Urethane Tipped Canoe Paddles
Osceola’s Bending Branches a dominant paddle maker
Nearly a quarter century ago, Minnesota canoe enthusiasts Dale Kicker and Ron Hultman were vexed by how canoe paddles often cracked on the ends when they hit rocks. Those dings in the exterior varnish, they knew all too well, led to water damage and deterioration in the paddles.
So the the pair – Kick a whitewater and touring canoeist and Hultman a flat-water racer – created the first composite-tipped paddles. That innovation caught on, vastly improved the longevity of paddles and gave birth to their Osceola-based company.
They didn’t name their startup Bending Branches for the urethane-tipped blades, however. They chose the pleasing alliterative title because they also introduced bent-shaft paddles to the consumer canoeing market.
Ed Vater, president of the privately held paddle-maker since 2002, said Kicker and Holtman were working for a retail store called Eastern Mountain Sports in the Twin Cities when they came up with their idea to protect paddles.
“They were frustrated with paddle durability problems, so they started a garage shop business making paddles with a Kevlar-reinforced tip,” he said.
Not long after that, the began covering the tips of paddles with tough urethane, a rubbery material similar to what it used for in-line skates. That was an improvement, Vater said, because urethane has some give in it.
“Those paddles with the protected tips launched the company,” Vater said.
“The other big thing they did was push bent shaft canoe paddles into the general market. In that era, they were just used by racers. But Dale and Ron thought that if they were efficient and racers liked them, then consumers and the public should be able to purchase bent-shaft paddles, too.”
Vater said the bent shafts are more efficient for flat-water tripping, but not for navigating rapids.
“Basically, they allow you to have the paddle shaft closer to your body where you have lots of power,” he said. “The blade also stays straight down in the water longer so you aren’t lifting the water when you take that back part of your stroke.”
Vater said the company grew quickly and the pair began selling to Twin Cities stores and national retailers such as L.L. Bean. Bending Branches remained in Minnesota for a dozen years, but was lured across the state line to the small St. Croix River town of Osceola (population 2,500) in 1994 — thanks to a Wisconsin program that offered them an inexpensive lot and tax incentives.
Osceola is less than an hour from the Twin Cities, but the owners were only able to get several employees make the move with them. That proved a boon for Osceola, however, because they hired locals to fill needed positions. The company’s production is seasonal and at its peak it now has around 50 workers, Vater said.
He said the company also made hockey sticks for a while, in part to balance out production cycles because canoeing is a summer sport, while hockey needs ice.
“It was done to offset seasonality problems, but it was a mixed blessing,” he said. “The technology used to make wood and composite paddles is similar to the technology to make wood and composite hockey sticks. So it was good for the factory, but not other areas.
“It was a strain on the business side. We had to carry two sets of sales reps because the base was totally different. We needed two sales managers and double the websites. We were a major player in paddles, but a small player in hockey sticks. We did really well with custom hockey sticks, but in terms of mass market, our share was only around 1.5 percent.”
Moreover, they didn’t have the budget to pay professional hockey players to use their sticks and “wave them around in the penalty box so the crowds could see their logos like the giant companies can,” Vater said.
So Bending Branches go out of the hockey trade and focused on paddles. Since Vater was hired in 2002, he said volume has increased six fold.
“We now ship paddles all over this country and abroad,” he said, declining to reveal production or sales figures for proprietary reasons. “We sell to all the national retailers and 800 independents in U.S. and Canada. We make a lot of paddles now.”
Wooden paddles make up only 12 percent of the company’s production, the ones this writer I saw in Madison’s Rutabaga paddling store grabbed my attention. Made from a blend of dark and lighter woods, they looked like functional pieces of art that would look good crossed over a Northwoods fireplace.
Vater said some of Bending Branches’ more expensive wooden paddles top out at around $250, though most are in the $200 to $225 range. Paddles made with aluminum, carbon fiber and other materials generally cost less.
In recent years, he said Bending Branches has gotten into the growing stand-up paddle board business. And he said a rapidly expanding market for the company is paddles for wide, sit-on-top kayaks that are especially popular with anglers in the South.
“When those babies are completely outfitted, the owner might have easily dropped $9,000 for all the gear that’s on them,” he said.
Vater said nearly all of the company’s production is done in Osceola, though some components are purchased from China.
“If it’s a wood paddle, though, the only thing that isn’t made here is the sublimation graphic on the blade, which comes from Taiwan” he said. “Or the grip on our Bounce kayak paddle, which is made in England. But we try to stick to the spirit of Made in America as much as we can.”
— By Brian E. Clark,
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