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Rugged camper may help hone a new facet of Silverton’s high-elevation economy

Campfire conversation sparks Sasquatch Expedition Campers
Sasquatch Expedition Campers co-founder Kass Kremer finishes inspecting a kitchen on a trailer in Silverton on July 26, 2020. (Scott DW Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kass and Beth Kremer and their friend Daryl Magner were soaking up the alpenglow on a pleasant August evening two years ago, lounging around a campfire next to their tent and old Bronco on the back side of Silverton Mountain.

They were happy to be out of COVID-19 lockdown and in the mountains. But they were sad to see all the other backcountry visitors streaming into town at dinnertime; they were going to miss the best part of the day – the outdoor meal, the sunset and the stars.

As they pondered this backcountry exodus, Kass, Beth and Magner did what might not be out of the ordinary for a trio of mechanical and industrial engineers: They started dreaming and scheming about how they could build the perfect backcountry camper.

It would be a camper that would eliminate a barrier to comfortably camping deep and high in the backcountry. Such a camper would have to be rugged enough to make it over the rocks and ruts of 4-wheel-drive roads. It would have to be light enough to be pulled by most SUVs.

Ideally, it would include the conveniences of a bed, a kitchen and plenty of storage for recreational gear.

Sasquatch Expedition Campers founders and owners Beth and Kass Kremer and Daryl Magner with one of their trailers in Silverton. (Scott DW Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Both Kass and Magner had worked in the manufacturing end of oil fields, and Beth had worked as a mechanical engineer. Magner had added experience designing and building race cars. His skillset meant their ideal camper could be made of lightweight aluminum wrapped around a rugged suspension, and with a low center of gravity.

With Beth’s input, the design came to include a rooftop tent option, a large awning, a lot of easily accessible storage and a wow-factor kitchen with space and amenities for gourmet meal prep.

That campfire dream progressed over the next two months to 3D drawings using computer-aided design. Before Christmas, Magner and Kass were building a mockup. By February, they were ordering materials to build the real thing.

“It’s the way my brain rolls,” Kass said. “I have a bias toward action.”

They built two test campers in the Kremers’ Durango garage and then tweaked them after trying them out and having friends and friends of friends test the Sasquatch in the Southwest Colorado mountains.

Handwritten letter nets a high-elevation home

This spring, in an old, long-abandoned mining building on the edge of Silverton, the campfire-dreaming trio, working as Sasquatch Expedition Campers, began producing beefy campers with all the rugged features and bells and whistles they originally fantasized about.

For a remote high mountain town that once teemed with miners but has been manufacturing-challenged in the modern era, this new business is sparking some hope for more diversification. Silverton has masses of tourists who swarm the town every summer and smaller crowds of skiers and other hearty backcountry users who come in winter. But it lacks much in the way of businesses that aren’t tourist reliant.

Venture Snowboards has been handcrafting boards in Silverton since 1999. ScottyBob Skiworks has been making skis there since 2002. And Barz Decorative Hardware has been turning out glass and metal knobs, door knockers and other glass and metal gewgaws for more than 20 years.

Sasquatch was able to locate in Silverton with the $20,000 financial boost from Rural Jumpstart grants and Opportunity Zone tax incentives. It also required some serendipity. Finding a light-industrial building to rent in a town seemingly with none available was tricky.

Sasquatch moved into the old Northstar Mine building that hadn’t housed anything to do with mining since the early 1990s. The building had barely been finished back then when the Northstar mining venture went kaput. After that, the building had occasionally served as a sort of base camp for the owners’ visits before it sat empty – and overlooked – for two decades.

“It was a mess for certain. It was dominated and inhabited by rats and mice,” said Silverton builder Bevan Harris, who spent two months readying the building for a new use that he calls “a perfect fit for this community, this terrain and this environment.”

DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, calls the location of the business in Silverton “a borderline miracle.”

“When we discuss diversifying our economy here, the No. 1 impediment we have is not having the needed spaces,” she said.

Sasquatch Expedition Campers team intern Wilder Jensen, Kass Kremer, Beth Kremer and Daryl Magner inspect a trailer in Silverton. (Scott DW Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

She said the Kremers discovered the Northstar after a real estate broker mentioned there was a building on the edge of town that had been abandoned for a long time. The broker had no idea who owned it, so Kass began sleuthing in government records. The only thing he was able to unearth was a P.O. Box in Texas. He sent a handwritten letter to an unknown person at that box laying out Sasquatch’s vision and need for an industrial home. They soon had a rental agreement with the 93-year-old man who received that letter.

And Silverton had its first new light-industrial business in more than a decade, along with three full-time, year-around employees, two interns from Fort Lewis College in Durango – and hopes for more in the future.

Road tested on a mesa above Mancos

To rewind to the beginning of this Silverton serendipity, the Kremers and Magner met when they worked together as engineers in California 12 years ago. Kass and Beth married and moved away and Magner began patenting technologies that he developed. The Kremers and Magner then took off in different directions, working on consulting projects around the world.

The Kremers ended up in Durango with Kass working for StoneAge Inc., a company that manufactures oil field tools. During the pandemic, they invited Magner out for a camping trip. They hadn’t seen each other in eight years.

That’s when Sasquatch was conceived.

Between the CAD phase and actually fabricating the first Sasquatch, the Kremer’s Durango house became Sasquatch central. Magner and Kass would unfurl rolls of butcher paper on the dining room walls as they tweaked heights and locations of components. They stuck together cardboard mockups. Parts and pieces and computers covered the dining room table.

“We lived inside of this idea for a year,” Beth said. “Our house was turned upside down.”

Through all the butcher-paper tweaking, Kass and Magner managed to get the weight of a basic Sasquatch camper down to 1,340 pounds. The poundage climbs to 1,560 when it is loaded with a rooftop tent, an awning and other accouterments.

They also tweaked some finishing touches. Initially, the inside was coated with a petroleum product. They pivoted to a natural rice husk material. They added extra AC electrical units and a queen-sized mattress for the sleep-in model.

Beth, who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall, gave a lot of input that ended up changing cabinet heights, adding more conveniently placed drawers and creating a swing-out prep area for the kitchen.

A friend of the Kremers who tested an early Sasquatch, gave it high marks.

Sasquatch Expedition Campers co-founder Kass Kremer tests the suspension of a trailer in Silverton. (Scott DW Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Durango insurance salesman Brett Swearingen, his wife, and their infant son took a Sasquatch onto a mesa above Mancos in October and were wowed by the electronic food cooler and by the comfort of a heating system on a couple of cold, wind-whipped nights.

“We drove it up a pretty gnarly road. It was super rocky and bumpy and I was thinking, ‘this is what this thing was built for.’ It’s built like it should be in a world war,” Swearingen said.

He said it was also good for bragging rights. ATV drivers would pull over as the Swearingens trundled up the trail with the Sasquatch behind. He said they would point and shout, “How cool is that.”

Sasquatch sighting on Greene Street

Being true engineers, the trio has continued the tweaking since they officially launched Sasquatch this spring. They now have four models and a website where customers can choose everything from colors to coolers to build their own dream Sasquatch online for prices that range from $32,000 to $48,000.

Kass admitted none of it has been easy. Learning how to work out of a tourist town of just over 500 year-around residents that sits at an elevation of 9,318 feet and is sometimes marooned from the outside world by snow in winter, has been “a haul.”

Daryl Magner welds an aluminum structural component for a Sasquatch Expedition trailer in Silverton. (Scott DW Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

But he likes the fact that Sasquatch is in a place where resilience is a necessary part of life.

“I think people connect with our product because of where we are,” he said.

Gallegos said she believes having Sasquatch in town may lead to more outdoor-recreation industry companies considering Silverton. She said she has recently had calls from bicycle companies asking about locating there.

She is honest with them. Manufacturing in Silverton is a “labor of love.” For example, Kass occasionally has to drive to New Mexico to pick up parts for the Sasquatch operation.

Beth has gone to work as the director of the San Juan Development Association in Silverton while doing halftime marketing for Sasquatch. In the former position, she is tasked with enhancing housing and diversification in Silverton. She feels like the whole dream-camper experience has given her expertise that is valuable for anyone looking to move to Silverton.

“I have a unique perspective. I have the mission to recruit companies here, but I can see what that means in actuality,” she said. “I can help identify companies that might be a good fit.”

Sasquatch Expedition Campers co-founders Kass Kremer, left, and Daryl Magner, right, work with Fort Lewis College student Wilder Jensen inspecting and installing the electric system in two trailers. (Scott DW Smith/Special to The Colorado Sun)

One of the benefits of being in Silverton for Sasquatch is high visibility. A Sasquatch camper has been parked on Silverton’s main drag, Greene Street, this summer where it is being raffled off to raise money for the Silverton Family Learning Center. Curious tourists swarm around the unusual-looking camper that looks squat and militaristic until it unfurls into something resembling a metal origami project or a huge Transformer toy.

The tourists might have come to Silverton to see mountains and to steep in the historic mining-town cachet. But the Sasquatch is now right up there as a Silverton tourist magnet.

“It is a major attraction here,” Gallegos said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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