Howie Wolke has led over five-hundred multi-day treks since the mid 1970s. He is probably the most experienced backpacking guide in the Western U.S. He has been the subject of various magazine articles and is also a well-known advocate for protecting wilderness. He has written two books on wildland conservation, including Wilderness On the Rocks and the Big Outside (co-authored with Dave Foreman), a historic inventory of America’s remaining wilderness. Also his articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications. As a public speaker, he has addressed college and other groups across the country. Howie has been a part-time instructor of Environmental Studies at Montana State University, where he designed the course “The American Wilderness”. He is also a former President of the national conservation group Wilderness Watch and now serves on the board of directors. Howie also has a particular affinity for wolves and grizzly bears, is an avid hunter, backcountry skier and bird-watcher, and has a B.S. in Conservation and Wildlife Ecology.
Marilyn Olsen has explored wilderness from the Everglades to Alaska, from Africa to the Arizona desert. She is a registered nurse with expertise in wilderness medicine. She is a former trip leader for the University of Montana’s “Wilderness and Civilization” program, and in that capacity led canoe trips on Montana’s wild and scenic upper Missouri River, as well as various backpack treks. An experienced wilderness advocate, Marilyn’s efforts in conservation education for young people are particularly innovative. She also has valuable insights on group dynamics, and her ability to see and explore the often overlooked intimacies of the wilderness environment are unique.
How do the back-country experiences you offer give people a unique perspective on wilderness and the value of conservation?
We put an emphasis on getting people into the wildest, most remote areas in the Western US and we offer trips literally from Alaska to southern New Mexico. It is by far the best cross section of the American wilderness that is offered by any guiding company in the United States, and so when people go on our trips we are not a tourism company per say, we are providing a real honest to goodness old fashion multiday wilderness experience. They are going to see and experience the real Western US and not all of the more typical tourist sites that the tourist industry is primarily concerned with promoting.
Do you find that there are times when guests arrive for trips who are physically unprepared for the challenge?
Yes, but not often. We get people who are occasionally unprepared in two ways. The first way is that they are people from temperate or warm climates and they don’t believe that they will need long-underwear, a two-piece rain suit, a ski hat, or gloves for a wilderness trip in the norther Rockies in the middle of summer and so we sometimes get people who are unprepared as far as clothing and gear are concerned. Then, occasionally, we get people who are physically unprepared. Their idea of physical fitness is nowhere near what our idea of physical fitness is, and I think what most people who are into physical fitness would define as being fit and ready for a backpack trip. It happens and we deal with it on a case by case basis. The registration form gives us a sense of their physical condition as well as any medical condition they may have and so we can usually detect when somebody is not prepared. We also communicate both by telephone and email with clients to both screen them and to help them prepare for the trip.
How have the trips that you offer changed over the years due to consumer demand?
They have changed in two meaningful ways, the places we go and the length of our trips. When I first started the business in 1978 my idea was to offer trips into endangered Roadless areas to build a constituency for places like the Greyback Ridge Roadless Area and I learned fairly quickly that when you offer trips into places that only have local name recognition you have a hard time booking clients on it. So we very quickly evolved into offering trips into more visible big name areas like Yellowstone and the Canyonlands.
We have cut down the length of the trips a little bit. Probably not as much as we should if were looking at it strictly from the mercenary business standpoint. The attention span of the American public is getting shorter and so we have had to offer fewer seven, eight, and ten day trips than we used to. Six days is our typical trip length and we still have a four day minimum, even for custom trips. We are still determined to offer longer, multi-day trips deep into wilderness and proposed wilderness areas.
We have had to evolve a little bit with trends but we resist it as much as possible.
What is one of the details of the trips that you run which may go unnoticed by participants, but is critical to its success?
I tell a lot of our clients that when the guide shows up to meet them for a six day backpacking trip that they are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Some of the details that go unnoticed include the fact that we spend huge amounts of time securing permits with fourteen different offices and four different federal land management agencies. When people ask us what we do during the winter time I ask back “have you ever dealt with one or two federal bureaucracies?” and we have to deal with fourteen and each one of them has its own unique set of requirements. Another thing that might go unnoticed is the fact that we try hard to provide a healthy diet, a large percentage of the food we provide is organic, we purchase foods with minimal artificial preservatives, colorings, flavorings. We provide wholesome whole grain and organic food whenever possible.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider going on a trip with Big Wild Adventures instead of signing up with one of your competitors?
For one thing, unlike most guiding companies, the owners of this company are 100% responsible for organizing and planning every trip. We don’t do industrial backpacking. Other companies might have six or eight different departure dates for the same trip. One of the companies I know offers a couple of hundred different trips every year. I guarantee you that the owners of the company are not closely overseeing every aspect of the operation. We are still small enough, and we have always wanted to remain small enough, to make sure that we are in charge of every single trip, each one gets our personal attention. I have planned every trip, we do not do industrial backpacking.
Do you see any exciting trends in the industry?
Among folks that are interested in backpacking, there seems to be a trend, more young families are going out, and more families with very young children are going out. We have been taking families out with three, four, and five year olds, a lot of young families are interested in doing custom trips that are adapted to the abilities of their children.
Along with that, for the first time in quite a few years, we have noticed a change in the demographics of our clients. One thing that has been a concern for the last decade has been that fact that our first time clients have almost invariably been in their fifties, sixties, even seventies. This year we have noticed a change, not just in regard to families with your children, but we are starting to get younger people.
What sets Big Wild Adventures apart from other back-country trekking companies?
Many other companies hire guides tend to be pretty young, we are careful to make sure that our guides have some life experience before they guide for us. We don’t send our people out with really young, inexperienced guides who have not had a lot of life experience. Our guides also have Wilderness First Responder certifications, we feel that if very important. What we look for in our guides is that wild gene, we want to know that they are wilderness lovers and that they value it and promote it as much as we do, it is important to us and we feel it is important that our clients get that message. We have actually had clients who have been on trips with competing companies who have said that there guide was a twenty-one or twenty-two year old right out of college and that does not happen with Big Wild Adventures. And we have encountered guides and their clients on the trail where it looked like it was a total free-for-all, complete anarchy, and the guides were really young and unable or unwilling to control the group. In this business people’s safety and lives are dependent on the guide being competent and knowing what he or she is doing, it is a hefty responsibility.
What is one insiders tip for first-timers who are considering going on a backpacking vacation?
They need to realize that they need to be in shape for the level of difficultly of trip that they are going on. Other than that we don’t have to do very much, the product sells itself, if you want to call wilderness a product. All we have to do is get folks out there and the magic happens. Folks tell us that it has been the best week of their lives. Some folks cry at the end of the trip. People who are out there with teenagers or young adults tell us it is the most quality time that they have spent with their offspring. It’s because there are no distractions in the backcountry, parents are not competing with friends, school, sports, hand-held devices, video games, all the things that distract families and prevent them from bonding. Instead they are lying under the stars, talking to each other, they are giggling inside their tents. It is more of an even playing field for the kids to see their parents doing something that they don’t know much about either. The kids and parents discover things together.
How have you sustained and grown your business over all these years?
I attribute our success to stubbornness and the desire not to get a real job. We have tons of repeat clients, our clients are very loyal. Some have been with us for so long that they have gotten married and now come back with their children. Folks feel comfortable going out with us and it is something that they look forward to every year, it keeps them motivated to stay in shape all year long. What we offer is not in the mainstream of what most Americans want to do for their vacation. Additionally, we have built up a much better internet presence, we have worked hard to create a great website that tells you almost everything you need to know about backpacking.
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