I recently came across Out There Adventures and Elyse Rylander through the article published in Outside magazine a couple of weeks ago. I was so excited to learn that this company existed I contacted Elyse through the Out There Adventures website and asked if I could interview and share her story with our DNK Presents community. Being a lesbian owned adventure company in the midwest Kate and I love that Elyse’s business focuses on empowering LGBTQ youth through the great outdoors. Elyse also started the first LGBTQ Outdoor Adventure Summit, what is this you ask, you’ll have to read and find out! I hope you enjoy this interview and learning more about Elyse and her business.
- What benefits did the outdoors have on your life as you were growing up in the midwest and discovering your sexual identity?
The outdoors saved me. I was incredibly fortunate to have parents who placed emphasis on connecting with nature and spending time outside. From my first canoe trip down the Wisconsin River at four weeks old to family camping trips to weekends at the ski hill just north of our house, time outside instilled in me a deep connection to myself, my family and my place in the grander scheme of things.
This was furthered by my summers spent as a canoe and kayak instructor at Rutabaga Paddlesports Shop in Madison in high school and college. Rutabaga served as the launching point for my career in the outdoor industry, and also connected me to a number of women who have profoundly changed my life, including Mo Kappes who was my boss at Rutabaga and also at Adventure Learning Programs at the University of Wisconsin. I met Mo right as I began exploring my queer identity and she was the first openly gay woman I had the opportunity to regularly interact with. Mo became a mentor of mine (still is) and is the Chair of my Board of Directors.
As I have gotten older I return to wild places to find solace and to re-center myself. It is the one place in which I am able to be myself wholly and be freed of socialized constraints.
- What inspired you to take the big plunge to start your own outdoor LGBTQ business?
I always joke that I would up on this path as the result of a mix of youthful enthusiasm and ego, and if I’m honest a bit of naiveté of what it would actually entail to grow a non-profit…
But at its core I just wanted a place for other queer young people to be able to have access to the same opportunities to cultivate community and connection that I was given. I am not much of a believer in meritocracy and instead believe that privilege and opportunity are products of luck. We are lucky to be born of a particular race, class, region, etc. which breeds opportunity, and even down to our genetic makeup we are nothing but a roll of the die. From this perspective I believe deeply that when you are lucky enough to be given the tools to succeed it is imperative to take that luck and those privileges and create opportunities that share your luck and success with others.
So, my motivation has always been centered on the desire to create more opportunities for the next generation of queer individuals to connect with new experiences, create community and most importantly deepen their sense of self.
- What has been the biggest surprise as you have grown your business?
I am not a patient person, so those who know me would not be surprised to hear me say that the slow growth has been the biggest surprise, and also biggest frustration. I very much thought if we built it they would come in mass, but that has not at all been the case. I knew we’d experience certain outreach barriers, but seven years ago I did not fully understand the depth and breadth of these issues.
As a result, everything I have done since OTA’s inception has been an outreach mechanism. From the expansion of our programming regions to program partnerships to launching LGBTQ adult programs to organizing the LGBTQ Outdoor Summit, it has all been focused on trying to increase the number of conduits in to the industry and to these outdoor recreation and conservation opportunities for queer young people.
- Could you share a story of a participant of Out There Adventures and how the experience changed their life?
Over my years in the industry I have thus far amassed something like 100 field weeks and worked with thousands of people from an immense array of ages, backgrounds and abilities. So, after extensive research I have concluded that queer young people are the most fantastic demographic to work with. I have never seen with such consistency a group that is SO kind, compassionate, understanding and caring. It has been a privilege to work with every queer young person that has come through our program, and over the years I have had the ability to work closely with one of our program participants in particular.
Zander McRae came on OTA’s first ever expedition in 2015. We spent eight days sea kayaking and camping in the Central Salish Sea when Zander was 17. Because it was a small group we were able to do a lot of one-on-one connecting with the participants. After the trip he remained enthusiastically engaged in our programs and last summer we teamed up with NOLS to get Zander to Australia for a three week sea kayaking course (his first time traveling abroad as well).
The trip helped Zander find the confidence to re-route his life plan and he is now embarking on the path to become an outdoor educator and will be beginning a semester outdoor educator course with Outward Bound this fall.
- What is your favorite trip to guide and why?
I am a paddler through and through, so any trip on the water is preferred over land-based trips. My favorite OTA trips to instruct are our 5-8 day San Juan Islands sea kayaking trips. My favorite trips ever guided are multi-day sea kayaking trips in the Prince William Sound of AK.
- If you could go on your own adventure anywhere, where would it be?
New Zealand, hands down. I’ve heard the Milford Sound is very similar to the Price William Sound, and I figure I need to interrogate this notion for myself.
- What is next for Out There Adventures?
Oofta! That’s a big question! So much is next for OTA. We’re expanding our program operating areas and hope to be across the country by 2020. We’re growing our adult programs and our program partnerships to offer more and more ways to get OUT there, and eventually I’d love to be able to bring a seasonal offering to Alaska since a part of my heart will always be there.
- Tell us more about starting the LGBTQ Outdoor Summit.
Turns out that like starting a non-profit launching a conference is pretty darn exhausting, but also immensely exhilarating!
The idea for the LGBTQ Outdoor Summit came from attending and supporting other identity-specific events in 2017 such as the Women’s Outdoor Summit for Empowerment and PGM ONE. It made a lot of sense to offer a space focused on the issues more specific to queer identities as it relates to outdoor recreation and conservation.
The result wound up as nothing sort of astonishing. We would have been happy with 40 people and a few sponsors. Instead we had to firmly cut off registration at 140 and worked with over a dozen sponsors including The North Face, The Wilderness Society and the National Park Service.
Since the event it has been most exciting to hear about the connections and partnerships that have been made as a result. I’m very much looking forward to offering this space again this year, and also to be able to expand our offerings as we continue to strive to meet the diverse array of interests and needs of the queer community.
I’m also excited to see the ways in which it is helping to change the industry. It’s hard to ignore hundreds of folks coming together around this idea of queer outdoor equity, and we need to keep pushing the industry until they become far better at representation and engagement of this demographic.
Elyse (she/her) has worn many hats in the outdoor industry and education worlds. Since 2006 she has taken thousands of youth and adults on outdoor adventures all over North America, and during these adventures the interrogation of equity, access and privilege played a central role. In 2011 Elyse began her journey as founder of OUT There Adventures, a 501(c)3 dedicated to further bridging the gap between the LGBTQ community and the natural world. Along this path, Elyse has worked tirelessly to reduce outdoor access barriers for all members of the LGBTQ community. This has resulted in dozens of publications, presentations, interviews, trainings and program partnerships aimed at increasing queer visibility and further complicating the narrative of who goes outside and how. Elyse’s work has appeared in places such as the Rutledge International Handbook of Outdoor Studies, in print and person at industry events such as Outdoor Retailer, and in March of 2018 Elyse was named a “Top Woman in Conservation and Environmental Justice” by ECODiversity Magazine. Elyse is also the co-organizer of the annual LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. Outside of her work, Elyse is known for her sense of humor best conveyed through perfectly timed message GIFs, and in her [rare] free time she can be found paddling through the central Salish Sea.