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Progress: Wind, Water, & Wheels grows with kayak business

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Jim Bergquist - owner of Wind, Water, & Wheels in Crosslake - shows off two of his popular kayak models. Bergquist sells and rents Crow Wing Kayaks products, which are all produced locally. Theresa Bourke/Echo Journal 2 / 2

CROSSLAKE—A booming kayak industry in the lakes area has made business for Jim Bergquist almost too much to handle.

Bergquist owns Wind, Water, & Wheels in Crosslake, where selling and renting kayaks is his main business.

"We'll come in the morning here, and there will be 10-15 people at the door waiting to get in to rent or buy stuff," he said.

The "stuff" customers line up for are kayaks from Crow Wing Kayaks and paddleboards from Paddle North in the Twin Cities. Bergquist—who bought the business from Stern Manufacturing in 2012—also rents and sells lake floats and rents bicycles.

"It's really built up a reputation," he said of his store. "The thing we've got going for us is it's a local product, and people can try them out before they buy. And nobody else can offer that. That's our niche."

Stern Manufacturing makes the kayaks in Brainerd, and Bergquist then adds the final touches himself.

"All of our models are the same boat; they just have different things on them," he said. "We finish them off in the store so people can have theirs designed the way they want it or we can make them into the models that we make them into."

Right now the store sells six different models—some equipped for fishing, some with enough storage for overnight trips, and some made simply to explore the waters. Bergquist is also working on a hunting model, as many people now buy kayaks for duck hunting.

"We've tried to change our design with the changes in our industry," he said. "It leans heavily toward fishing and hunting, so most of our models are fishing kayaks."

Not only has the kayak industry changed in recent years, but the demand has also grown, which Bergquist attributes to the inconvenience of hauling canoes and other, bigger boats for older people.

"I've had people come here and say, 'I've gotten rid of my speed boat; I've gotten rid of my pontoon. I want something that I can throw on my car, I can do it myself, I can get out in every nook and cranny,'" Bergquist said. "All the other boats are high maintenance. But no maintenance (is) required (for a kayak). You don't have to have it stored. You don't have to have the engine drained or anything."

The kayak business alone isn't all that has changed since Bergquist bought Wind, Water, & Wheels five years ago. He started in a building nearby his current location on County Road 66, but when that building was torn down two years ago, he moved next door.

And the changes are still coming.

"Somebody just bought the building now here, and they're going to tear this building down," Bergquist said. "I have plans for moving, but I don't have any place to go yet."

The current store is set to be torn down in November, so Bergquist will have the winter to find a new location before setting up shop for the 2018 kayaking season.

One even bigger change could be coming for the store a couple years down the road.

"I'm looking to train somebody in that would be interested in possibly taking over," Bergquist said. "I'm 64 ... and I've got injuries to both my arms from carrying and throwing kayaks for all these years. And ideally I would like to have somebody that would be interested in working for me for a couple years and eventually taking it over."

Finding the right workers isn't easy though, which is partially why Wind, Water, and Wheels only has two employees in addition to Bergquist.

"My hours depend on how busy I am, and it's just for such a short time during the year," Bergquist said. "You have to be able to do so many things. You've got to know how to fill out rental forms; you've got to know how to put kayaks together ... It takes a lot of time to train in somebody to get to know all of that stuff, so it's mind-boggling."

This unpredictable, "mind-boggling" business wasn't something Bergquist had originally put much thought into himself. The opportunity presented itself when he worked as a dealer for Stern Manufacturing out of his home in Fifty Lakes and started to notice ways the company could improve.

"I was kind of riding them (Stern Manufacturing) about the fact that nobody was marketing these and that their website was out of date. All of the dealers that were in there weren't dealers anymore. And then I ran into people who said they were dealers and weren't on the website," Bergquist said. "So I kept harassing them. Then they finally said, 'Well, how would you like to buy the company and run with it?' So that's basically what I did."

The now-owner ran with more than just the idea of selling and renting kayaks. He has since started a paddling club that meets 10-15 times a year to explore different lakes and rivers via kayak, canoe or paddleboard.

"I just throw out ideas of where to paddle, or sometimes people in the club do," Bergquist said, adding that the club doesn't cost anything unless participants need to rent a kayak or paddleboard, which he offers at half price. "All I need are people's email addresses, and you're in the paddling club."

For the past three years, Bergquist has also donated the use of his kayaks and equipment to Wounded Warriors kayak trips down the Pine River.

"I've offered it to other organizations, too," he said. "If my kayaks are sitting back there (in the store), they're not doing any good. If they're out on the road, Crow Wing Kayaks' name is out on the road."

Through his customers and the organizations he has worked with, Bergquist said the kayak business has led him on quite an adventure.

"It's just been a fascinating ride. I feel like a kid with toys. You meet the greatest people," he said. "Our customers are everything."

• Business: Wind, Water, and Wheels.

• City: Crosslake.

• Number of employees: Three.

• Interesting fact: Wind, Water, and Wheels produces only sit-on-top kayaks and is the only kayak shop in the Brainerd lakes area that uses all local products and lets customers test the kayaks before buying them.