The small fishing village of Kake, Alaska sees more than 10 feet of rain each year — and it’s no coincidence John Peterka and his dry bag company Sagebrush Dry reside there.
How John, a self-described landlubber from North Dakota, ended up in Southeast Alaska manufacturing state-of-the-art dry bags is a saga in itself.
The brand was born in the early 2000s and operated out of Dillon, Montana by two folks named Robbie and Elaine. When their contracts making waterproof gear for Patagonia were diverted offshore, the founders realized they were looking for a change.
“They wanted to move somewhere where they could be close to living off grid, but still be able to make bags,” John explained.
“Being in Southeast (Alaska) was perfect. There’s a diesel generator that powers the whole town and we get 10 feet of rain in the Tongass each year!”
Fast forward 15 years or so: John was living in Bozeman, Montana and heard whispers about Sagebrush Dry looking for someone to take over the operation.
Being both in the “cut and sew” and fly fishing industry, John was familiar with the brand’s products. “I knew they were bombproof and made in the USA with high-quality materials.”
After meeting over lunch in Montana, John spent a week in Kake to learn about the business to see if it’d be a good fit.
“It was my first time to Alaska and I got the full experience. They took me fishing, crabbing — I got the full tour of what Southeast has to offer.”
Next, the owners and John settled on a unique situation. John would move to Kake as an apprentice for at least six months to determine if he was worthy of buying the business. “It was very unique, very Alaskan,” John said of the arrangement.
Obviously, John proved himself worthy and assumed ownership in 2017. He’s been making bags in Kake ever since.
These aren’t just any ‘ol duffels, fanny packs, and camera bags.
A thermal bond welds the urethane coated fabrics together, using techniques called radio frequency welding and hot air welding. “The marriage of these two technologies are what really makes our products unique.”
“That’s what separates us from what other people are doing in the industry. There’s no stitching, no taping, no glues.”
John half joked he spends about 500 times as much as anyone else does on fabric. The bags are made with waterproof and airproof zippers and are fully submersible (he puts them in a dunk tank to test). In other words, they’re designed to withstand the worst weather possible.
John notes the zippers on Sagebrush Dry gear do require some lubrication and maintenance, but the bags are built to last, hence the lifetime warranty promised with every product. “But if I can fix it, I want to keep it going and out of the landfill.”
John shared one unique testimonial from a customer in Alaska whose boat capsized, causing her Sagebrush Dry backpack to float away. Four days and more than 20 miles later, the bag was spotted and retrieved by a commercial fisherman. She later wrote in an email to John: The backpack was returned to me a few days later and the contents were completely dry. I even ate the Clif Bar that was inside.
Customers have shared with John that they’ve even used their bags to help them stay afloat in a water emergency.
“Good enough isn’t good enough,” John said. “That’s what I’m thinking of every time I make one. It has to be 100% and I stand behind our lifetime warranty.”
“Bag Man John” as he’s known in Kake and his craft have been well received in the little island village. “If anything, my biggest, hard core customers come from the town that I live in.”
John describes Kake as a subsistence island, meaning hunting, fishing and gathering is the primary source of nutrition. “It’s a way of life. There are no weekend warriors here.”
Sagebrush Dry’s workshop sits along Kake’s only paved road. The 2,500-square-foot space houses some unique bag-making machinery. “When people come in, they are very surprised; there’s some pretty cool equipment in there.”
It’s not uncommon to see bears pacing the beach outside his shop. “It’s a cool little spot, the ocean is right out my front window.” Conveniently, John lives in the small apartment on the shop’s second level. “Full service, available always,” he laughed.
It comes as no surprise that doing business in a remote Alaskan village has its challenges. “It is tricky,” John confessed. “It definitely takes a lot more planning.”
Freight, for one, is an expensive and slow process. Kake is only accessible by boat or plane, and even those modes of transportation can be extremely limited. From buying groceries to getting supplies and parts, everything has an extra hurdle involved.
One of John’s most used, most versatile pieces of gear is the Sure-Dry Hip Pack. “When I took over, I thought Oh, fanny packs, I don’t know ... but I use the heck out of it!”
“You can wear it on the front side, backside, it’s got wings, so it’s deceivingly big with lots of nooks and crannies to tuck stuff in. It’s a sweet little bag.”
For John, the commitment to quality is what it’s all about. “I’m making a product in the US and paying people a decent wage, using high-quality materials, and making a product I can stand behind.”
“At the end of the day, it’s really rewarding to make something that you can tell somebody cared about when they made it. Customers are looking for that and are really appreciative of it. I take a lot of pride in that. It’s just a good feeling to make good stuff.”