Elyse Rylander
One Trail, Pack Stories

My journey began on a warm summer morning in early July in 1990. My folks loaded up their cedar strip canoe and shoved off the warm, sandy banks of the southern Wisconsin River with their four-week-old [apparently] secured safely in an infant life jacket and my Mom’s arms in the middle. This scene was to be repeated over and over again in the following years, and while I grew and our family added one more, that change ran parallel with the ever-evolving landscape along the Wisconsin and set the stage for the path my life would take.

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It has never escaped me the profound luck I had being born in to a family that placed such value on time spent outside. As a child the trails of my parent’s property, the public lands and creeks that surrounded it, the rivers and warm lakes of the North Woods and the trails of the local ski hill drew out the lines of maps as much as the lines of my life. On those trails, be they terrestrial or water, I learned life’s most important lessons. I learned how to follow rules, and how to break them; how to trust in myself and trust in others; how to take care and time for myself and the world around me; how to build and sustain community, and maybe most importantly that sometimes it takes two little girls and a full cooler to properly weight down the bow of a canoe in the face of strong headwinds.

Those summers on the water and in the woods and winters on the ski hill propelled me in to starting work in the outdoor industry at 16. Working first as a “junior leader” and then youth and adult instructor, I honed my canoeing and kayak skills, learned how to work with people, and for the first time in my life met a handful of Queer Women.

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Growing up in a very conservative town just north of Madison, WI did not lend itself to experiencing a culture that supported much diversity in thought, way of life or identity. Keeping the secret of my Queer identity hidden seemed paramount in order to avoid complete social ostracization. So, when I found myself leading paddling classes alongside such strong and confident Queer Women while more fully coming to terms with my own identity proved to be exactly the place I needed to be at exactly the right time.

This is another moment in my life in which I feel such gratitude for the lucky hand I was dealt. The confidence and support I was able to build during my summers at Rutabaga aided in my confidence to step out of the closet and fully in to the sun as an openly Queer Woman when I was 18. It is at this part in my journey that my deep love for not only time outside but sharing that love and time with others and my identity as a Queer Woman begin to more fully intertwine.

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In addition to leaping in to more and more opportunities to work or play outside, I was becoming more and more aware of my own luck in finding access and support for my passions and my identity. After a handful of years wearing the hats of outdoor educator, instructor and rental tech, it became more and more difficult to ignore the ways in which my journey, both outside and in, looked so different from the others in my Queer community. Through a desire to intersect the profound positive impacts of time outside with a community I was finding my place in, my meandering brought me to the inception of OUT There Adventures (OTA).

Moving from a 28 page document created in 2011 to 501©3 status in 2014, OTA was able to come to fruition as one of the first outdoor education non-profits created to work specifically with LGBTQ teens and young adults. On a warm almost July day 25 years after that first trip down the Wisconsin, OTA launched its first ever young adult sea kayaking expedition in the San Juan Island in Washington and yet again my life changed forever.

Since that first trip we’ve been able to work with over 200 LGBTQ young people across the cities and woods of Washington, the rivers and Coast of Oregon and the mountains and bays of California. This work has also paved the way for the now annual LGBTQ Outdoor Summit, a now annual event every fall that gathers together over 150 LGBTQ folks and allies from across all facets of and interests in the outdoor recreation economy to further the conversation about how we can continue to [re]create more equitable and just experiences OUTside.

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While I could go review the data points or major highlights of this work, what has been most important to me are hearing the stories of the teens who get OUT there with us every summer. It is from watching participants like Zander or Mel find their path in the industry, or the post-course emails from parents accrediting our trips with the new-found confidence and happiness their child has found.

For a community that is still told significant parts of one’s identity are unnatural, I’ll leave you on this National Coming Out Day with one of the most profound quotes to come out of this work from our OTA alum Zander McRae: “What better place to be as Queer as you can possibly be than the most unapologetic environment there is: Nature.”

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