By Jeremy Zoss
There has always been a good deal of symbolism tied to the canoe. The Canadians have long considered it a symbol of their national identity. In John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, the canoe represents a link to cultural traditions. Canoes grace the tap handles of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company beers. On NBC’s Parks and Recreation, actor Nick Offerman and the character he portrays, Ron Swanson, hold up the canoe as a symbol of rugged masculine independence.
NorthWest Canoe’s owner Dennis Davidson is much less gruff than Ron Swanson, but he’s every bit as enthusiastic about canoes and outdoor recreation. You would have to be to run a business like NorthWest Canoe, one of the most unique artisan shops in St. Paul’s hip Lowertown area. Occupying a converted box car garage in one of James J. Hill’s original train warehouses, the company isn’t just a canoe manufacturer or a repair shop, nor is it a retailer. It’s all three. At NorthWest Canoe, Davidson builds canoes, fixes damaged canoes, and sells canoes and canoe parts online. He’ll even teach you how to build a boat yourself.
Davidson purchased the business from the original owner in 2007, but his love of canoes stretches back much longer. “I’d always been a paddler, even as a kid,” said Davidson. “When my kids got to the junior high age, we started doing canoe trips. From there I became a white water paddler for a number of years and became certified as a white water instructor. I was always kind of paddling and working a day job in marketing. And I was working part time at REI just for fun.”
In those days, Davidson could only dream about building boats. “I’d always dreamed about doing it and when I was working full time at my old day job, I always felt that I was too busy to build a boat,” he said. “I wanted to do it, but I never got around to doing it because it was more fun to go out and paddle.” Things changed in 2004 when Davidson called a friend and fellow paddler who worked at Bell Canoe. The friend informed him that he planned to leave his job and move to Colorado. He encouraged Davidson to apply for his old job. Davidson did, and ended up working for Bell Canoe for several years until the company was sold and relocated to Wisconsin.
“When that company got sold, I bought [NorthWest Canoe] from another friend, who was another fellow paddler who was looking to retire,” said Davidson. “But he didn’t want to see the business close. It was a classic small business story, started in a garage. The guy was a carpenter and loved to build boats. He was friends with someone over at Wilderness Inquiry and built a couple boats for them. That’s how the big boats got started.”
The “big boats” are 24-foot, 10-person boats based on a design from the fur trade era. Davidson and his one full-time employee build them by hand for customers like Wilderness Inquiry, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit that leads outdoor adventures around the globe. Each of the big boats takes about 500 hours to complete and sells for around $15,000. The sticker price may initially sound high, but Davidson points out that each one should last between 30 to 50 years.
“A camp can purchase a boat like this and know that the kids who are paddling it today will be their donors in the future,” he said.