Two hours north of Minneapolis, up Interstate 35, after driving through farm and forest, you crest a high hill and the view explodes in your windshield. 1,000 feet below you sits the city of Duluth at the southwest corner of the largest lake in the world, Lake Superior. Its natural harbor is at the mouth of the St. Louis River and Duluth was once one of the busiest shipping ports in the world. The city once boasted the highest concentration of millionaires in the country, mostly shipping, lumber and iron ore barons. Their majestic mansions still line the shoreline of the big lake.
Nowadays, with a depressed economy and changes in the way freight is transported, Duluth’s glory is a bit faded. The city is better known now as the gateway to a natural playground, up the rugged North Shore towards Canada. Two more hours north finds you in moose and wolf country, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a multi-million acre protected swath of Minnesota where you can get lost in a canoe, portaging from lake to lake without the chance of seeing anyone else or hearing even a boat motor for weeks.
The Boundary Waters are a popular backcountry destination for adventurers every summer and it is a rite of passage for many a boy growing up in the Midwest. They venture out for multi-day trips in Kevlar canoes, laden with camping and fishing gear. It is not a vacation for the faint of heart. In June and July, if it’s not snowing, you run the risk of being eaten alive by blackflies and mosquitoes, if not the hungry black bears who take pleasure in marauding unsuspecting campers. Paddling is only half the battle. Portaging is the real challenge. Some of the portages (muddy trails between adjoining lakes) can be miles long and transporting your boat and booty overland requires strong shoulders and sure footing.
In 1882, French-Canadian immigrant, Camille Poirier, decided it was time to make a better way to transport gear through this wild country. He filed a patent for a new kind of portage sack. It was a large, canvas bag with a foldover flap and leather buckling straps. For carrying ease, he fitted it with a forehead tumpline similar to those used by Sherpa porters for hauling large loads and an innovative sternum strap. Poirer could never have known that this, the prototypical #4 Duluth Pack, would still be popular with Boundary Waters portagers to this day.
The Duluth Pack factory is easy to miss as you drive down Superior Street. Nondescript, even slightly ramshackle from the outside, only a small awning and dusty window give hint to its presence. But step inside and you’re greeted by the sounds of industrial sewing machines rapping out staccato rhythms as they stitch together canvas and leather.
In 1911, Poirer sold his pack-making business to Duluth Tent and Awning, a small outfit in Duluth’s industrial West End. The company has been making the Duluth Pack the same way ever since, and has expanded its line of products to include everything from diaper bags to briefcases to iPad cases. One hundred years later, Duluth Tent and Awning, now known as the Duluth Pack company, can still be found in their original building on the West End. As the company is preparing to celebrate its centenary, I had a chance to visit the factory, where all of their original products are still made by hand.
The Duluth Pack Factory
The Duluth Pack factory is easy to miss as you drive down Superior Street. Nondescript, even slightly ramshackle from the outside, only a small awning and dusty window give hint to its presence. But step inside and you’re greeted by the sounds of industrial sewing machines rapping out staccato rhythms as they stitch together canvas and leather. From a back room, you hear the metal-on-metal clang of the riveters, hand riveting snaps and reinforcement points. Everyone seems happy with their work, a satisfaction that comes from a pride in craftsmanship. This is the kind of place that reminds you of what American made really means.
One floor down, in the basement, huge rolls of leather, canvas and wool are lined up like cord wood, waiting to be cut according to patterns and stacked, ready for the women upstairs to work their sewing magic. One room over is the shipping room, shelves largely empty as the company can barely keep up with demand. Business is booming, not only through their retail shop a few miles away in Duluth’s Canal Park, but also from Web and catalog sales and custom orders from individuals and companies, who want uniquely branded bags and packs, from north woods outfitters and even from more urban environs and decidedly non-woodsy retailers like Barneys New York.
I left Duluth Pack with one of their waxed canvas Builder’s Portfolios to take home. Bearing a substantial heft that follows the tradition of fine leather and canvas luggage, the bag shows signs of its makers, with hammer marks on the rivets and a small tag inside hand-signed by the woman who stitched it together. Big enough for a long weekend getaway, the Builder’s Portfolio would make for a fine laptop bag for the office. A day after I arrived home, I packed enough clothes and my iPad and camera in it for a couple of days in Vegas. The bag handled Sin City as well as it would a muddy job site or cabin weekend.
These days, “American Made” and “American Heritage” are hot trends and companies like Duluth Pack are riding the crest of the wave, filling back orders for customers from Sydney to Spokane to SoHo. But having spent some time in the 100-year old factory, watching bags being cut, stitched and riveted the same way they were in 1911, I have a feeling Duluth Pack will stay loyal to its roots and Boundary Waters paddlers will be hauling their gear over muddy portages in handmade Duluth Packs for many years to come.
Our thanks to Lexus and the all new CT 200h for helping make this month’s features possible. Welcome to the darker side of green.
Photos by Gishani for GP