Outdoor activity surge boosts Minnesota kayak, canoe makers Lightning and Wenonah

Many Americans have decided that outdoor activities, including kayaking and canoeing, are essential to getting through the coronavirus pandemic.

And that has helped paddle sports equipment manufacturers from startup Lightning Kayak in Minneapolis to one of the industry leaders, 53-year-old Wenonah Canoe in Winona. After many orders were canceled in the early months after the virus hit the U.S., they started flooding in as the weather warmed.

In June, paddle sports equipment sales rose 56% over the same month the year before, according to research firm NPD Group.

The paddle sports industry was not among essential workers when Minnesota and other states issued stay-at-home orders in March. Lightning, looking at an indefinite shutdown and losing about $1 million in orders, shifted to making face shields to help health care workers.

Owner and CEO Stuart Lee said he and his workers are proud to have played a small part in helping with the personal protective equipment shortages facing businesses as COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. But he said he also pivoted the business to keep his nine full-time workers employed and the lights on for the kayak operation.

And that decision was important as the weather turned warmer and people embraced the outdoors. Orders came flooding back.

“When the whole — no one can congregate indoors — [lockdown] started people found the outdoors again [and] at that point our kayak sales went crazy,” Lee said. Customers who had canceled orders started to resubmit th....

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