Ted Bell has been building canoes for 30 years. For decades, paddlers who ventured into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness spread the word about Bell Canoe Works' excellent designs and craftsmanship. Bell is credited with developing new methods to build canoes of composite materials such as Kevlar and carbon fiber.
In 2006, Bell faced a turning point. In the span of a few years, Bell's father had passed away, and his wife faced the deaths of her parents and brother. Turning 50, Bell and his wife had been contemplating expanding the business to manufacture plastic kayaks and taking on debt to fund the new line. Then came an unsolicited phone call from another company in the outdoor industry. They wanted to buy Bell Canoe Works.
"Usually I would say, 'No thank you, I'm not interested,' when I received that kind of call," Bell said. "This time I said, 'Let's talk.'" After a three-month negotiation, Bell sold his company to ORC Industries in La Crosse, Wis.
The sales contract included a five-year noncompete clause for Bell. "I enjoyed the first six months away from the business, but then I started really missing building boats," he said. "Paddling has been my life."
Meanwhile, things didn't go well for Bell Canoe Works' new ownership. As the recession hurt sales across the outdoor industry, ORC Industries stopped manufacturing Bell Canoe Works models in 2011.
"When they mothballed the molds, people all across the country would search me out and ask 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."
In April 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, former retailers and paddling enthusiasts started calling the shop with orders. Northstar has relationships with more than 20 outdoor specialty retailers from New Hampshire to Oregon. Retailers that worked with Bell in the previous company quickly called to ask, "When can I get boats?" Northstar Canoes are already available locally at Midwest Mountaineering, Hoigaard's and Joe's Sporting Goods.
"What I thought was going to be a hobby turned into a year-round business in a matter of months," Bell said. "When I put the word out that I was going back into business, I sold more boats to retailers that I could build that first year."
Bell's loyal customers are understandably eager. Bell's attention to detail and personal involvement in the design and manufacture of his canoes gave paddlers a sense of a personal connection to the brand.
"I think the reputation of Bell Canoes will transfer to the new brand," said Rod Johnson, owner of Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis. "Ted understands everything about canoes. He has a long history of paddling and is very in tune with the sport."
Bell gives a lot of credit to the employees who helped Bell Canoe Works sustain such high standards all those years. "This isn't just about me. Everyone that helped build Bell Canoe Works developed that sense of loyalty. Consumers all attribute that to me. The reputation comes from the quality and passion that we put into these boats."
Bell is still involved in every step of the production process for Northstar Canoes. Every canoe requires 15 to 30 hours to create a finished product. As the company grows and its employees are trained to his standards, Bell plans to step back and concentrate more on design and building relationships with retailers and consumers.
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 BWCA paddlers in mind. "These are boats that are very efficient to paddle. They are seaworthy and can take a load across windblown lakes," said Bell. "Customers feel safe in our boats."
Bell's canoe designs can accommodate a wide range of skill, experience and padding conditions. Entry-level paddlers will feel comfortable enough to take their new boats to the BWCA. Those wanting to take extended trips will appreciate the stability of the boats in a variety of 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.
Some paddlers prefer hulls designed to support a weeklong trip with family members. At the other end of the spectrum are boats crafted for paddlers more concerned with weight and speed. "Different paddlers will want different hull designs for different uses. Bell has a model line up to cover a spectrum of users," said Johnson.
With the start of paddling season, the phone at Northstar Canoes operation in Princeton, Minn., was ringing off the hook last week.
A customer in Des Moines called to say he's glad Ted Bell is back in business. With spring orders fulfilled, Bell is working feverishly to build more boats for delivery in July and August.
Bell appears to be relishing all the enthusiasm from retailers and paddlers. He's even fielding dinner invitations from some of his loyal old customers.
"I didn't get back into this business for the money," Bell said. "Paddle sports is a passion. It's something you have to be really into. If you don't have that commitment, it's a lot harder to make a go of it."
Or as Johnson put it: "Bell is really into paddling and building boats."
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer and actively participates in outdoor pursuits. He is editor of Rootsrated.com, an online resource for Twin Cities outdoor destinations.