Crafting Paddles in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

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WHITEFISH – The whine of the wood planer is often the background noise at the Whiskeyjack Paddles workshop, and the scent of cedar sawdust fills the air.

On Feb. 15, a three-person crew went about the various tasks that go into making resilient, handmade paddles with a sense of skilled, practiced urgency. There was a big order to fill, and company founder Dan Brown watched as Sherri Urann put the finishing touches on several paddles at the sponge sander.

Not only does that step in the process take physical stamina, Brown explained, but it also takes an artistic and sculptural mentality; knowing when to stop sanding is just as important as shaping the grip.

“It takes a full combination person to be able to do it,” Brown said.

Brown said he found that person in Urann, who is a whitewater raft guide in the summer. And just as it’s important to have the right person doing the right jobs, Brown said it’s “huge” having the proper tools in the workshop.

The paddles Brown and his crew make from red cedar get stronger as each layer is glued on. Brown employs this same mentality in several aspects throughout Whiskeyjack Paddles: playing on and reinforcing strengths.

Brown and his wife, Barbara Pfannkuch, moved to Whitefish from Duluth, Minn., where they had established Whiskeyjack Paddles in 2003. They moved to Whitefish several years later, and opened the workshop two years ago.

Whiskeyjack is the common name for a Canadian gray jay, Brown said, which are plentiful in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. About 150 stores across the country sell the paddles. Very few paddles are sold in Montana, Brown said.

The couple also recently opened a retail store in downtown Whitefish called Meriwether Field Gear. Its goods include the multiple paddle styles, as well as handcrafted axes, hiking sticks, fishing nets, Pfannkuch’s art and other outdoor goods.

It’s a culmination of a project Brown began years ago as a hobby. As an avid canoeist and woodworker, Brown said he realized his interests could benefit each other.

“The two just collided,” he said.

It was a slow evolution from hobby to full-blown business, he said, beginning with making paddles for family and friends.

“People just started seeing them and asking about them,” Brown said.

The paddles are functional, each weighing under a pound and made from cedar reinforced with fiberglass and epoxy. Without the fiberglass, they could easily snap, Brown said, but with it, they are nearly indestructible.

Along with being lightweight and tough, the paddles are beautiful, each made with up to 25 pieces of wood. The color schemes tend to show off the contrasting shades of cedar, a process that begins in the workshop with each monthly wood delivery.

The crew sorts the planks by color and then tries to take a little from each variety for a single paddle. Urann designs most of the blades, Brown said.

“It’s a blank slate,” he said. “It can become anything you visualize.”

The workshop also has the feel of an art studio, which Brown said helps boost creativity and morale. Each employee has multiple tasks to complete throughout the day since each paddle takes about 10 days to complete when considering the time allowed for glue to dry.

And each week brings new projects. One week could be dedicated to kayak paddles and the next to hiking sticks, Brown said. The company also makes paddleboard paddles, which have become roughly half of its business, he said.

Paddle prices begin at $145 for the basic model, he said.

“They really are handmade,” Brown said. “We sell labor; we sell attention to detail.”

As an example, he pointed to Jack Minnich, who had just finished planing several boards and was gluing them together with a hand roller. Each stack of five planks will be cut into four paddle shafts once they are done drying in a vise, also tightened by hand.

It takes a practiced eye to recognize the potential in the rough wood stacked against the wall.

“They slowly evolve into beauty with every step,” Brown said.

For more information on Whiskeyjack Paddles, visit www.whiskeyjackpaddles.com. Meriwether Field Gear can be found on Railway Street in Whitefish, and at www.meriwetherfieldgear.com.