In a workshop in Whitefish, Montana, five craftsmen spend their days hand-building wood canoe paddles, axes, cutting boards, lunch boxes, bike baskets, and tool boxes that many customers consider too pretty to use. Danny Brown founded Whiskeyjack Paddles and Meriwether Field Gear simply intending to make quality gear he was proud of, and can’t help it if some folks see it as art.
“It seems so simple, but there really is no ‘big idea’ behind what we do,” Brown says. “I am especially inspired by designing gear that we can actually use out in the field and I just try to create unique and functional gear that is also beautiful.”
In 2002, Brown lived in Duluth, Minnesota, and organized a “welcome home” canoe trip in the Boundary Waters for a friend who had been working overseas for a few years. Brown, then a hobbyist woodworker, built a paddle as a gift for his friend. He liked it enough that he built another for his wife, Barbara, and another for himself.
Brown began to build paddles from Western red cedar in a garage workshop in Duluth, and by 2007, Whiskeyjack Paddles were in more than 100 stores. Without any advertising, the phone began to ring off the hook. Brown hired a couple of other craftsmen to help and moved out of the garage into a workshop space, branching out into light, sturdy kayak and SUP paddles, made out of 20-plus strips of cedar, glued, laminated, and then shaped with sanders.
Whiskeyjack began shipping paddles all over the world — some never see the water, given as gifts or purchased as art and mounted on walls, something Brown told the Duluth News Tribune in 2007 was “a compliment and an insult at the same time.”
In 2010, after years of making trips out west to ski every winter, Brown decided to move Whiskeyjack to Whitefish, Montana, or “heaven on earth” — sitting at the foot of Whitefish Mountain Resort, as well as at the front door of both Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. In Whitefish, Brown launched a second business, Meriwether Field Gear, a mix of non-paddlesports products he’s designed over the years — everything from handmade axes to six-pack carriers. Brown employed four or five craftsmen to help him build Whiskeyjack and Meriwether products, one at a time.
“I despise the idea of making a hundred of any one product at a time in a production line, so we take orders as they come,” Brown says. “We have 40 products on Meriwether and 13 paddle models at Whiskeyjack so each day is pretty random as to what we’ll be making. It really keeps it interesting.”
Brown’s employees are all avid outdoorsfolk, paddling, hunting, and fishing, and the hours at the office are extremely flexible — Brown says they take quite a few powder days each winter, and the boss is understanding about the need for a work-life balance.
“Right now, we are very shorthanded because several guys have still not filled their elk tags and are out in the field,” Brown says. “So I won’t see them until they are successful.”