Tourists seek safaris on the American veld

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

His summer, Mary Ann and Harry Chronister are giving their daughter a high school graduation present they hope she'll never forget. As world travelers, the Chronisters of Columbus, Ohio, have already been to Europe. So they're sending Anne on an expedition to a more exotic locale: Yellowstone National Park.

Yes, the same Yellowstone that for many Americans represents a summer vacation clich, replete with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at Old Faithful and frantic scrambling from one mudpot to the next. But the Chronisters have something else in mind.

By enlisting a private guide to take her to the best spots for seeing wolves, grizzlies, and other wildlife, they are rejecting the old ways of visiting national parks for a new trend in summer travel: the North American safari.

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From birding treks along the San Pedro River in Arizona to brown bear photo expeditions in Alaska, safaris are now becoming de rigueur for a growing number of the ecology-minded middle class. And they're big business. "It's an idea that has been slower to arrive in this country, but it's modeled after the photo safari concept Europeans have gravitated toward for years in Africa," says Gary Machlis, a sociologist with the National Park Service in Washington. "Exploring the big national parks of the West still is considered the great American pilgrimage. Now people are choosing to embark on that vacation in a slightly different way."

The nature safari trade in North America now looks on track to set another record this year.

The Gatsby economy

Part of the explanation is economic. Despite recent downturns in the stock market, the strong economy has left more people with more disposable income, enabling them to shop for exotic alternatives to the regular American vacation.

But there are cultural factors at work, too. Political unrest and rising crime in parts of Africa have persuaded wildlife-loving travelers to stay closer to home. At the same time, polls show Americans are interested in the environment more than at any time in at least a decade.

As a result, safari offerings on this continent have quietly been growing. Ironically, the expeditions are taking place in the middle of one of the most highly developed nations on earth.

Economists say it demonstrates the benefits of rich nations investing in environmental protection. When the amount of money spent on guides, restaurants, hotel rooms, cameras, and field guides is put together, wildlife watching becomes a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

"The word 'safari' is no longer limited to the white big-game hunters in Africa, who are best personified by Ernest Hemingway," says Ken Sinay of Northern Rockies Natural History, a Bozeman, Mont.-based group that is one of the oldest commercial wildlife tour operators in the region. "Today, safari applies to any person who decides to go searching for wildlife in its native habitat."

Nowhere else is the experience of seeing big animals move across the landscape more vivid and comparable to Africa than in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Here, the rolling grasslands of the national park have been dubbed "the Serengeti of North America" because of the huge diversity of animals.

Thousands of elk, and hundreds of bison, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and moose appear at certain times of the year. Along with them are the animals that feed on these wildlife and really awe the crowds - wolves, grizzly bears, coyotes, and, to a lesser extent, secretive mountain lions, the Western cousins of the big African cats.

According to Mr. Sinay, a major catalyst was the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone in 1995. Today, tens of thousands of people each year drive across the country to witness the lobos in the park's Lamar Valley.

"Yellowstone is the only place on the continent where this kind of opportunity exists," he says. "People want to get close to nature, but they don't know how to do it on their own."

Sinay will guide some 500 clients this year from around the world - double the number of just five years ago. But perhaps a better indicator of how the business is booming is that, since 1990, when only one or two outfitters offered guided safaris in Yellowstone, dozens now exist.

More for the money

The Chronisters, who own a job-finding agency in Ohio, lamented not having more "quality" time with their daughter. They were also wary of just climbing into their car and driving west. Their research took them to Off the Beaten Path, which is regarded as a leader in the North American safari industry.

"When you travel so far and make such an effort to get there and frankly spend so much to be some place special, you don't want to leave it to potluck," Mrs. Chronister says.

Elin Hert, who helps assemble personalized itineraries for clients like the Chronisters at Off the Beaten Path in Bozeman, says US travelers have discovered they don't need to go abroad to experience real adventure.

But it isn't just adolescents and college graduates who are fueling the latest wave of immersion travel, experts note. Aging members of the boomer generation and older are also searching for more substance. "We have it all here in our own backyard of this country if people are only willing to look," Ms. Hert says.

Off The Beaten Path has organized trips that include cultural tours of ancient spiritual sites led by native Americans from adjacent Indian reservations. It's also set up fly-fishing sojourns that include days spent angling on park rivers and evenings discussing fishing literature by Izaak Walton.

The personalized adventures, like those in Africa, aren't cheap. For a flat rate of $495 a day, Sinay will pick up a party of three at their hotel around dawn, and take them to an overlook where they can photograph wildlife with the rising sun. After that, he'll introduce them to researchers who are tracking animals using radio telemetry, pit stop for lunch in a park meadow, embark on an afternoon wildlife-watching drive, and stay out until dark.

To put the cost in perspective, Sinay says, it actually works out to less than the cost of snowmobiling in the park during the winter. Still, outfitters say they are willing to work with clients who could not otherwise afford the treks, as well.

Last spring, Sinay received a phone call from a grade-school teacher in the Midwest, a single mother who said her son's dream was to interact with bear and wolf biologists. Sinay cut the woman a deal and custom-designed a day in the field around the boy's interests.

Not just Yellowstone

Beyond Yellowstone, companies like Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (OARS), headquartered in San Francisco, organize safaris to Baja California to kayak alongside gray whales. OARS also takes trekkers into the Grand Canyon to retrace the journal entries of 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell, and through Cataract Canyon where it snakes through Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

"Nature safaris represent a huge growth market," Sinay says. "In 20 years, they'll be as commonplace here as they are in Africa."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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