In 2013, Wisconsin’s 134 cheese plants produced 2,842,456,000 pounds of cheese, accounting for 25.5 percent of the total U.S. cheese production (according to a 2014 Dairy Data report, Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture). This must be why we Wisconsinites are characterized as “Cheeseheads.” Wisconsin may be known for its cheese, but it should also be recognized for making snowshoes (but obviously not in the quantities identified in the cheese industry).
Northern Lites Snowshoes and Redfeather Snowshoes are both products of Wisconsin. And both companies are proud to say they manufacture snowshoes that are “made in the USA.” Unlike most large snowshoe companies that contract their production overseas in China, Northern Lites and Redfeather have kept their work here at home. They produce a high quality snowshoe and keep the dollars in Wisconsin.
Unique to their businesses is that Northern Lites is a small family-owned company, and Redfeather is part of a non-profit enterprise that puts people with disabilities to work. Both are small town community enterprises.
Family-owned Northern Lites made in Medford (population 4,326)
Russ Post is the creator and original owner of Northern Lites. I first met Post in 2003, when I took my university snowshoeing students on a field trip to visit his small factory in Wausau, Wisconsin. He not only opened the doors for my students to tour his facility each season, but he also provided an educational presentation about snowshoe manufacturing and about the sport itself. I continued to bring students for my annual visit for several years.
Post began making Northern Lites in 1992. Nearly 20 years later in June, 2011, two brothers and their spouses, Brian and Elaine Hallgren and Brent and Juleen Hallgren purchased Northern Lites. The operation was moved to their hometown in Medford. Northern Lites Enterprises, Inc. is a “true family business,” according to Brian Hallgren, since all four family members and some of their adult children have a role in the production and sales of their snowshoes.
Hallgren says “our snowshoes are not mass produced.” The shoes are fully assembled at the Northern Lites shop by hand and using their machinery. The only assembly process completed elsewhere is that of adding clips to the snowshoe decking, which is done by workers with disabilities at Black River Industries in Medford…a non-profit organization.
Northern Lites also pride themselves on positive customer service by trading online as well as through select retailers. And they have provided some public school districts in Wisconsin with special prices for their shoes in order to open up the sport of snowshoeing for students.
The distinctive characteristic of Northern Lites snowshoes are their light weight, weighing in at roughly 2 to 2 ¾ pounds a pair compared to almost twice that for some brands on the market. The company advertises that “At only one-half the weight of ordinary metal-frame snowshoes, Northern Lites mean 2,000 pounds less weight to lift over every mile.” Their snowshoes are made of an ultra-lightweight aluminum frame and a very tough rip-stop decking that is too slick for snow to build-up on the shoes….resulting in even lighter weight overall.
The Northern Lites series Quick Silver 25 (25×8 inches wide) and Quick Silver 30 (30×9 inches) are their standard recreational line of snowshoes made of 6000 series aluminum alloy and military grade polyurethane coated nylon decking. The Extreme Series is their higher quality shoe with 7000-series spacecraft aluminum alloy having 40% greater strength than the other shoe, and decking made of a product called Coolthane that is 250% stronger than the average hypalon decking on many brands of snowshoes. Both series have mountaineering toe and heel crampons and a quick-pull Tru-Track binding.
The Extreme Series is made up of the Elite (8×25, 40 oz) and Elite-Women’s (8×25, 38 oz) for hiking and off-trail travel, while the Backcountry snowshoe is for backpacking and the Backcountry Rescue snowshoe (both 9×30, 45 oz) is used for mountaineering, and search and rescue. Their Tundra is for users packing weight over 250 pounds (9 ½ x32, 48 oz). The Extreme Series uses the more advance quick-pull Tru-Track QTR binding. However, this binding is not available in the Quick Silver series.
For kids, Northern Lites has the Youth lightweight snowshoe for tykes weighing up to 80 pounds (7×19, 28 oz).
Interestingly, the Hallgren brothers participate in snowshoe racing and promote their popular brand of light-weight snowshoes while on the trails. At snowshoe races, you will find some athletes using their Race and Race-Direct snowshoes; coming in at 8 X 20 inch size and weighing only 32 ounces for the Race and 28 ounces for the Race-Direct. The Race-Direct has no bindings. The runner attaches their running shoes directly to the snowshoes for weight conservation.
Redfeather an integral part of the La Crosse community (population 51,647)
ORC Industries in La Crosse, Wisconsin is where Redfeather snowshoes are manufactured. Research & Development Director, Randy Christenson, oversees the production operations of their snowshoes. He points out that the unique aspect to this company is that they provide job opportunities for people with disabilities. Redfeather is a component of this not-for-profit community service organization, whereas Christenson says, “our workforce is comprised of 75% or more people who have physical or mental disabilities.”
In their mission statement, ORC states, “Work is one way that people can make a difference, and at ORC Industries, we are challenged by our own Mission to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities so that they, too, can experience the personal and financial fulfillment of a job well done.” Employees of all abilities work together at OCR to produce a high quality snowshoe while providing customer satisfaction.
Redfeather began operation in 1988 in Colorado, where it was bought by ORC and moved to La Crosse in January of 2006.Their claim to fame is their original V-shaped snowshoe tail called the Redfeather Redtail. Redfeather made the first ratchet binding and strap system for snowshoes that replaced the use of shoelaces on bindings, and they were the first to use lightweight titanium crampons and talons.
Today, their snowshoes are mostly made of powder coated 6000 AC aluminum frames, an abrasion and puncture resistant rip-stop vinyl decking, steel or titanium crampons, and one of six styles of bindings. This includes their new SV2 one-pull handle binding for quick-in, quick-adjustment and quick-release.
Their Fitness Series include the Trek and Pace, both with the traditional V-tail shape in lengths of 21, 25 and 30 inches. Both shoes styles have the new SV2 bindings and are designed for improved mobility with a Live Action Hinge that lifts the tail of the snowshoe up from the snow with every step.
The Technical Running snowshoe is their Vapor, at 21 inches long and has a V-tail too. This snowshoe is smaller and lighter in weight, and also has the Live Action Hinge to enhance speed.
The Recreation Series, Hike for men and Hike for women come in lengths of 22, 25, 30 inch (and an added 36 inch for men), and they are equipped with the SV2 bindings. The Conquest in the Recreational Series is their only adult injection plastic-mold frame snowshoe and comes in 25 inch length only.
Redfeather has their own mold-injection machines for making their plastic shoes, including their Youth Series snowshoes for kids (ages 3 to 7). They make two styles. The Snowpaw is shaped like Bigfoot’s foot, and the Flash Trax is the same style shoe but smaller with motion activated LED colored lights in the toes to enlighten children. Their Youth Series Y22 with the new SV2 binding has a V-tail (for kids up to 125 pounds), while their Elf snowshoe has the round tail (for kids up to 80 pounds).
Also, Redfeather is proud to be one of the sponsors for the USSSA National Snowshoe Championships in Eau Claire, Wisconsin this Feb 27 through March 1, 2015.
As cheese continues to be a staple in the economy of Wisconsin, so will snowshoes….as long as Northern Lites and Redfeather continue their tradition of making quality snowshoes. For information about their products and distributors, go online to Northern Lites Snowshoes at www.northernlites.com and Redfeather Snowshoes at www.redfeather.com.
Much of the information in this article is taken from “Made in Wisconsin: Cheeseheads and Snowshoeheads,” by Jim Joque, Silent Sports Magazine, Published by Multi Media Channels; October, 2014.