Words by Kaylee Dugan, Photos by Nicholas Karlin
When I met Kyle Wakayama, REI’s outdoor programs and outreach market coordinator, he was running around the Wunder Garten preparing for a class on camping. He’d been essentially living there this summer, hosting outdoor based pub quizzes, teaching people how to tie knots, and enriching total strangers with the outdoor skills they needed. And you could easily tell, he loved every second of it. Even though he’d probably taught this class a hundred times, he seemed just as animated going over pre-camping checklists as if it were the very first time.
Kyle is the kind of person who has an insatiable need to be outside. The man has almost every outdoor hobby known to man, from rock climbing, to back packing, to mountain biking, and snowboarding. He has a natural affinity for the outdoors and a true love for showing people the ropes. So when he had a second, I sat him down to talk about how he became involved with REI, his thoughts on the Blair Witch , and the company’s incredibly fun out of office messages.
#UnitedOutside content has been done in collaboration with our friends at REI
What was your first job?
My first job was working in a skateboard and bike shop in Hawaii. I would help assemble skateboards. It was kind of my first taste of retail. Or outdoor retail I guess.
How old were your?
I was 15 or 16 when I got that job.
So just at the legal working age. I’m sure you’re parents were like, “go get a job.”
Actually, it’s funny. They didn’t encourage me at all. It was mainly to support my own skateboarding and all of the other things I like to do.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be… for most of my childhood I wanted to be an architect. I really liked the creative aspect of it and I was also pretty good at math when I was a kid. So in my mind it was a very creative field that involved math. Whether or not that’s accurate, I’m not sure.
Yeah, there’s gotta be some math. How did you get involved with REI?
I got involved with REI immediately after I graduated college. I was in an outdoor adventure program in college, throughout my undergrad. And that’s where I got my first taste of outdoor education as well as event programming. I fell in love with the outdoors in the D.C. / Mid Atlantic area. I got into rock climbing, backpacking. I was also a business major so it was a marriage between my passion and things I was learning in the classroom as well.
How did you get into this position?
This is the one job that I’ve had at REI. The director of the outdoor adventure program at my college eventually started working for REI and when jobs were opening up he was like, “You should consider this considering your experience in outdoor education.”
How did you become interested in outdoor education? What was your gateway drug into the great outdoors?
It was rock climbing. It I was to narrow it down to a specific activity, it was rock climbing. My freshman year, I did an orientation outdoor trip and went rock climbing for the first time… I feel like the outdoors shaped my perspective in a lot of ways and I wanted to share that with other people as much as possible.
Where do you climb around here? Where are the best places to climb?
I love climbing outside, so I would say my favorite place to climb around here… it’s a tough call. I really like Great Falls for its proximity and it’s location overlooking the potomac river is super beautiful. Seneca Rocks, out in West Virginia is a really amazing place to climb. It’s where you can climb 500 feet of exposed rock and not see a whole lot of civilization around you.
That wouldn’t be a beginners climb, right?
Probably not. You’d probably want to work up to it a little bit.
How often do you climb?
I don’t climb as often as I’d like to. I try to do it at least a few times a month, most of that is indoors though. I try to make it to the climbing gym once a week because, unfortunately, getting outside is a little tougher.
What does your job involve in a day to day basis? What’s an average day like with REI?
I would say it changes a lot. It’s pretty seasonal. During the summers I’m outside a lot. I do spend quite a bit of time doing office work, though. Working with our partners and some of our local stores. I would say an average day for me, I’m going to stick with summer, since we’re in the middle of that. I spend probably three quarters of my day in the office and in the evening I come down here to teach a class or host an event. Tonight I’m teaching a camping basics class. Tomorrow we’ve got pub trivia that I’m hosting. If we have weekend events, I’ll be coordinating our presence for that and I’ll be on sight executing those.
What’s your favorite event you’ve done with REI?
I love the Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival. That is my favorite event I’ve done with REI.
What did you guys do there this year? The weather wasn’t great, right?
It wasn’t great. We still had a lot of people join us there. We had free kayaking. So we had some of our outdoor school instructors taking people on a tour of the Anacostia and around the island. We had like 200 people on the water kayaking that day, which was super cool. We also gave away 1000 s’mores at one of the smaller stages.
Can you give me a little preview of what you’re going to be teaching everyone tonight?
I think a lot of people come to the class wanting to know what they need to bring, so I spend a little bit of time talking about gear. A lot of my focus, during our classes, is trying to make it as locally relevant as possible. I like people to have things that they can take away an implement as soon as possible. Like my favorite places to go. I generally talk about those. I talk about my personal favorite pieces of gear. Like there’s an outdoor pressure shower that I will probably spend a little bit of time talking about.
Do you camp a lot?
I camp a little more than average, but mostly it’s to go climbing or it’s to support something else.
It’s a bridge hobby.
Right. I like backpacking quite a bit though.
Where have your backpacked?
Mostly around here. In Shenandoah National Park and a little further out in West Virginia.
Have you seen the Blair Witch Project?
I have seen the Blair Witch Project.
Do you think about that every time? Or just 75% of the time?
I try not to think about it when I’m camping.
Are you going to see the sequel?
It’s probably a requirement of my job to be aware of people’s perception of the outdoors.
Do you consider that to be an important part of your job? Are you guys gonna have PSA’s that say “Camping is safe. Witches aren’t real.”?
I would love to see an REI branded “Witches aren’t real” sign.
We do have a zombie preparedness class that we will probably be teaching in our D.C. store… probably in October. It was kind of an offshoot of The Walking Dead.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
My favorite thing about my job is the people that I get to meet on a regular basis. I’m surrounded by great people who love the outdoors in my office. I’ve had work meetings on bikes. There are a lot of shared values there in wanting to spend as much time as possible outdoors. If there’s one specific thing I think represents the values of REI it’s people’s away messages internally. Whenever I get an away message from someone at REI it’s, “I’m out backpacking.” or “I’m out climbing, I’m going to be disconnected for two weeks.” Whenever I get one of those I’m just really happy for that person. I’ve met a lot of great climbing partners and hiking buddies. I’ve met a lot of great people to go mountain biking with, here in classes as well as the people that I work with.
What is the hardest part of your job?
That is a tough question. I really don’t want to say anything too generic… but the hardest part of my job is when I’m working events like Kingman. I love connecting people with powerful outdoor experiences, but, when you’re a part of so many cool events you can’t enjoy them to the fullest extent. The way you would if you were just a participant. I still love it, but if there was one challenging part, that would be it.
Is it hard living / working in a city where you can’t disappear into the woods?
We’re busiest in the summer, so I try to plan my big trips in the off season. In the fall and in the winter, even early spring.
What do you have planned?
I did a snowboarding trip to Japan last year. I spent some time back in Hawaii and then I spent some time snowboarding. I may go back to Japan this year… or I may take another snowboarding trip somewhere else.
Who inspires you the most in your working life?
I would probably say it’s my boss, Matt, who I’ve known for quite a while. We have known each other for a really long time and he took me rock climbing for the first time, he took me backpacking for the first time. We’ve shared quite a bit of moments outside. He inspires me both inside the office and when I’m doing my work. We keep each other pretty inspired out on the trail, when it comes to climbing, and all those other things as well. He’s both a great boss and an inspiring person to be outside with.
I know he’s really authentic about the mission, about getting people outside. He introduced me to a nonprofit organization called City Kids Wilderness Project. City Kids takes D.C. public school kids, who haven’t had any exposure to the outdoors, and takes them out and they do career development, or career planning, and professional development, and all these other great life skills through the context of the outdoors. They take them out to Jackson, Wyoming in the summer and they climb the Grand Teton.
That’s amazing. What is your dream outdoor experience? Is there a mountain you haven’t been to yet? Or a country? Or a backpacking trip? Do you want to do K2? Are you an Everest man? Meru? Those are the only mountains I know.
I think the next thing that I’d want to do is snowboarding in Europe and in the Alps, in particular. Get into a little more challenging terrain. That’s definitely not the end. The idea of having an ultimate thing that I could complete kind of scares me, so I’m looking ahead one step at a time at this point.
What is the next step for you? What is your next dream job?
My next dream job… I really like working for REI. I’d like to be an outdoor programs manager in another market. There’s a lot of creative freedom there in figuring out what experiences are local and resonant.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to express a bit more clearly that the biggest motivator for me, in my work, is being a part of people’s profound experiences outside—learning how to ride a bike, rock climbing for the first time, having a s’more for the first time in years. I believe these moments outside make our lives richer and more meaningful—and I feel lucky to be a part of them.