For local flatwater paddlers, Bell Canoes earned a reputation as THE boat to buy when you decided to get serious about paddling. Although there are other manufacturers building quality canoes, Ted Bell’s 30 years of boatbuilding experience mastered the scrutiny of discerning paddlers. On the Chain of Lakes, or 6-hours north in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, an owner of a Bell would often hear “nice boat” from a passing paddler.
In 2006, Bell began to ponder the future. Expansion plans would require taking on more debt. An unsolicited phone call asking if he was interested in selling Bell Canoe changed his direction. Bell recalls, ”Usually I would say ‘no thank you, I’m not interested,’ when I received that kind of call. This time I said let’s talk.” After a short negotiation, Bell sold his company to ORC Industries in LaCrosse, WI.
During the recession, ORC Industries stopped building Bell Canoe Works models. “When they mothballed the molds people all across the country would search me out and asked if I was going to build canoes again,” says Bell. “Once my non-complete expired, I decided it was time to get back into the industry.”
In 2013, Ted Bell and Bear Paulsen founded Northstar Canoes with several part time employees. “We use the name ‘Northstar Canoes, handcrafted by Ted Bell’ to connect the dots from Bell Canoe to Northstar,” explains Bell.
Northstar Canoes are constructed with Kevlar or carbon fiber hulls and wood trim. Prices range from $2,000-$3,500 depending on size, hull materials, and trim choices.
Currently offering 8 models, Northstar Canoes are designed with Boundary Waters Canoe Area paddlers in mind. “These are boats that are very efficient to paddle. They are seaworthy and can take a load across windblown lakes,” says Bell. “Customers feel safe in our boats.”
A canoe can last for decades. As a paddler’s skill evolves Bell’s canoe designs accommodate a wide range of experience and padding conditions. “We take pride in building boats that can grow with you,” says Bell.
The sleek hulls of Northstar canoes evoke a sense of connecting with the water. Owners have been known to be reluctant to expose a Bell-crafted canoe to a rocky BWCA portage. Its not uncommon to see a Bell owner jump out of the canoe in waist deep water to avoid a bow scrunching shore landing.
“Here’s the way I look at that. Let’s say you are driving an old Ford pick-up and then go out and buy a brand new $30,000 model. All of a sudden you aren’t crashing the new truck through the weeds and mud like you did with the old truck. Then you notice the new truck has a few scratches and it’s just a newer version of that old truck,” says Bell. “The worst thing for me is to see is the guy who keeps the canoe hanging in his garage. We’re not building art pieces; we’re building canoes. They are meant to be used. Scratches are part of the game. I like the guy who describes the history of his canoe scratches. ‘I got this one on the Kawishi River and this one up in Canada. Our boats are meant to last and scratches are just part of the life of a Kevlar canoe used in the Boundary Waters.”
Hand-built under Ted’s watchful eye, Northstar Canoes are starting to make their way to paddlers around the Midwest. That “nice boat” commentary may become more familiar again as more paddlers discover the joys of owning a Ted Bell designed Northstar canoe. Bell is looking forward to meeting a new generation of owners. “I didn’t get back into this business for the money. This is an industry of passion.”