There’s Something in the Water

     What is it about the water in Winona that makes people want to build canoes?  Mike Cichanowski owns and operates Wenonah Canoe and Current Designs Company based in Winona, MN. We had the opportunity to tour his phenomenal business and we outfit with his canoes, the best canoes out there.

Established formally in 1968, Wenonah Canoe has roots reaching back to the 1950’s. The company is the outgrowth of a lifelong devotion to paddling by Mike Cichanowski, who began canoeing as a young Boy Scout, and who began manufacturing canoes while still in college.

Today, Wenonah is among the largest makers of canoes in general, and is the largest maker of ultra-light and high-performance models. Our twenty-plus recreational designs (we also produce competition designs) are distributed by nearly 400 knowledgeable paddlesports retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada, and in several European countries.

We make a diverse range of canoe types, each created to suit the needs of particular individuals or of specific paddling situations. We also offer choices of hull materials, construction methods, and optional equipment to tailor our canoes even more closely to their owners.

Our guiding philosophy is to match people with their ideal canoe to achieve a comfortable fit and a better paddling experience.

Beyond canoes, we also produce exceptional touring kayaks under the Current Designs brand name, and we offer top-quality accessories including paddles and other gear for canoeing and kayaking. This merchandise is available at many of our dealers, or from our printed catalog, or in the Accessories section of this website, where it can be ordered by calling us toll-free.

For more than 35 years, Wenonah Canoe has married modern technology together with historic ideals to advance the frontiers of paddling performance while preserving the value of paddling enjoyment.

     Fast forward to 2009 and a new canoe company is emerging from the banks of the Mississippi River in Winona, MN.  Will this group of guys be making canoes 35 years from now?  Who knows for sure, but they will have fun for now.

The "what if" soon morphed into a "why not," and last weekend a handmade, cedar-stripped canoe, the first made by Sanborn Canoe Co., was being pushed into frigid lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The 16-foot vessel is the product of a close-knit group of seven men with a passion for the outdoors – Michael and Mark Boysen, Greg, John and Zak Fellman, Kevin Kreisel and Todd Randall.

It’s also the first in a long line of canoes the group plans to produce, with the idea that even if the company doesn’t make them rich, it will help pay them to continue their wilderness outings.

"It’d be great if we could retire," said Mark, to a round of laughs.

"I just hope it can pay for the trips," Kevin said.

Canoeing and enjoying the outdoors together has been a way of life for the group for years. Cousins Zak and Todd have been on canoe trips together "since they were born," Greg said. The bonds between the other men go about as far back.

Yet it seemed fitting somehow that Zak and Todd first discussed building their own boats in the workshop that day. Their grandfather had long had a passion for woodworking, and they recalled him telling stories about how his church group built six canoes one winter, which would be used come spring to show disadvantaged children the joys of the open water.

Their conversation started as a musing about how cool it would be to build their own boats, but soon moved to a serious discussion about how they could do it. That idea expanded to include all seven men, who each put up money toward the first canoe and paddles.

The fact that none of the men had any experience making canoes did not deter the group.

"We bought a book and studied it," Zak said. "We learned about how we would go about doing it."

Using borrowed tools, space at Mark’s Sanborn Street residence and a lot of trial-and-error, the group soon produced its first paddles and, then, its first canoe. Their reference materials said a handmade canoe should take about 80 hours of work; theirs took more than 100, though "we probably spent another 250 just standing around talking," Mark said.

And, they’re quick to point out, the products are getting better. They have already started work on another two canoes, and they plan to incorporate new design points in those.

They have also placed an emphasis on making both the paddles and canoes lightweight. The first paddles they made weighed more than two pounds, but some of the latest models weigh about one pound, they said.

The men took pride in the skills they were learning during the process, but they also realize part of their enjoyment was that the work simply gave them another excuse to work alongside their buddies.

"It’s good just to get together, hang out," Zak said.

For more information visit their website at Sanborn Canoe Company.