Explorer Will Steger remembered the “emergency mukluks” before his epic expeditions.

Camping guru Cliff Jacobson recalled a custom-made, multi-colored tarp that caught the attention of a rescue plane in remote Saskatchewan.

Well-known Minnesota outdoor enthusiasts like Steger and Jacobson, and everyday people who used and appreciated Dan Cooke’s gear and called him a friend, look back this week on his spirit of adventure, kindness and gift for designing exceptional products.

Cooke, 68, died Monday of brain cancer. He lived in Lino Lakes, where he ran Cooke Custom Sewing out of his home, making items like canoe spray skirts and sails that some considered essential for a paddling or camping trip. For his fans, there were his products, and everything else came a distant second.

Steger said he and Cooke collaborated on designs through iterations of drawings and doodles beginning in 1988. Some of that work happened during Steger’s visits to Lino Lakes, where Cooke and his wife, Karen, ran their sewing business out of their basement after moving up north. Karen died of ovarian cancer in 2018. Nothing could faze Cooke, Steger added.

“He was a kind soul and generous,” Steger said Tuesday. “And a genius.”

Cooke was a household name in the canoe world, producing innovative packs and canoe covers, for example, and talking to fans at shows like Canoecopia in Madison, Wisconsin, or Midwest Mountaineering expos. He said in an interview a few years ago that He was the ultimate field tester before his products hit the market.

“I make them for myself,” Cooke said. “If they work for me, I’m happy to share them with others.”

His children said in a Facebook post after his death that their father had plenty of opportunities to test his mettle — he was always planning his next trip: “He loved being outdoors, so much so that if he couldn’t get away, you’d find him in the backyard in the middle of winter pitching a tent. In his last few years, he enjoyed time spent canoeing rivers in Alaska, kayaking in Antarctica, climbing Kilimanjaro, exploring Iceland, and visiting family in the U.S.

That spirit also ran deep in the Minnesota wilderness. Jason Zabokrtsky, owner and manager of Ely Outfitting Co., met Cooke in 1997 when they both led trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for Adventurous Christians children’s camp on the Gunflint Trail.

Zabokrtsky now gives his customers backpacks designed and made on the computer by Cooke.

“It’s so hard to find something so simple and yet so extraordinary,” he said of Cooke’s backpacks. “They wear like steel. Superbomber. So much design, so much thought, so much understanding put into it.”

Zabokrtsky laughed at the memory of Cooke’s home workspace — a “Santa’s workshop” filled with fabrics and custom parts — that belied the final product: meticulous detail and even refinements with consistent quality.

“He knew how people were using them. He was part of the user community and he … talked to all of us all the time,” Zabokrtsky said. For example, the outfitter recalled that Cooke added bright red handles to the pack when he heard people were picking up their packs by the compression straps.

Jacobson, who is also highly regarded in the paddling community and a popular guidebook writer, said Cooke came up with longer flaps on canoe packs to keep gear dry.

“Some people think expertise is how many trips you’ve been on and how far off the beaten path you’ve gone. Expertise is thinking critically about what’s happening every time you go on a trip, and that’s what Dan was doing,” Jacobson said. “‘How can I make camping better? How can I make paddling better?’”

The seasoned outdoorsman longed for more time with Cooke, his longtime friend and collaborator.

“I wanted to sail more rivers with Dan.”

Cooke’s son Nate told the Star Tribune that the outpouring of condolences online and elsewhere has been comforting.

“It feels like a new fair when all of Dan’s friends come by to say hello,” he says.

Plans are underway for a public service in August at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, where Cooke taught people to canoe.

Nate Cooke is also preparing to continue the business he helped his father build.

“For me, these are very big shoes to step into.”