Iditarod mushers make adventure gear in the Upper Peninsula

As former Alaskans and Iditarod mushers, it’s no wonder Justin and Jaimee High found Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula the right fit for their small business, High’s Adventure Gear. Snow is embraced rather than endured here — often for three seasons — and the Highs have concentrated on handcrafting ultra-light, ultra-warm parkas and other cold-weather gear. 

Last November they moved all manufacturing from the basement of their Mohawk home to a new storefront in Calumet. The Highs are so enthused to be part of the historic downtown’s revitalization that they’re opening a second brick-and-mortar business in their 6,000-square-foot building this spring. 

What made you choose the Keweenaw Peninsula“I grew up in Hudson, Michigan, but I went to Michigan Tech so I know the area,” Justin High says. “When deciding to leave Alaska, we wanted to move to a place where we could still run dogs. I knew the Keweenaw gets loads of snow and there was lots of opportunity, especially with the businesses and campuses [Michigan Tech and Finlandia University] here.”

What product put High’s Adventure Gear on the map: “We started in 2012 in Alaska with dog sled bags and dog coats … and then added parkas and human gear. In 2016, we introduced our Willow Tuff Parka, a windproof, waterproof parka that works well at -20 degrees but is also quite comfortable at 30 degrees,” Justin High says. The parka weighs just three pounds. Now the Willow Tuff Parka is “our bread and butter,” he says.

What was the inspiration behind the parka: “I was working on a glacier for a summer running dogs. The weather was nasty — rainy and 34 degrees — living on a block of ice. I came home for a weekend and said, ‘Jaimee, I am freezing,’” Justin High recalls. The couple had always talked about doing a parka and threw together the original Willow with material they were using to make other products. “Now, a couple thousand Willow Tuff parkas later, it’s our mainstay but we also produce a Willow Tuff Extreme, which was introduced at The Yukon Quest and Iditarod in 2017. It’s rated for 65 degrees below zero.”

Who is your core customer: “Anybody who is outside in sh*tty weather,” Justin High says, laughing. “The parkas are intended for mushers but you could also wear (them) hunting or ice fishing. Our snow gauntlets, dog coats, chaps, are all made with the same materials and principles as our parkas.” 

Are all of your products still handmade: It’s still just Justin and Jaimee. “We work side by side, and our daughter Izzy is the lead salesperson. She is hilarious. But if this track continues, we definitely need to find someone to help with sewing,” Justin High says. The couple started with five parkas the first year, then 60 parkas the next year. For 2022, they’ll make more than 250 parkas. 

What resources did you tap to get off the ground: The couple bought the building (at 309 Fifth St., Calumet) and that was self-funded. However, Justin High talked to Main Street Calumet, which supports economic vitality downtown, to get some leads on a building. “Nothing was for sale. A couple of people in the last few years have bought almost every building after the ‘snow year’ when several downtown roofs collapsed. Our building had a partial roof collapse but wasn’t too far gone,” Justin High says “One of the private [investors] downtown is putting in a boutique hotel across the road from us … they are really doing a lot to revitalize Calumet. We were lucky to find the building we did.”

What inspires you to do business in the Keweenaw Peninsula: “The community here is really cool about wanting to see everyone else succeed. In Alaska you often had to just figure it out. What’s great [if you need advice] is that the Upper Peninsula regional Michigan Small Business Development Center and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. keeps an office at Michigan Tech. And the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance helps the little businesses by working with the bigger companies. They want everybody to succeed.”

What’s next: The Calumet storefront has two sides and the couple is starting a second business: an axe-throwing establishment called the Copper Axe. They hope to be open by spring.