Call of the Wild
Feeling burned out by a career in health finance, Brian Pearson and his wife went on an adventure, backpacking through South America for seven months.
They liked it so much, they stayed there for well over a decade, settling in Santiago, Chile, where he built a travel company. But when international travel was halted by the pandemic in early 2020, he came home to Massachusetts and launched Adventure East, with the goal of helping locals in Western Mass. access the great outdoors.
“I decided it was a great opportunity to take advantage of all the outdoor interest coming out of the pandemic,” he told BusinessWest. “People wanted more time outdoors when there was nowhere else to go.”
The idea, he said, is that people enjoy being out in nature, but planning an outdoor adventure can be time-consuming and challenging. So Adventure East handles the logistics of outings involving hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, shoeshoeing, and more — as well as the equipment — so participants can take in the region’s natural beauty without the hassle of figuring out logistics, and be shuttled back to their car to boot.
The model has remained a strong one even with indoor tourism opening back up in late 2020 and through 2021. For one thing, the health benefits of being outdoors became more widely discussed during the pandemic. And more people simply came to realize — and are still realizing — how much the region has to offer in that regard.
“We’re providing access to the outdoors, providing information about where to go, guides that are knowledgable … they’re very experienced people, passionate about what they do. We have experts in a lot of different areas.”
While its activities take place throughout the region’s forests, mountains, and waterways, Adventure East’s headquarters is in Sunderland, across Route 116 from the Connecticut River boat ramps there.
“That nine-mile stretch from Turners Falls to Sunderland is really wonderful; there are farms and residential homes along the river, but the state has done a fantastic job over the years building the Connecticut River Greenway,” Pearson said, noting that paddlers are always impressed by the sights of Mount Toby and Mount Sugarloaf, and of bald eagles flying about.
The company has been expanding its activities in the corporate and education sectors as well, he said, with clients including Baystate Health, Amherst College, UMass Amherst, the Bement School, and Hartsbrook School.
“We’re already working with large companies like Baystate and UMass, getting their employees outdoors. I wouldn’t call them full-blown corporate retreats, but more having people enjoy a walk or hike and unwind and be in nature, share a meal … we do farm-to-table activities in connection with local farms in Sunderland, Whately, and Hatfield.”
On the education side, Adventure East has gotten Sunderland grade-schoolers outdoors during winter vacation, and brought kids from Mohawk Trail Regional School canoeing on Ashfield Lake when it’s warmer, he added.
“At the colleges, we’ve gotten more outdoor programs onto their radar, and we’re looking to do more outdoors with students, showing them what they have in the Valley. We continue to provide information on the walking trails right out their back door. It’s really fantastic.”
Pearson said the guided hiking tours are geared at a wide range of skill and experience levels, with access to trails on both state and private conservation lands, ranging from trail walks with naturalists to snowshoeing; from bird watching to yoga and ‘forest bathing’ — a form of mindfulness where participants “soak up the energy of the forest and take that with them,” he explained.
“It’s been scientifically shown that 40 minutes in the forest can reduce stress, reduce cortisol levels … there’s a real therapeutic aspect to nature. It’s not complicated. You don’t need us to experience it, but we love to share it and support people getting out there.”
And when people appreciate nature, he added, that leads to greater respect and even conservation efforts, “to preserve the outdoors for future generations to do the same types of activities.”
As tourism begins to open up fully after two pandemic-hampered years, Pearson envisions Adventure East evolving into a destination company that works with other operators like itself and destinations throughout the Northeast.
“It could be up in Maine or the White Mountains or Vermont, really connecting these types of experiences into multi-day itineraries, which is exactly what I was doing in South America,” he noted. “There is a segment of the population that really appreciates the exact type of service we offer and enjoy not having to deal with details. We want to connect with people and provide a personalized experience.”
It’s work Pearson finds gratifying.
“When I was in Chile, many local Chileans would call me up: ‘we’re going to such and such a place this weekend; what does Brian recommend?’ It was an honor to help Chileans appreciate their own country.”
The Pioneer Valley is a lot like that too, he said, filled with outdoor opportunities to explore that many locals really don’t know about.
“It’s about being out there, experiencing it, having a real appreciation,” he said. “I enjoy doing that, whether it’s teaching kids to ski for the first time or showing people magical spots in the woods, 10 minutes from Route 116. There’s so much in our valley.”
— Joseph Bednar