Tag Archives: conservation

Stepping Into America’s Big Backyard.

APR-Yurts-03Summer’s soft opening happens this weekend with the Memorial Day holiday. Backyard barbeques will be heating up and gas will be pumping to move folks along the highways and skyways. After a long winter of wicked weather across the country, and strange climate conditions happening around the planet, it’s a great time to contemplate how you’ll spend your summer and maybe consider some new experiences and destinations.

Summer offers the perfect excuse to eek out a long weekend—at least once a month—to get out of town, or even to stay in town and finally see and do all of the things you keep meaning to experience. Summer let’s us off the hook. No matter how old you are, there’s something about dreamy summer that awakens our inner child…if we let it. In an age of always being shackled to some device, listen up and heed the call to disconnect and enjoy all of the great opportunities summer sends your way. From simply enjoying a slurpy slice of watermelon to learning something new like stand-up paddle boarding, there’s loads of great stuff waiting for you.

Montana buffalo in their own backyard.

Montana buffalo in their own backyard.

Maybe this is the summer you go big when it comes to travel, in which case I’d like to throw a suggestion your way. Go on safari.

Before you say, “Yeah, right!”— hear me out. Everyone always thinks Africa when they hear safari and, yes, many of the countries on that continent will expose you to incredible, life-changing experiences. But the reality for many folks is that for whatever reason they can’t cross the breach in their mind to even contemplate that kind trip as a reality. The distance, the flight, the cost—these are common roadblocks I often hear people talk about. So how about an American safari? There are some pretty unique experiences lurking in this big backyard.

Did someone say road trip? On the Great Plains of northeastern Montana, the American Prairie Reserve (APR) is 273,000-acres of protected wild grassland teeming with wildlife. This place is the perfect excuse to grab your best friend, or family, pack up the car with snacks, unplug, and shake up the brain with word games. If being on the road for a long stretch of time isn’t your thing, you can fly or take Amtrak to reach the APR and book a rental car from that point. The part I really like about this place is you can go highbrow or lowbrow.

If you’re into cushy digs and aren’t one to skimp on comfort, then Kestrel Camp is the best of both worlds. Opened in 2013, the five luxury yurts here are individual sanctuaries that rival some of the camp accommodations you’d find in African countries. The plush beds, hot showers, and a panoramic view to top it all off makes these climate-controlled, safari-style tent bungalows one sweet treat. You’ll dig into your wallet a little bit on this one but with the money you’ll save on flights, transfers, hotels, and all of the little add-ons, it’s a smart choice. The chance to spend time in one of the few untouched reaches of wilderness in the U.S. and experience it alongside biologists and naturalists is all part of the adventure. I love that APR saw the light and created this experience. They even have sundowners!

The lounge at Kestrel.

The lounge at Kestrel.

Anyone who camps knows there’s nothing like slipping your sleeping bag out of your tent to soak up a starry, starry night. If going back to basics is your thing then Buffalo Camp is the perfect spot. Made up of 4 tents and 7 camper sites, there may be no potable water but at $10 a night in this rustic stretch of paradise you’ll be stealing heaven. Situated near this campsite are hiking trails, biking options, and a prairie dog town. For anyone who likes an unstructured vacation, appreciates nature, and wants to be unencumbered of their “stuff,” the simplicity and stillness that you’ll find here makes this campsite pure bliss.  There’s no cellphone coverage here (which will hopefully enhance the feeling that you’ve left it all behind), and service is also limited in other parts of APR, which might have you shouting yippee!

A low impact platform awaits your home away from at Buffalo Camp.

A low impact platform awaits your home away from home at Buffalo Camp.

Regional campgrounds are also available in the nearby Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge but no matter which accommodation you choose, it’s all about conservation and that’s one of APR’s best experiences. For anyone with kids, it’s a great way to introduce the little ones to nature on a different scale and stoke their interest in animals and travel. If you’ve never been on safari than indulging in one closer to home may inspire you to make the leap next year to Africa. It’s closer than you think.

Summer’s calling. The older you get the quicker it goes, so don’t let the season fly by without indulging in a different kind of travel. Your younger heart and soul will thank you.

Advertisements

Interested in Voluntourism? Do Your Homework.

(Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Monitoring meerkats in Kalahari.  (Photo credit: Earthwatch)

Voluntourism.

For many travelers, the chance to combine tourism and volunteer work sounds like the making of a great itinerary. It’s a nice and noble gesture, a chance to leave a good footprint in the places we trample for our own pleasure. It’s a chance to combine a passion for travel with a desire to give back and, hopefully, make a difference.

It’s often said that travel is the best education because it gives us a chance to connect with other cultures in a multitude of ways. Voluntourism provides a greater opportunity to make this connection. Over the past decade, voluntourism has developed into a revenue stream for travel companies and charities. It’s a product that gives them an opportunity to court tourists and travelers who want to get away and do good works at the same time. Sounds simple enough.

But where does your money go?

It’s the first question you might want to ask. If you sell travel, it’s the question you want all the answers to before you recommend voluntourism options to customers.   It’s the question that’s brought a lot of controversy to voluntourism, because the high price a consumer might pay—and some of these experiences can be pretty pricey—don’t always have a high level impact on the people and places where the good Samaritan work is being done.

Last month, The Journal of Sustainable Tourism published a study that revealed the more expensive a trip product, the less responsible it was. It also discovered that the less expensive the experience, the greater the impact. The study also found that just because a product is labeled as a volunteer tourism opportunity, it doesn’t mean the end results will be positive.

So what’s a traveler with pure intentions to do? According to Victoria Smith, lead author, and Dr. Xavier Font, who conducted the study, there are a few key things to look out for:

How is your money being used?
Basically, you’re looking for pricing transparency. If a company doesn’t publish this information, ask them to break it down for you. You want to know where your money is going and how the community or conservation effort you’re serving is benefiting from it. Most companies will take a cut, and that’s understandable, but it shouldn’t be more than 20%.

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

Tracking the little things. (Photo credit: Oceanic Society)

How does this project make a difference?
If you’re going to put in the time, you want to be sure it was well spent so it’s good to know the goals and details of a project up front. You also want to be sure that the project you sign up for will, in fact, use the skills you bring to it, or that you actually have the skills that might be needed. Depending on the project, you could be doing anything from chipping paint, to data entry, to teaching English, for example. It’s preferable to know in advance what you’ll be doing.

What is the length of the project?
In order to make a difference, we typically need to put in an investment of time. From students to baby boomers, people who commit to volunteer projects realize that to have any kind of impact, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for shorter-term experiences and that good things can’t be done in 48 hours. Where there’s a will—and a desire to give back—there’s a way, and travelers who’ve set their sights on charity work who can’t commit to extended lengths of time often use any vacation opportunity to connect with volunteer opportunities wherever and however they can.

It’s not about me.
Remember, life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.  Voluntourism isn’t vacation and any company that markets an experience this way should probably be avoided. Anyone looking to enjoy a bit of down time may want to cover that part of the trip first. This way, your needs are out of the way. Being of service is about following someone else’s lead; it’s about putting the needs of the community or the task at hand before your own. You’re there because you want to make a difference and the gift of giving is in knowing that your commitment contributes to the overall impact of a project.

Be prepared.
Committing to volunteer work abroad isn’t something that should be done on a whim. In addition to researching the company you book with, and depending on where you’d like to serve, you may need a visa, vaccinations, and possibly a background check. Doing your homework will help you identify the project that’s right for you.

Since his volunteer experience in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Ken Budd uses his vacation time to lend a hand around the world. It’s part of his mission to live a life that matters. Anyone who’s ever thought about volunteering, whether at home or abroad, may want to read his travel memoir, The Voluntourist. For a listing of credible organizations that market to individual or family volunteer experiences, Peter Greenberg Travel Detective is a good source. Voluntourism.org is a resource with loads of info, and TripAdvisor is another site to review volunteer experiences.

Whether you want to stay local or travel far.  Whether you can commit two nights, two weeks or two months to help make a difference, it’s all good.