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Passionate trekking pioneer passing the torch

Wild Women Expeditions founder moving on to other adventures

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IN the 20 years she has owned Wild Women Expeditions, Beth Mairs says she's seen women adventure trips go from being a niche business and a bit of a laughingstock to mainstream -- sometimes even more mainstream than she's comfortable with.

"The term 'girlfriend getaways' can make me gag," says Mairs, 52, a pioneer in the women-only trekking movement. "It conjures up images of gals in their pyjamas, with cups of tea balanced on their knees, giggling about their first kiss."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But Mairs says as companies have tried to jump on the bandwagon of the women's adventure trend, they often trivialize it and miss the mark.

"The travel market has tried to capitalize on the women's adventure trend but never understood or embraced its strong feminist and lesbian roots," says Mairs, who will be stepping down as head of her company at the end of this summer. Rumour has it that an Ottawa woman is going to take over.

Mairs says she's seen huge changes in the perception of women's outdoor adventure since 1990 when she ditched her downtown Toronto career as a social worker and, in the bush beyond Sudbury, started Canada's first women-only trekking business.

"It wasn't quite contempt, but when we first started there was very much a patronizing attitude in the adventure and even retail fields," says Mairs.

She says her company was often dismissed as adventure lite.

"That very attitude was the reason we got started," says Mairs. "The field was and still is pretty macho: images of guys manhandling canoes in churning whitewater and scaling cliffs with their bare hands, barking orders. It wasn't very appealing.

"Women just said 'You know what? We'll do our own thing.'"

Perceptions of women-only trips changed dramatically 10 years later when studies showed that while conventional tourism was being hammered by economic downturns and fears around such things as SARS and 9/11, women's adventure tourism had taken off.

The number of Mairs's clients doubled from 1997 to 2000, then grew another 50 per cent from 2000 to 2002. While conventional tourism had an eight per cent rate of repeat customers, she has 25 to 35 per cent.

"I went overnight from laughingstock to marketing genius," says Mairs with a chuckle.

Women's adventure travel had been beating all the industry standards for years and the word on the trail was women's trips were having way more fun. Wild Women Expeditions trips became known for raucous, uninhibited fun ... . But it took a couple of U.S.-based studies and an expert or two to make a convincing monetary argument for the rest of adventure travel industry to take notice of the potential of estrogen power.

This year, to celebrate 20 successful years in business, Wild Women Expeditions is offering 20 special trips across the country, from mountain biking in the Yukon to a Newfoundland multi-sport adventure. Other new offerings include biking skills camps in northern Ontario, a hiking adventure in the Rocky Mountains, a multi-sport adventure trip in the Bay of Fundy and a backpacking trip along Killarney Park's famous La Cloche Silhouette Trail.

"I had to scale back to get it down to 20," says Mairs, who in 2002 ran 50 trips.

Mairs says she has deliberately pared down over the years.

"I wasn't in this for the money -- if I'm not having fun I'm not going to do it."

While she's a bit wistful about giving up her company, Mairs says she wants to end on a high note -- and while she still has energy to do her own mountain biking and whitewater paddling trips, not just walk behind the slowest person as a guide.

She and her partner plan to launch an adventure documentary film company, with the first two titles being Does This Canoe Make Me Look Fat and My Big Fat Tire Lesbian Honeymoon.

Mairs says she thinks Wild Women Expeditions -- and women's outdoor adventure companies in general -- will continue to thrive without her, and in a way that big corporations and women's magazines just don't get.

"Women's adventure travel -- when it's run by women -- has little bit of an edge. It hasn't been sanitized. It isn't prim and proper and it's not about your luggage having to be this certain size," says Mairs.

To find out more about Wild Women Expeditions and to see a list of the trips being offered from June to September, go to www.wildwomenexp.com.

-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2010 E6

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