Get to Know Northern Toboggan Co.

As the toboggan manufacturer perfects a nearly forgotten craft, it also aims to be your next—and last—stop for winter gear
John Harren builds a toboggan in his workshop near Warroad
John Harren builds a toboggan in his workshop in Warroad

Courtesy of Northern Toboggan Company

The morning after Black Friday, Gabriel Harren sat at his desk, held his months-old baby, looked out the window at the Warroad River behind his house just south of the Canadian border, and checked Kickstarter. The small toboggan manufacturer he co-owns had surpassed its $5,000 crowdfunding goal, by about 12%. (Make that 26%, when it closed a week later.) Relief flooded in. Technically, the campaign had advertised a special downhill toboggan. But when he logged off, he got back to what he believes he implicitly promised 18 backers: family time.

The 34-year-old, Minneapolis-based dad of three was up north to celebrate Thanksgiving. His father, John Harren, founded Northern Toboggan Co. almost 25 years ago on 40 acres here in Warroad.

Outside the home where Gabriel grew up, a yellow Labrador tugged his 3-year-old son around in a mini wooden sled of John’s design. And, as he has since childhood, Gabriel pitched in at what he calls “the family farm.” It’s the same cement-floored workshop the family built in 1995.

Northern Toboggan sells two main types: downhill coasting toboggans and larger cargo toboggans (often hand-, dog-, or snowmobile-pulled). John, the master craftsman, has two apprentices, men in their 20s and 30s, who aid a plan to phase the 65-year-old out of “wear-and-tear” work.

Northern Toboggan Company's Kickstarter campaign advertised a Handmade toboggan made using materials authentic to 1800s; in the past three to give years, the company has also onboarded snowshoe production
Northern Toboggan Co.’s Kickstarter campaign advertised a handmade toboggan, made using materials authentic to the 1800s. In the past three to five years, the company has also onboarded snowshoe production.

Courtesy of Northern Toboggan Company

The most mesmerizing part of that work is the bending of the planks. Once steamed, these knot-free slats of better-than-furniture-grade wood can slowly flex back. Locked into a jig, the grains harden into that distinctive elf-shoe curl. John has used oak, for moisture retention. But with the successful Kickstarter campaign, seven customers were expecting an 1800s-style toboggan by Christmas or in January. And that called for ash.

“When people were first making their toboggans—especially the original hand toboggans that were bent by Natives—this wood bends and holds a curl really easy: ash,” Gabriel tells me by phone. Oak reopens if held less than a week; ash stiffens after a couple hours.

The Kickstarter campaign’s “Handmade 100% Authentic Classic Toboggan” swaps in other 19th-century materials. Linseed oil instead of polyurethane lacquer; manila rope instead of nylon; a waxed cotton pad instead of polyester. The result is a maker-movement moonshot and proof of potential. Gabriel wants Northern Toboggan to get a lot bigger.

Lifestyle Brand

Those who expressed interest also confirmed Gabriel’s ideas about who buys from Northern Toboggan. “It’s a community of people who have lived in colder climates with snow, who have a set of sledding memories dear to them,” he says, noting that they’ve sold to customers all over the world.

And there’s another, growing community. They’ve revealed themselves, in part, on social media: “the people who are really drawn to an authentic story and really good products that are handmade,” Gabriel says. “There’s just this revival of, ‘Hey—we’ve got a bunch of plastic crap made over the last 50 years,’ right? The storage-unit industry has just exploded in the past 40 to 50 years, because there’s just a bunch of stuff being made. And it’s not quality, by-hand, lifetime goods.”

Gabriel, an account executive for an IT consulting group in Golden Valley, studied philosophy at Saint John’s University, and he sees himself as a storyteller—not so much a “PR guy.” Still, he angled the Kickstarter campaign into a wider pivot, and it centers on that nostalgically and aesthetically motivated customer base.

With his brother, Jackson Harren, a manufacturing engineering manager for Marvin Windows and Doors, he took ownership of Northern Toboggan three years ago. While holding down separate, full-time jobs, the two have expanded operations. The company now also sells snowshoes, winter accessories, and pawprint-logo-stamped clothing—all locally sourced.

Kickstarter backers had the option to purchase a winter jacket, too, because Gabriel figured some would have limited access to hills. Or, small city apartments. Or, no kids. Northern Toboggan produces up to 150 toboggans a year, Gabriel guesses, but maybe these customers didn’t need or want one.

Because maybe Northern Toboggan has been a lifestyle brand all along. “I’m a huge believer that our brand will be like Duluth Pack,” Gabriel says.

Family Values

As a young carpenter in the ’90s, master craftsman John listened to an uncle lament the state of toboggan making. Up in northern Canada, the craft seemed to be dying out—a casualty of the dwindling fur trade (see: a stock-market downturn and PETA). Would John step in?

“I look back on it, and it just gives me goose bumps, because I’m like, God—you gotta have stones to start making toboggans,” Gabriel says. “‘I’m gonna take out a big loan, and we’re gonna build a toboggan shop.’

John learned the basics from a respected sleigh maker in Manitoba. Today, he still dials in techniques and tweaks materials. But the Kickstarter project didn’t necessarily improve on anything. The swapped-in manila rope lasts just five to 10 years. Lacquer is shinier than linseed oil. Instead, it nods to an Etsy ethos and DIY ideology: the consumer fascination with authenticity that prefers to know who made what, where, and how.

To that end, business administrator (and Gabriel’s sister-in-law) Solveig Harren handwrites a note per shipment. Gabriel plans to chronicle operations on a video blog this year.

“It’s a more substantial event with a toboggan,” Gabriel says, advancing his case against mass production. “I mean, with a hunk of plastic, you can jump on your belly and then carry it like it’s nothing.”

From left: Gabriel, John, and Jackson Harren
From left: Gabriel, John, and Jackson Harren

Courtesy of Northern Toboggan Company

Popular culture recalls the wooden toboggan as a sturdy, formidable heirloom with the dual power to break limits and bring together. It’s the camaraderie rocket of Calvin and Hobbes, or the stair-clunker of Home Alone. “It’s a four- or five-man bobsled team, and you’re going down—there’s just a team dynamic,” Gabriel says.

For much longer, though, the toboggan has been a method of transport for Aboriginal communities. When lakes and rivers froze, it replaced the canoe. Often made using birch bark, whalebone, and animal hide, these “tepaqans” or “dabôgans” (Mi’kmaq and Abenaki for “sled,” respectively) curled up at the front to better skim over rough terrain.

John has sold to dozens of subarctic Aboriginal groups, Gabriel says. One even refers to John as an elder, “because he’s been enabling a centuries-old lifestyle,” according to Gabriel, “because we’re pretty much the only freighting-toboggan maker.”

But a different sort of demand asserted itself in the early 2000s. Northern Toboggan got a website, and families across the northern U.S. started ringing: “‘Oh, a toboggan to go down the hill? A toboggan to go down the hill?’” Gabriel recalls.

Recreational toboggans popped up in the 1800s, according to adventure logs, after mills had introduced sawn lumber. Makers forced the front curl into semi-circular hyperbole. These variations would butt into sticks and brush—good for downhill use only. In response to the calls, “[John] was like, ‘Well, alright. Let’s do one.’” (A downhill toboggan can cost $356 to $773, while traditional cargo toboggans currently range from $760 to $1,483.)

The need for freighting toboggans never quite entered crisis mode. (The Canadian Encyclopedia blames Skidoos and motorized sleds.) So, downhill toboggans became “probably the most critical part” of Northern Toboggan’s future.

Since then, patrons have aestheticized the “maker” part of their story. Some buy toboggans just to mount on the wall. And even while shredding snow, the sleds have taken on new meaning.

Gabriel mentions the book The Power of Why: Breaking Out in a Competitive Marketplace, about the lived reasons people buy anything. “Seriously, dude. Do you know how hard it is for so many parents to get their kids to set their phone down and go out, and just have a ball outdoors?” he asks me. “For two hours? Without any technology? And they’re even wrapping their arms around each other? I mean, there’s a physical bringing together.”

In the northeastern U.S., a few other retailers make toboggans, but Northern Toboggan’s strongest competitor appears to be the same as its raison d’être: the 21st century.

“There’s an epidemic going on … ‘How do I connect with my children?’”

Gabriel grew up tobogganing with his parents. Today, he doesn’t own a television. His 3-year-old verbalizes winter as “hockey and toboggan season,” and together, they luge down “Harren Mountain,” a hill of dirt the family amassed just to compensate for northern Minnesota’s flatness.

Uphill from Here

Although Gabriel sounds a little mystified by his “PR guy” role, he does his best to get the word out. He maintains a blog, where he’s told family stories of hockey and fall outings. He’s geeked out about a 19th-century dog sled and explained the history of what he calls a modern-day “toboggan revival.” Beyond that, he’s landed a Minnesota Bound segment and consulted branding experts. “If you go on our webpage, you don’t think, ‘Oh, this is a 10-person company in northern Minnesota,’” he says.

Since he and Jackson took over, John has stayed on as partner. Patrons still lug five-high piles of caribou, or stack friends six deep. But they also shop items by local craftspeople: deer-hide mittens (Uber Glove Company), zip-up hoodies (Duluth Screen Printing), snowshoe kits (Country Ways). One woman on the team carries out an Ojibwe tradition of hand-laced snowshoes, Gabriel says.

John plans to work part-time this year. He’ll handle fewer 100-pound freighting toboggans on that cement floor. By then, the company might have a new Kickstarter campaign. Gabriel hints at snowshoe décor—“nostalgic feng shui.” Another idea imagines “the most pristine toboggan that’s ever been made,” inspired by an apprentice-crafted walnut version.

In low-volume production, they might tap sled models from Switzerland, Scandinavia, China, or other northern regions. In large part, though, the hyper-local still drives them: “A big part of this has been, This is our family farm.”

That repeated phrase—“family farm”—sits snug at the center of Gabriel’s communications strategy. The Harren brothers have always had their hands in. Jackson applied lessons from engineering school to operations, and Gabriel rebuilt the company website at 19. “The Kickstarter was this really fun project, and it’s a thread of a larger piece,” Gabriel says. He reminisces on the late night, three years ago, when he holed up in a cabin with Jackson and their partners, and mapped out the company’s future on a huge sheet of paper.

“We can’t let this die. We just can’t.” PR guy surrenders to storyteller. “Dad’s frickin’ been through toils, man. The journey of entrepreneurship is hard. And where he was three years ago? We need to show him what he built.”