Craft Culture: ‘Heirloom’ packs, handcrafted at Duluth’s Frost River

Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

Packs at Duluth’s Frost River // Photo by JaneCane Photography

“There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” —Sigurd F. Olson

The rugged mystique of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) draws 250,000 visitors to the remote borders of northeastern Minnesota each year. When embarking on a canoe trip in this pristine, untamed setting, having the proper gear is a prerequisite.

Frost River in Duluth, named for one of the most arduous routes in the BWCAW, constructs robust canoe packs for such backcountry adventures. The packs are built to withstand the strain of a lifetime of Boundary Waters portages and the brand conjures up romantic visions of the hardcore voyageurs of yore. Owner Christian Benson says Frost River’s packs are “of an heirloom quality—they’re built well to be passed on.”

Benson bought the faltering business in 2009. The previous owner ran Frost River from 2001–2008. The first iteration of the company didn’t have a storefront and wasn’t able to survive the recession. Benson, who has a marketing background, initially went to look at some of the company’s equipment, which was being auctioned off. He soon realized a larger opportunity. “The business had good bones and I liked what it stood for,” he says.

Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

Packs inside Frost River’s retail store // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Durability is one of the company’s main tenets, which Benson has carried on. Frost River gear has been tested in extreme conditions by hardcore brand ambassadors like Dave and Amy Freeman, the couple who just returned from a yearlong voyage in the BWCAW to raise awareness about the potential impact of the proposed sulfide-ore copper mining in the wilderness area.

Benson says his primary customer base isn’t made up of expert canoeists; Frost River serves outdoor-oriented folks that appreciate authenticity and value. Though best known for its durable waxed canvas canoe packs, product offerings have expanded a great deal over the years. A variety of relevant everyday soft goods are available, from backpacks with computer sleeves to iPad cases and yoga mat totes.

Somewhat surprisingly, the best-selling product is a carry-on bag. The same rugged aesthetic and “field tan” hue are used throughout the catalog, which is purposeful and helps drive the business. Those who have experienced the peaceful, BWCAW state of mind long to recreate it. “Someone might buy a canoe pack one year and then turn around and buy a briefcase the next because it reminds them of their canoe pack,” explains Benson. “We have lots of repeat customers.”

Handcrafted and American-made

Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

Frost River’s packs are still made by hand in Duluth // Photo by JaneCane Photography

In 2011, Frost River opened a storefront in a former surplus store location in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth. The retail store occupies the main floor of building and gives customers a chance to see and handle the products and to witness how they’re made. Production takes place upstairs.

Benson prides himself on building a company that’s uncompromising on quality and integrity. He says planning and forward-thinking was necessary to overcome some initial supply chain challenges, but ensuring goods were comprised from 100 percent American-made materials was important to him.

The tough and water resistant waxed canvas is supplied by Fairfield Textiles in New Jersey, a company that has been around since 1838. Straps and reinforcements are made from leather provided by S.B. Foot Tanning Company in Red Wing, which supplies leather for the renowned Red Wing Shoe company. Hardware comes from Chicago. The buckles and snaps are made of solid brass. Marketing coordinator David Hoole says this choice is important; it distinguishes Frost River from competitors using plated brass, which is considerably cheaper but subject to wear and rust.

Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

Frost River’s buckels and snaps are made of solid brass // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Each Frost River pack is hand-sewn. Up until two years ago, the canvas and leather were hand-cut too. The introduction of an American-made automated cutting table, or CAD table, has mechanized the process, dramatically improving efficiency and consistency. It has also reduced waste, improving the yield from materials from about 70 to 90 percent or more. Scraps that are big enough are sold to crafters on Etsy.

There are several steps to the bag-making process. First materials are cut at the CAD table and assembled into a kit, which is then sent on to one sewer who handles the bag from start to finish. A sewer might spend an hour and a half on each bag. The final steps involve installing rivets and buckles. Finally, the bag goes to quality control to ensure there are no flaws in the handiwork.

Unlike the majority of companies producing soft goods with planned obsolescence, Frost River makes a conscious effort to avoid contributing to overflowing landfills. Products are made to last—the craftsmanship and hardware are guaranteed forever. The company will do repairs, patches and replacements of worn out straps to extend the life of its products.

Next page: Creating a durable neighborhood

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