest ranch experience, with a wide variety of adventure options including rafting, gentle float trips, horseback riding, 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.
As the variety of trips we offered grew, and branding our name became more important, we simplified our identity and name to ROW Adventures. Over the past few years we've continued to add new travel opportunities to our repertoire including sea kayaking and whale-watching trips in Baja, wildlife viewing in Brazil, a small-ship cruise to Antarctica, lodge-to-lodge rafting on Oregon's Rogue River and much more.
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.
2017 brought many excited changes to ROW. Probably the biggest change is the decision we have been wrestling with many years to re-brand our international journeys. Too many times we've had conversations with guests, partners and others who were confused thinking that "ROW" was, in fact, only a rafting company. Even on a recent trip to Peru when we were explaining a product we had on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, we had a friend who has known of us for 30 years say, "I didn't know you could raft the Inca Trail!" Obviously, the word "ROW" was putting us in a box.
The word "unbound" has been following our name for many years and we even created a "signature line of tours" and called them our "Unbound" adventures over a decade ago. With that history, we decided to name the new brand Adventure Unbound ® and our mission is simple, Travel the Transforms™. You can visit all of our offerings in more than 20 countries around the world, including our most popular spots like: Cuba, Peru, Galapagos, Patagonia, Croatia and the Polar regions by going to our new website, www.Unbound.Travel! As for ROW Adventures, that name is alive, well and strong and we will continue to stregthen it as the greatest "rafting brand" in the world!
Betsy and I are still involved in many big picture decisions of ROW and the passion for creating meaningful, life-changing adventures hasn't changed a bit. That said, we have stepped away from most of the day-to-day of our company. With our talented team of directors, managers, office and field staff, we are setting 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 adventure 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