American Faces No. 82
If you’ve been following this American Faces series for a while you’ve probably detected a few common themes (yes, Shawn has an obvious photographer crush on dudes with beards, but we’re not talking about that). Hopefully you’ll have noticed we love stories about artisans, makers and creators. And we’re drawn to hero stories, where someone conquers the “monster” to achieve their dream, or maybe just survives to fight another day. And we’re always fans of everyday American heroes – folks making a difference in simple ways, making the world a nicer place for all of us.
This post (American Faces No. 82) is one of those rare stories that features a person who’s “all that,” bringing all the best plot-lines together in one package. Meet Ted Bell, founder of Northstar Canoes in Princeton, Minnesota.
If you’re a fan of canoe racing, or someone who geeks out on the art and science of building hand-made composite canoes, you’ll already know about Ted Bell. Ted is the guy you’d want to autograph your canoe paddle, or his rookie year canoe-racer card, if they have those. He’s kind of a big deal.
Ted is known as a champion solo canoe racer and a pioneering canoe-builder, but despite a lifetime of running out in front the pack, both on the water and in the design shop, Ted attributes his success to the team he’s gathered around him. “I’m just a canoe builder,” says Ted, “It’s all about surrounding myself with really good people.”
Walking through the Northstar Canoes shop it feels like a family business, and in many ways it is. Ted’s long-time friend and fellow canoeing legend, Theodore "Bear" Paulsen, serves as General Sales Manager. Charlie Thompson, the company’s Technical Director, has been designing and building canoes alongside Ted for years. A few of the folks in Ted’s shop have been with him for decades. For all of them, it’s more than a gig. These folks are artisans. For Ted and his core team, it’s a full-on passion.
“I just love what I do, I love paddling, and I’ve surrounded myself with people who share that same passion,” says Ted, "While I've learned a lot over the years, what's just as important is this team here and what we’ve done together – always working on the next best thing, each year refining on what's come before."
Ted first honed his canoe-building craft at Wabash Valley Canoes in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and eventually bought the company. He sold Wabash Valley around 1986.
Ted moved to Minnesota where he spent a number of years at famed adventure outfitter Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, growing their paddling and watersports business. But before long, Ted was back in his garage, tinkering with new canoe designs, and building canoes to take Boy Scouts to the Boundary Waters.
It was about this time that with the help of his friend and renowned outdoor writer and wilderness canoe guide, Cliff Jacobson, Ted purchased Cliff’s namesake “CJ Solo” mold from Old Town Canoes. With that mold, and designs he retained from Wabash Valley Canoes, Ted was back in the canoe-building business.
Ted officially formed Bell Canoe Works in 1988, and left Midwest Mountaineering in 1995 to run Bell Canoe Works full time. The company soon began designing recreational and touring canoes in addition to racing craft, quickly earning a reputation for building fast, light and highly stable composite canoes for paddlers of all types. After a near 20-year run of building world-class composite boats, Ted sold Bell Canoe Works in 2006.
But the passion for canoe building kept calling, and after a five-year hiatus, Ted was soon back in his garage, building canoes again. He thought it would be a hobby business.
“I thought I’d maybe build 30 canoes a year with a few friends, make some money to pay for some adventures,” says Ted, “But once people heard I was building boats again, it really took off. One of my first orders was for 50 canoes. We had to ramp up pretty quickly.”
Ted re-launched his canoe works as Northstar Canoes in 2012 and “it’s grown faster than Bell Canoe did,” says Ted.
Northstar Canoes currently employs about 25 people full-time, running their shop at full capacity, bringing new designs to the market, and selling about 1,800 hand-made canoes each year through a network of about 30 dealers across the Northern US, Canada, the UK and Finland.
Ted and his team at Northstar Canoes view their mission as helping other people discover the joys of paddling.
“We want to make canoes that create great experiences for all kinds of paddlers, whether experienced backcountry veterans, or beginners on their first Boundary Waters trip,” says Ted, “Our boats are known for stability in rough water, and for durability.”
Ted, Charlie and Bear all know that having a great experience in a canoe is also about aesthetics. To that end, every Northstar boat is a work of art.
“We design for performance, but we also care about how the boat looks and feels, the finishing details. Our boats look different, with our exclusive black and yellow weave fabric, and the carbon fiber or wood gunnels. We take pride in the details,” says Ted.
Ultimately, Ted Bell wants the rest of us to join him in discovering a lifelong passion in paddling.
Ted says, “I love building boats. I love canoeing. I’ll be doing this until I die.”
To stoke your passion for paddling, visit the Northstar Canoes web site for information concerning canoes and how composite boats are made. Then, pick up a paddle and go test one! If you really want to see and learn all-things canoeing, join the Northstar team at Canoecopia 2023 – the “largest paddlesports consumer event in the world,” March 10-12 in Madison, WI.
Photos by: Nielsen Studios
Writing/editing by: Scott Whitman