A lot of tourists choose the Seattle area for their visit to Washington because of its well-known landmarks like the Space Needle and Mount Rainier. But Fiddlehead Tours and Adventures owner Sarah Grainger believes that Whatcom County is a much better choice. “There is so much right here that’s so awesome, and in Whatcom County everything is so accessible. We don’t have to deal with traffic and crowds,” observes Grainger. But what’s special about Fiddlehead is that her approach looks at the big picture, considering every element of her businesses impact on the community and the planet, from paying workers a living wage and using locally-sourced food in reusable containers, to treading lightly on the land.
In 2004, while Grainger was a Western Washington University student working as an intern at Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, she noticed no one in our area was offering a variety of organized day-long tours. “There was no central place like you find in larger cities where you can get the full experience of the Bellingham area. So years ago, I knew I wanted to start a business like that, but then life happened,” explains Grainger.
Life for Grainger meant traveling the world. “I started college in Santa Barbara after high school but didn’t know what I wanted to do so I signed up to go to Spain for a language class and I ended up traveling for about seven years,” remembers Grainger. “I’ve been all over the world, around 27 countries. I taught skiing and climbing and other activities. When I came back to where my parents lived in Bellevue, I came up here for school and instantly found home. Before that, I’d never lived anywhere for more than five years. I’ve been to so many places that people say are the best places in the world, so I can say for sure that Bellingham is the best place.”
Grainger worked in Bellingham for a bit after college but the travel bug again drew her away for nine more years. She only recently returned to Bellingham with her husband, Nat, to launch her business in April 2016.
Grainger invested over a year of hard-core planning and education for her business in marketing, accounting, and law, including a 15-week Banking on Women program, as well as getting help from WWU’s Small Business Development Center and the business mentoring program SCORE.
Seeing so much of the world with her own eyes shaped how Grainger approaches her life and business. “I have been a pretty decent environmentalist for a long time. I was fortunate enough to work with Jane Goodall in Switzerland through the Roots and Shoots Program. I wanted my business to take advantage of how fun our world is in a healthy, environmental way,” explains Grainger. “I wanted to make sure that our tours weren’t invasive, and that anyone that works with me gets paid and treated well.”
That desire helped Grainger discover a business model for her company: ‘holistic commodity tourism,’ a term Grainger coined. “I really didn’t like ‘eco-tourism’ because it is a mess of a word and people aren’t using it with those ideals in mind anymore. Sustainability is a great broad term, but mine is more specific.”
The name Fiddlehead was also carefully chosen. “I’ve always loved ferns because they are the whole deal. They are beautiful, they clean toxins out of soil, the plant helps clean the air, and you can eat the fiddleheads in the spring. They are a symbol for the ideals,” adds Grainger.
Grainger’s company offers a variety of outdoor recreation tours in Whatcom County by partnering with other local businesses. Three levels of intensity are available for her hiking trips. Both local and longer distance bicycling tours happen with the help of Fairhaven Bicycles and a support vehicle. Kayaking tours are with boats from Moondance Sea Kayaking Adventures, a local, female-owned business that’s been operating since 1992. Sailing tours head into Bellingham Bay and the nearby San Juan Islands on a 42-foot plug-in diesel-electric hybrid catamaran maintained by Gato Verde.
Because each tour is limited to four to six people, Grainger is also able to develop custom tours based on the interests and desires of the customer. There is a flexibility you don’t find on larger ‘cattle-style’ tours. “If they are within 30 miles of Bellingham, I’ll pick them up with my car. If it’s hot that day and the group changes their mind about what they want to do, we can just do it,” explains Grainger. “I also try to always include an element of education with each trip, without it becoming like a lecture,” adds Grainger. “Almost every trip also includes a stop for beer or wine, because, come on, it’s Bellingham.”
As an example, Grainger describes the longer hiking option. “We drive up and stop at the Rome Grocery to pick up our lunch. They work really hard to use all local products. When I told them that we didn’t want to use any plastic, only reusable materials, they were willing to make us granola bars from local products. We then go on our hike and as we come down off Mount Baker we stop at the North Fork Brewery,” explains Grainger. “It’s a great place. How can you skip pizza and beer there? It’s such a great environment classic to this area.”
Each tour is guided and includes a trip photographer so attendees will have a high-quality record of their trip without the hassle or distraction of trying to capture the moments themselves. “They are really good at what they do. I want people to be able to put their phone away and just be present, be with your family, and with your friends,” explains Grainger.
Many of Grainger’s customers have included visitors from out-of-state who want to check out the Pacific Northwest or who are attending a wedding or other event in the area and want to make the most of their trip. The hikes and around-town bicycle tours have been popular. Fiddlehead hosts trips from mid-April through mid-October.