Rapid Growth

Brevard kayak maker builds his brand by going (way) back to basics

Chad Quinn shapes his streamlined boats with millennia-old craftsmanship.
Photo by Karin Strickland

“The kayak almost feels like it’s alive,” says Chad Quinn, owner of boat-building company Bear Traditional Kayaks in Brevard. He’s known regionally and nationally for hand crafting rugged, high-end, skin-on-frame kayaks (also called Greenland kayaks) and paddles. 

Quinn grew up in coastal North Carolina and developed a love of surfing from an early age. But when his wife enrolled in nursing school, they moved to the Augusta, Georgia area, near 77,000-acre Clarks Hill Lake (aka Lake Strom Thurmond). 

Not quite sure how to entertain himself on a lake, Quinn discovered many people kayaking right by their home. After testing the waters himself, he was immediately sold on this sport that — somehow — he had only tried out once before. 

The kayaks are made from red cedar, bamboo, and ballistic nylon, and finished in a bio-blend polyurethane. “It’s about as environmentally friendly as you can get,” says Quinn.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Quinn began experimenting with different kayaks, but found the most common design inefficient. “Having a family, you know, my time was limited on the water,” he says. “I got out in smaller recreational kayaks and felt like I was plowing water. I couldn’t get to the same spot every time because it was taking too long.” 

He liked longer, 16-foot boats better, and one day, he noticed another man on the lake in the same kind of kayak. The man was using a handcrafted wooden paddle that sparked Quinn’s curiosity. He let Quinn try it out, and, five strokes in, he felt the difference. The two kayaked 14 miles together that day.

Quinn persuaded the man to build him a similar paddle. “I used it consistently for a year,” he says, “before realizing I needed to learn to build my own in case something happened to it.” It wasn’t a big jump from there to wanting to design an entire kayak — and to build a company around his newfound zeal. 

Photo by Karin Strickland

He researched the indigenous skin-on-frame structure, comparing the designs to modern-day fiberglass and plastic kayaks. “The frame of the traditional kayak is flexible, and oddly enough, that’s where the strength comes from,” he explains. “The plastic kayaks have a tendency to bob like a cork, but these have a snake-like sensation in the water. You can feel the current and any slightest movement. That information gets transferred to the brain quickly, and before you know it, it becomes part of you.”

Photo by Karin Strickland

Today, Quinn constructs his kayaks in a completely sustainable form. The framework and the paddles are made of lightweight Western red cedar with natural oils, which is rot resistant and has tensile strength. The skeleton is made from carbonized, vertical-grain laminated bamboo — 20 percent stronger and lighter than the traditionally used white oak. Greenlandic Inuit kayakers used extremely durable seal skin for the fabric of the boats; Quinn opts for ballistic nylon, used in the making of bulletproof vests and frag jackets for the military. “Even a claw hammer can’t stab it,” he claims. (The name of the company acknowledges the importance of the bear in Inuit culture.)

Photo by Karin Strickland

The boatmaker coats his finished products in a bio-blend polyurethane “that is about as environmentally safe as you can get,” he says. “Most of my materials are eco-friendly, organic, and purchased locally.” Eventually, he hopes to source all his materials locally. Quinn even sends his extra cedar shavings up to a couple of beekeepers in Lake Toxaway, who use them as part of hive maintenance.  

“Greenland lays claim to the first-ever kayak made from driftwood,” Quinn tells Bold Life. “I am constructing mine the same way as they were built thousands of years ago, just using modern materials. I think it’s really important to help keep this part of history alive.”

Chad Quinn, Bear Traditional Kayaks inside Next Venture Outdoors (168 North Broad St., Brevard). For information on Quinn’s paddle- and kayak-building courses, call 828-702-5741 or see beartraditionalkayaks.com. (Also: Bear Traditional Kayaks on Facebook and @bearqajaqs on Instagram.)

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