Outdoor recreation in the U.S. generates $646 billion in consumer spending and 6.1 million direct jobs nationwide. At the foundation of this economic powerhouse are America’s first families of adventure — multi-generational outfitters who have been evolving outdoor sports for nearly a hundred years. These family names have become almost as recognizable as their sports: Whittaker and mountaineering, Seavey and dog sledding, Barker-Ewing and river rafting. We talked to the nine most iconic family-owned outfitters about their adventure legacy, and their company’s most defining expedition.
Peter Whittaker had huge boots to fill. His uncle Jim was the first American to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1963. His father Lou (Jim’s identical twin) founded Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI) in 1969 and led the First American Ascent of the North face of Everest in 1984.
Fortunately Whittaker got an early start. He practically grew up on Mount Rainier, carrying his skis and boots up to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet from the age of nine. He climbed Rainier for the first time at age 12 and started guiding for RMI at 16. When he came of age, Whittaker was the logical choice to lead the business, but like many hardheaded young men who feel their paths have been pre-forged, he fought it, moving to Utah to pursue skiing instead.
“Growing up, people always asked, are you going to climb Everest? Are you going to follow in their footsteps?” Whittaker says. “That just pissed me off. My response was ‘I’m not going to follow in anybody’s footsteps, I’m going to kick my own.'”
After working as a helicopter skiing guide at Snowbird, Whittaker started his own business — Summits Adventure Travel — focused on trekking, skiing, and climbing at iconic destinations around the globe. After 14 years spent traveling all over the world on more than 70 expeditions, including climbing the seven summits, Whittaker sealed his destiny and returned home to Washington. The year was 1995.
Now RMI’s co-owner and CEO, Whittaker has climbed Rainier 241 times and grown the company to include a robust offering of international expeditions and skills seminars. “I could never have gotten where I am without standing on the shoulders of my father, or following in his and Jim footsteps, as people liked to call it,” says Whittaker. “It doesn’t piss me off anymore. What they did for mountaineering and mountain guiding – I’m very proud of it.”
RMI Expeditions: Expedition Skills Seminar to Peru
Peter Whittaker designed RMI’s skills seminars for a very specific type of client. “They are not for the guy who wants a one-time challenge to climb something high and take a hero picture on the summit,” he says. “They are for the person interested in learning more, who wants to keep going higher literally and figuratively.”
His favorite seminar offering is the Expedition Skills Clinic in Peru, which takes place over the course of 15 days in July in the Cordillera Blanca, one of the most spectacular ranges on the planet. Whittaker considers it an ideal setting for learning the mountaineering skills essential on Denali and other major glaciated peaks. “The goal is that by the end of program, you’re at the sharp end of the rope, what we call leading,” says Whittaker. “So we pick an objective, one of the 18,000 or 19,000-foot peaks, and do a participant-led ascent.” [$3,600; rmiguides.com]
Ken Helfrich: Helfrich River Outfitters, Inc. (Springfield, OR)
Ken Helfrich’s career path was never a question. His father was a river guide, as was his grandfather, who also logged and trapped. “He did lots of outdoor activity occupations because you couldn’t make a living doing rafting in 1925,” says Helfrich. “And during WW2 you couldn’t get the fuel to travel to do the river trips, so it wasn’t until after WW2 that rafting started to become popular.”
Helfrich grew up in the family business and started working the McKenzie River during the summers when he was 13 years old. Today, he’s at the helm of the business, running trips in Idaho on the Main Salmon and the Middle Fork rivers, along with the McKenzie and Rogue rivers in southern Oregon. With the exception of McKenzie, all tours are multi-day, anywhere from six to eight days on the river. “My daughter Kelsey has been working for us for 10 years now – she’s 29– so we’re well into the fourth generation,” says Helfrich.
In summer 2014, his daughter and son-in-law began filming for a reality television show called “Way out West” about Idaho’s family businesses and outfitters. “It’s an interesting life to lead,” says Helfrich. “We love what we do.”
Helfrich River Outfitters, Inc.: Fly Fishing and Floating on the Middle Fork
Ken Helfrch, the third-generation owner of the family-run Helfrich River Outfitters, Inc., calls the Middle Fork of the Salmon his family’s favorite river. “And I think it’s our guides’ favorite too,” he says. “The river flows through a 2.3-milllion acre wilderness area. You see no civilization for six days.”
Helfrich’s grandfather started running the Middle Fork in 1940, and then almost immediately WW2 started so he didn’t return until 1946. Now, Helfrich River Outfitters, Inc., runs more than a dozen trips on the Middle Fork every summer, both rafting and fly-fishing in drift boats, and a handful of fishing trips in the fall. The trips book out one to three years in advance, and include gourmet food and deluxe riverside campsites. [From $2,350; helfrichoutfitter.com]
Will Elliott: Paragon Guides (Vail, CO)
Will Elliott was 12 when he first accompanied his father on a guiding job, leading a group of backcountry skiers hut-to-hut through the Rocky Mountains. “I was pretty much born and raised to be a guide,” says Elliott. “I remember being towed behind my parents in a sled as a really little kid on family hut trips.”
Elliott’s father, Buck, a former ski instructor at Vail, founded Paragon Guides in 1978 as Crooked Creek Ski Touring. At first, the senior Elliott ran ski tours from small cabins located between Aspen and Vail. When the 10th Mountain Division hut project kicked off in the early 1980s, he became involved in developing huts in the Vail-area, and rebranded his fledgling ski touring business as Paragon Guides. “That’s what originally put us on the map,” says Elliott. “The hut system was a totally new thing in the United States, and was considered big time adventure back then.”
Today, Elliott and his father enjoy joint ownership of a business that’s become synonymous with adventure in Colorado. Besides multi-day backcountry ski tours, Paragon also offers day trips into the backcountry, either by ski or snowshoe. In the summer, they lead hut-to-hut hiking trips, llama treks, and expeditions up Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, along with guided rock-climbing, mountain biking, and fly-fishing.
Elliott, who guided part-time through college, says he tried (and failed) to get into another line of work after graduation. “I always thought of guiding as a hobby,” he says. “Then I realized there’s nothing else I’d rather do more.”
Paragon Guides: The Benedict 100
Named in honor of Fritz Benedict, the founder of the 10th Mountain Division hut system, Paragon Guides’ marquis trip takes backcountry skiers hut-to-hut from Aspen to Vail over the course of six days. “It’s an absolute classic,” says Will Elliott co-owner of Paragon Guides. “We cover nearly 100 miles with 17,000 feet of elevation gain.”
Paragon runs the trip Euro-style, with hut hosts who prepare breakfasts and dinners for the group. “It’s a nice touch, but it also saves weight since we don’t have to haul in that food ourselves.” Elliott says. “So we can move faster, which is critical in covering the distance in just six days.”
Danny Seavey: Iditaride Dog Sled Tours (Seward, AK)
Danny Seavey, third generation of America’s foremost dog sledding family, comes from a line of men who knew early on that they would devote their lives to mushing. Seavey’s grandfather, Dan Seavey Sr., had decided when he was eight, after listening to a radio program about a Canadian Mountie who patrolled by dog sled. The senior Seavey moved his young family from Minnesota to Alaska in 1963 when a teaching position opened up in Seward, and started driving dogs that winter. Ten years later he co-founded the annual Iditarod, and raced the inaugural course. His son Mitch (Danny’s father) was 13 at the time, and the advent of the race solidified the young man’s desire to run dogs. Now a two-time Iditarod champion, Mitch’s most recent Iditarod win came in 2013, at the age of 53.
Danny Seavey grew up helping his dad race and train, and assisting with demoes and sled dog tours. “I was eight when I started helping at the kennel in the summer,” Seavey says. “By the time I was 11, I worked there pretty much full time in the summer, shoveling poop and hitching up dogs.” While Seavey has raced the Iditarod three times, he feels that his father Mitch and younger brother Dallas (the reigning Iditarod Champion) are better suited for spending long stints alone in the wilderness with the dogs. He prefers the people side of the business — the kennel tours and dog sled rides.
The Seavey family operates Iditaride on the same five-acre homestead in Seward where Dan Sr. first settled. About 100 Alaskan huskies live on the property, racing in winter and getting doted on by tourists in the summer. While the Seavey’s are no longer the only dog sled tour operator in Alaska, they were the first, and are considered the most authentic “We’re getting the fourth generation folded in now,” says Seavey. “My oldest daughter, who is eight, has been coming to work with me every day for at least part of the day, since she was two.”
Iditaride: Winter Dog Sled Tour
While Iditaride’s summer dog sled tours are the most popular on account of coinciding with Alaska’s tourist season, manager Danny Seavey says that the winter tours are the best. Visitors brave enough to come to Alaska in the winter get to run their own team of dogs with Seavey — a three-time Iditarod competitor — as their personal coach.
For the winter tour, Seavey uses the 7.5-mile road to Glacier National Park, which runs right past the kennel and remains closed (and unplowed) during the cold season. “The first mile is always the roughest,” he says. “Then once you get the hang of it, I’ll give you more dogs. By the end, we’ll both be running six-dog teams.”
Originally a half-day training event for new guides, Seavey started offering the tour to locals who wanted to try real dog sledding (minus the throngs of tourists), and it took off from there. “Come in early March,” Seavey says. “It’s no colder than in Colorado ski towns, and the Rendezvous will be going on—this huge festival in Anchorage with all kinds of crazy events like the running of the reindeer. You’ll see how Alaskans really live.” [$249; ididaride.com]
Eric Martin: Wilderness Voyageurs (Ohiopyle, PA)
Eric Martin’s parents started leading rafting trips for scouts on the Youghiogheny River in 1959. They launched Wilderness Voyageurs five years later, becoming the first whitewater rafting company on the Youghiogheny, and the entire east coast. “I grew up deep in the rafting business,” Martin says. “I got my first kayak at age 10, after my dad made me cut grass all summer to earn it.”
When Martin took over in 1992, Wilderness Voyageurs was already an institution. In addition to the company’s flagship whitewater rafting offerings, WV operated a rock climbing school, kayaking instruction, and mountain biking. But Martin was just getting started. He introduced multi-day river trips, fly-fishing, and bike tours along the Great Allegheny Passage rail trail, becoming the first operator to offer bike tours from Pittsburgh to DC. In 2002, he built a brand new facility complete with retail space and a pub-style restaurant serving 75 beers—the first full-service restaurant to open in Ohiopyle in 30 years.
Perhaps most importantly, Martin resurrected rafting on the class V rapids of the Upper Youghiogheny, which his father had pulled the plug on decades ago due to safety concerns. “That was a different era,” Martin says. “The Upper Yough is really special — a beautiful stream with predictable class V that gives you a true wilderness experience right out of the gate.”
Wilderness Voyageurs: Upper Yough Class V Whitewater
Three times a week, the dam at Deep Creek Lake is released into the Youghiogheny River Gorge, creating the rip-roaring class V whitewater that’s made the Upper Yough famous. Eric Martin and his company Wilderness Voyageurs have been successfully running the “dream stream” for the last 12 years. The river is narrow (“intimate,” says Martin) and fairly technical, so WV sends out four-person rafts with three guests and one guide.
“It’s fast, dropping about 100 feet per mile,” says Martin. “You need to have done some rafting before and be athletically-minded to follow critical instructions from your guide. There’s a lot of shucking and jiving going on—it’s not just line up and go.”
WV offers the tour at noon on Monday, Friday, and Saturday, following the dam release schedule. Expect to spend five hours paddling the 11 miles. “It’s exhausting and amazing and I do it every chance I get,” says Martin. [From $120; wilderness-voyageurs.com]
Kirsten Dixon: Within The Wild Adventure Co. (Alaska)
Kirsten and Carl Dixon met while working at a hospital in Anchorage. Within two years they’d married, left their medical careers, and moved to a remote cabin on five acres on the Yentna River. There they began leading salmon fishing tours with Carl as guide and Kirsten as cook. In 1983 they built their first guest lodge. “In the beginning, we lived very much the way homesteaders did,” says Kirsten Dixon. “We didn’t even have running water.”
Today, the Dixon family owns ands operates two remote luxury lodges in Alaska: Tutka Bay on the Kenai Peninsula and Winterlake Lodge near Denali National Park. Their company, Within the Wild, serves up authentic wilderness experiences alongside creature comforts like gourmet cuisine, yoga classes, and complimentary massage. Carl, along with a small staff of professional guides and naturalists, continues to lead fishing, hiking, and wildlife viewing excursions for guests. “It’s his love of the Alaskan wilderness and his desire to share that love with others that is the heart and soul of our company,” says Dixon.
Both of the couple’s grown daughters left Alaska to attend university and lived elsewhere for a period. They eventually came home to work in the family business. Carly, who worked at a fishing lodge in Western Russia, now works as manager of Winterlake Lodge. Mandy, who attended culinary school, is the executive chef, overseeing the culinary programs at both lodges.
The Dixon’s lodges are far off the beaten tourist tract, and their price point is not within everyone’s reach, but Dixon contends that they’re trying to do something different. “We’ve worked very hard at staying small and intimate and offering a destination with a very high degree of integrity in terms of a true wilderness setting,” she says. “Our adventure excursions take guests where literally no human has ever been before.”
Within The Wild Adventure Co.: Helicopter Adventure
The Dixon family loves their R-44 helicopter as much as their guests do. “It’s really opened up the wilderness to us,” says Within The Wild co-founder Kirsten Dixon. “It’s so versatile, you could land it on our picnic table.” Guests staying at either Winterlake Lodge near Denali or Tukta Bay Lodge on the Kenai Peninsula have access to the three-passenger craft for backcountry hiking, glacier trekking, and fishing.
The Dixon’s consult with guests to create custom helicopter tours that range from flight-seeing followed by a short nature walk, to a chopper ride deep into the alpine tundra for a full-day trek completely devoid of human impact. “This is the core of what we do,” says Dixon, “removing people from the human effect where they can have a sense of discovery and wonderment of the natural world.” [From $850; withinthewild.com]
Heather Ewing has guided rivers everywhere from Alaska to Costa Rica, which is no surprise considering she was born into Jackson Hole’s first family of whitewater rafting: Barker-Ewing. Her father Frank Ewing met fellow rafting enthusiast Dick Barker while working at the Grand Teton Lodge Company in the late 50s. At the advice of their wives, the two men combined their passion for the Snake River and launched Barker-Ewing in 1963. The men guided; the women cooked and drove shuttle. “They were the first,” says Ewing. “A true mom and pop operation in Grand Teton National Park. Remember, back then, river rafting relied on old army surplus materials — it wasn’t even its own industry.”
In 1984, the two families parted ways, each retaining the Barker-Ewing name as homage to their original partnership, and the major strides they’d made legitimizing the sport. Today, Heather Ewing heads up her family’s portion of the business, Barker-Ewing Whitewater, offering guests a chance to run rapids or float the Snake River. Both her parents still reside in Jackson, although Ewing says they’re no longer involved in the day-to-day operations. “But it’s like the mafia,” she says. “Once you’re in, you’re always in.” Employees with 25-year tenures are not uncommon. “They’re all part of the family,” Ewing says.
Barker-Ewing Whitewater: Overnight Rafting on the Snake River
The Ewing family was the first to be granted a campsite in the Forest Service-owned Pine Creek Canyon just off of the Snake River. Today, the Ewing family hosts a semi-permanent site there, with six private tent cabins furnished with hardwood floors and beds. The trip begins in the afternoon, with a picturesque float eight miles down the Snake River to the campsite, followed by some campfire gourmet – grilled steak, corn-on-the-cob, salad, garlic bread, and peach crisp. The next morning, Barker-Ewing Whitewater treats campers to a hearty breakfast before setting off on an eight-mile whitewater rafting adventure through class II and III rapids in the heart of the Snake River Canyon.
“The overnight affords a little extra time to take a breath and just be in this place that we all hold so dear,” says Heather Ewing. “It’s unique, it’s special, and you get the whole picture of the Snake River with the combination of the scenic float and the whitewater.” [$210; barker-ewing.com]
Bill Dvorak: DVK Expeditions (Salida, CO)
Long before Bill Dvorak founded DVK Expeditions, Colorado’s oldest and arguably best whitewater-rafting company, he was an outdoorsy kid playing in the river that bordered his father’s ranch in Wyoming. After college, Dvorak spent seven years overseas, mostly in Australia and New Zealand, working at Outward Bound and running an outdoor education center.
Dvorak returned to the U.S. in the late 70s, to pursue a Masters in Alternative and Experiential Education from the University of Colorado. Simultaneously, he managed Partners River Program — the first commercial river company to run trips in Colorado. In 1984, Dvorak bought the company, moved its headquarters from Denver to Salida, and renamed it DVK Expeditions.
“For a while, anyone could call themselves a river outfitter,” says Dvorak. “But then the same year I created DVK, the River Outfitter Licensing Act passed. Funny thing is, I was the first one to pay the fee and submit my paperwork, and so DVK became the first official licensed river outfitter in the state.”
Since then, Dvorak has accumulated more than 60,000 miles on the river. In addition to whitewater rafting in Colorado, DVK Expeditions runs trips in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Texas, as well as whitewater skills camps and swift water training programs. Dvorak’s wife Jaci has been involved in the business since the inception, and the couple’s two grown children are both trained river guides.
But Dvorak is most proud of his 35-plus years of environmental activism. “Senator Udall just proposed legislature to make Browns Canyon – the section of the Arkansas River where we put in – a protected wilderness,” says Dvorak, who serves as president of Friends of Browns Canyon (along with sitting on the board for the Colorado River Outfitters Association, America Outdoors, and the Colorado Tourism Board). “That one’s been in the making for 20 years.”
DVK Expeditions: Gunnison River Fly Fishing
For 30 years, DVK Expedition’s most memorable river rafting trip has been the eight-day Classical Music River Journey on Utah’s Green River. Owner Bill Dvorak himself rarely misses the annual trip, which brings in professional musicians from as far as Los Angeles to turn the riverside beaches, forests, and canyons into a concert hall. This year he’s excited about the addition of a bluegrass version, the Green River Roustabout, that took place for six days on the Green in September.
“People wouldn’t except me to pick that trip, it’s not even whitewater, it’s a float trip,” says Dvorak. “All I can offer by way of explanation is that I’m on the Yvon Chouinard progression. I went from rock climber to mountaineer to kayaker, and now I’m transitioning to fishing guide.”
It’s not hard to see why Dvorak loves this trip. The Gunnison Gorge is like a little Grand Canyon, a remote wilderness with steep, deep canyon walls. DVK Expeditions uses horses to bring the gear down to put in, where only two commercial outfitters are allowed to launch per day. “And the Gunny Gorge is a Gold Medal river, a special designation by the Colorado Wildlife Commission,” says Dvorak. “So you know the trout fishing is some of the best.”
Bob and Mary Volpert: Idaho River Journeys (Salmon, ID)
Bob Volpert got his start in the rafting business in 1971, at a small company he started with some friends to sell inflatable boats. He went on to found Idaho River Journeys in 1978, and his wife Mary started guiding for the company in 1981. “It was a natural progression,” he says. “But I don’t think it dawned on us until about 1982 that we could actually make money at this, and we really started growing from there.”
Today, the couple — with the help of their three grown sons — run three rafting companies spanning four rivers: The Middle Fork and Salmon in Idaho, the Rogue in Oregon, and the Kern in California. At the core of their business remains Idaho River Journeys, and the family is still based in Salmon, Idaho. Volpert believes that their focus on superior service has always made them stand out – that and the food. “Not so long ago, there was a real revolution in rafting food,” Volpert says “People were doing more than throwing a few pork ribs on, and so Mary got really focused on our menu.”
As a result, the Volperts and their guides spend a lot of time cooking together, everything from experimenting with the Dutch oven to trying new recipes. (At any given time, 8-10 guides headquarter at Volpert family property.) “At this point, we don’t find many restaurants that can cook as well as us,” says Volpert. “And what it’s all turned into is a big extended family – we call each other our river family.”
It may be more than a coincidence that the Volperts own three rafting companies and had three children. Will, 28, has been running and administering the Rogue River business in Oregon, and also started his own company doing day trips out of Ashland. Matt, 26, focuses on the California river business, and Skip, 23, hopes to eventually take over the Idaho operations. “I think we may very well be living the dream,” says Volpert.
Idaho River Journeys: Hiking and Floating the Middle Fork of the Salmon
The owners of Idaho River Journeys, Bob and Mary Volpert, are most proud of their multi-day trips on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Middle Fork speaks for itself — a bucket list river for both the wilderness and the whitewater. The Volpert’s trip is, of course, about the river, but it’s also about hiking into your surroundings to explore forest groves, scenic bluffs, and hot springs. It’s also a trip that provides a resort-style camping experience in terms of service and amenities, especially the food, which Mary hand-selects from local producers. “July or early August on Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon with us is the best rafting vacation in America,” says Bob Volpert. [From $1,295; idahoriverjourneys.com]