For most of human history, we lived, worked, and played outdoors. But over the past century or so, we’ve come to spend less time outside and more time in—over 90 percent of our day, by some estimates. A quarter of Americans never leave the house at all during the day.
So it’s no wonder that, from time to time, we feel the urge for wilderness, the need to close the gap between our day-to-day world and the natural one, whether that be via our feet taking us there or doing work with our hands.
“In most rural places a hundred years ago,” says the celebrated woodturner Michelle Holzapfel, “people knit their own sweaters and made their own cheese. In my experience, and from what I’ve observed, the intersection of craft and the natural world is pretty omnipresent.”
Sometimes this longing for an older rhythm, for a more hands-on way of life, can change your path through the world. The makers featured here found their way to crafting gear—and the things they make help connect their customers with the wild.
Hiking Boots with a Cult Following
When Adam Lane-Olsen was working in a bank in northern New Hampshire, his days under the fluorescent lights of the financial institution were, as he says, “pretty miserable.” Lane-Olsen had grown up skiing and rock climbing in Michigan. He loved the outdoors and longed for a different kind of life. But it was through the bank that he met the grandson of Peter Limmer, who founded Limmer Boots in Bavaria before moving to the US in 1925.
One day Lane-Olsen drove out to meet with Limmer to see if he could sell him some financial products.
“I walked into the shop,” Lane-Olsen says, “and I was just like ‘Wow, this place is crazy cool!’ All the old tools and old smells. I didn’t know anything about the company, other than that it made custom hiking boots. I didn’t realize people were still doing anything like this.”
Lane-Olsen got to talking with Limmer about the company, whose fate was up in the air. Neither of his sons was interested in taking over. Limmer was at an impasse.
“I just thought to myself, ‘What an opportunity for somebody,’” Lane-Olsen says. “I mean, at that point he had a backlog of eighteen months’ worth of work.”
A few days later it occurred to him that maybe the opportunity could be his. He approached Limmer about taking over the company. After some discussion, they agreed on a plan. “Three months later,” he says, “I took my suits to Goodwill, walked away from the bank smiling, and never looked back.”
Over the next six years, Lane-Olsen worked with Limmer to learn the 100-year-old craft. Limmer’s relationships with both his customers and his materials were more immediate than anything Lane-Olsen had experienced before. Most people came into the store—sometimes traveling from overseas—to get their feet measured. Limmer would then make a last, a model of their feet, around which he built the shoes using specially chosen pieces of leather.
“Choosing the leather is like reading the grain in a piece of wood,” Lane-Olsen says. “When you’re selecting your boards for a piece of furniture, you’re going to look at the grain. If you’re looking at a piece of hardwood, you want it to be a nice tight grain without knots. In the same way, when we look at a piece of leather we try to find a piece that has an even temper—without scars or stretch marks, which will eventually cause weakness over time. We work around those things to create a consistent fit and break-in for the boot.”
People all over the country, all over the world, send in photos of just their feet. In the shop, we have photos all over the walls of people who’ve sent these in for generations.
As a result, Limmer boots have long lives. Sometimes a customer brings in their grandfather’s boots for resoling. Other boots come back for repairs after 30 or 40 years. Some people buy multiple pairs so they don’t have to wait while their boots are in the shop. Each pair takes about 30 hours to make, and the current waiting list runs to three years.
“Before I worked here,” says Lane-Olsen, “I didn’t realize Limmer boots had this huge cult following of people who love them. People all over the country, all over the world, send in photos of just their feet. In the shop, we have photos all over the walls of people who’ve sent these in for generations.”
Canoes That Help You Feel the River
Rollin Thurlow has also seen this kind of steady demand for handmade things. Since 1975 he has owned the Northwoods Canoe Company, which makes both wooden and wood-and-canvas canoes.
Thurlow stumbled into the profession. As a young man just out of the Navy, he was looking for something that wasn’t the military. So he enrolled in a two-year program to learn how to build wooden boats.
Afterward, the owner of the school was trying to sell his wooden canoe making company in order to focus on the school. Thurlow had always liked canoes, working with his hands, and working with wood. He and a friend bought the company and have been making canoes ever since.
“The different species of woods move in different ways,” Thurlow says, “and depending on how you cut the wood, it might expand in one direction and contract in another. So you’re always trying to find the combination of woods that are light, flexible, strong, rot resistant, and where the grain is going in the right direction.”
The result is not your standard Alumacraft.
“With the average wooden canoe,” Thurlow says, “there’s a flexibility that you don’t get with other canoes. It flexes in the waves as you use the boat. You can feel the boat move in the river. You can feel the river through the bottom of the boat much better than with a plastic boat.”
Poles That Put a Spring in Your Step
That innate flex of wood grain was what surprised, then captivated, John Hermanson of Bozeman, Montana. In the summer of 2017, he was hiking in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington, one of the steepest mountain ranges in the world. At one point he came to a ridge he had to descend. The ground had been burned, and it was hard for him to keep his footing on the steep, rocky slope. He looked around.
“Underneath the ash,” Hermanson recalls, “I found this stick that had been warped into a perfect C-shape, like a semicircle.”
He picked it up and used it to steady himself as he started making his way down the slope, negotiating loose rocks underfoot. The curved stick had some give in it and helped him speed down the hill. “It was a great way to stay balanced and secure my footing on really insecure ground,” he says. “It was sort of springy, like a shock absorber. I could go straight down.”
When he got back to civilization, meaning the internet, he started looking for something similar in the world of outdoor gear. The closest thing—standard trekking poles—had none of the springiness he was looking for.
It was sort of springy, like a shock absorber. I could go straight down.
For the next year and a half, he thought about that stick and about trying to re-create it. Hermanson was an accomplished musician, but working with wood was a different sort of craft. He couldn’t decide whether his idea was brilliant or crazy. Finally, he knew he had to try to bring it to fruition.
Could the medieval technology of the longbow help him figure out how to craft a strong but springy walking staff? He started watching YouTube videos of longbow makers. He bought woodworking equipment. He made prototype after prototype after prototype.
Slowly, Hermanson learned the qualities of wood: hardness, compression, strength, elasticity, heaviness, flexibility. And he paid attention to how the staff would meet the ground.
“I looked a lot at the natural world,” he says. “How does a grizzly’s foot attach to the ground? And is that better than a goat’s?”
Hermanson finally settled on a design that wedded the natural and the human-made. It had seven layers: four of wood, two of fiberglass, and one of carbon fiber.
Last came the name: Limber Bows.
“I really enjoy the whole process,” Hermanson says. “Music is less tangible. You finish a song, and you feel good about that. But it’s not something you can stand back and admire.”
In January 2023, Hermanson debuted his handcrafted Limber Bows at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. The response was huge, resulting in a long line of companies wanting to get on board. He chose one, and they are now working to make a version of Limber Bows—most likely out of carbon fiber—that can be manufactured while retaining those same qualities Hermanson found in a simple piece of wood that he stumbled on in the wild.◆
Frank Bures is based in Minneapolis and writes frequently about the outdoors. He is the author of The Geography of Madness, editor of Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology, and producer of In the Footsteps of Prince: A Self-Guided Audio Tour of Downtown Minneapolis.
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