Mike Cichanowski designed and built his first fiberglass canoe more than 50 years ago. He was just a high school kid.
Today, hundreds of thousands of canoes later, the founder of Wenonah Canoe is still designing and building canoes. It is work he shares with roughly 100 employees.
“It’s been one brick at a time for five decades,” said the 68-year-old Winona, Minn., native. “We’ve grown into the world’s largest manufacturer of high-end Kevlar canoes. About two-thirds of the world’s annual Kevlar canoe sales are boats we build in Winona by hand. We ship to Europe, Scandinavia, Oceania, Asia, and North and South America.”
Cichanowski’s decades-long journey has been quite the paddle. It began as a teenager, when he rented a rundown leaky building because “I couldn’t be messing with fiberglass in Mom’s basement.” Later, while a student at Winona State University, he secured a Small Business Administration loan. That funding secured better digs and manufacturing equipment. Later, in the 1970s, he collaborated with Gene Jensen, an extraordinarily gifted canoe designer. This spawned a line of lightweight racing-inspired canoes that defied convention and became perennial winners at national and international racing competitions. They also became the favorites of those tripping into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
More recently, Cichanowski has acquired Current Designs, a quality kayak brand, and C4 Waterman, a stand-up paddleboard maker. The Winona plant makes nearly 30 different types of canoes and more than 40 different types of kayaks, including those designed for stormy ocean crossings. The biggest and best have price tags north of $3,000.
Cliff Jacobson, a River Falls, Wis., outdoors writer, remembers when Wenonah canoes came on the scene. “Everyone was paddling traditional canoes. When they’d see you in a Wenonah they’d look at you as if you were from Mars. Mike’s canoes were that different.”
Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Cichanowski:
On getting started
It all began with the Boy Scouts. That’s where I got into canoe racing. I eventually became an Eagle Scout. I won’t say every merit badge had equal effect, but together they afforded me an advantage in life that lasts to this day. I honestly believe a boy who isn’t in scouting is almost at a disadvantage. You’d be amazed how many nationally known people are Eagle Scouts. Jim Lovell the astronaut. Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs.” Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. I am still active in scouting because it had such a profound affect on my life.”
On youthful adventure
I had built two canoes, and in the summer of ’67, four friends and I put them to use by bumbling our way across Wisconsin along the rivers and lakes of a historic fur trade route. We started in eastern Wisconsin, paddled east to Green Bay, south to Oshkosh, then southwest to Portage — where we had to portage — and then followed the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, where we paddled upstream to get home. Prior to the trip I had asked for time off from my grocery bagging job. I didn’t get it, so I quit. That was the last time I worked for anyone else. ”
On seeing what others didn’t
When I got into the business it was mostly aluminum and fiberglass canoes that looked similar, and had looked that way for a long time. What I wondered was, ‘If you’re going to be in this business, why wouldn’t you want to build an efficient canoe?’ So we created low-profile lightweight canoes that would pierce the water, spread it and close it with maximum efficiency. We worked with paddle manufacturers on designs that would do the like. The goal was efficiency. Still is. There’s such beauty in an efficient boat and a paddler with perfect technique. It’s like the graceful movement of a deer.
On the bonding that comes from canoeing
Canoeing is a lot fun, and we see it and experience it all the time. You’d be amazed how many people canoe the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to New Orleans. Many give us a call when they hit Winona because they want to visit our plant. So we pick them up, give them a tour and listen to their tales. It’s a hoot. Locally, we make canoes available at Lake Winona as part of a city-operated canoe-use program. Not long ago a mother thanked me, saying the times she and her daughter spend together in canoes are the very best.
On today’s customers
The canoe market is healthy, though most of our customers are older paddlers who are looking for something light or want to have second canoe for a different use. The challenge is getting young people interested in canoeing. I’ve come to the conclusion that if kids have a fun and positive experience when they are young, then later in life — perhaps after college or starting a family — they will get back into canoeing. Meanwhile, the kayak and paddleboard markets are doing well, too. Younger buyers are taking to the new inflatable paddleboards. They are amazingly stiff yet collapse to backpack size and can be stuffed in an apartment closet.
On being born to paddle
I was once asked to describe my life in three words. I replied, ‘Born to paddle.’ And it’s so true. It doesn’t matter if it is a canoe, kayak or paddleboard, if I have a paddle in my hands I am happy. I still race canoes and have raced canoes all over the world, including island-to-island races in Hawaii. They’ve been great times, and I’ve been able to share many of them with my daughter, who shares the competitive drive that I have. As I look back at the business, I am proud to say that we stayed true to our mission. We didn’t get drawn into some major consolidation that may have changed our operation. And because of that, we continue to focus on new designs, materials and manufacturing techniques. Gene Jensen used to say, ‘It was harder for the first pioneer with a wagon to cross the Rocky Mountains than the thousandth because of gains in knowledge and technology.’ He made a good point. And though we’ve come a long way since I built my first canoe, we are committed to getting even better.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.