FAIRBANKS — Fairbanks may be known for many things, but most would probably agree manufacturing is not one of them.
That’s why it’s rather unusual to encounter a successful Fairbanks business that trains and employs locals to manufacture products that have gained not only a worldwide market but a reputation for excellence.
For more than 60 years, Alaska Tent & Tarp has been doing just that, keeping true to its mission of “covering Alaska.”
Alaska Tent & Tarp was started by Vern Johnson in the late 1940s, and has been in continuous operation since then. The business originally was called Alaska Canvas Supply and Commercial Sewing, and Johnson repaired parkas and sold canvas covers, wall tents and tarps.
The company moved to its current location on Front Street in the early 1950s and Johnson sold the business to Bill McIntyre about 20 years later.
McIntyre expanded the product line and added on to the building, and the business remains at that location to this day.
The company went through a major growth spurt during the 1970s, when the trans-Alaska oil pipeline was built.
“We created this whole warehouse factory wing that we have over here, that does a lot of oil services,” marketing director Alli LeBon said during a tour of the facility Thursday.
Workers expertly cut and assembled tents in one room while men bustled around a large space nearby, hauling around heavy piles of material used to construct industrial products such as the liners, berms and equipment covers the company has built its reputation on.
“We make a lot of secondary containment systems,” general managaer Dave Atchison said. “It could be anything from water treatment plants to the North Slope — they order from us and we make what they want.”
The air was redolent with the smell of hot vinyl and urethane as workers “welded” the pieces together using specialized machines.
Containment systems need to not leak, so the material cannot be stitched together as it would for other products.
“It’s not welding like ‘zzzttttt, zzztttt,’ like with metal,” Atchison explained. “There’s fabric, and a bar comes down and it uses heat and microwaves and fuses it together. We’re welding fabric. It’s the same thing as the other welding — we use heat and pressure.”
While the oil industry support side of the business may be their bread and butter, the Arctic Oven tent is the item that gains Alaska Tent & Tarp the most recognition.
The tent, which features a double wall construction and uses a combination of materials — some of them proprietary and developed especially for and by the company — is the structure of choice for anyone who needs to stay warm and dry while getting things done in an extreme-cold environment.
The tents can comfortably sleep from two to 10 people, depending on size and whether the optional stove is installed. The company proudly boasts that Arctic Oven tents will provide “warmth at any temperature” and keep the user “dry in any condition.”
The Arctic Oven is a true “all season tent,” LeBon said. “You can use it in the dead of winter, you can use it in the heat of summer.”
That said, it’s not for the casual backpacker. The tents are heavier and bulkier than standard tents, meaning they’re best used for situations where they can be hauled in with snowmachines or other equipment. Also, they’re not cheap.
The smallest, basic model will set the consumer back almost $1,400, while the largest, 12 foot by 24 foot model starts at $5,500.
Companies and foundations use the tents as survival shelters and base camps for explorers and researchers,
“The National Science Foundation uses our tents in the Arctic and in the Antarctic,” Atchison said. “We ship them all over the world.”
Alaska Tent & Tarp started developing the tent in 1987, according to LeBon.
“There was a decade of research prior to that, of saying ‘there’s a need in Alaska for a cold weather camping tent.’ What was on the market at that time was not doing the trick. It just couldn’t meet the requirements,” Le Bon said.
Atchison explained what makes the Arctic Oven so unique.
“We have a proprietary material that we use for an inner lining that allows it to be condensation free. It’s a breathable tent, and it’s really the only breathable, condensation-free tent on the market,” Atchison said.
“It’s partly the design, it’s partly the material. You couldn’t do one without the other: if I changed the design, the material wouldn’t work. If I changed the material, the design wouldn’t work. It’s a system,” Atchison said.
Though there are a few other companies out there that make cold-weather tents, Atchison said he’s not too worried about a large crop of competitors springing up overnight.
“We’re a niche market. We’re expensive. Not everybody out there is going out to make a tent that sells for $3,000,” Atchison said.
The company, which was purchased by current owner Jim Haselberger in 1995, also sells aluminum-framed, canvas wall tents, which are popular with hunters, trappers, ice fishers and others who need remote living space. It offers several different types of stoves — both wood and propane fired — to heat both their Arctic Oven and wall tents, and produces a full line of portable buildings that can be used for a variety of personal and industrial uses.
Alaska Tent & Tarp employs about 35 people, most of them at the main production facility in Fairbanks. Several more are employed at a small retail and sewing facility in Anchorage, but the business is a Fairbanks-based one and will always remain so, according to Atchison.
Arctic Oven’s reputation and popularity has grown to such an extent that they now also can be purchased at Bass Pro Shops, a major nationwide retailer of outdoor and sporting gear.
“Two years ago, they became our first wholesale buyers,” Atchison said.
Contact Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.
Business: Alaska Tent & Tarp Address: 529 Front Street Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, closed Saturday and Sunday Founded: Vern Johnson started the company in the 1940s under a different name. Johnson sold the business about 30 years later to Bill McIntyre. Phone: 456-6328 Website: www.alaskatent.com