Craft Culture: Handmade toboggans at Northern Toboggan & Sled

Northern Toboggan & Sled

John Harren in his shop at Northern Toboggan & Sled // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

Snow crunches under my tires as I pull up to the modest building. The air has that undeniable crispness winter brings with her as she settles in for the season. On a parcel of farmland six miles east of Warroad, Minnesota, mere miles from the Canadian border, John Harren’s Northern Toboggan & Sled shop is masked by winter’s early darkness.

Bright light and the pleasant aroma of linseed oil warm the small but orderly space. The set-up of the workshop is pretty basic. A few work benches; a planer with a hose running up to the ceiling, along the perimeter, and back down to a barrel intended for sawdust collection; bending jigs lined up next to a steamer; and a variety of hand tools hanging on the walls. To the left, four freshly oiled toboggans gleam pristinely. The number “1573” is stamped into one of the golden wood planks.

Suddenly, a voice shouts from a corner of the shop. “I’m back here!” Harren, a jolly, ruddy-cheeked man in his sixties, sits at his computer, peering over his glasses as he attempts to figure out a PayPal payment on a computer that’s seen better days.

Northern Toboggan & Sled

John Harren // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

The proprietor of Northern Toboggan & Sled, Harren has been handcrafting some of the finest wood toboggans and sleds on the market since 1995. The oldest of 10 children, Harren grew up in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota. He went to college at North Dakota State University for Wildlife Management then transferred to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He and his wife, Pat, lived in Alaska until 1978 then moved to a farm in Grygla, Minnesota, before finally settling in Warroad to raise their four children.

A carpenter by trade, Harren credits his uncle, Friar Raymond DesChenes, for getting him into the toboggan business. It was the 1990s, and DesChenes had been talking with a friend who was a missionary in the northern regions of Canada—the birthplace of the toboggan. Following the arrival of Hudson’s Bay Company in the 19th century, Canada’s indigenous people designed and built toboggans to haul animal furs across the rugged, frozen land. Early models were designed to be pulled manually; later, they were adapted to be pulled behind dog teams and, ultimately, snowmobiles. The sleds are still used heavily in the region.

Northern Toboggan & Sled

John Harren of Northern Toboggan & Sled // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

But there was a toboggan shortage at the time DesChenes was talking with his friend. Concerned and wanting to help, the priest turned to his nephew and asked him to take up the trade. First, Harren needed a teacher. He reached out to Milton Chaboyer, a respected toboggan maker who lived 600 miles north of Warroad, in Thompson, Manitoba, and drove north to ask if he would consider mentoring him. Their conversation and Harren’s apparent work ethic and commitment convinced Chaboyer that Harren was serious about the business, and he agreed to come to Warroad and take him on as a student.

Technically, “toboggan” and “sled” are not interchangeable terms. A toboggan is narrow, consisting of several 6-inch wide, 7/8-inch thick flat boards bolted together with crosspieces. They are long, ranging from 10 feet for hand toboggans up to 16 feet for the traditional toboggans. Their most distinguishing feature is the curl at the front and they ride directly on the ground, the boards flexing as they traverse the snowy terrain—a trait that makes the vehicle stable and ideal for smooth towing. They can bear a lot of weight and, once moving, it doesn’t take much to keep them going.

Sleds, on the other hand, consist of a raised oak deck that sits about eight inches off the ground on two oak runners. They twist instead of flex while negotiating the ground, making them ideal for hard surfaces of packed snow and ice. Sleds are also designed to haul a lot of weight and the narrow runners make for easy gliding over lakes and riverbeds.

Harren’s customer base is divided into two groups. The first group consists of aboriginal hunters living in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories of Canada, who use toboggans and sleds for hunting, fishing, gathering wood, and travelling. “For a lot of the northern communities, their sustenance is caribou,” Harren says. “There are no roads, so it’s snowmobiles and toboggans. Those guys will go 450–500 miles one way on caribou hunts, shoot a half-dozen caribou, and haul them back. Those guys are incredible with how they take care of themselves and live in that country.” One of his customers, a man out of Yellowknife, figured out how to haul 14 caribou on a single toboggan. The toboggans they request are larger, built for utility, and are Harren’s most expensive pieces.

Northern Toboggan & Sled

Toboggans at Northern Toboggan & Sled // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

The second group is located in southern Canada and the United States. These customers are largely looking for toboggans reminiscent of those their grandparents had when they were kids—smaller, lighter, and used for pleasure rather than work. The five states that order the most toboggans in the U.S., from most to least, are New York, Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota.

Demand for traditional-style toboggans for recreational use has increased in the last few years, spurring more competition for Harren. But while several companies mass-produce toboggans and sleds overseas and sell them for less than Northern Toboggan & Sleds, they do not compare in quality or durability to his craftsmanship, Harren says.

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John Harren in his shop at Northern Toboggan & Sled // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

The process of making toboggans and sleds is straightforward. Harren purchases wood—Appalachian red oak, chosen for its ability to absorb moisture and take a beating—through a supplier out of Winnipeg. It comes to him wet rather than kiln-dried, the 15-percent moisture level translating into greater bending success for the toboggans’ signature curl. Another unique quality of oak is that it creates an airtight seal between the boards.

Once lumber has been selected and marked, 1-inch thick boards are ripped on the table saw and cut to length, then run through a planer that shaves them down to the desired 7/8-inch thickness. For toboggans, a shaping jig is used to taper the ends down to 5/16-inch thick. The boards are then placed in the steamer for about 20 minutes to prepare them for bending.

Northern Toboggan & Sled

John Harren in his shop at Northern Toboggan & Sled // // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

The curl on Harren’s toboggans is higher than on most other toboggans, utilizing four feet of board instead of three. This style is known as the Manitoba curl, taught to Harren by Chaboyer. The higher curl, he explains, allows for larger loads and better handling in deep snow and rough trails—perfect for the tricky terrain of northern Canada. Once in place, the bent boards are held with a bending jig for about two weeks, during which time Harren prepares the crosspieces and other parts for assembly. Finally, the finished product is stamped with a number and preserved with mixture of four parts linseed oil and one part cedar oil stain. Over time, the sled’s bottom becomes polished from use, making it slick and easier for pulling. Each of Harren’s sleds can endure an average of three years of heavy use, or nearly 30,000 miles.

Northern Toboggan & Sled

John Harren in his shop at Northern Toboggan & Sled // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

In addition to traditional toboggans and sleds, Harren also makes the Fisherman’s Portable, a portable ice-fishing house that combines the ease of a freight sled with the convenience of a fold-up portable house. New in his shop this year is a backboard that features curved handles, which, when used in conjunction with a wrapper, transforms a toboggan into a highly functional cargo sleigh. It also provides space for a musher or rider.

Harren says his favorite part of the job, aside from building quality products, has been getting to know his customers, especially the Dene—the First Nation people of Canada who first inhabited the Northwest Territories. But whether it’s a hunter hauling caribou in minus-50 degree temperatures or a child enjoying a ride down a hill for the first time, Harren gives the same time, energy, and dedication to each and every sled and toboggan that leaves his shop.

Northern Toboggan & Sled

John Harren in his shop at Northern Toboggan & Sled // Photo by Tim Bjerk, edited by Aaron Davidson

When I return home, I go into the garage and look at our toboggan, made by Harren and standing seven feet tall, leaning against the wall. I run my hand over the crosspieces and gaze at the “923” stamped below the curl—our 923, weathered and slick from use, ready for another season.

 
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