Getting Close to Nature, but Not Too Close : A Ventura firm leads outdoor Elderhostel trips with an educational bent. But don't worry, you won't be roughing it.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Summer has officially ended. But that's no reason to cook chicken soup and hibernate. Why not follow Monica and Raymond Koszela's example and venture into the great outdoors?

The retired Thousand Oaks couple recently spent a week exploring the Giant Forest in California's Sequoia National Park. The trip, open to adults age 60 and older, is one of many offered to seniors nationwide through the quarterly catalogue of Boston-based Elderhostel International. The program offers courses, trips and seminars throughout the world to promote lifelong learning.

This trip was led by Naturalists at Large, a Ventura-based company that specializes in active outdoor travel with an educational bent.

"We really do focus on education about the environments in which we work," said Lisa Russ, the group's program director. "One aspect of our program targets active mature adults interested in continuing to learn and challenge themselves both mentally and physically."

But don't think you have to sleep on the ground and collect berries for sustenance. The Koszelas got close to nature, but not too close, sleeping in a heated cabin with central bathhouse and eating in a cafeteria.

And there was no camp counselor making them participate in all the events. "You're not compelled to attend the morning talks," Monica said. "And the walks are always on two or three levels. So you're not forced to go beyond what you can do."

Each morning, the Koszelas and fellow ecology students attended a lecture by a visiting park ranger. Then they hit the trail to discover more about the natural and human history of the area from their naturalist guides.

"You don't have to have a background as a naturalist," Monica said. "We knew absolutely nothing."

While her 65-year-old husband used the trip to learn about nature, Monica, 62, furthered her hobby of identifying and taking photos of wildflowers.

"I decided I should have something to focus in on after I retired," she said. "And since the birds kept flying away, I settled on wildflowers."

The Sequoia trip was the Koszelas' seventh Elderhostel course. "It's a good value," Monica said. "And you meet interesting people your own age who don't sit around talking about their arthritis and their grandchildren."

Maybe the Koszelas will hibernate later in life, but not now. "The grains are running through the hourglass," Monica said. "And if we're going to do these active things, we have to do them now."

Since its inception in 1985, Naturalists at Large has accommodated the interests of older outdoors adventurers by sponsoring Elderhostel trips such as the Sequoia program. But for the past two years the group has also offered its own trips designed for mature travelers.

Ventura's Martha Jaffe, 54, was among the first to sign up for a weeklong trip this January. "Exploring Baja" is for adults over 50 and their children over 20. A naturalist will guide the group in Bahia de los Angeles. Activities include snorkeling, sea kayaking and swimming. No experience is necessary. Instruction and equipment will be provided.

In addition, participants will learn about the animal and plant life of the surrounding coast lines and deserts.

"I have a group of women friends ages 52 to 54--some married, some single--who all like outdoor activities," Jaffe said. "It's good for the psyche. And it's important for these people to know that just because you're over 55, it doesn't mean that you can't do 'young people's' activities.' "

If you can't get away for a few days of adventure, consider the many local outdoor opportunities available through senior centers, parks and recreation or community services agencies.

According to Stephen Hartmann, recreation coordinator for Ventura's Community Services Department, a lot of the nature programs are popular with grandparents who take their grandchildren to share an educational experience.

"They are learning as much as the children," said Hartmann, "And sometimes all three generations go along."

* WHERE AND WHEN

NATURALISTS AT LARGE TRIPS: Sequoia will be offered again Oct. 17-22 and May 22-27. Sequoia National Park is at 6,400 feet, and is located about 240 miles, or a 4 1/2-hour drive, from Ventura. Cost for the trip, including meals and lodging, is $325 per person.

"EXPLORING BAJA," for adults age 50 and older and their children over 20, is Jan. 16-22. The cost of $775 per person includes meals, lodging, instruction, equipment and round-trip transportation from San Diego to Bahia de los Angeles, which is 400 miles south of the border. For more information, call 642-2692.

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