One of the benefits of my employment is that it takes me to places across the prairies and I often come across unexpected surprises. One such surprise came my way earlier this spring during a visit to Atikokan, Ontario.
While traveling through Atikokan I came across a sign that described the small town as the “Canoeing Capital of Canada”. Being on the edge of Quetico Park, it is easy to see why this is the case. What I didn’t know was that Atikokan is also the home of Souris River Canoes! Being an avid paddler, how could I bypass this unexpected opportunity?
I walked into the main entrance of Souris River Canoes and was warmly greeted by Arlene Robinson who happened to be working in the office when I dropped by. Keith and Arlene Robinson started Souris River Canoes back in 1985 on the banks of the Souris River in Southwestern Manitoba, hence the company name. The recreational canoes they started with, by Arlene’s admission, were small canoes compared to those of the Voyageurs who traveled down the many waterways in Manitoba and Ontario in years past.
With the excitement of finding this canoe company motivating me, Arlene graciously agreed to provide some background on Souris River Canoes and how they ended up in Atikokan. Prior to building canoes, the Robinson’s lived in Snow Lake, MB, Keith working as a scientist in the zinc mine and Arlene as a music teacher in the high school. Canoeing was a passion they both held and in the mid-eighties, they headed south to find fame and fortune on the banks of the Souris River where they started making their first canoes. The rest, as they say, is history!
The market for canoes was small to start, with the Robinsons making and selling about 35 canoes a year. It was difficult to break into the growing canoe market from Souris so the decision was made to move facilities to a small town in the center of canoeing, Atikokan, Ontario. The Robinson’s moved into their Atikokan shop in 1992 and quickly set-up business in an empty building not far from the Atikokan River and Quetico Provincial Park. Their company has grown in size but it has remained a family business.
After hearing all of this, I had to see more! Wayne Docking, the Sales Manager for Souris River Canoes, graciously offered to take me on a tour. How could I say no?
A shipment was about to leave for the US market and the Souris River team was busy loading canoes for the market. Today, the company produces 500 canoes per year and the canoes are sold across North America. Every canoe produced is sold according to Wayne. Each year, they end up having to turn some customers away because they just can’t keep up with the demand.
Our tour started in the warehouse where dozens of canoes were being stored, with some being prepared for shipment to waiting paddlers. When the canoes make it to the warehouse, they are essentially ready for shipment. Packing and shipping materials are wrapped carefully around the canoe to protect it en route to its new owner.
Our next stop on the tour was to the area where the molds are used to create the excellent canoes that Souris River produces every year. Each mold has been created by hand and tailored for the specific model being built. In this picture, we can see how the Kevlar fabric is being molded around the canoe mold shape.
Precise care and accurate positioning are needed to ensure the Kevlar lays flat and conforms to the shape of the mold. The fabric is pinned in place initially to make sure it is positioned correctly.
This particular model is the Quetico 17 foot canoe, one of their most popular canoes.
As we move through the process, structural supports are put in place at the base of the canoe to add rigidity and strength that these canoes are known for. Floatation is also inserted to make certain that the buoyancy is up to their expectations.
Once complete, the canoes are “baked” to harden the epoxy and accessories such as seats and thwarts are installed. A final quality control inspection is completed and then the canoe is good to go!
It was easy to see the care and quality that go into every Souris River Canoe. These canoes don’t drop off the end of a machine on a production line. Each one is carefully handcrafted by professionals and made by paddlers for paddlers.
My thanks to the people of Souris River Canoes for letting me drop by and tour their operation. The next time you are in Atikokan, drop by and say hello to the great people at Souris River Canoes!