OLD TOWN – The view from the front door of the Old Town Canoe Company’s retail store in downtown Old Town is of the Penobscot River, the site of canoeing activity in the spring and summer.
But in late December, the view is not inviting for canoe enthusiasts. The river – as well as most of the lakes in Central and Northern Maine – is almost completely frozen, making inland water sports close to impossible.
But at Old Town Canoe, frozen rivers and lakes doesn’t mean that operations shut down competely. Although production slows in December and January, the company that may be the world’s largest producer of canoes and kayaks still turns out about 100 craft a day and ships them all over the world.
This January, Old Town has a reason to be more active than past winters. The company is organizing a celebration for its 100th anniversary of making its world-renowned canoes.
“It’s an exciting year for us,” said Steve Krautkremer, Old Town’s sales and marketing manager. “Old Town is really an amazing company. An amazingly small percentage of companies last that long. And we’re a dynamic and growing company.”
Old Town Canoe typically uses the slower winter months to analyze the previous year’s sales and plan for the coming season.
This winter, Krautkremer and the company are spending the down time planning for the 100th anniversary, which is tentatively scheduled in June.
Old Town is also issuing anniversary lines of original wood, fiberglass and polyethylene canoes and bringing back some of the original designs, including a Greek-like scroll emblem on the side of the canoes. The company is trying to get Gov. Angus King in on the festivities.
After 100 years, Old Town Canoe still uses some of the same methods it started with in 1898.
The company’s designers don’t use computers to construct the models. Instead, designers like Jim Kaiser, who is the head of Old Town’s kayak division, runs his hands along the mock-up kayaks to feel for slight bumps or ridges – anything that might make the craft unseaworthy.
The workers at Old Town still use brass tacks to attatch the planks of the wood together. That production method hasn’t changed either – workers will still put a handful of tacks in their mouths and spit them out one at a time. It sounds painful, but Kaiser said it’s faster and easier than pricking fingers as the worker tries to pick up one tack at a time.
But the methods work – Old Town’s wood canoes have been known to last 100 years and the plastic craft are often good for 50 years.
The building that houses the main offices and factory was built in 1890. The company keeps a record of almost every wooden canoe that it has ever sold by carving a serial number into the stem of the boat. The first five years of production were lost.
“Sometimes, someone will discover a canoe in their grandfather’s attic and want to know how old it is,” Kaiser said. “If they give us the number we can tell them its age and who built it.”
Kaiser has worked at Old Town since last June, and his hiring signals a look toward the future for the company. In 1996, Old Town purchased two smaller kayak companies, Ocean Kayak of Ferndale, Wash., and Quebec’s Dimension Kayak.
Krautkremer said Old Town made a decision to enter the kayak market three years ago after a decade of stagnant canoe sales.
“The canoe market has been flat in the past 10 years and we didn’t see the opportunity to grow in the canoe market and we already have a big market share,” he said. “So we made the decision to focus on kayaks and make our own kayaks. To accelerate growth we had to expand so we purchased Ocean and then the Dimension line.”
The company has also increased its international sales, with large distribution networks in Canada and Japan. There are 60 Old Town Canoe distributors in Germany alone.
Old Town also distributes in 15 other countries, including Great Britain, France and the Netherlands.
“I think that what a lot of people in the area don’t realize is what an international comany we are. A lot of people think of us as the canoe company down the street or just north of Bangor,” Krautkremer said.
For a few Old Town Canoe employees, the wintry conditions are no barrier from going for a canoe ride. Kaiser craves small-craft advisories so he can put his latest kayak model to the test in choppy waters.
“This is the fun part of the job, getting to try out the stuff,” Kaiser said. “We take them for a basic shakedown trip. You have to try the kayak to see what works and what doesn’t.”
Krautkremer likes to take his family canoeing in more agreeable conditions.
“Those guys are much more hard core,” Krautkremer said with a laugh. “I’m pretty much like most people. I’ll go when it’s nicer. But I it do miss it in the winter.”
Most of Old Town’s dynamism is evident in the spring, when the company ships about 500 canoes per day and machines, such as the ovens for heating the patented three-layer polyurethane molds, run 24 hours a day. The only canoes left sitting around are the models on the showroom floor and in the retail store.
In late December work at the factory slows noticeably. Employees who usually work on the fiberglass boats are shifted to work on the plastic boats. The storage rooms at Old Town Canoe’s production plant are filled with colorful kayaks and canoes wrapped with layers of plastic waiting to be shipped.
In the winter, about 100 craft are shipped each day.
A good deal of restoration work is done in the winter as well. Owners send in wooden canoes to be repaired.
The company doesn’t stockpile an extensive number of canoes, but production takes off by March 15, which is traditionally the start of the selling season and when retailers start calling for boats. Work increases at the end of January to prepare for canoe enthusiasts in Florida and the South, where waters melt early.
Although fall weather in the north is often not conducive to paddling, the ovens and crafters are still hard at work – Old Town offers an incentive program to distributors who buy early for the next season.
In August the company sends a mailing to each of its 800 national dealers offering volume discounts and delayed billing for distributors who order early. The program means that Old Town Canoe often continues producing boats at a heavy clip until November.
“That program is really attractive to them, obviously,” Kraut-kremer said. “One catch is we ship at our discretion as early as possible. But it helps the dealers because they can get the product but don’t have to pay for it right away. So it’s good cash flow for them and good for us because it helps in our off season.”
Sales and production continue to be low in January, although Sales and production continue to be low in January, although at the end of the month activity increases as orders to larger distributors are finished. Craft for the international market are also produced in late January because of shipping time and distance.
“We’re big enough so that we are able to produce year-round, but when the season hits, it still hits like a ton of bricks,” Krautkremer said.