Ted Bell Back to Building Canoes
Legendary canoe maker founds new business Northstar Canoes
Fans of canoes designed by former flatwater and downriver canoe champion Ted Bell take heart: After a seven-year hiatus, Bell’s back building canoe hulls, this time for his newly formed Northstar Canoe company, based in Princeton, Minn.
“I’m super happy to be back building boats,” says Bell, 57. “I’m doing what I love to do.”
Selling Bell Canoe Works to ORC in 2006, Bell, whose non-compete clause ended in 2013, has been building boats in his garage for the past several years. Last year, he began toying with entering the commercial side again. To do so, he teamed up with friend and business partner Bear Paulsen, and the two have hit the water running, taking up where Bell left off with a line of high-performance composite offerings. “Ted doesn’t do anything except at full throttle,” says Paulsen.
A former champion flatwater and downriver open canoe racer and composite racing canoe builder, Bell founded Bell Canoe Works in 1988 in an effort to bring his high-end composite canoes from the racing sector to the recreational flatwater and river touring markets. The plan succeeded, withBell introducing countless innovations in composite canoe construction while gaining a reputation for building some of the highest-quality canoes on the market. In 1993 he upped the ante by bringing on canoe designer David Yost, with the company quickly becoming one of the industry’s premier composite and Royalex canoe manufacturers. Riding the wave, in 2006 Bell sold the company to ORC Industries, which moved the manufacturing operations to La Crosse, Wis.
Now he’s back, much to the delight of his broad fan base.
“Basically, he’s applying everything he’s learned up to this point to the new line,” says Paulsen.
Bell is also working with Yost again, as well as Yost’s son, Carl, on the design front, who join their staff of seven in their Princeton, Minn., shop. So far they have “scattered boats around the Midwest, with a load going east in another month,” says Paulsen.
As far as re-entering the canoe market after a near-decade-long hiatus, while the market’s changed, they feel there’s still plenty of opportunity. “The biggest change is that the conglomerates control it a lot more than they used to,” says Paulsen. “There are a few big Goliaths, then a bunch of little regional operations. Bell was someplace in between the two.”
But smaller shops, he adds, are better at innovation. “Each one has its own little twist, which is good,” he says. “They’re the ones out there playing around in them the most and bringing new ideas to the table.”
He adds that that’s one of Northstar’s strengths as well. “We have none of the same employees from the old Bell days except for Ted and I,” Paulsen says. “So our employees have a new way of looking at things.”
While they admit the canoe market has “flatlined” since Bell’s heyday, they feel there’s still plenty of opportunity. “Kayaks are hot, SUPs are hotter, and kayak fishing is even hotter still,” Paulsen says. “But historically, canoes are still the most viable craft. And there are still as many people canoeing as there are kayaking.
“Plus, there’s always been a demand for what Ted makes,” he adds. “It’s partly aesthetics and partly performance, but people like his products.”
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,” says Paulsen. “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 as a durable, price-point alternative. It handles abuse, says Paulsen, at a lot better price than carbon. “Any composite material outlasts plastic three to one anyway,” says Paulsen, adding that Bell killed its White Gold offerings once Royalex entered the picture, but is now bringing it back. “You might not be able to hit it with a sledge hammer, but it holds up great for canoeing. People have forgotten that before Royalex they were using Kevlar.”
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.