Wisconsin-based Bending Branches is one of the largest paddle manufacturers in the world

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2013 - 10:36 AM

A Minnesota paddle maker’s innovation has transformed the marketplace.

view larger photos

  

Dale Kicker’s idea of building a better, more durable canoe paddle started with high hopes in a lowly two-car garage in North St. Paul in 1982.

His angle: Add a piece of nearly indestructible urethane on the tip of paddle blades to protect them from rocks, and also offer recreational canoeists more-efficient bent-shaft paddles, which had been used by racers.

The idea took off like a runaway canoe in white-water rapids. Kicker’s company, Bending Branches (named for those bent-shaft paddles), blossomed into one of the biggest canoe and kayak paddle manufacturers in the world. Now based across the St. Croix River in Osceola, Wis., the company’s 50 employees make more paddles than anyone — more than 160 different types.

“We turned the market upside down,’’ said Kicker, 55, an avid paddler who grew up in North St. Paul and now lives upstream of Osceola at St. Croix Falls, Wis. “It’s a lot of fun. The best part of the industry is the people: Outdoor enthusiasts are good, wholesome, fun-loving, honest people.’’

The company ships paddles to about two dozen countries around the world. “If they’re paddling, we have paddles going there,’’ Kicker said.

Kicker and partner Ron Hultman first put Kevlar on the tip of a paddle, then discovered urethane worked better. They called the hard plastic edging Rockgard, and the innovation helped launch the company. Timing is everything, and Kicker said the introduction of his paddles piggybacked on the growing demand for the then-new lightweight Kevlar canoes that were being introduced.

“And baby boomers were really active and having families and wanting family recreation,’’ Kicker said. Canoe and paddle sales took off. Kayaking became popular in the late 1990s, opening up another paddle market.

Now, as boomers age, canoe paddle sales are declining, but sales for paddles used for paddle boards — boards that people stand on while paddling — are surging.

Hultman, who still makes paddles at the plant, sold his share of the company to Kicker years ago. In 2001, Kicker sold the business to entrepreneur Mark Kravik.

But as one of the founders, Kicker remains at Bending Branches working on new product development, and continues to be passionate about the company and paddling. And he’s seen his vision flourish into a multimillion-dollar firm.

“I had no idea it would get this big,’’ he said.

Tapping the market

When they first started, Kicker and Hultman made about 30 paddles a week. “We couldn’t make them fast enough,’’ Kicker said. Then the growing company made 30 a day. Now, employees crank out hundreds of paddles daily.

“It took about 2.5 hours to make a paddle when we first started,’’ he said. “Now it takes about 20 minutes because of automation.’’

And while wood canoe paddles are the company’s bread and butter, the company now makes carbon composite and plastic kayak paddles, too, under the Aqua-Bound brand the company acquired in 2008.

The company’s canoe paddles range in price from $60 to $240, and kayak paddles from around $60 to $400.

To make wood canoe paddles, layers of either basswood, butternut, maple, red alder or black willow — or a combination of those — are laminated in block form. A space along the blade edge is carved out for the liquid urethane to be injected. Once glue and urethane are hard, a machine cuts out the final shape of the paddle, and turns the square shaft round. Employees using sanding machines give the paddles their final shape, and then they are dipped in polyurethane. While composite paddles are lighter, many paddlers covet the warm beauty and tradition of wood paddles.

But few businesses navigate only in calm waters. Today, Bending Branches (formally Branches LLC) and other North American paddle-makers are facing a new challenge: China.

China got into the paddling craze in the late 1990s, and Kicker said the impact on the industry has been dramatic. Because of low wages and production costs, it’s difficult for American companies to match prices with the Chinese.

Nowhere have the Chinese made more inroads than in paddles for stand-up paddle boarding, the hottest trend in paddling today. There are more Chinese stand-up paddle makers than domestic manufacturers.

Still, Kicker is optimistic.

“There’s a surge back to U.S. manufacturing,’’ he said. “And there’s a leveling of the global market. China is no longer the lowest cost [in wages].’’

Meanwhile, sales of paddles for stand-up paddle boarding have surpassed canoe paddle sales, Kicker said. The allure of stand-up paddle boarding: “You can see the world, and you can see into the water,’’ he said. “It really gives you a different perspective than sitting in a kayak.’’

Said Andrew Stern, the company’s marketing specialist: “It’s more of a workout, the cost to enter the sport is less, and it’s easier to transport a board [than a canoe or kayak.]’’

A new sport that should propel paddle makers.

 

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667



 

  • related content

  • Photo gallery: Bending Branches: Paddling innovation

    Friday July 5, 2013

    Bending Branches is one of the largest canoe and kayak paddle manufacturers in the nation with its production headquarters...

  • Founded in a North St. Paul garage in 1982, Bending Branches of Osceola, Wis., has become one of the largest canoe and kayak paddle manufacturers in the nation.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Cleveland 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Atlanta
Tennessee 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Detroit 11/23/14 12:00 PM
New England
Green Bay 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota
Jacksonville 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Cincinnati 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Tampa Bay 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Arizona 11/23/14 3:05 PM
Seattle
St. Louis 11/23/14 3:05 PM
San Diego
Miami 11/23/14 3:25 PM
Denver
Washington 11/23/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
Dallas 11/23/14 7:30 PM
NY Giants
NY Jets 11/24/14 6:00 PM
Buffalo
Baltimore 11/24/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Chicago 11/27/14 11:30 AM
Detroit
Philadelphia 11/27/14 3:30 PM
Dallas
Seattle 11/27/14 7:30 PM
San Francisco
Phoenix 6:00 PM
Indiana
Miami 6:00 PM
Orlando
Philadelphia 6:30 PM
New York
Toronto 6:30 PM
Cleveland
Dallas 7:00 PM
Houston
Sacramento 7:00 PM
Minnesota
Brooklyn 7:30 PM
San Antonio
Washington 7:30 PM
Milwaukee
New Orleans 8:00 PM
Utah
St. Louis 2:00 PM
Ottawa
Montreal 6:00 PM
Boston
Detroit 6:00 PM
Toronto
Minnesota 6:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Pittsburgh 6:00 PM
NY Islanders
Columbus 6:00 PM
Philadelphia
Buffalo 6:00 PM
Washington
Florida 7:00 PM
Nashville
Los Angeles 7:00 PM
Dallas
Carolina 8:00 PM
Colorado
New Jersey 9:00 PM
Calgary
Chicago 9:00 PM
Edmonton
Arizona 9:30 PM
San Jose
Incarnate Word 74 2nd Half 0:30
Princeton 68
Robert Morris 24 2nd Half
Georgetown 36
Notre Dame 31 2nd Half
Massachusetts 28
Saint Peters 0 1st Half 15:36
La Salle 6
Ball State 12:00 PM
IUPUI
Utah State 12:00 PM
Miss State
High Point 12:00 PM
Richmond
Appalachian St 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Drake 12:00 PM
Western Mich
Samford 1:00 PM
CS-Northridge
Colgate 1:00 PM
Campbell
North Carolina 1:00 PM
Davidson
North Florida 1:00 PM
Northern Iowa
UMass Lowell 1:00 PM
NJIT
Nebraska Omaha 1:30 PM
Marquette
Clemson 1:30 PM
Nevada
Florida State 1:30 PM
Providence
South Alabama 2:00 PM
Detroit
Texas State 2:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Trinity Christian 2:05 PM
Chicago State
Liberty 2:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Western State 3:00 PM
Air Force
Elon 3:00 PM
Northwestern
Canisius 3:00 PM
St Bonaventure
MD-Eastern Shore 3:00 PM
St Francis-PA
Cleveland State 3:00 PM
Savannah State
SE Missouri St 3:00 PM
Central Arkansas
UMKC 3:30 PM
Ark-Little Rock
Southern U 3:30 PM
Middle Tennessee
Longwood 3:30 PM
Youngstown St
Towson 4:00 PM
Bethune-Cookman
Loyola-Maryland 4:00 PM
Butler
San Jose St 4:00 PM
Cal State Fullerton
Texas Southern 4:00 PM
Norfolk State
Yale 4:00 PM
Southern Ill
LSU 4:00 PM
Weber State
South Dakota 4:00 PM
Wofford
Duquesne 4:00 PM
Abilene Christian
Wright State 4:30 PM
Char Southern
Miles 4:30 PM
Jacksonville St
Binghamton 4:30 PM
Manhattan
Alcorn State 4:30 PM
Kennesaw St
Bob Jones Univ 5:00 PM
Citadel
Piedmont Coll 5:00 PM
Coastal Carolina
Johnson University 5:00 PM
Ga Southern
Brown 5:00 PM
Indiana State
Colorado 5:00 PM
Wyoming
Quinnipiac 6:00 PM
Albany
Mount St Marys 6:00 PM
Bucknell
Master's College 6:00 PM
UC Santa Barbara
UNC-Asheville 6:00 PM
East Tenn St
Clermont College 6:00 PM
Eastern Ky
UNC Greensboro 6:00 PM
Eastern Mich
Sam Houston St 6:00 PM
Fairfield
American Univ 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Army 6:00 PM
Marist
Hartford 6:00 PM
Niagara
Lafayette 6:00 PM
Penn
Nebraska 6:00 PM
Rhode Island
Vermont 6:00 PM
Saint Josephs
Eastern Wash 6:00 PM
SMU
UNLV 6:00 PM
Temple
Chattanooga 6:00 PM
Tenn Tech
UNC-Wilmington 6:00 PM
Va Military
Ohio Midwestern 6:00 PM
Northern Ky
UC Davis 6:30 PM
Furman
Ill-Chicago 6:30 PM
Kent State
Transylvania 6:30 PM
Lipscomb
Central Conn St 6:30 PM
Monmouth
Oakwood 7:00 PM
Alabama A&M
Morgan State 7:00 PM
Houston
Lamar 7:00 PM
Indiana
Northeastern 7:00 PM
Navy
William & Mary 7:00 PM
Rice
Missouri State 7:00 PM
Texas Tech
TX A&M-Kingsville 7:00 PM
TX-Pan American
Southern-New Orleans 7:00 PM
Tulane
SE Louisiana 7:00 PM
Western Ill
Belmont 7:00 PM
Western Ky
Hampton 7:00 PM
North Dakota St
UMBC 7:30 PM
Minnesota
Houston Baptist 7:30 PM
Texas-Arlington
St Thomas Aquinas 8:00 PM
Gonzaga
Utah Valley U 8:00 PM
Southern Utah
New Mexico St 8:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Stanford 8:30 PM
Duke
Morehead State 8:30 PM
Presbyterian
SIU Edwardsville 9:00 PM
Portland
Boise State 9:00 PM
Wisconsin
Valparaiso 11/23/14 8:30 AM
Maine
(12) Kansas State 26 FINAL
West Virginia 20
North Carolina 45 FINAL
(25) Duke 20
Arkansas State 27 FINAL
Texas State 45
Kent State 0 Cancelled
Buffalo 0
Texas-El Paso 13 FINAL
Rice 31
Air Force 14 FINAL
San Diego St 30
San Jose St 7 FINAL
Utah State 41
Char Southern 0 2nd Qtr 13:56
(9) Georgia 24
South Alabama 3 2nd Qtr 12:50
So Carolina 10
Rutgers 0 2nd Qtr 12:12
(10) Michigan State 21
Minnesota 7 2nd Qtr 11:10
(21) Nebraska 7
Northwestern 21 2nd Qtr 12:26
Purdue 0
(18) Marshall 7 2nd Qtr 13:45
UAB 3
Kansas 0 Delayed
(23) Oklahoma 0
Indiana 10 2nd Qtr 12:00
(7) Ohio State 14
Penn State 7 2nd Qtr 9:44
Illinois 0
(14) Eastern Ky 3 2nd Qtr 14:00
Florida 17
TX-San Antonio 0 2nd Qtr 14:12
Western Ky 14
SMU 0 2nd Qtr
UCF 27
Tulsa 0 2nd Qtr 9:53
Houston 14
Virginia Tech 0 1st Qtr 7:05
Wake Forest 0
Washington St 12:00 PM
(13) Arizona State
Louisiana Tech 12:00 PM
Old Dominion
Western Mich 12:00 PM
Central Mich
New Mexico 12:30 PM
(22) Colorado State
Eastern Mich 1:00 PM
Ball State
Appalachian St 1:00 PM
Louisiana
(15) Arizona 2:30 PM
(20) Utah
FIU 2:30 PM
North Texas
(8) Ole Miss 2:30 PM
Arkansas
Louisville 2:30 PM
Notre Dame
Maryland 2:30 PM
Michigan
Texas Tech 2:30 PM
Iowa State
(14) Wisconsin 2:30 PM
Iowa
Syracuse 2:30 PM
Pittsburgh
Boston College 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
Georgia State 2:30 PM
Clemson
Tulane 2:30 PM
East Carolina
Stanford 3:00 PM
California
Western Carolina 3:00 PM
(2) Alabama
ULM 3:00 PM
New Mexico St
So Florida 3:00 PM
Memphis
Colorado 3:30 PM
(3) Oregon
Fla Atlantic 6:00 PM
Middle Tennessee
Samford 6:00 PM
(16) Auburn
Miami-Florida 6:00 PM
Virginia
Vanderbilt 6:30 PM
(4) Miss State
(19) Missouri 6:30 PM
Tennessee
Oklahoma State 6:30 PM
(6) Baylor
(24) USC 7:00 PM
(11) UCLA
Cincinnati 7:00 PM
Connecticut
Boise State 9:15 PM
Wyoming
Oregon State 9:30 PM
Washington
Fresno State 9:30 PM
Nevada
UNLV 10:00 PM
Hawaii
Ohio U 11/25/14 6:00 PM
Miami-Ohio
LSU 11/27/14 6:30 PM
Texas A&M
(5) TCU 11/27/14 6:30 PM
Texas
Northern Ill 11/28/14 10:00 AM
Western Mich
(21) Nebraska 11/28/14 11:00 AM
Iowa
Western Ky 11/28/14 11:00 AM
(18) Marshall
UCF 11/28/14 11:00 AM
So Florida
Houston 11/28/14 11:00 AM
SMU
Akron 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Kent State
Ball State 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Bowling Green
Buffalo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Massachusetts
Toledo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
Arkansas 11/28/14 1:30 PM
(19) Missouri
Navy 11/28/14 2:00 PM
South Alabama
(13) Arizona State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(15) Arizona
Stanford 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(11) UCLA
(22) Colorado State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
Virginia 11/28/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
East Carolina 11/28/14 7:30 PM
Tulsa
BYU 11/29/14 2:00 AM
California
(20) Utah 11/29/14 2:00 AM
Colorado
(3) Oregon 11/29/14 2:00 AM
Oregon State
Kentucky 11/29/14 2:00 AM
Louisville
Notre Dame 11/29/14 2:00 AM
(24) USC
So Carolina 11/29/14 2:00 AM
Clemson
Florida 11/29/14 2:00 AM
(1) Florida State
Wake Forest 11/29/14 2:00 AM
(25) Duke
Pittsburgh 11/29/14 2:00 AM
Miami-Florida
Montreal 11/23/14 12:00 PM
Hamilton
Edmonton 11/23/14 3:30 PM
Calgary
TBA 11/30/14 5:00 PM
TBA
Grand Canyon 39 2nd Half
Austin Peay 44
Bowling Green 13 2nd Half
Milwaukee 16
St Bonaventure 10 1st Half 12:52
Detroit 6
Illinois-Chicago 12:00 PM
Miami-Ohio
Louisiana Tech 12:00 PM
Louisiana
MD-Eastern Shore 12:00 PM
Marshall
Butler 12:00 PM
Fairfield
Central Conn St 1:00 PM
UMass Lowell
Bucknell 1:00 PM
Fairleigh Dickinson
St Marys-CA 1:00 PM
UC Davis
UNC-Asheville 1:00 PM
South Florida
Colgate 1:00 PM
Drexel
Niagara 1:00 PM
Buffalo
Vermont 1:00 PM
Boston U
Marist 1:00 PM
Northeastern
UNC-Wilmington 1:00 PM
Appalachian St
Duquesne 1:00 PM
Green Bay
Saint Josephs 1:00 PM
Liberty
Army 1:00 PM
Manhattan
Eastern Michigan 1:00 PM
TX-Pan American
Southern Ill 1:00 PM
Wright State
Youngstown St 1:00 PM
Radford
Stetson 1:30 PM
Indiana State
Rockhurst 2:00 PM
UMKC
Ark-Little Rock 2:00 PM
Rice
(23) Syracuse 2:00 PM
Jacksonville
NC Central 2:00 PM
Gardner-Webb
New Orleans 2:00 PM
Jacksonville St
(22) Rutgers 2:00 PM
LSU
Missouri State 2:00 PM
(21) Oklahoma St
Eastern Washington 2:00 PM
SMU
Houston Baptist 2:00 PM
Texas State
TX-Arlington 2:05 PM
Wichita State
(9) Maryland 2:30 PM
George Washington
Presbyterian 2:30 PM
Western Carolina
St Francis-NY 3:00 PM
Rider
Central Arkansas 3:00 PM
Jackson State
Kennesaw St 3:00 PM
Georgia Southern
Loyola-Chicago 3:00 PM
Northern Ky
Howard 3:00 PM
La Salle
San Jose St 4:00 PM
Cal-Irvine
Tennessee St 4:00 PM
Lipscomb
San Francisco 4:00 PM
UC-Riverside
Temple 4:00 PM
Kansas
San Diego 4:00 PM
Idaho
Concordia (OR) 4:00 PM
(20) Oregon State
Corban 4:00 PM
Portland State
Charleston Southern 5:00 PM
Wofford
UT Martin 5:00 PM
Pepperdine
Eastern Kentucky 5:00 PM
Mercer
Weber State 5:00 PM
Utah Valley U
North Dakota 5:30 PM
Towson
Seton Hall 6:00 PM
Penn State
LSU-Shreveport 6:00 PM
Grambling
Brown 6:00 PM
New Hampshire
Penn 6:00 PM
Navy
Xavier 6:00 PM
Binghamton
Georgetown 6:30 PM
Alabama
(13) Kentucky 7:00 PM
Central Michigan
Texas Southern 7:00 PM
TCU
South Dakota St 7:00 PM
(18) DePaul
Talladega 7:00 PM
Ark-Pine Bluff
Arkansas State 7:00 PM
Colorado
Alcorn State 7:00 PM
UAB
Tenn Tech 7:05 PM
Valparaiso
Dayton 7:30 PM
(19) Iowa
Nevada 8:30 PM
BYU
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close