Ever imagine what the evolutionary jump felt like between crossing a river bear-hugging a floating log and that first inaugural voyage in a dug out tree trunk? Imagine then the resourceful person who took it one step further – fashioning a “floating tree trunk” where there were no trees? Who developed the idea of making a frame that would function as that tree trunk? Was the idea to cover it in the skin of an animal or the bark of a tree a concurring mental event? Or did one precipitate the other? In any event the evolutionary stages that took us from clinging to flotsam in a river to constructing and commanding a floating vessel is truly a remarkable feat.
Mankind has developed four types of skin boats in the past umpteen thousand years s/he’s been in a “tool /building” stage. In probable order of development are the: oracle, umiak, canoe, and kayak. Because of their frailty, there are few, if any early, ancient examples of skin boats. Frames and skins just don’t last. What do last, however, are cave drawings, etchings on pottery and in rare cases, accurate models of boats (toys perhaps?) of vessels presumably used during that artisan’s life. The earliest example of a kayak is a small model tested to be about 5,000 years old. It was simply a spindle-shaped frame with what looks like two sealskins pulled tightly over it.
Here’s a brief rundown of each of the four types of skin boats Man has created; vessels whose service to Mankind is still evident today in many parts of the world.
The coracle is basically a bowl-shaped craft used primarily to cross small rivers or to negotiate ponds and smaller lakes. The frame can be constructed so as to provide a seat for the passenger. Propulsion is usually a long pushpole, but also a paddle. Coracles come in a variety of sizes but most often four-six feet wide and usually about half their width in height.
The frame is built in the form of a rounded box/bowl shape with cross ribs lashed together. The skins are wrapped around the outside and pulled tightly up to or over the circular gunwale/rim around the top. Cross pieces secured to the frame provided seat support.
The coracle was widely used throughout northern Europe and the Mid East. I’ve also seen footage of them being used in Africa. Many third-world countries still use a coracle type of vessel today.
This is the tradition skiff-shaped boat most often seen on shore in whaling villages. They come in all sizes, from 3-4-person size up to giant boats used for hunting whale. Historically the women of the village paddled the umiak when it was put into service except when it was being used for hunting – at which time only men operated the vessel.
In some Alaskan coastal communities even today, umiak style boats can be seen as the main freighter boats in a village – hauling materials, making deliveries, and such. Built with a tapered bow and stern, the umiak is an open-framed boat. Twenty-four-man umiaks, over twenty feet long and weighing a ton, were a common sight along the coastline of sub Arctic North America for hundreds of years.
During a brief visit to the remote Pribilof Islands in the North Pacific of Alaska I saw a well-worn umiak – about 18 feet long – braced against a warehouse down by a ramp leading into the ocean. Upon inquiry I was told that during rough seas, that particular umiak was used by a crew of five or six men to unload supply vessels that couldn’t get past the breakwater. A week earlier they had gone out in rough seas to take delivery of a washing machine from a large fishing boat.
Models of these boats were popular items in pre-historic areas of the far northern hemisphere. Kayaks carved of fossilized whale, walrus ivory, stone and even some of wood are displayed in museums around the world. An easy form to carve, models do reflect the lifestyle of the representative groups by the detail cut into individual boats. Unlike their real-life counterparts, these small replicas made of bone, ivory or stone lasted much longer than did the wooden frames and skins so researchers base much of their pre-historic knowledge on such models.
The uniqueness of the kayak is that there is no other craft that looks anything like it, nor was concurrently developed in any other part of the world. It could be argued that the skin or bark canoe and dugouts of the Pacific Northwest and others around the world follow a basic design concept. The kayak with its closed deck and cockpit configuration is quite unique.
From birch bark to wood strip to a brilliant shine of aluminum and modern composites, the canoe is clearly respected as a North American frontier icon. I have always thought it incredibly ingenious of the Native Americans to develop the birch bark canoe. It’s classic lines and the ingenuity of piecing the bark together and forming a waterproof seam has to be one of the greater natural technological feats of early mankind. Interestingly enough, the “canoes” of the inland waterways of Alaska are strikingly similar in appearance to the coastal kayaks – same basic hull design, but without a covered deck.
Like the umiak of the far north, the canoe’s history is one of massive vessels maneuvered by large crews and carrying enormous weights. They were the semi trucks of early America. Eastern North America is criss-crossed with old Voyageur routes that weave down through Canada or out of the Great Lakes as intrepid, nomadic-like frontiersmen used rivers and lakes long before roads were even being formed as foot trails.
Modernization of freight and passenger hauling replaced the canoe in the twentieth century. Fortunately the love of the craft shifted its appeal from a workhorse to a play boat. Even more important is the fact that there are those who have preserved the art of skin boat building, both in kayaks and canoes, some even using the materials of yesteryear to maintain a pure sense of the boats everlasting appeal.
Lithographs from the late 1700’s show kayaks braced in tandem as they got ready to haul in ‘barndoor’ halibut. Fish hooks in museums are sometimes as large as the hoist hook on a loading dock! Fishing was serious business for the coastal native and every means available was used to make sure that “fishing” resulted in “catching!”
Russian monks made lithographs of scenes they witnessed in Alaska such as this double and single kayak braced together to haul up a huge halibut.
Most historians, while they don’t come completely together on what specifically was used, all agree that the key to hunting/fishing for whales and other large sea mammals was the use of poisoned hunting tips. The general consensus suggests that a variety of the poisonous monkshood plant was used – its roots known to be fatally harmful to the nervous system.
Large sea mammals were slowed down and eventually killed with arrow and spear tips loaded with poisons.
The hunter’s target was the flipper on a whale as this caused a disruption in the nervous system that prevented the whale from diving, maintaining equilibrium and eventually succumbing as the poison spread throughout its body. After about three days, the dead or dying whales would wash up on shore – another successful “fishing” experience for the village.
Arrows and spears were identified by personal markings. The one closest to the heart of the beast was credited with the kill.
The use of poisons is loosely documented throughout the entire Pacific Rim region. Some cultures would corral whales in a landlocked bay and disperse poison throughout the entrance of the bay. They would then chase the whales through the narrow, poison-drenched openings and wait for it to take affect.
One of the ceremonial aspects used by native kayak fisherman included one of a mystical nature. It was common to place the corpse of elders of esteem in small caves high in the rock cliffs above villages. The dry Arctic air “mummified” the bodies such that they remain preserved for hundreds of years or more. Included in this hierarchy of elders were the great whale captains of the village. A ritual loosely referred to in several historic texts describes whale hunters taking a mummified captain’s body and placing it in a shallow pool of fresh water. Each of the hunter/fishermen then sipped the “tea” from the pool to gain the essence of the worshipped elder. Thankfully some historic fishing traditions have not endured.
(This article was originally published as Notes on building a baidarka* – From the Journal of Bobby Stamp in the October, 2012 issue of Sea Kayaker magazine) Bobby Stamp offered me his manuscript with the expressed intent of using it to write an article about his knowledge of kayak building in Bobby’s own, unaltered words.
In the late 1980’s Kodiak Island experienced a renaissance in native culture that included the revival of native songs, dance, art, language and traditional methods of kayak building. Interest in these areas was widespread—far beyond Alaska—all the way to the Smithsonian Institute that led to the Kayaks From Antiquities Conference in Kodiak in 1989, where nationally recognized kayak scholars offered their latest findings regarding the historical and cultural development of kayak building throughout the North Pacific Rim area.
The interest expressed in kayak building encouraged several Alaska natives to share their personal knowledge of kayak construction—information that, for the most part, corroborated the work of the scholars, but more importantly added insights and first-hand experience about day-to-day kayak building from the 19th century, forward.
Bobby often made presentations at local kayak classes in Kodiak and offered his personal recollections of watching family members and other villagers build kayaks. In the booklet he recorded his perspective, describing through text and sketches many traditional techniques of kayak building he had seen in his youth in the Prince William Sound area. His intent was to write a book on his recollections of the construction of a three-holed baidarka. The book was never published. I had several discussions with Bobby at numerous kayak-building classes and other native cultural events in Kodiak; he was always eager to talk about what he knew about kayak building. He had the stature of a typical coastal Alaska native—short and stout, round faced with a cherubic smile. His hands were deformed by arthritis. Anthropologists would classify Bobby as a Pacific Eskimo but he didn’t like that term. In his notes he refers to himself as an “Aluitice.” I am privileged to have one of the very few copies of his book notes. The following quotations (in italics) and sketches come from those notes.
“I hope you can read my writing I share with you of what I seen an know of a Prince William Sound Aluitic bidarka*—building a three hole Bidarka, this just as I seen it.” – Bobby Stamp, Kodiak, circa 1995.
NOTE: *”Aluitic” and “bidarka” are Bobby’s spellings. The correct spelling of the Prince William Sound and Kodiak natives is Alutiiq. In his notes he writes, “ ‘bi’ means two in Russian I heard, and “darka” means ‘little boat,’ two holed boat.” However, the common correct spelling and translation is baidarka (or baidarki), where “baidar” is Russian for boat and the suffix “ka” means “little.” Hence, baidarka means little boat. Bobby says the term in his language (Pacific Eskimo) for a single-holed boat is kie yuk*.
The Bow-Both functionally as the forward connecting point for the entire framework of the kayak and aesthetically as a defining design feature, the prow of the native kayak is perhaps its most significant feature. The prows were fashioned from a curved section of wood in which the grain followed the curve of the bow thereby providing the strongest resistance to breakage. The value of such a piece of wood, according to entries in journals by Russian scribes, was equal in trade to two slaves. Stealing a prow piece was punishable by death.
“The bow stem is called ‘noo-jew-wick.’ Translation: Place where you grab and pull. The bow was made from a natural crook, the stump part of a tree you either got from along the shore, or you went and dug it up. The stern was also cut, only smaller.
The bow piece you would cut out going by our measurements three inches wide, or three thumbs wide. When I was growing up we had old crosscut saws, and you’d saw the piece out. I also saw them hewn out with an axe. You drew the shape of the bow stem on the flat piece, and then you start carving them out. This was done at a trapping or hunting camp when the weather did not permit you to travel.”
The Frame – Native builders often made their tools from natural and available materials before they would build a kayak. Bobby’s notes offer several detailed descriptions of various tools and how they were created.
“Pooey yoon—‘tool to make things with’—were tempered in cold water, learned from the Russians I guess …We did not have sandpaper so they used broken glass. Break glass and you get a sharp edge and after a paddle was hewn you painstakingly scraped it with the glass—it was like shaving.”
It took several bundles of ribs and stringers to make a Pacific Rim kayak frame. “There are 67 pieces, I counted,” writes Bobby. He goes on to describe the various wood species and techniques used to prepare pieces for construction of the frame.
“The gunwales were made from small spruce trees, they got them from windy points or where the trees were exposed and the wind blew them back and forth. They said the trees were more limber.
“The ribs were from a big spruce tree—you split up the grain of the wood so it was crossed with the width of the ribs—you split them out then rounded them so they were flat and rounded on each side.
“You measure the gunwales first while they are side by side—you get the width—the holes for the ribs are drilled before you start to shape it, also for the cross pieces the holes for the ribs and the cross pieces were oblong.
“The long stringers were from hemlock—it split better than spruces and was harder.”
Bobby also mentions techniques applied during the preparation process.
“I saw pitch from spruce trees put in the holes that were burned to keep from splitting I think.” Holes were burned into the wood instead of drilled with a metal bit. “If you were going to put the rib in you would soak them in the bay—whittled to size, bundled, weighted, tied together and sunk in the sea for a couple of days in deep water. The pressure soaked the rib so they are real flexible.”
The Cockpit – Pacific Rim kayakers did not sit in their kayaks, but paddled from a kneeling position. Bobby says this affected the size of the cockpits and the depth of the kayak from the coaming to the keel, finding “the shape and the depth by measuring your beltline—you’d measure from top of your hip bone to the bottom (keel). Bear or goat skin, 4-by-3 feet, was put under you when you were traveling. It also acted as a mat while sleeping.” Kayakers straddled a blanket, ” a homemade quilt you rolled up and tied….it took pressure off your knees.”
The Skin – “Nung oo Tuck” [The seal skin used for baidarka]—we would use female seal because the big bulls were usually scarred up and the hide was thicker, and it did not stretch as much.
“First we would cut the fat off leaving it half an inch thick, then we would dip it in hot water—the same process you would [on] a hog. You did this in the spring or summer when the weather was warm, we would get moss that hang on trees and [made] a hole and placed the seal hide wrapped up with the moss, and would keep it there for about a week and then when it was taken out and the hair would fall off. It had a rancid smell.
Then it was taken out and air dried and later smoked and when you got ready to use them, you soaked the skin in sea water for 10 to 14 days—changing the water frequently. And then you cut holes on the edge of each skin an inch apart and a quarter-inch from the edge and you laced it on a stretcher or around the stretcher and poured warm sea water on it. At first you scraped the fleshy side of the skin, and kept on scraping and each time you would take up on the laces until the skin was clean.” Once processed, the skins were rolled up and kept moist until used to cover the kayak. “I’ve seen the skin stored in a smoke house for four years.”
“The sinew came from the back section of the porpoise. You skinned the porpoise—the fat came off of the porpoise with it—rubber-like skin—the sinew was exposed. You cut each strip out and then you soaked it in sea water for a couple of days—then you used a scraper and scraped all of the flesh off of it and dried it—stretched, lay out on board. They were strips about 2 1/2 feet long. Then you stored them in an airtight bag that was made out of bear intestine. When you got ready to use it you pounded on it and pulled it apart and the women would roll the fibers of sinew into thread. I watched them—they would keep wetting it with the saliva from their mouth, then they’d roll it in little coils.”
(Top) Waterproof stitching was used to join pieces of seal skin. (Bottom)Once skin was pulled tightly over frame, gap was sewn shut making a waterproof shell over frame (Bottom).
Seal Oil – Like other resources, the seal was utilized to its fullest. Its oil was used to waterproof the kayak skin. “When we built bidarkas we poured oil in to them and at least once a year they were anchored out and sunk. The skin was scrapped and rubbed with seal oil, and more poured into it and sloshed around—the wood got treated that way. If you know anything about seal oil it smells—it really sticks to things—wood, also.
“Just to those that are not familiar with the odor or smell I wonder what I smell like after three weeks of seal hunting, and dressed in the same clothes—like an old billy goat, I guess.”
Bobby writes that after the kayaks were treated with seal oil they were “turned upside down and kept on a stand high enough so that the dogs would not get to it.”
Bobby also describes a two-piece cockpit cover: “Around the hole they had two pieces of seal rawhide—the first one was on permanent, but the other one was made so you could snap it on and take it off—it had a piece of wood that…was about an inch and a half long,” spindle-shaped and hooked through a loop on the seal skin flap.
Remnants of the sealskin used to cover the frame were saved and used as a repair kit. “If you had to patch your bidarka you used some of it,” wrote Bobby.
Other gear carried as standard equipment in the kayaks is similar to that used by paddlers today. “You also had a piece of rope maybe 20 feet long just in case you had to tow the bidarka or anchor it. Didn’t have no containers so dried seal stomachs were used to carry seal oil but it was on its way out when I was growing up.
“Each hunter had his own knife, I saw all kinds of them—I guess whatever that was available—and tried to have a spare. It was on deck most of the time, fit into a wooden case. I didn’t see any attached to the belt but saw them with a strap that fit around the neck.”
“Each had a sack with drawstring on it—some were waterproof but most of them had a waterproof sewing—you kept spare matches in it wrapped in intestines.
Kayakers” had couple of bags that were made out of cloth or flour sack, they also had draw string on them, one was for bulk stuff you carried and the other for sugar, tea, salt, and bread, couple of cups and two spoons.”
* * *
By the late 1990’s Bobby had faded from the Kodiak kayak scene and those who had worked with him lost contact. It was generally believed that Bobby’s health began to fail and he was thought to have moved to Anchorage for treatment at the Alaska Native Hospital. Inquiries there and to the Chenega Bay Village Council failed to reveal any more information.
Unfortunately we have as much information about Bobby as we are likely to find. Those who last saw him reported that he had been in poor health and there is little doubt that he has passed away. His notes, until now, have never been published. In a note in his booklet he mentioned plans to make a video, but that project, too, went undone.
Bobby’s notes, even in their rough-draft form, provide a first-hand look at the traditional methods of building and using a kayak.
The skin-boat culture that once flourished in Alaska gave way to modern boats and materials but Bobby’s wealth of boyhood memories of kayak building along the coast of Prince William Sound is a lasting legacy and tribute to the traditions and techniques of the kayak builders of antiquity
*NOTE: It is my personal feeling that using the term “baidarka” to describe a native kayak is an injustice towards their culture. It’s simply the Russian term for a ‘small boat’. You often see a kayak described as being the Aleutian Baidarka design. It was merely the most common style of a particular region forced into use by the Russian fur hunters at the time. To give it a Russian name to be used to define thousands of years of innovative designs is an insult to the Native culture. Would you give a traditional item created by the Jewish people a NAZI name (Yes, early Russians were brutal, murderous invaders) ? I don’t think so!
Several thousand years before the creation of coated nylon, Gore-Tex™, neoprene and Cordura™ even before waxed cotton, the Inuit culture of the circumpolar regions of the Arctic were working with waterproof materials to create garments that would protect their wearers against harsh maritime environments. Marine mammals and land animals provided not only food but also materials for shelter, tools and clothing. Many birds were also sources of feathers and skin that could be used both decoratively and functionally to produce clothing. The wardrobe of the ancient kayaker was literally a showcase of the animal life with which they shared their harsh environment.
The makers of kayak clothing relied on natural materials for weatherproofing and insulating materials. They often matched the characteristics of a specific hide to the specific requirements of the garment made with it. The slick water- shedding capabilities of seal fur, for example, to be used as the exposed surface of a kayak spray skirt while kayaking.
One of the most common pieces of outer clothing throughout the northern regions was the kamleika – a lightweight, waterproof parka. Made from the intestines of either sea mammals or bears, the kamleika was worn over insulating layers for warmth.
Under-layer garments were most commonly made of caribou hides, processed with the hair intact. A kayaker could wear a caribou coat with the hair outside to shed rain, or inside to insulate against the cold. To keep the coat from becoming saturated from prolonged spray or rain, the kayaker would often wear the light, waterproof kamleika while on the water.
One ingenious application during the sewing of a seal or bear intestine kamleika was the addition of tuffs of caribou hair sewn in at close intervals along each horizontal seam around the torso as well as down each sleeve on the outside of the waterproof shell. As water flowed along the surface of the parka, it was wicked away from the seams by the tuffs of hair.
While the Arctic peoples have understood and taken advantage of the properties of natural materials for centuries, only recently has modern technology revealed their advantageous structure. Caribou hairs – both their surface network of hexagonal-shaped cusps with scale-like edges and cross-sectional interior that looks like bubble wrap – makes them an unbeatable insulating fiber.
For their water-shedding properties, the hairs of the seal are unsurpassed. Unlike most hairs that have a circular round shaft, seal hairs are flat oval. This creates a low profile. The surface of seal hair has fine scales that cause water to flow in one direction along the length of the shaft–so that it is shed instead of absorbed in the spaces between the hairs. The shape and the surface texture of the hairs make seal pelts especially suitable for making rain gear.
The long, hose-like intestines of mammals, when processed and dried, have the texture and translucency of parchment paper, but are completely waterproof. In Sinews of Survival – the Living Legacy of Inuit Clothing, author Betty Kabayashi-Issenman says Inuit garment makers preferred the intestines of the ringed seal (nattiq) for making waterproof clothing. Edna Wilder, author of Secrets of Eskimo Sewing, writes that a seamstress could fashion a complete waterproof parka from the upper portion of the intestine of a bearded seal (ugjuk or oogruk) from which a seamstress could fashion one complete waterproof parka.
The term oogruk is also used to refer to the windpipe of a seal. Kept in its tube form, the treated esophagus remains soft and flexible and is sewn around the outer edge of the parka hood to serves as a sleeve for a drawstring. The hood opening can then be drawn snuggly around the face of the paddler, keeping the rest of his head and upper body safely sealed from the elements.
Whales were also a source of material for parkas. The skin from the tongue of just one whale (species not cited) could be made into eight kamleikas. Those kamleikas were probably made when other sources were scarce as the material derived from whale tongue were said to be heavy and tore easily. Sinew was used as thread for sewing. The sinew from narwhals was preferred for its length and strength.
In the southern reaches of the sub Arctic or Northern Pacific Rim [specify where. The Pacific Rim goes to Australia and Chile], fish skins were made into kamleikas designed to fit over bird-skin parkas. (Fish skins require more preparation time than those of mammals).
When worn as an outer garment, a parka made of bird skins was very effective at shedding water too. Lightweight and reversible, these waterproof garments were made from a wide variety of birds including loons, cormorants, puffins and murres – all diving birds. It could take upwards of 140 cormorant throat skins to make one parka – but only 20 full body skins from murres. The average bird skin parka lasted three or four years compared to the common gut parkas that had to be replaced two or three times each summer.
For the Aleuts bear intestine was the most prized and delicate of materials for making kamleikas. The material was often obtained through trade with visitors from the mainland.
On Kodiak Island, kayakers used the intestines only from bears killed in the spring. Bears taken during autumn salmon runs usually had tiny holes in their intestinal walls. Needle-sharp salmon bones did the damage. The holes would heal during the winter and by spring time the intestine walls would be waterproof when used to make a kamleika.
Greenland garment makers used different resources based upon regional availability. Southern paddlers made a hooded bird-skin parkas (timiak) with the feathers turned inward. Instead of a kamleika, they wore anoraks made of cotton.
Other garments included sealskin trousers and footwear comprised of an inner fur-skinned sock, a straw or bladder sedge liner and an outer watertight hide. East Greenland paddlers used parkas made of seal skin while North Greenlanders used parkas made of both seal and reindeer/caribou skin.
Another paddling garment used among kayakers in the circumpolar region was a half jacket— an akuilisak. Looking like a modern spray skirt torso sans decking apron, the torso tube had two shoulder thongs that could be adjusted to fit. [The hem of the bottom of the akuilisak fit over the diminutive kayak cockpit coaming typical of the area’s kayak.]
The akuilisak was usually used with two separate sleeves that were secured with thongs at the shoulders and the wrists. This three-piece paddling ensemble could be carried in the kayak and used during fair weather to protect against spray as needed. I presume it fit over the coaming but neither the illustration I found nor the text mentioned that directly. I was under the impression that it was merely a shell to keep torso dry.
None of the garments made from these natural materials would have been waterproof if it weren’t for the nature of the seams used to join them and the skill of the women whose role it was do all the skin sewing in a village – from clothing to kayak coverings.
Thread was made from a number of materials, often sinew but also skin. In Greenland however, the skin of the bearded seal was so prized for making harpoon line that it’s skin was cut into fine strips for sewing clothing only when bearded seals were abundant and readily available.
Only a few basic stitches, alone or in combination with others, were used to connect pieces, finish edges or strength sections. Running stitches were combined with overcast and ladder stitches to add a double-thread of security and waterproofing of exposed seams. Often used on kayak skins as well as outer garments, a special application of the running stitch was to use the needle to thread the sinew only through half of the material being sewn, pushing the needle through one side and not piercing through it. The “buried” sinew secured the layers together while maintaining the integrity of an outer surface.
Another method of making a watertight seam was to lay a shaft of grass or strand of sinew lengthwise between the folded edges of two skins being sewn together. When the sewing sinew was pulled tight, it squeezed the folds down along the shaft or strand creating an O-ring effect to inhibit the flow of water through the seam.
Kayaks seams were made watertight using many of the same techniques and methods used in the sewing of clothing. Seal skins used to cover a kayak had a coat of seal oil applied to the entire boat to add to the waterproofing. The oiling could be repeated as needed throughout the season. Skins were removed from the kayaks frames for the winter; the skin was oiled and stowed away until the following spring when they were sewn back onto the frame. A side note: kayaks in early photos are seen up on racks – storing up high kept the village dogs and presumable other creatures from gnawing at the oil-flavored skin.
The ingenuity of the ancient kayakers of the Arctic regions of the northern hemisphere, manifested in the functional quality of their boats, is further enhanced by the resourcefulness of the waterproofing techniques they developed.
Arctic Clothing, edited by: J.C.H. King, Birgit Pauksztat, Robert Storrie
Eskimo Life, by Fridtjof Nansen
Secrets of Eskimo Sewing, by Edna Wilder
Sinews of Survival – The Living Legacy of Inuit Clothing, by Betty Kabayashi-Issenman
Interior of double kayak hanging upside down in BaranovMuseum in Kodiak, Alaska.
Imagine kayaking in the unforgiving North Pacific Ocean, where on even a warm day, the water temperature rarely gets above fifty degrees? Imagine paddling without the luxury of neoprene, coated nylon or synthetic fabric of any kind? Imagine wearing paddling clothing without being able to secure seams and flaps with a zipper, buttons, snaps or hook/loop closure strips? Yet, with seemingly crude and environmentally vulnerable garments and gear, the ancestors of modern kayaking plied the sub Arctic waters of the Pacific Rim for thousands of years.
Many authentic articles of Native clothing have been preserved in collections gathered during expeditions to Alaska made throughout the 19th century. The Finish-funded Etholen expedition, for example, brought back to Europe hundreds of articles of newly made clothing, accessory apparel and equipment used by the indigenous people of Alaska. Many of those articles were directly related to kayaking – a major activity in the lifestyle of the coastal villages.
Articles of clothing were newly made, hardly worn and therefore in excellent condition – a level of quality preserved today and available for study. Some kayaks were also collected but a large majority of information on pre-historic kayak design comes from carved models made of stone or bone – some revealing intricate detail and hints of construction techniques. In some models, details on paddling garments were likewise detailed by some artisans.
More descriptions of what was worn by kayakers come from the daily journals written by Russian Orthodox priests who were members of the great Russian sea otter exploitations in the 18th and 19th century. Fairly thorough descriptions, including some crude drawings, have provided information on not only what type of clothing was used, but how it was made as well.
KAMLEIKA – The principle garment worn by Pacific Rim kayakers was the kamleika – a long, parka-like outer shell usually made from waterproof bands of cured bear or seal intestine. Long, tube-like lengths of gut was removed, soaked in fresh water to soften flesh and muscle tissue and then carefully scraped clean. One end of the processed intestine was tied shut and air was blown into the other end of the gut. Looking like a long, spirally balloon, the gut tube was allowed to thoroughly dry in the open air and then cut along the entire inner longitudinal axis. This created long, usually five or six inch wide bands of waterproof material that were first sewn into rings and then sewn together – one on top of the other – to form the torso tube, then arms and finally a hood.
The waist area on many kamlaikas was flared, lengthened and fashioned to fit around the coaming on the kayak’s cockpit. This design thus created a paddling jacket and a skirt combination all in one garment.
SPRING BEAR – When bear gut was used (popular in the Prince William Sound area of Alaska), it was the spring bear that was the choice of the native seamstresses. Why? Because fall bears, when gorging themselves on salmon, would eat the entire fish – including bones that would pierce the wall of the intestine leaving micro-holes that would not enable a garment made from it to be waterproof. A spring bear, on the other hand, had its winter-long hibernation period to heal and re-seal those punctures by springtime.
SEAMS – Seams were double sewn, using two needles concurrently. One needle was used to apply a continuous rolling stitch while the second needle was used to create and in-and-out stitch that double-locked and sealed the fabric in place making it waterproof. For critical seams, or on especially thick materials, a stem of grass was laid into the seam and sewn down its length. When the grass swelled from moisture, it created a tight seal similar to that achieved with an “O” ring on modern lid or cap closures.
CARIBOU HAIR – Kamleikas were also made with small tuffs of caribou hair sewn into the seam every few inches. This process was repeated all up and down the garment, particularly on the torso area. While decorative in appearance, the tuffs performed an important function – they helped wick water away from the main surface of the garment thereby helping the kamlaika dry quickly.
WRIST CLOSURES – Since the wrists and face/hood were openings in the garment, making the kamlaika into a dry-top required an ingenious way of sealing those areas tightly against the skin. Long thongs, made of leather or woven fibers were tethered to the wrists and the opening around the hood. A wooden or bone bead was affixed to the ends of these tethers. Even using seal skin mittens, the kayaker could grab the tether, wind it around his wrist or pull tightly down along his face to close off the opening. Once a tight wrap was secured, the bead at the end of the tether was tucked under the windings and pulled tight along those wrappings for an even tighter and secure fit hold. This method is still used in conjunction with many sealskin garments worn by Greenland kayakers today.
OTHER GARMENTS – Other items of clothing – pants, boots, mittens – were usually made from the waterproof skins of the spotted seal. Sometimes caribou was also used. In ceremonial garments, the splayed, feathered breasts of shorebirds were sewn into place along the outer garment, shingle style. Besides being quite fashionable, the garment was also very good at shedding water.
MITTENS – The mitten used by native kayakers, and still seen today in Greenland has a thumb tube centered in the middle of the mitten instead of protruding out one side as commonly seen. This means there is no “right” or “left” mitten, enabling the kayaker to quickly choose a mitten for either hand.
BENTWOOD HAT – A beautiful piece of equipment/clothing developed by the coastal kayakers in the Pacific Northwest region is the bentwood hat. These long, somewhat truncated cones had quite a pronounced profile when viewed from the side. Most were ornately decorated with colorfully painted designs, trimmed in sea lion whiskers and usually embellished by a carved ivory icon that topped off the bentwood hat at its peak.
These fairly large, long hats were traditionally made from bent birch wood. Thin veneers of birch wood were steamed and made pliable. The panels were bent over a form, held in place and then the edges were joined as seams that were then stitched in place to form the final hat shape.
Randy Monge, a Pacific Northwest builder of native boats in the traditional designs used a modern nylon aircraft fabric called ceconite to cover his boats. He then recycled the scraps of the durable fabric and used the same resins used to complete the shell on his kayak to create a hardened “bentwood” hat form – in very close replication of those made by the Natives.
I asked him if, besides the shade and protection against the rain, he had experienced any other particular advantages when wearing the bentwood hat out on the water. His repeated experience was that he could hear sounds more clearly and from a greater distance while wearing this headpiece. Since hunting was a major activity of most kayakers, this makes perfect sense. Others have speculated that the profile of the long, pointed hat was very similar to that of the spy-hopping seal – a subtle form of camouflage for the paddler, against a seal’s poor eyesight.
PARKAS – Caribou parkas were also worn by natives and it makes sense that such garments may have been carried for extra warmth. The advantage of the caribou material was that it could be worn hair side out in the rain, or hide-side out during extremely cold weather – the hollow caribou hairs providing an excellent insulating layer close to the wearer’s skin.
I have never seen any mention of native kayakers wearing anything that even approaches a life jacket or PFD. Clearly the Greenlanders are world renowned for their ability to develop and used dozens of specific rolls to right themselves after a capsize. There appears to be no evidence supporting the extent of similar skills along the Pacific coast.
FLOTATION BLADDER – Kayakers did carry a flotation bladder on their boats but this was usually reserved for attaching to a line on a spear to slow down and mark a kill during a hunt.
The incredibly functional clothing that was created by the native kayakers of the Pacific rim area of North America (and later Greenland) pays tribute to the harsh challenges facing sea kayakers of yesteryear – and reveals yet another facet of the innovations developed by these craftsmen and women from antiquity.
It’s somewhere along the north Pacific Rim, early spring. You need to build a boat in which you will hunt seals, caribou, perhaps even whales. It needs to be at least sixteen feet long yet the longest pieces of wood are short fragments of limbs and trunks that drift ashore (there are no trees because you live too far north). Oh, yes, there’s one more thing. Before you can begin to make this boat you have to make the tools you’ll need to build it.
Welcome to the world of the ancient kayak builders. These incredible craftsmen designed and built boats of incredible quality, style and utility. These designs are still seen today in boats that even high-tech computers cannot improve upon. What were some of the techniques used by these ancient native boat builders and mariners that enabled them to create such seaworthy vessels?
Boat designs varied by regions and represented the hunting style of a particular culture. For example, the communities that lived along the coastal range of the caribou would use their kayaks to hunt at the river crossings used by the migrating herds of the far north. The caribou was most vulnerable while crossing these swift and cold rivers. The kayak hunter needed to be fast in order to reach these herds as they were swimming across the rivers.
Kayaks were sleek; the rear deck was low so the kayaker could sit on the back edge of the coaming and look up or down the river to spot the herds as the approached. Upon seeing the herd, the kayak caribou hunter slid forward into the cockpit and raced to the crossing. Using spears and bow/arrow, he could paddle up alongside the swimming animal and dispatch it quickly. Stealth was not a concern, just speed.
Those kayakers who hunted seals and other marine mammals had to approach their quarry cautiously, without being detected by the animal. Their boats were narrow, stealth-like craft. Their paddling action and profiles kept the kayaker close to the water so as not to be detected.
A third group of paddlers were gatherers who harvested edibles from their tide pools. Their boats were extremely short and wide so as to provide a steady platform from which to literally pluck critters from the shallow pools right offshore. These boats were so stable that this culture has no known or recorded rolls or rescue techniques.
No matter the different needs of the boats, most were constructed similarly. The keel was fashioned from long, narrow pieces of wood, oftentimes held together lengthwise with a scarf joint lashed and/or pegged together. Bow and stern pieces were fashioned from planking or in the case of the bifurcated bows of the Aleutian region, from the curved root buttress of coastal spruce trees (the grain followed the natural curve thereby making turned up bow pieces much stronger). So valuable were bow pieces in some cultures that stealing another’s piece was punishable by death!
There is usually always some debate as the symbolism in the design of bow pieces. Some, like the King Islander, have a board bow piece with a large hole cut into its prow. Some suggest it is symbolic or representative of some sea spirit? Perhaps. The native word for this piece is typically translated merely as: “The place where you grab the kayak with your hand.” The utility of the hole was to provide a handgrip to help pull the boat up onto ice flows.
On Kodiak Island, the bifurcated or forked bow of the Alutiiq culture reminded many of the gnarled “beak” of a dying, post-spawned salmon. However, this particular designed served two very distinct functions.
The long, vertical section served as the necessary bow “handle” which could be grabbed to help pull a boat out of the water. The slit in the prow enabled the skin to be stretched over the two halves of the bow. The lower half formed an acute, knife-like bow to help the boat cut through waves. The upper half with a horizontal bow plate enabled the skin to flare out giving the bow needed buoyancy so as not to cut or sink too deeply (see diagram).
Other innovations in construction included as observed in a few museum specimens the use of two bones sliding against each other to reduce the friction between the keel and ribs. The bone was strong enough to enable the boats to flex without wearing away the wood. Ribs were lashed to the deck and keel with a running lash that wrapped around each juncture but instead of being cut, was drawn down to the next rib in one continuous length of sinew.
Some boats were equipped with a rudder made from the flat hipbone of a caribou or seal. Sealskins were used to make flotation bladders to tie to hunting harpoons or perhaps to even aid in a recovery.