East-central Minnesota canoe company glides along amid pandemic
Northstar Canoes among the region's businesses to thrive as enthusiasts flock to the outdoors.
PRINCETON, Minn. — The warehouse just east of U.S. Highway 169 hummed with activity.
On a recent July morning, the men inside hunched over canoes that lay in varying states of completion, lacquering and polishing the hulls, riveting gunwales to them. The acrid odor of the industrial materials at play lingered in the air.
Roughly six Northstar Canoes have been completed each day at the company's Princeton headquarters at a time when demand for outdoor gear and renewed interest in outdoor recreation show no signs of abating. Retailers are expecting a month or two of lead time for their orders.
"We've almost doubled production … since COVID started," Dan Felland, a Northstar customer service representative said during a tour of the facility, about 50 miles north of the Twin Cities. "We're doing about six boats a day, but next year we forecast to be doing more than that."
Now in its seventh year in business, the company is the result of a partnership between Bell Canoe Works founder Ted Bell and Bear Paulsen. Its green pea soup-colored, synthetic fiber canoes are sold across the U.S.
Like other businesses in its field, Northstar hit a stride of sorts amid a COVID-19 pandemic that has seen new and seasoned outdoor enthusiasts flock to the woods, streams and parks for socially distanced escapades. Minnesota’s waterways have been especially busy this summer, according to the state Department of Natural Resources, with Minnesotans last year registering more new boats to their names than in 2019.
Increased activity in the outdoors, and on the water in particular, has coincided in Minnesota with an uptick in accidents and injuries. But it has also proven to be a lifeline for businesses focused on the outdoors, some of which reportedly thrived even when pandemic restrictions were still widespread.
For travel and tourism industry, pandemic brought both short-term and lasting changes Almost as soon as it was identified, the coronavirus pandemic posed a challenge to businesses that depend on travel and tourism. Those businesses may have to maintain a delicate balance between safety and commerce for an interminable amount of time.
According to Felland, Northstar had to hire additional workers to keep up with demand, who now number around 20, and is looking to build an addition onto its Princeton headquarters. Northstar options start at $1,500, depending on the model and specifications.
Lightweight yet durable, Bell said the design and manufacture of Northstar canoes are products of years of his experience in the watersport. Though his background is in canoe racing, Bell has said he prefers "pleasure paddling" over speedy expeditions.
Bell, whose first canoe was made from aluminum, founded in 1988 a company that focused instead on composite canoes. He sold Bell Canoe Works decades later and, after his noncompete agreement with its buyer expired, launched Northstar Canoes in 2014.
Many of the same people Bell worked with at his canoe business are a part of Northstar Canoes.
The canoes, according to Felland, can also withstand all manner of weather conditions, with Northstar owners canoeing in them "from March to December if the ice is open." Recent buyers include paddlers new and old, he said.
It’s a trend reflected that hasn't gone unnoticed at the national level. In March, the Outdoor Industry Association reported that "more Americans have turned to the outdoors, some for the first time and others for the first time in many years." Holding their attention might not be easy, however, with roughly one-quarter of respondents surveyed by the association saying they don’t plan to continue with their newfound hobbies.
Those in it for the long haul, though, might just be able to take their Northstar canoes with them the whole way. With the right storage, Bell said, their lifespan is "really a lifetime."