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New to the outdoors: Northstar Canoes brings Ted Bell back to the business

In this reoccurring series, SNEWS identifies and highlights industry start-up brands vying for a place on outdoor specialty retail shelves.

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One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.

While the canoe industry has faced an upstream battle of late — including flatlining sales losing ground to the rec kayak and SUP markets, and 2014’s discontinuation of Royalex material — that’s not stopping at least one veteran boat builder from getting back in the hull-building game.

After a seven-year hiatus, former flatwater and downriver canoe champion Ted Bell is building canoes again for his newly formed Northstar Canoes, based in Princeton, Minn.

“I’m super happy to be back building boats,” Bell, 57, said. “I’m doing what I love to do.”

Ted Bell at Northstar Canoes.
Ted Bell at Northstar Canoes.

Bell is entering the arena again in a market that’s treading water. According to analyst group Leisure Trends, canoe sales dropped 3 percent in 2013 to $15 million, continuing a similar trend that has plagued the industry for the past five to 10 years. All the while, several other paddlesports sectors are growing. According to the same study, sales of rec kayaks (including fish kayaks) rose 6 percent in 2013 to $152 million, while their fish kayak subset rose 34 percent to $48 million. While these boats are eating into canoe sales, they’re not stopping Bell from dipping his blade into the market’s waters again.

Bell sold his long-running Bell Canoe Works company to ORC in 2006, initiating a non-compete clause that ended in 2013. Building boats in his garage for the past several years, he decided a year ago to re-enter the commercial fray, teaming up with friend and business partner Bear Paulsen to bring a line of high-performance composite offerings.

“Ted doesn’t do anything except at full throttle,” Paulsen said.

Bell Canoe Works, which Bell founded in 1988, brought high-end composite canoes from the racing sector to the recreational market. Since then, Bell has introduced countless innovations in composite canoe construction while gaining a reputation for building some of the highest-quality canoes on the market. In 1993, he brought on canoe designer David Yost and the company quickly rose to become one of the industry’s premier composite and Royalex canoe manufacturers.

Now he’s back – joining major players Mad River Canoe, Old Town Canoe, Wenonah Canoe, Mohawk Canoe and more — much to the delight of his broad fan base. Bell is also working again with Yost, as well as Yost’s son, Carl, on the design front, who join their staff of seven in the shop. So far they have “scattered boats around the Midwest,” Paulsen said, “with a load going east in another month.”

Bear Paulsen and Ted Bell at Northstar Canoes.

While the market’s changed, they feel there’s still plenty of opportunity for a small brand to innovate and bring some attention back to canoes beyond the conglomerates.

“Kayaks are hot, SUPs are hotter, and kayak fishing is even hotter still,” Paulsen said. “But historically, canoes are still the most viable craft. And there are still as many people canoeing as there are kayaking.

Another advantage they feel they have over other manufacturers is not being tied to having to find an alternative to Royalex, which ceases production of its long-heralded canoe material this year. “It’s no skin off our back that it’s going away,” Paulsen said. “We can capitalize on the fact that it’s gone.”

Indeed, before Royalex became a mainstay canoe material, Bell had already invented a blend of fiberglass and Kevlar called White Gold, a durable, price-point alternative. It handles abuse for a lot better price than carbon, Paulsen said.

Northstar is introducing models in three different lay-ups, including its carbon/Kevlar Black-Lite, Kevlar Lite, and White Gold. Models in the current Northstar line-up so far include four sizes of the Northwind touring canoe (20 – 20’6″; 18 – 18’9″; 17 – 17’6″; and 16 – 16’6″); the 16-foot Magic for performance touring; the 12-foot ADK Solo for double-bladed touring; and the 14’6” Phoenix for river touring.

Retailers carrying the line so far include Piragis Northwoods Company, Midwest Mountaineering, Raquette River Outfitters, Lake George Kayak, Carl’s Paddlin, Oak Orchard Canoe, Umiak Outdoor Outfitters and Mel’s Trading Post.’

–Eugene Buchanan

Does Northstar Canoes have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.