A Look Into Kokatat’s Past

by kokatat-author
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Kokatat got its start in 1971 in the back room of a new cycling and backpacking store named the Arcata Transit Authority. In addition to his keen interest in helping the surrounding Arcata, CA community get outdoors with bikes and packs, Kokatat founder Steve O’Meara had a desire to manufacture outdoor apparel and gear.

The company name back then was Blue Puma, which consisted of a tight collection of down parkas, rain jackets and award winning bivy sacks. Later that decade, Steve was approached by a crew of intrepid paddlers with an idea to make apparel that would keep them warm and comfortable while charging first river descents around the world.When asked about gear choices in those early descents Don Banducci recalls the standard paddling kit being comprised of a well-used farmer john wetsuit, a ratty old wool sweater and a non-breathable polyurethane coated jacket used by wrestlers to sweat off some weight prior to a match weigh-in. Paddling dry suits had not been developed yet and the choices for gear to keep you dry were slim. If you chose to pursue the fun and exhilaration of whitewater paddling in those days, you had to be prepared to be wet and cold. Always!

Banducci, who later became the founder of car rack manufacturer Yakima, approached his friend O’Meara to discuss his plan to head into the Canadian wilderness to attempt a first descent of the Alsek River. The Alsek is a wilderness river flowing from the Yukon into Northern British Columbia and Alaska. The team, including Rob Lesser who has since become a legend in the sport, was concerned about the near freezing water temperatures they would experience in Turnback Canyon. They approached O’Meara with the idea to modify existing rain jacket designs into a paddle sports specific jacket that would prevent water from entering the neck and wrists. They were also looking for an alternative to the shabby and wet wool sweater.

This was just the opportunity to push the Blue Puma team into action. Immediately the team identified the performance requirements for the garments and the best materials to achieve the required goals. They knew that neoprene was a likely candidate for water tight closures at the wrist, but were uncertain about how to easily get the hand through the snug fitting rubber tube. Other challenges included how to seal neoprene to the waterproof nylon taffeta fabric, judged state-of-the-art for the day, and how to create a waterproof neck closure that could be pulled easily over the head. In the end, the design team was able to supply each paddler with a waterproof paddling jacket with zipper neoprene cuffs and collar and a three quarter sleeve insulating sweater made with nylon pile. These two garments were the cornerstones for the company that was to become Kokatat.

When asked what Banducci remembers about this combo he said, “I remember it as being warm, very water resistant, and reliable. I recall they were about the most expensive jackets in the market, but when you looked at the detailing, the stitching and the overall design it was clear what you were spending your money on. I think that kind of commitment to quality propelled Kokatat forward in the industry.” When asked about these early jackets and expeditions Lesser’s memory revealed, “They proved themselves in that demanding environment and we were damn glad we had them…but in hindsight I would have preferred a Kokatat GORE-TEX® Dry Suit! The kids of today have it super easy, but somebody had to pave the way and do a bit of suffering to advance the cause.”

O’Meara looks back at these early days of Kokatat with great pride and thankful humility. These early manufacturing challenges helped shape many of the production techniques used today in Kokatat’s Arcata, CA factory. Kokatat has become a bridge that closes the gap between the pioneers of the sport and those pushing it today. Most remarkably O’Meara said of these early expeditions and the Alsek trip in particular, “Not sure Kokatat would have pursued paddle sports if it weren’t for that trip.”

Not sure Kokatat would have pursued paddle sports if it weren’t for that trip.

The Alsek crew at the Blackadar Memorial / Mr. Banducci Himself / Geared up for Adventure