PUBLISHED: 7:04 PM on Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Sole of Alaska - the XTRATUF story
JUNEAU - Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho looks at boot colors when he travels. Most boots he sees in eastern Russia, for example, are black. But when he sees the "clay red" color of XTRATUFs, he knows he's back in Southeast Alaska. Take a walk on the docks, trails or downtown streets and you'll see people of all ages and walks of life sporting identical footwear.

"XTRATUFs are kind of issued to all babies born in Juneau, though it's not an announced policy of Bartlett (Regional Hospital)," Botelho said.

  Cover illustration by Anna Millard

XTRATUF fashion modeling andphotography by Joel Irwin, Gretchen Bucki and

Katie Spielberger

High-heel XTRATUF photo courtesy of Honeywell Safety Products

Those who represent Southeast Alaskans acknowledge the importance of the XTRATUF to their constituents.

Above the desk of Sen. Kim Elton hangs a print by Charity Green entitled "Shoes for Two Jobs" - a pair of black dress shoes sits next to a pair of unlabeled boots clearly recognizable as XTRATUFs.

"We all wear them," said Rep. Beth Kerttula. "I get mine a couple sizes too big so I can put in an extra warm sock. I have the plain brown model and I wear them all the time, but (Gov.) Sarah Palin has a really great pair of (decorated) XTRATUFs that I admire."

Kerttula doesn't usually wear XTRATUFs to session, but she notices a number of state legislators who regularly sport the boots.

Even a recent Miss USA candidate from Alaska strove to represent her state at the Las Vegas competition: she requested a special high-heel pair of XTRATUFs to wear in the evening gown contest.

Buying a pair of the boots is almost a rite of passage for new Southeast residents. And XTRATUFs can be worn with anything - at least around here. In, say, Illinois, a casual XTRATUF-wearer on the street might feel out of place.

The boots are manufactured in Illinois in town about the size of Juneau called Rock Island. But how did a boot made in Illinois become the unofficial footwear for Alaska's coastal towns?

  Business - female

  Business - male

  Carhartts - female

  Carhartts - male

  Sleepwear - female

  Sleepwear - male

  Athletic - female

  Athletic - male

  Clubbing - female

  Clubbing - male
Rock Island rubber

B.F. Goodrich first commissioned Norcross Safety Products to manufacture the XTRATUF in a factory in Rock Island, Illinois in the 1950's. Norcross bought the brand from Goodrich in 1985. This May, Honeywell Safety Products acquired Norcross and the XTRATUF brand.

The owner of the brand has changed over the years but the manufacturer has stayed the same, said Arlen Stensrud, Vice President of Marketing for Norcross.

Stensrud has watched the product for decades, as he has worked in Norcross's marketing department for 18 years and previously was a partner in an advertising agency that worked for Norcross for many years. He certainly would have noticed any changes in the product over the years - if there had been any.

"It has not changed at all," Stensrud said. "We've very conscientiously not changed the product because of the tradition that's there and the high customer satisfaction with the product. We have (always) been the manufacturer, and nothing in the process, nothing in the materials has changed at all."

The boot was originally designed for commercial fisherman. The Chevron outsole is slip-resistant on boat decks, and the neoprene lining keeps fish oils from penetrating through the rubber.

"Regular every day rubber does not have very good resistance to fish oils," Stensrud said. "Neoprene holds up very well to all of that nasty stuff. In the fish processing world, it was a very popular product."

Stensrud estimates that Norcross manufactures around 100,000 pairs a year, at least a third of which end up in Alaska. Xtratufs are also sold in Washington, Oregon and a few places in California, but that's it.

"The only other people that I run into in other parts of the country who have experience with XTRATUF are people who have visited Alaska," Stensrud said.

Norcross makes similar boots designed for other industries. XTRATUF-like boots with different outsoles were designed for poultry processors in the Midwest and petroleum industry workers on the Gulf Coast.

The "Made in USA" on XTRATUF boots is significant: Norcross is the last remaining rubber footwear manufacturer in North America. All other rubber boots are imported.

Additionally, all Norcross products are union-made.

The brand loyalty to XTRATUFs keeps the boots competitive in a market full of inexpensive rubber boots from overseas.

"There are people who are still loyal to a 'Made in USA' product," Stensrud said.

Then there's brand loyalty, to boot.

More than a fad

To explain how this loyalty could have developed, Stensrud referred to Malcolm Gladwell's book, "The Tipping Point," in which consumer trends are compared to epidemics. The XTRATUF craze first infected the commercial fishing industry, then spread to land.

"The origin of the boot is in commercial fishing," Stensrud said. "It gravitated then to the everyday costumer because it's a waterproof product (and) easy to wear. It became, quite by accident, a consumer product."

Ron Flint, manager of the Nugget Alaskan Outfitter, has been selling XTRATUFs for at least three decades and has been wearing the boots as long as he can remember.

"I think I might have been born with them on," he said.

He's seen the popularity of the boots spread beyond fishermen.

"There's been an elevation from truly a functional item to truly a fashion piece, for some people," Flint said. "It's the only item in the marketplace I haven't seen a substitute for. There are a lot of rubber boots out there but nothing (else) comes close."

Many Alaskans would agree, but you'd have a hard time finding an Atlantic fisherman in 'tufs.

XTRATUF sales representatives have surveyed commercial fishermen all along the East Coast and have not been able to interest them in the brand. The boot of choice on the Atlantic is a different Norcross brand, Servus, which is heftier than the XTRATUF.

"They like the heavier, clunkier rubber in the East Coast," Stensrud said. "People develop in their minds an idea of what a fishing boot is."

Likewise, people living in a rainforest develop an idea of what a rain boot should be. Not everyone in Southeast Alaska is a commercial fisherman, but everyone encounters frequent puddles, mud and slippery surfaces. At some point the lines between function and fashion blur: in Southeast, it may be fashionable to be functional.

"I think (XTRATUFS) just became part of the de facto uniform with the Carhartts brown double-front pants, your XTRATUF boots, your halibut jacket and your Alaskan Brewing baseball cap: your local outfit," Flint said. "You had to pick some kind of footwear to complete the look, and (XTRATUFS) were it. Living in Alaska you need to be practical to a degree."

So, is it possible to be an active Southeast Alaskan without XTRATUFs?

"Not realistically," Flint said. "What amazes me ... is people who tell me, 'I've been here for five or ten years and I don't have a pair,' or 'I just got my first pair,' and I think, 'How is this possible?'"

Theme and variations

There's no choice of color, unless you paint your own, but XTRATUFs do come in a few varieties: there are insulated, steel-toed, 16-inch, 12-inch, children's and sneaker versions. The sneaker was created in response to a XTRATUF seller's request for a "late spring version" for warmer, drier weather.

"He said a number of his customers actually cut the boots down to create that," Stensrud said, "but of course when you do that the opening is huge."

Many XTRATUF-wearers choose the taller boots and roll them down in warm weather. This makes the boots more versatile. On the flip side, it can shorten the boot's life span.

"For someone who doesn't wear them (every day), who just uses them on the weekends, you could probably get three or four years, maybe five," Flint said. "One major factor in that life would be if you roll them down or not. If you roll them down, it creases. Go ahead and do it, you just have to know you're degrading your boots."

Short or tall, insulated or steel-toed, plain or customized, for many Southeast Alaskans, there's no substitute for XTRATUFs.

"Let's just hope they don't stop making them," Flint said.

Not to worry: XTRATUF manufacturers know they've got something good when they regularly receive photos of happy customers with custom painted boots, or XTRATUF-clad wedding parties. The company is one of the sponsors of Sitka's annual "Running of the Boots" and has sponsored an ultimate Frisbee team, which wanted to be called "Team XTRATUF."

"In all my years in the advertising world and now in my marketing position, I've never seen anything quite like the relationship between a person and his or her 'tufs," Stenstrud said.