Dan Cooke, whose gear-making 'genius' covered the Minnesota outdoors, dies at 68

Bob Timmons, Star Tribune on

Published in Outdoors

MINNEAPOLIS — Explorer Will Steger recalled "emergency mukluks" before his epic expeditions.

Camping guru Cliff Jacobson remembered a specially made, multicolored tarp that caught the eye of a rescue plane in remote Saskatchewan.

Titans of Minnesota's outdoors community like Steger and Jacobson, and everyday folks who used and coveted Dan Cooke's gear and called him a friend, are reflecting this week on his adventurousness, kindness and gift for engineering exceptional products.

Cooke, 68, died Monday of brain cancer. He lived in Lino Lakes, where from his home he ran Cooke Custom Sewing, making items like canoe spray skirts and tarps that for some were must-haves on any paddling or camping trip. To his fans, there were his products, and everything else ran a distant second.

Steger said he and Cooke worked together on designs through iterations of drawings and scribbles beginning in 1988. Some of that work happened on Steger's visits to Lino Lakes, where Cooke and his wife, Karen, continued their sewing business from their basement after living up north. Karen died of ovarian cancer in 2018.

Nothing stumped Cooke, Steger added. "He was a kind soul and generous," Steger said Tuesday. "And genius."

Cooke was a fixture in the canoeing world, producing revamped packs and canoe covers, for example, and chatting with fans at shows like Canoecopia in Madison, Wis., or Midwest Mountaineering expos. He said in an interview several years ago that he was the ultimate field-tester before his products went out.

"I make them for myself," Cooke said. "If they work for me, I like to share them with other people."

His children said in a Facebook post after his death that their father got a lot of test opportunities — he was always planning his next trip: "He loved being outdoors, so much so that when he couldn't get away, you would find him in the back yard setting up a tent in the middle of winter. In the last few years, he was able to enjoy time spent canoeing down rivers in Alaska, kayaking in Antarctica, hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, exploring Iceland, and visiting family across the U.S."

That spirit ran deep in Minnesota's wilderness, too. Jason Zabokrtsky, who owns and runs Ely Outfitting Co., connected with Cooke over their shared experience as guides into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for Adventurous Christians children's camp off the Gunflint Trail.

Zabokrtsky now outfits his customers with packs computer-designed and made by Cooke.

"It so tough to find something so simple and yet so extraordinary," he said of Cooke's packs. "They wear like steel. Super bomber. So much design, so much thought and so much understanding put into them."


Zabokrtsky laughed at the memory of Cooke's home workspace — a "Santa's workshop" stuffed with fabric and bits of gear specialty parts — that ran counter to the end product: exacting detail and even upgrades with consistent quality.

"He knew how people used them. He was part of the community of users and he … was constantly talking to us all," Zabokrtsky said. The outfitter, for example, recalled that Cooke added bright red pack handles when he learned people were picking up packs by the compression straps.

Jacobson, also highly regarded in the tight paddling community and a popular guidebook writer, said Cooke came up with longer flaps on canoe packs to help keep gear dry.

"Some people think expertise is how many trips you've done and how far off the beaten path. Expertise is critical thinking about what is going on every time you do a trip, and that was what Dan did," Jacobson said. "'How can I make camping better? How can I make paddling better?'"

The veteran outdoorsman longed for more time with Cooke, his longtime friend and collaborator.

"I wanted to paddle more rivers with Dan."

Cooke's son Nate told the Star Tribune that the outpouring of condolences online and elsewhere are comforting.

"It feels like another trade show when all of Dan's friends come to say hi," he said.

Plans are underway for a public service in August at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, where Cooke taught people how to canoe.

Nate Cooke is also preparing to carry on the business he's helped his father build.

"For me, it's mighty big shoes to step into."

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