Dan Cooke (American Faces No.72) looks like a man born a few hundred years after his time. With a full white beard and mane of white hair, surrounded by canoeing equipment and artifacts from adventures into the world’s most remote places, Dan appears the modern equivalent of the old French fur-trading voyageurs who plied the waters of the great North American wilderness in the 1600’s.
In fact, that’s pretty near the truth. Dan has paddled and guided countless canoeing trips over 1,000s of miles of water. He’s canoed the Rio Grande on the U.S. Southern border, and 500+ miles on the Kazan River in northern Canada. Dan’s been snow-shoeing in the Yukon, backpacking in Chili and climbing on Mount Kilimanjaro. Recently, he kayaked in Antarctica, winter camped in the Boundary Waters, and rode horseback into the back-country of Yellowstone.
The early canoe explorers may have shared Dan’s feelings about traversing solo through remote wilderness. “It’s simple. No agenda other than eating, sleeping and trekking through the day,” says Dan, “My mind and body settle into a rhythm, focused on the pure physicality of moving.”
Early on, Dan’s passion for exploring the backcountry, and sharing adventures with his family and friends, spawned a home-based business that took on a life of its own.
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Like a lot of entrepreneurial ventures, Dan’s business began with solving a problem through some creative boot-strapping – in this case, almost literally. Dan and his wife Karen, working together in the early 1970’s at the Adventurous Christians camp (now Covenant Pines) on the Gunflint Trail needed better canoe packs for their guided trips. Working with hand tools, Dan pieced together locally-sourced canvass material and straps of old boot leather to make four custom portaging packs, and Cooke’s Custom Sewing (CCS) was born. Today, CCS makes 20+ models of packs and various tarping systems and shelters, canoe covers, snowshoeing mukluks, plus other canoeing and camping equipment – all retailing online and distributed wholesale through a number of outdoor recreation stores.Each pack and piece of gear is built for practical functionality and back-country toughness, with a lifetime of adventure experience stitched into every one.
Dan decided to retire from his 20+ year career as a mechanical engineering technician a few years ago after Karen, his wife and adventuring partner, passed away. He now devotes more of his time to the CCS business, creating more adventure memories with friends, and going solo into the wilderness.
Dan says of solo canoeing, “It’s pure – your paddle is the single connection point. There’s nothing but you and the boat, finding harmony with the wind, the waves and the current.”
Dan first learned to love paddling and adventure at an early age, camping with his parents in the Minnesota North country and in the Pacific Northwest, at summer camps as a kid, and later working up on the Gunflint Trail, guiding canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and other back-country lakes and rivers.
He says it’s never too late to start your own adventure.
Dan’s advice for anyone striking out on their own to start an outdoor recreation business is essentially the same advice he’d probably give anyone approaching any new adventure: do it for the joy of the experience.
“If you’re starting a manufacturing business to support your passion, don’t let the work consume you. Stay out there doing what you love,” says Dan, “Keep trying to find that impossible balance. Don’t give up the adventure.”
Not everyone will – or could even possibly – see and do everything Dan has done, but he says everyone’s journey is unique. And adventuring with an experienced guide is the best way to start.
“Get out there. Let your guide worry about the details. Enjoy the experience, be in the moment. Appreciate where you are,” Dan says, “Whether it’s canoeing the Boundary Waters, or winter camping in your backyard, your adventure is yours.”