Five years ago, Key Log Rolling® president, Abby Hoeschler, was cross-country skiing with her dad, Jay, when they crossed paths with two men on the Birkie ski trail in Hayward, Wisconsin. "It was a random meeting on a ski trail," laughed Abby, "but it proved to be one of those moments you never forget.”
The Hoeschlers were in the beginning stages of creating a synthetic log rolling product to grow the sport, an idea envisioned by Judy Scheer Hoeschler, Abby’s mom and Jay’s wife. As a seven-time world log rolling champion and leader of youth development, Judy wanted to get things rolling for the exciting sport that had languished in the back woods for over a century. She knew a manufactured, portable product was the only way it could happen.
"My husband and I had moved enough heavy wood logs in thirty years, to know that it was a nonstarter for growth. So we decided to try to give it a shot with something user-friendly," said Judy. "I believe that log rolling could become an international watersport, if people just have access to it."
Jeff Van Fossen and Mike Cichanowski of Winona, MN were both manufacturers of products that were traditionally made of wood but had been replaced by man-made composite materials. Van Fossen’s Coda Bow® was the world’s first carbon fiber bow for violins and cellos; Cichanowki’s hand-built graphite Wenonah Canoe® and polyethylene Current Design® kayaks were top-selling products in the paddling world. Van Fossen gave Abby Hoeschler his contact info and told her he could help her find a designer in Winona, a center for composite manufacturers.
Within a month, Abby, 28, had hired two student engineers at Winona State University, the only accredited undergraduate program in the United States that offered a bachelor of science degree in Composite Materials engineering. Austin Erdenberger and Calvin Skeim listened to the design challenge presented by the Hoeschlers — to create a log light enough to carry on your car roof top, with the ability to add the necessary mass back for proper log rolling. Water would be the secret ingredient.
"When they arrived at the meeting to present their ideas, I took one look at their legal pad full of calculus and thought, this is a foreign language!" said Judy. "But their narrative of the proposed process was solid, so we asked them to keep working."
Over the course of the next few months, Austin and Calvin designed and built a prototype Key Log® made of wood, fiberglass, and styrofoam, in the garage of their college rental. When Abby took the prototype for its first test drive in May, 2011, she was overcome with emotion, as was everyone witnessing. "I knew that their math and physics calculations said it should work, but I still held my breath as we launched it", said Abby. "Within the first few moments, I knew we had something. It felt exactly like a solid wood log."
Austin and Calvin continued to refine the design, creating new prototypes in the kitchen of their college rental. Looking every bit the mad scientists but with Minnesota Nice smiles, they concocted chemical composite materials, pouring the mixtures into hand-built molds. "I was always nervous they were going to blow up the house," said Jay, "but they assured me it was safe.”
An important detail was still ahead: figuring out how to manufacture the product, at the right price. "My dad was all ready to buy his own roto molder but my mom took him for a long walk and convinced him otherwise. I don't think she wanted to be a plastics manufacturer," laughed Abby. "She suggested he call Mike Cichanowski of Wenonah Canoe, thankfully he took her advice.”
Cichanowski is a legend in the paddling world. His canoes and kayaks are shipped all over the world and his company was the first to bring stand-up paddleboards to the market at Outdoor Retailer. (He now owns the company, C4 Waterman. )
"Mike and his team have been amazing to work with," said Abby. "They really helped us perfect the product and have been flexible and adaptive to our needs. As a young start-up, I've appreciated their advice and also the respect they've shown to me."
"I was recently skiing on the Birkie trail and it dawned on me that this was the fifth anniversary of our happenstance meeting with Jeff and Mike," said Abby. "I wanted to memorialize it somehow but we're all so busy. The fact that we just shipped our 500th Key Log, which equates to 350 teaching programs, is a nice marker to remember it by."