DULUTH — Heading out for a Boundary Waters trip and realize you are short a canoe pack? No problem, just head down to Duluth’s Frost River store and rent one.
The popular soft-sided-backpack maker has opened a rental center for packs and other gear. It’s a first for the company that has made a name selling hand-sewn, locally made packs since 2003.
“The idea (for a rental center) has been around here longer than I have. We just finally pulled it all together,” said Matt Prois, retail manager for Frost River.
Prois was quick to note that the rental items are all top-quality, although they may be a slightly off-color. Renters just need to bring the gear back in undamaged shape.
“We expect normal wear and tear. These packs can take a lot,” Prois noted.
In addition to packs, the rental center also offers plastic, somewhat bear-proof food-tote barrels for canoe trips as well as bike bags and other outdoor bags and packs. Frost River hopes to eventually offer more rental gear like tents, cook kits, paddles and canoes to become essentially a full-service outfitter.
“We are already a permit pickup center for people to pick up their Boundary Waters permits. So it’s a natural fit,” Prois said. “This way we get more of our products out into more people’s hands and they get a chance to see how well it actually works. … They get to test it out.”
And maybe, Prois noted, people who can’t afford to buy Frost River-quality products can still have a good outdoor experience by renting.
The new rental center is in the back of the company store at 1910 W. Superior St. Prices range from $3 to $5 per day to rent handmade packs that can cost up to $400 each in the store. Everything can be arranged on the rental center’s website, frostrivertrading.com.
“It's a way for people to have a quality item for their trip who may not be ready or able to pay that retail price,” said Christian Benson, Frost River’s owner. “And it’s not just canoe trips. We rent beach bags for people who get to Duluth and realize we have a great beach here!”
A decade locally and worldwide
The company’s namesake, the actual Frost River (and Frost Lake) is part of a remote and somewhat challenging route in the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Frost River the business has been around the Twin Ports since 2003 when Steve Emerson used the name for a line of canvas packs and bags made in Hermantown, Minnesota, by his American Outdoorsman Co. Emerson was at one time a manager for Duluth’s “other’’ pack manufacturer, Duluth Pack, and had set out on his own to rival his former employer.
In 2008, with the Frost River brand gone quiet in the midst of the Great Recession, Benson approached Emerson about buying a piece of his idled equipment that cut leather. Benson ended up buying the whole Frost River company.
After a quiet start on nearby Courtland Street, Frost River portaged its headquarters down the road in 2011, into the former Minnesota Surplus outdoor gear store. A decade later, Frost River is now a vital part of the vibrant Lincoln Park craft scene, a chance for people to shop for locally made, high-end outdoors products between quaffing local craft beers and munching on local craft food.
“The reason the building works so well for us is that we can do both the manufacturing end and the retail end and do them pretty well,’’ Benson said.
All of the Frost River branded products are made by hand in Duluth with materials from U.S.-based suppliers. The leather all comes from the tannery that supplies Red Wing Shoes in Red Wing, Minnesota, “so it’s all Midwest cows,” Benson joked. The waxed cotton fabric has been made in New Jersey, by the same family, since 1838.
With the bustling retail shop on the main floor, the company’s workers cut material in the basement. Upstairs, on the second floor, sewing machine operators are busy in a well-lit and solar-powered shop assembling the bags, gun cases, totes, packs, purses and myriad other items in the Frost River lineup.
Frost River now has 34 employees in Duluth, manufacturing and retail, and is selling Duluth-made products to retailers not just across the U.S. but in more than 20 nations around the world. Benson said the business has a healthy split between online sales from frostriver.com and sales at brick and mortar stores worldwide — like Pirgais Outfitters in Ely, Stone Harbor in Grand Marais and Absolut Canoe in Buchholz in der Nordheide, Germany.
“We are strong in Asia — China, Japan and Hong Kong — and in England and Germany,” Benson said. “And Canada is a very good market for us.”