Adventure, it seems, is a growth industry. Dreamers no longer sit in suburban easy chairs spinning fantasies. They increasingly seek adventures -- in mountains, jungles, in the air, in the Arctic, even underground.
Thousands of Americans every year truck off to national parks looking for adventure. For a few, a trip to the local 7-Eleven will do, as long as it's in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. But many still have National Geographic fever. They're looking for expeditions, whether a sail across an ocean or a climb in the Himalayas.
Putting together an expedition can itself be a long trek locating equipment, raising funds and finding companions. So two 24-year-olds, Chris White and Jim Stout, smelling cash in this market and eager not to stop their own mountain-climbing adventures just to be bothered making a living, set up Expedition Research Inc. in Annapolis. Their idea was to help scientists, explorers and adventurers get expeditions going and to offer a real challenge to the Walter Mittys of the world.
White, originally from Baltimore, and Stout, from New York, decided on offices in a little brick building a block from Maryland's State Capitol because it was close to the resources of Washington and in a center of one adventurous activity: sailing.
This fall ERI has 70 registered expeditions for which it is supplying personnel, connections, funds or equipment, including everything from medical experiments on Mount Everest to an archeological project in Florida.
Some others are: the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin Expedition: a reenactment of the Lewis and Clark journey by canoe from St. Louis to Portland; the first dogsled crossing of the Antarctic; the Te Pahi Expedition crossing the Pacific in a New Zealand catamaran; a climb of Mt. Aconcagua, highest peak in the western hemisphere; Arctic ecological research on Baffin Island; the Canadian Mt. Everest Expedition; a Nepal whitewater expedition; the All-Woman Chinese Rafting Expedition; and the Bats in Belize Expedition.
ERI's cut of such dealings is 15 percent of the funds it raises, including the value of the equipment Stout and White talk manufacturers into donating, even such esoteric items as candy bars.They hire out as organizers and promotional agents for projects like the New Cape Horn Clipper Race, in which sailboats will vie over the old Gold Rush route from New York to San Francisco.
ERI also registers individual would-be-adventurers. For $20 a year, Walter Mittys have the opportunity to file resumes and computerized abstracts with the Annapolis office in the hope they'll be pulled off the magnetic tape and asked to go along to Tibet or Timbuktu. Members receive "Exploration," a monthly newsletter of upcoming expeditions.
Stout and White incorporated ERI in August two years ago and signed up their first member a year and a half ago. They now have 2,500 members. ERI does not have a complete record of the number of individuals it has helped land on expeditions because many members contact expedition leaders directly through the newsletter. But White says "at least 200" have found a place through the expedition firm.
Expeditions have traditionally been made up of friends and associates from past experiences and financing put together through individual member's resources. In the few cases of exceptional explorations, an organization such as the Explorers Club might lend its name to attract sponsors. But organized fundraising has been unfathomable to most ordinary adventurers.
Some of the grizzled explorers that contracted ERI in its early days found White and Stout an unlikely pair for support of their expeditions. They seemed to be too inexperienced. Their biggest expedition had been a climb of Alaska's Mt. McKinley -- respectable, but hardly unique.
Nonetheless, Stout and White had done their homework. They had written all the American embassies in the world, all the geographic societies, anyone who might have knowledge about needed research, unexplored regions, customs restrictions and legal anomolies -- whatever adventurers might need to know. They had built a computerized index, country by country, region by region. They had put together a file of equipment suppliers and corporations interested in trading support for endorsements.
And they were learning how to approach those companies. Some expeditions generate exceptional media coverage, even on the evening news. A big expedition is often good for at least one hardback book. Even small and specialized treks get recognition in journals. The competition among outdoor equipment manufacturers is intense. No longer do two or three makers of tents and packs quietly compete for a limited market. Dozens of suppliers live and die with the introduction of new products. "We keep on top of new products and the advertising world," White says.
White and Stout also know the corporate vice president who's a sailing addict and the one who spends his vacations climbing mountains. An executive with an outdoors mania will often sell his colleagues on the publicity possibilities of sponsoring an expedition.
An example of what ERI has been able to do was its effort to help Judy Lawson of Annapolis find sponsors for her entry in the Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) this summer.
Lawson was the first woman to compete in an earlier solo race from Newport to Bermuda and had logged more than 25,000 miles sailing in the Caribbean, North Atlantic and Mediterranean. But when she decided to enter this year's OSTAR, she found herself short of money.
"I called them [ERI] in January for the address of the Explorers Club," she says. "They asked me to come over. Four weeks later I had a major sponsor. Incredible." A storm demasted the 32-foot Serta Perfectsleeper in the middle of the North Atlantic race, but ERI had raised more than $85,000 for her.
"As important as the money they raise is their followthrough," Lawson says.
"They give you logistical support, and, most important, spiritual support."
One of ERI's more recent clients is Bill Stone of Washington, a researcher at the National Bureau of Standards. Several months each year Stone spends his time in the dark as a speleologist. Next summer he will go back for the seventh year to the Huautla Project in Mexico and what he hopes will be the deepest cave in the world.
Stone, co-leader of next year's expedition, says ERI is "providing a service that's really needed, filling a big gap. Fund-raising and support is beyond the means of the people involved on the expedition."
ERI is helping the expedition look for a physician. "Doctors are sort of a rarity" for caving expeditions that last four or five months, Stone says, but "ERI has a reputation for coming through."
For all their success, one of the basic premises of founding the company has proven a disappointment -- Stout and White have not been able to do much mountain climbing. They haven't been on a single expedition since they began the business.
"We have to work in the climbing with business," White says.
But temptation comes with each new expedition registered. Jack Wheeler, a professional adventurer, contacted ERI this year for help on his newest project -- parachuting a team at the North Pole.
ERI helped raise funds and find equipment for the expedition and Stout and White decided to go along. But when Wheeler and five other Americans jumped onto the polar icepack at 84 degrees north (the role was fogged in), Chris and Jim weren't there.
ERI's founders were tied up at the office, helping others find their dreams.