Made in the Midwest: Canoes, Kayaks Built for the World

Posted at: 05/01/2013 7:40 AM
Updated at: 05/01/2013 3:33 PM

(ABC 6 NEWS) -- Sitting along the Mississippi river in Winona is a company well-known among outdoor enthusiasts, not just in Minnesota, but worldwide.

Walking through Wenonah Canoe with Mike Cichanowski is like walking through a museum with its curator.  He knows a lot about everything inside the place. Which makes sense considering he started the company, from the ground up, more than four decades ago.

"I started it in my dad's garage. Our scout troop was canoeing and I tried to make a canoe. It was a total failure. I made another one though, and then another one, and next thing you know I'm making them and selling them," said Chichanowski.

Now, 45 years later, Chichanowski has taken a hobby and turned it into a global manufacturing company. It makes and distributes between 10,000 and 12,000 canoes and kayaks every years. It works with more than 400 dealers in the United States and another half-dozen international distributors. You can find a Wenonah Canoe anywhere in the world.

"It is pretty cool thinking a boat I made could be in Australia," said one employee.

The company specializes in its Kevlar canoes known for being incredibly light. It got involved with kayaks in the 1990's, eventually taking ownership of a Canadian company. Dave Thill now runs that division. He's been with Wenonah Canoe for 35 years.

"It's just a great company to work for. We work hard to stay ahead of the competition," said Dave.

By making the best boats possible. The process varies. Kayaks, for example, are created from a power. Some canoes start as laminate sheets which are molded to give them shape.

Depending on the type, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to build a canoe or kayak. Once they're finished, they're wrapped up and loaded up, and shipped out. Recreational equipment used around the world. All started in Winona, by a boy scout who liked to build things.

"Every single day is an adventure. If I don't come into work and see something I haven't seen before it's not a normal day," said Chichanowski.

The first canoe he made is on display at the Winona County Historical Society.