Caitlin Row

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June 14, 2012
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From backpacks to bulletproof vests, a local woman designs it all

Local artist Barbara Wise didn't have a master plan when she designed her first bullet-proof vest. Carving out a niche market within the law enforcement world just happened organically.

"Twenty-five years ago, I was a single mom and a dental assistant by trade," she said.

Now Barbara, with the help of her son, Eric Wise, produces up to 700 ballistic-paneled vests (plus accessories) yearly as part of their family business, Turtle Tracks Designs. Her high-quality creations are used by a variety of public servants - police officers, the U.S. military and even Bureau of Land Management rangers.

"I appreciate the job that the military and law enforcement officers do for us," Barbara said. "So if I can do a little bit to make (their) job easier, then I'll do it."

Vests and accessories are customized for specific fits, styles, colors and uniform standards. And ballistic panels must be provided by those seeking customized gear.

"We're trying to give them a more comfortable way to wear their gear," Barbara said. "Officers carry lots of items, and all that has to go on their belts. Now, you can take some of your gear and put it on your vest instead of your belt."

About 350 vests are "on order all the time" from around the country, Barbara said. Items are even ordered from more distant locations - Australia and Puerto Rico most recently.

According to Barbara, her foray into ballistic-paneled vests started as a side business more than two decades ago. She was designing and producing custom outdoor gear in Anchorage, when a police officer asked her for help.

"There had been a shooting, and it became a requirement for officers to wear ballistic panels," she said. "He told me what he wanted, I made it for him, and it was approved by the Anchorage PD."

Her side business didn't take over for years, however. Barbara said she worked two jobs for quite a while, until orders reached a certain threshold.

Turtle Tracks Designs grew the old-fashioned way, she added - by word of mouth and increased visibility. BLM agents across the country currently wear her products, and Turtle Tracks vests are also worn on the Discovery Channel's "Alaska State Troopers" television show.

Eric came on board to assist his mother when the phones at Turtle Tracks "wouldn't stop ringing," he said. He now manages administrative functions for the small business.

Barbara's interests, and her business, go far beyond bullet-proof vests. To keep her days new and fresh, she also designs and produces motorcycle bags, women's jackets, caplets, backpacks, concealed-carry purses, bowls, pens, barrettes, painted scarves and tapestries. A self-taught seamstress and artist, Barbara said she's constantly problem-solving when conceptualizing new projects.

"We're always striving to do something new and different," Barbara said.

Her studio below the store is in constant flux - it's filled with colorful cloth, glass pieces, tools, and a variety of art supplies. She does it all down there, from scarf painting to vest fittings.

"It's all about having the right equipment," she said.

Eric, also an artist, works in wood, metal and glass etchings. He also produces chain-mail jewelry. Items from both artists are available in their new store - Turtle Creek Gifts - on downtown Main Street.

Law enforcement items aren't sold in the store - vests and accessories are designed for individual use though a detailed ordering process.

While their business isn't new, it's new to Grand Junction, Barbara noted. After spending 35 years in Anchorage, Alaska, the Wise family moved to Colorado seven months ago - mainly to have better access the lower 48 states.

Traveling from Alaska was difficult and time-consuming, Barbara said. So, her family began searching for a new location. It had to be a mid-sized town with mountains, an airport, and "all the necessary amenities."

"Grand Junction was that happy medium," she said. "It has a good feel."

For more information about Turtle Tracks Design, visit or call 970-628-1052. Turtle Creek Gifts is located at 326 Main St.

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The Post Independent Updated Jun 14, 2012 07:30PM Published Jun 14, 2012 06:04PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.