Born to paddle: How Winona native turned his hobby into a thriving brand

Mike Cichanowski, Wenonah Canoe Founder and CEO // Courtesy Wenonah Canoe Facebook

I took in the sharp smell of resin and plastic as I opened the office door to the Wenonah Canoe headquarters and facility on the eastern side of Winona. Tall and slender founder and CEO Mike Cichanowski met me with a firm handshake. We sat in a humble conference room sans leather chairs and fancy coffee and I heard how he, a lifelong paddler and adventure enthusiast, turned his passion into a successful business.

A few years ago, a magazine writer asked Mike to describe himself in three words. He thought for a moment. Loyal and hard-working came to mind. But, he shrugged those traits off and went with something a little more basic: born to paddle.

Mike, a boy scout and eventually an eagle scout, grew up in Winona on the banks of the Mississippi River. Surrounded by his clan of boy scout friends, he built his first canoe at the age of 16 — in his dad’s garage.

“The only think remarkable about it,” he says humbly, “is that I was just a teenager.”

“That’s the last time I worked for anyone else.”

Mike and his friends took two of those early-model fiberglass canoes and drove to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Once there, they sold the car and paddled home; a 400-mile journey, that was used by early fur traders. The trek took three weeks and was the groups’ last hurrah before they all went off to college. The only catch; Mike almost didn’t get to go.

“I was working at a grocery store in town and couldn’t get the time off,” he says. “So I quit. And that’s the last time I ever worked for anyone else.”

When he returned from his three-week adventure, he enrolled at Winona State University and decided to study fish and wildlife. He continued building canoes, only now, he was forced to move out of his dad’s garage.

More than a hobby

He bought a leaky, dilapidated, old building in downtown Winona that would eventually be torn down. When Winona’s Urban Renewal committee came knocking on his door, they suggested he apply for a Small Business Administration Loan. This was the point in Mike’s life when he had to decide whether his canoe-building hobby would be more than just that.

He decided to jump into his passion with both feet. The funding from the loan came through and provided a better building and equipment.

Fifty years of innovation

Since then, Mike has grown Wenonah Canoe one step at a time, recently celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. When he got into the business, competition comprised of mostly aluminum and fiberglass. Mike wanted to try something different. Something lighter and more efficient. So he — along with his small staff — designed a lightweight canoe that would pierce the water gracefully and efficiently. Well, on paper anyway. It was all trial and error, Mike says.

A mold was crafted from the paper prototype, which despite technological advances, is still the way Wenonah Canoe builds nearly all of its boats, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards (Mike has since acquired two other brands: C4 Waterman, a stand up paddle board manufacturer and Current Designs, maker of kayaks) that they ship all over the world, including Europe, Scandinavia, and North and South America.

“We make canoes and kayaks that are built to cross the North Sea in a storm. They’re high end, even bomb-proof. You’re going to survive in that boat,” he says. “But, we also make kayaks suited for Lake Winona.”

Authenticity is key

In their advertising, promotions and marketing, Wenonah Canoe uses real people, who are really paddling. This is important to Mike.

“We always want to be as authentic as possible,” he says. “We want to show our customers when they should wear lifejackets or rash guards or wet suits.”

Mike credits his success — and more than 50 years of business — to perseverance. “We basically took a hike and ended up here.”

In other words, he stayed the course.

Mike riding solo, circa 1985 // Courtesy Wenonah Canoe Facebook

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