May 08, 1989 12:00 PM

By her own description, Erlene Thomas, a 43-year-old counselor for chemical dependence in Seattle, is “a physically average, normal woman.” She certainly had never thought of herself as the outdoorsy type eager to challenge the wilderness. Yet, over the past five years, Thomas has paddled the white waters of Oregon’s Rogue River, shot the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, hiked up to 15,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes and trekked through remote Nepal.

The vehicle for Thomas’s recent spate of adventures is a unique tour packager in Seattle called Womantrek. Founded in 1983 by experienced outdoorswoman Bonnie Bordas, it offers offbeat trips that range from kayaking off Mexico’s Baja California to bicycle tours of Inner Mongolia. Womantrekkers travel in groups of a dozen or so, and as the name implies, Womantrek is for women only. Husbands, boyfriends, brothers and sons need not apply.

Bordas, 41, hastens to explain that Womantrek is not an exercise in antimale discrimination. Rather, its aim is to create a distaff equivalent of male bonding. “Guys who go on hunting trips know about the special camaraderie that comes from an intense, shared experience,” says Bordas. “The difference is that women still seem to have to justify doing these things and men don’t.”

Bordas points out that her trips give “women time to be themselves, to discover their personal strengths, to make good friends, maybe even to fix their own flat tires. Many women say they’ve had enough of riding on a bicycle two days behind their husbands. Here we cycle at our own speed,” she says. To which most of her Womantrek clients add a fervent amen. “Many married women become so dependent on their husbands that they don’t know who they are, where they’re going and what they want,” says Erlene Thomas. “Womantrek gives us lots of time for self-reflection.”

Marie Doman, a 45-year-old dental laboratory technician at the University of Washington who joined a Grand Canyon rafting expedition four years ago, agrees. “The thing we noticed was that if men had been on that trip, there would have been a feeling that they were there to protect the girls,” she says. “Our trips avoid all that. Women aren’t as into showing off to one another as men are.” And Millie Katz, 64, a biology teacher in Seattle, remembers “a sort of magic that happened” when she joined seven other women to raft the Deschutes: “We spent the days talking about serious things or being as silly as kids. There was a special quality of being able to talk about things that you wouldn’t discuss in mixed groups.”

The seeds of Womantrek were planted as far back as Bordas’s Girl Scout days in her hometown of Arlington, Va. All those camping and canoeing trips instilled in her an enduring love of the outdoors. Bordas earned physical education degrees at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia and Springfield College in Massachusetts. She then pursued a career in teaching and coaching at the high school level and as an Outward Bound leader in various locales before settling in the Pacific Northwest. In 1983, after contacting Chinese authorities, she promoted the first women-only bicycle tour through southeast China and quickly attracted 17 candidates, aged 26 to 68. With that, Womantrek was in business.

At first, Bordas worked out of her own house, but as the enterprise grew she set up a tiny office in downtown Seattle. Last year she arranged 20 tours, including one-day bald-eagle sighting trips in Washington State ($55), a 23-day African safari in Tanzania and Kenya ($4,200) and a 10-day cruise to the Galapagos Islands ($2,200). There are now some 500 Womantrek alumnae, many of them repeat customers who serve as Bordas’s best word-of-mouth advertisement.

Not all of Womantrek’s tours are physically demanding, and Bordas will customize tours for private groups of women or mixed company. But from its start, Womantrek has tended to emphasize tents and guesthouses over deluxe hotels and campfire cooking and local cafes over five-star restaurants. This no-frills approach has shown the participants that they are more capable and self-reliant than they had ever thought possible. Marie Doman, for example, says she is “as soft and sloppy as you can be,” and she had not bicycled much until she went halfway around the world to China to do it three years ago. Adds Erlene Thomas: “The sense of achievement is hard to put into words. I challenged myself and overcame personal and physical obstacles, and I came out with a sense of self-worth renewed.”

—Dan Chu, Joni H. Blackman in Seattle

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