In an uncertain world, going back to basics is stimulating. Dan Coyle, the visionary behind Coyle on the outsidelearned that lesson throughout his life and now guides people aged two through adulthood to gain confidence with wilderness survival skills.
Maybe you saw the courses and summer camps offered by Corvallis Parks & Rec, on flyers throughout the city, or its website with titles such as Wilderness Skills Weekend, Forest Gang or Bushcraft & Survival. Maybe you wondered who is the person who can teach navigation, wilderness first aid, archery and foraging, as well as knife skills, roping and how to make a fire? without matches.
And if you’re looking for someone who does this in a way that the student respects the environment, then Dan is your guy.
Getting to Know Dan Coyle
Coyle was busy chopping wood when I arrived at his home in South Corvallis to talk to him. Putting down the axe, he said he liked to make firewood to relax. Sitting in his garden by a chilled campfire, there were signs all around that indicate he teaches many practical skills here. His calm yet elevated energy – exuding a strong sense of manliness without the dreaded “toxic masculinity” – indicates his passion for imparting his wisdom found in nature.
He moved to Corvallis in 1993 to start work at Oregon State University as a researcher. He grew up in New Jersey and learned to love being outdoors while attending college in upstate New York. After college, he moved to Oregon, based solely on hearsay that it’s a good state for outdoor adventures.
OSU first hired Coyle to research genetics, then he moved on to botany, then to field biology. Although interesting and connected to the surroundings, neither felt aligned with what they wanted to do in life. During this time, he had a part-time job teaching whitewater kayaking.
While teaching, he experienced an eye-opening lesson. One of the kayaking maneuvers where the kayaker flipped upside down and underwater, which he found exhilarating, spooked others – even though they were within the fairly safe confines of a swimming pool.
Coyle found he enjoyed coaching people through their fears and coming to a point of confidence to say “I fucking did it!”
One skill he learned as a coach was to be curious about other people and their underlying motivations. By asking questions and actively listening to clients’ responses, he was able to develop a bond of trust and guide them to emotional growth.
Wild nature therapy
As Coyle loved those “aha” moments when students moved beyond their fear and continued to do more, he quit research and started working for a wild therapy business in Bend. At first, he wasn’t sure he liked working with troubled people or teenagers because, as a researcher, he didn’t have to interact with others on a regular basis.
Surprising himself, he found he enjoyed working with children, the role of talking to them, and creating an energetic space where troubled young people could confide their worries while discovering through an experience based on nature what they want their future to look like. Coyle eventually found a job that felt meaningful to him – teaching children to enjoy the challenges of doing “difficult” things and learning life lessons by being uncomfortable outside and surviving the experience.
After Bend, he went to another wilderness therapy location in Albany. There he learned the trade from the bottom up as he rose from guide to director. Coyle estimates that he spent more than 1,000 nights camping outdoors with the groups for this ambitious work.
Teenagers, Coyle said, often attend these programs because they have problems. He added, “The program makes them grow emotionally. They learn trust and personal responsibility, and gratitude for even basic necessities – or for how their mother loves them. The things they do are wholesome and instill values. Although extremely difficult, they are safe… but not comfortable.
“It becomes a rite of passage,” Coyle said. “The group, going through this challenge together, often creates an interdependence similar to that which soldiers have with the thought, ‘I protect you and you protect me, even though we don’t see life in the same way.’ The reward becomes, for many, the enlightened realization of “We are One”.”’
Tree piece, wooden bike helmets
Coyle left the Albany job to become his own boss with a start-up called Coyle Design and Build. He had always been crafty, making fancy wooden kayak paddles, wooden goggles, handmade outdoor gear, and eventually wooden helmets.
At first, he made the Tree Piece helmets with chainsaws. Then he discovered how to use a computer numerical control (CNC) machine and lasers. Using funds from an Indiegogo campaign, he bought his own tools and paid for the related costs entrepreneurs face. He earned two patents, learned how to make and had helmets safety tested – first with OSU and then with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Each helmet was custom made and sold for around $300. What he learned in the process was that the helmets should have been priced closer to $700, but each took about $2,000 of effort. Like many start-ups, he realized he was investing more than he was earning.
Coyle reached a point where he had to pivot and find a new way to make money.
Corvallis Parks and Recreation
Coyle had an idea for making money close to home and put his skills to good use – leading outdoor activities for the youngsters of Corvallis. Based on his experience in outdoor activities as well as working with young people, he reached out to a connection at Corvallis’ Parks & Rec to offer help with summer camps. Coyle started with activities, then weekend events, and continued to add more programs. Over time, it has evolved from activities that required expensive equipment to be used in remote locations to teaching primary skills – such as fire building, knife use, roping, rope racing orientation, wilderness first aid, foraging and shelter creation – with minimal tools.
Coyle’s private/public partnership with Parks & Rec appealed to him as they handled the marketing and responsibilities while he offered attractive courses to the city. Using this business model, Coyle’s new venture, called Coyle Outside, expanded to 24 city, county or school agencies beyond Corvallis in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and even as far as Maryland. He said the places are small enough that they can’t do it alone, but big enough to have a clientele to serve.
Coyle on the outside grew
Eight years ago, Coyle’s camp business had grown enough that he needed help. His first hire came from Craigslist. His new employee, Joey Vogt, had worked in a routine packing job with North Pacific Paper Company for more than 20 years and was exhausted. Just like Coyle had, Vogt found himself a new mission in life: to be outdoors, teach campers confidence through wilderness experiences, and watch students grow brave in the process. Coyle learned from this unlikely hire that he enjoyed mentoring teachers, as he put it, to be as “all the human beings as we possibly can.”
Now, when Coyle hires guides, he’s looking for “MacGyvers” who can craft or fix something with only the items at hand. Its coaches are not only skilled in survival skills, but are also mentors with values that campers can look up to and emulate.
Doer, not spectator
Coyle has been involved in the community beyond conducting survival skills classes.
For the past six or seven years he has been involved in Team dirt, a non-profit community organization that started as a mountain bike club and has grown to include all levels of biking. According to their website, Team Dirt primarily focuses on building and maintaining trails that are durable and suitable for mountain bikers, but often open to multi-use. Board member Coyle is proud of the trails he has designed, built – sometimes with children from his camps or other volunteers – and maintains in the MacDonald and Starker Forests.
Coyle wants more kids to feel empowered doing things themselves, not getting ribbons for showing up. Along with all of the Parks & Rec programs he runs, future plans include expanding into other areas and creating year-round programs for homeschooled children. Currently, it offers homeschool groups and private schools a personalized “outdoor school week” that can be day or night.
The mission of all his programs, whether for an adult, adolescent or child, is to build confidence, autonomy and group interdependence because, as he says, “being told that you are special is not the same as feeling important. .”
By Stacey Newman Weldon