Making kayaks a labour of love

Although canoe-building has been practised in the area for many years, kayaks are something few locals have tackled–until now.
Since June, Eric Fagerdahl, Owen Johnston, and Mark Kowalchuk have been taking the kayak-making business very seriously. They’re hoping to not only get their business–Rainy Lake Boatworks–off the ground but also to build up a following for the activity within the district and beyond.
Fagerdahl, who has taken on the business as a full-time occupation, was first drawn into it by Kowalchuk and Johnston, both Fort Frances High School teachers and avid outdoorsmen.
“Both of these guys are boat-builders and they got me hooked,” he smiled.
And when explaining their reason for getting the business started, other than a love for boats, Fagerdahl simply said, “We saw people purchasing out of town.”
Unlike many of the kayaks that people tend to purchase “out of town,” Rainy Lake Boatworks kayaks are wood and fiberglass products as opposed to factory-made plastic crafts.
“You can make a lot lighter boat and still have a stronger, stiffer hull,” said Johnston.
“They’re more durable this way . . . and easier to repair,” added Kowalchuk. “We try to stick with Canadian woods, and buy locally.”
“We’ve taken our first boat around the community to show that we’ve been actively buying from our community,” echoed Fagerdahl. “We’ve taken it to our lumber outlets and said, ‘Hey, this is the flat piece of wood that was lying on your shop.’
“A lot of people were surprised to see something of this quality built here,” he added.
Building a kayak can be a lengthy process, especially since it requires the co-ordination of six hands. All three have to be present for a good part of the kayak-building, which means having to co-ordinate their time to get together.
The first kayak the trio made took about 60 hours from start to finish. But with a formed template, the three hope the time will be cut down in future.
The kayak, available in 13-ft. and 17-ft. models, is constructed mainly from quarter-inch Canadian fir pine. The top is an oak veneer an eighth of an inch thick. Bronze ring-nails fix the hull seams together, and everything is epoxied into place.
A UV-resistant varnish is the finishing touch.
Each kayak also features an adjustable black ash seat which can be removed and used as a chair.
The cost of the 13-ft. model runs for $1,499 while the 17-ft. one will cost a little more. But Kowalchuk assured the prices were “very, very competitive.”
The trio and their families gathered to finally launched their first kayak in the middle of September–a moment when everyone there got to try the boat out.
“One thing that was really an eye-opener . . . was to find out how easy it was for anyone to paddle it,” said Johnston. “You just get in and go. No fear of tipping because the centre of gravity is so low.
“The control is intuitive, the way it almost steers itself, that going out and coming back is no problem at all,” he added.
The relative ease with which anyone can use a kayak, combined with the easy access locals have to a number of area lakes, is what Rainy Lake Boatworks is hoping people will see in kayaking.
“This area has great potential [given] the lengths of shorelines on the lakes and the chains of lakes through the area,” Johnston noted. “We really see it being underutilized by people interested in more than powerboating.”
“We want to give American tourists passing through a reason to stop–to make Fort Frances and the surrounding area a destination rather than just a place you pass through on your way to a destination,” added Kowalchuk.
He also said starting a three-day kayak tour, and a paddle-sports club, eventually may figure into their plans.
Now that it’s winter, the three plan to step up their production so they have a full inventory by next spring.
“We’re hoping for three boats a month now, and in the spring of ’99 we’re working on introducing something new,” noted Fagerdahl. “But I can’t tell you about that now.”