In these waning days of summer, when a sleeveless shirt and sandals are still comfortable, it’s hard to conjure images of bitter cold. But in just 90 days, a lot of us will be pulling on our winter coats and trying to keep our fingers and toes toasty.
As much as I hate to acknowledge those days ahead, I thought about it earlier this month on a visit to Ely, Minnesota, which abuts the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). This million-plus acres of restricted logging, mining, and motorized access was set aside in 1979 for canoeists, campers, and dogsled enthusiasts, and the town has built its economy around catering to their needs. There I asked resident Patti Steger how she tolerates living where average winter temperatures are below freezing for months at a time and often dip below zero. She assured me that anyone can enjoy winter, as long as they’re dressed for it.
Patti should know — she’s lived in Ely for more than 30 years and makes her living bringing warmth to the toes of townspeople and those in cold climates worldwide. She’s the owner of Steger Mukluks, a company that she started in her home in 1985. Today, Steger Mukluks sells between 8,000 and 10,000 pairs of moose hide mukluks annually.
Patti came to Ely from her native Wisconsin in the late 1970s, after meeting explorer Will Steger. They married and lived in a rustic cabin with no running water on a lake outside of town. The property was accessible only by foot and canoe. Will was planning the first of what would eventually be five expeditions — traveling to the North Pole, carrying all his supplies by dogsled. On this first trip, Will and his five co-adventurers outfitted themselves, crafting dogsleds and gathering gear at Army surplus and Goodwill stores. Patti, who in Wisconsin had had a business sewing motorcycle saddlebags and canvas chairs, stitched anoraks, parkas, windpants, tents and dogsled bags, booties, and harnesses. To test them in Arctic-like conditions, they traveled in 1983 to the Northwest Territories of Canada, and in Yellowknife Patti learned to make kamiks — sealskin boots — from an Inuit woman. When she returned to Ely, Patti switched her focus to mukluks — boots of smoked moose hide — made in the style of Northern Cree Indians. Mukluks are lightweight and much warmer than winter boots with stiff soles, according to Patti.
“You know how you shake your hands if your fingers are cold to get circulation going?” she asks. “The flexible soles of mukluks let your feet roll and rotate, which triggers circulation. I haven’t had cold feet since I started making them.”
Patti wasn’t the only Northern Minnesotan looking for a way to maintain warm toes.
“When I first started offering mukluks to people I’d measure their feet and make them one at a time, with leather they’d bring me,” she says. “I never thought people would buy so many pairs, and try as I might, I couldn’t keep up — they’d sell so fast.”
Patti wanted to expand, but first she had to figure out a way to put her mukluks into production without losing any of their effectiveness.
“The quality had to remain high and they had to be made the right way,” says Patti. In 1987 she opened her first storefront. Today, she’s in her third location, and in addition to her shop she oversees a factory where mukluks are still stitched by hand. Though Patti no longer sews, she designs the mukluks.
“There’s nothing that’s been designed in a vacuum,” she says. “I always reach out to people, I’m always trying to fill a need.” A recent example is Camuks, mukluks designed for hunting. “I had a friend who hunts and was wearing 20-year-old mukluks and he kept asking me to make them,” she says. “I was resistant at first, but there must have been a need, because they’re doing well.”
Patti’s designs have evolved over the years, and she’s made modifications for style as well as comfort and warmth. “At first I had short and tall boots in three or four colors and women asked if we could make them more stylish,” she says. The result is mukluks that combine moose hide lowers with uppers that incorporate handmade braid, faux fur, colorful boiled wool, and fringe.
As a business owner, Patti’s committed to the environment, but she’s also a pragmatist.
“I buy a lot of wool, cotton, and leather, and I try to use as many American-made, natural, and organic fibers as possible,” she says. “But you have to make decisions and choices.” She’s also committed to Ely and employs 35 full and part-time employees in an isolated town where good jobs are challenging to find. She’s renovated an empty building on the town’s main street to house her shop, and although she and Will Steger are no longer married, they remain close friends. Steger Mukluks has both sponsored and outfitted Will’s subsequent expeditions.
Watching her business grow has been gratifying for Patti — she supplies mukluks to the Danish Sirius Patrol, Harrison Ford and James Taylor own pairs, and people all over the U.S. and the world buy them through her website (Minnesotans are her best clients, followed by Wisconsinites and Alaskans). But contributing to her customer’s quality of life is what drives Patti.
“People tell me ‘I never had warm feet til I got mukluks,’ and I never get tired of hearing that,” says Patti, who used to teach winter survival courses. “Knowing that they have confidence that their feet will be warm and comfortable is a huge reward.”