Guiding Women of Montana

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Meet three women guides.
Guiding is big business in Gallatin and Park counties. Whether it’s rowing a driftboat as anglers cast imitation flies into the Yellowstone River or leading hikers on treks across distant mountain ranges on other continents, local entrepreneurs like to get paid to be outside doing what they love.

More and more, guides and travel company owners are discovering that giving back to the places and people that have provided them with their livelihood is as rewarding as learning about new cultures and faraway places.

Three local women started their own guiding companies as a way to continue to do things they love to do while still paying the mortgage. Along the way they incorporated humanitarian and environmental projects into their trips.

Bella Treks—Felicia Ennis
In 1995 Felicia Ennis moved to Chile to teach English in Santiago, but ended up working as a bilingual horseback riding and trekking guide. In addition to falling in love with the South American landscape and the country, she made many close friends and connections.

Fast forward nine years to 2004 when Ennis decided to start her own travel company “specializing in small group travel and focusing on local guides and flavors,” she says. Ennis felt like she could bring a personalized experience to her trips based on her experiences, friends and contacts in Chile.

Ennis’ trips focus on culture and nature—bird watching, horseback riding and vineyard tours are a few of the activities her guests participate in. In addition to narrowing in on the people and environment of the countries she visits, Ennis says, “another part of the Bella Treks mission is to find ways to make travel more meaningful.”

This winter Ennis offered a trip to Patagonia as a fundraiser for HERA, an organization that supports women with ovarian cancer and funds various avenues of ovarian cancer research. Ennis discounted the trip and participants were asked to raise money for HERA.

She chose HERA as her first foray into fundraising because the organization was started by a woman who had cancer herself and survived it. “She seems really invested,” says Ennis. She plans to offer the trip again next year.

“There will be other ways to give back to the places we travel,” Ennis says with a smile, “I want to find ways to support the local communities we visit.” To that end, Bella Treks uses local guides, supports local businesses and is “anxious to see what sort of service organizations I can support on the local and regional level.”

Betsy Robinson—Wild Things Unlimited
Betsy Robinson and partner Steve Gehman started Wild Things Unlimited (WTU) with two seemingly disparate missions: to study rare carnivores and to guide people on natural history trips.

But it makes sense. “I’m insatiably curious about what’s going on around me and I like to the chance to pass on all the things we learn in the field,” says Robinson. A biologist by training, Robinson uses her knowledge of geology, botany, wildlife and ecosystems to “help people have a more meaningful vacation,” she says.

Or as their mission states, “Wild Things Unlimited was founded in 1997 to provide a vehicle for the collection of sound ecological information and the dissemination of such information to the American public. Our purpose is to increase the effectiveness of wildlife and habitat management in the Rocky Mountains.”

During the winter, Robinson can be found following lynx tracks in the snow. “We never see lynx,” she notes, but by following their paw prints they can locate bedding areas, kills, fur and scat. The latter two provide valuable DNA information that allows researchers to understand how many individuals are in the surveyed areas.

WTU also researches wolverines, fishers, grizzly bears, birds and other critters. By providing reliable data, they are able to have an impact on the protection of habitats these animals depend on. Robinson believes their research, “will aid resource managers and conservationists in the protection of important forest habitats, the preservation of biological diversity, and the defense of our remaining wildlands.”

It’s not just the wildlife that benefits from Robinson’s expertise, her natural history tour clients often tell her that their experiences “far exceeded their expectations,” she says. By sharing her field experiences, Robinson is able to flesh out her clients’ experiences and show them a world beyond what they can see.

What Robinson really notices is the change of expression on her client’s faces when they come upon something they didn’t expect to see. “Their senses are rejuvenated, they start hearing more and they open up to so much,” a sight as rare as a wolverine in this increasingly busy world.

AdventureWomen—Susan Eckhart
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, Susan Eckhart taught women to boil strings and razors to cut their babies’ umbilical cords as part of newborn tetanus prevention program. That experience, “molded my whole life and my job,” she explains.

Years after returning to the United States she began AdventureWomen, an adventure travel company for women over 30 years old. “I believe travel is one of the greatest tools we have for promoting world peace and understanding among cultures,” says Eckhart, and by limiting the trips to women she believes they can more easily be themselves and open up to new experiences.

AdventureWomen is now in its twenty-fifth year and known as the “Grand Dame of Women’s Adventure Travel”. Eckhart is seeing her life come full circle as she introduces new trips that profit the countries they tour.

Motivated by her Peace Corps experience, Eckhart decided that, “It’s about time we start giving back to the cultures we visit.” Started in 2004 her “Humanitours”, have taken place in Vietnam and Bhutan.

In Vietnam her clients gave a water buffalo to a local family to increase rice yields on their farm. In Bhutan, guests trek to 12,000 feet to delivery warm clothes and blankets to nuns.

“Women are really looking for ways to make a difference,” Eckhart says. But it isn’t easy to put together a Humanitour. “You don’t just go somewhere and ram something down their throat whether they want it or not.” Like the Peace Corps, Eckhart goes where she is invited and works with people she knows. Sensitivity to cultural needs is a crucial element in her trips.

Not unexpectedly, Eckharts clients get as much as they give. The participants in her trips “really like interacting with the people we are working with,” she says, “they are doing things they never thought they could do on their own and they gain lots of confidence.”

A few other guiding services:
Crossing Latitudes—Lena Conlin
“Devoted to promoting the responsible enjoyment of outdoor pursuits all over the world while instilling an appreciation of different cultures and lifestyles. Our trips are an outdoor and a cultural experience wrapped into one.”

Off the Beaten Path—various women guides (including TravelingMel)
“Offers exceptional travel services designed to help you explore the natural world.”

This story originally appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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