There’s an easy camaraderie among paddlers in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Crossing paths at a portage or encountering one another while traversing a wilderness lake, most paddlers will raise a hand in greeting or offer a few words of encouragement.
At times, though, you can sense a bit of envy when a paddler says, ”Nice boat,” when a product of the Bell Canoe Works glides by. The craftsmanship of Ted Bell, a canoe builder for 30 years, has earned widespread admiration.
But in 2006, Bell faced a turning point. Contemplating expanding the business to manufacture plastic kayaks and taking on debt to fund the new line, Bell began to ponder the future. An unsolicited phone call asking if he was interested in selling Bell Canoe changed his direction.
”Usually I would say ‘no thank you, I’m not interested,’ when I received that kind of call,” Bell recalled,” This time I said, ‘Let’s talk.’”
After a short negotiation, Bell sold his company to ORC Industries in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The sales contract included a five-year noncompete clause. “I enjoyed the first six months away from the business, but then I started really missed building boats,” Bell said. “Paddling has been my life.”
During the recent recession, ORC Industries stopped building Bell Canoe Works models.
“When they mothballed the molds, people all across the country would search me out and asked if I was going to build canoes again,” Bell said. “Once my noncompete expired, I decided it was time to get back into the industry.”
Back in business
In 2013, Ted Bell and Bear Paulsen founded Northstar Canoes with several part-time employees. “We use the name ‘Northstar Canoes, handcrafted by Ted Bell’ to connect the dots from Bell Canoe to Northstar,” Bell explained.
As word spread, paddling enthusiasts tracked down the phone number of Northstar’s Princeton, Minnesota, shop and started placing orders.
“What I thought was going to be a hobby turned into a year-round business in a matter of months,” Bell said.
Northstar Canoes are constructed with Kevlar or carbon fiber hulls and wood trim. Prices range from $2,000 to $3,500 depending on size, hull materials and trim choices.
“We are focusing on the high end of the market,” Bell explained.
Currently offering eight models, Northstar Canoes are designed with Boundary Waters paddlers in mind. “These are boats that are very efficient to paddle. They are seaworthy and can take a load across windblown lakes,” Bell said. “Customers feel safe in our boats.”
Bell’s canoe designs can accommodate a wide range of skill, experience and padding conditions. “We take pride in building boats that can grow with you. The boat will grow with the buyer as they become better paddlers,” Bell said.
Collaborating with boat designer David Yost, Bell has created canoes well suited for BWCA conditions. “We use an asymmetrical rocker design. That means a little more bow rocker and a little less stern rocker. The bow rocker design helps the boat turn and helps the bow ride up and over waves. The stern rocker approach helps the boat track,” Bell said. “Another reason paddlers like our boats is that we have a wider bow section. There’s lots of leg room for the bow paddler. It’s just not uncomfortably tight up there. Consumers tell us they don’t feel constricted.”
Built to take scratches
Bell’s new canoes attract compliments, too, as their sleek hulls evoke a sense of connection with the water. Owners are reluctant to expose them to a rocky BWCA portage. Seeing a paddler jump into chest deep water to lift a canoe over rocks isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary experience.
“Here’s the way I look at that,” Bell said. “Let’s say you are driving an old Ford pickup and then go out and buy a brand new $30,000 model. All of a sudden you aren’t crashing the new truck through the weeds and mud like you did with the old truck.”
He continued: “The worst thing for me is to see is the guy who keeps the canoe hanging in his garage. We’re not building art pieces. We’re building canoes. They are meant to be used. Scratches are part of the game. I like the guy who describes the history of his canoe’s scratches. ‘I got this one on the Kawishi River and this one up in Canada.’”
But Bell knows that most of the serious damage done to canoes doesn’t happen on the water. The damage comes from hitting the top of the garage door frame or what Bell calls “test flights” – losing the boat off the roof rack while driving down the freeway.
Boat that are better cared for but well used may require some maintenance over time. “People sometimes ask me if they should add skid plates,” Bell said. “That’s not necessary. If repairs are needed in a few years, most of them can be made with resin. I do very little repair work in the center of the hull.”
Hand-built under Ted’s watchful eye, Northstar Canoes are making their way to paddlers around the Midwest, so those “nice boat” comments may be heard on many more of the region’s lakes and streams.
Lou Dzierzak is a full-time freelance writer and managing editor of Rootsrated.com, an online resource for outdoor recreation destinations. He’s an active triathlete, runner, paddler and camper based in Minneapolis Minnesota.