Bellingham kayak company rebuilding after fire

BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) - After the shock of watching a business destroyed by fire wears off, the tough work of rebuilding begins. Fortunately for Sterling Donalson, he's getting help from the community, one tool at a time.

Donalson could only watch helplessly Nov. 28 as fire engulfed the Kline Road building that was home to Sterling Kayaks. Donalson had been inside the building when the fire began and got out as quickly as he could when he saw smoke coming from an electrical outlet.

The building was destroyed, along with the company's kayak molds and equipment. He was able to salvage some demonstration models except for his new kayak, called the Progression.

Within a few hours of the fire, a commitment was made to rebuild the business, and people from the kayak community and local residents have stepped forward to help. Donalson continues to look for a new location for his business, but he's been able to find some temporary space and hopes to start production soon and make deliveries this spring.

"We are very humbled at how giving people are in this community," Donalson said. "Even the fact that people are bringing me tools. They say it's just a small thing to them (to donate a tool), but to me it's a big thing."

While a small operation, Sterling Kayaks is well-known in the kayaking community. The company's Reflection kayak was listed by Outside magazine as one of the seven best boats this past summer. The company typically makes about 80 boats a year.

While many business strategies for kayak manufacturing lead to mass production, Donalson has chosen to remain small, focusing on quality and coming up with new designs to improve the experience for the paddler. That focus is what attracted Reg Lake, who is well known in the kayak community and has consulted with Donalson on kayaks for about 10 years.

"He (Donalson) has an amazing mind for composites; he's always ahead of the game when it comes to designing," said Lake, who has been kayaking for 43 years. "It's the water that designs the boats, but you also have to listen to people. Sterling is a really good listener."

Donalson has a history of overcoming challenges. According to a biography on Sterling Kayak's website, Donalson was diagnosed with bone cancer and his leg was removed at the hip. He took up skiing and became a national amputee skiing champion in 1972.

He built his first fiberglass kayak in 1985 because he wanted a design that better fit him. He also has designed a one-foot control method for the rudder system.