Man Thought of His Kayak
Irene Avaalaaqjaq 1976 *

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David W. Zimmerly

* This belongs to the collection of David & Helga Zimmerly.

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Thomas Tomagunuk  
Thomas Tomaganuk about to launch 
his kayak at the floe edge in Hooper Bay, 



In 1930 photographer Edward Curtis concluded his monumental 20-volume study "The North American Indian" with his research on the Alaskan Eskimos. He wrote that "The kaiak (kaiyuh) is the most important craft of many of the Alaskan Eskimo, for by means of it the livelihood of the people is chiefly obtained" (p.l2).

The kayak was the cornerstone of Eskimo society in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta area in a number of ways. Not only was it the means by which certain biological needs of the people were satisfied, it also was the basis among men for obtaining wealth and women. Anthropologist Margaret Lantis noted that wealth among the Nunivak Island Eskimo (another Bering Sea group of Eskimo) was a consequent of giving away goods which depended on being a good hunter which in turn depended on having a kayak and being a good kayaker (1946:158). A man could not get a wife if he were unable to support her and without a kayak, support was impossible.

The use of the traditional skin-covered kayak as a major subsistence tool in the Yukon/Kuskokwim delta area of Alaska s Bering Sea has declined almost to extinction. As the last kayak-using community of any size in this area, Hooper Bay, Alaska provided a recent, last live examination of some of the subsistence techniques that depended on the kayak. Through interviews, a reading of historical documents and commissioning the construction of a full-size kayak for the National Museums of Canada, I hoped to understand other features of this kayak-dependant culture as they existed in the past.

In this article I will provide some historical perspective for the Bering Sea kayak and then compare it to current construction and use practices. As Arctic Ethnologist for the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, I first traveled to Hooper Bay in October 1976. This community, which shows archaeological evidence of over 600 years of continuous occupation, is similar in many respects to the communities studied by Curtis and Lantis on nearby Nunivak Island. Hooper Bay had a different dialect and slightly less complex ritual life than that of the Nunivak Island, but the kayak complex as a whole was generally similar for all coastal Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Eskimo.
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Arctic Kayak Design

When looking at the design features of Arctic kayaks, two general types are noted; a) those designed for inland use in spearing caribou as they cross lakes and rivers, and; b) ones used for pursuing marine mammals in the sea. Of these latter sea-going kayaks, a number of design constraints are inherent. The vessel must be capable of pursuing sea mammals either through speed or stealth. Few are designed for speed, but all can be maneuvered silently. The kayak must be able to return with any game captured and this is done variously through towing, by carrying the un-butchered animal on the deck or by stowing the cut-up carcass inside the vessel as in the Bering See example under discussion.
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Another design constraint is that of seaworthiness. This was solved in the Bering Sea area by building a broad and deep hull -- one with rounded bilges and a flattened, but not flat, bottom. A sharply ridged deck not only expanded the interior, it also helped to shed waves. The beam of around 30" gave the kayak excellent stability and, combined with a sealable waterproof gut-skin parka and one or two recovery techniques, made it very seaworthy. The wide cockpit facilitated storage of game and also allowed two people to ride back to back with ease. Margaret Lantis recorded a story in which the passenger acted as a bow-and-arrow-equipped "tail-gunner" during a war raid (1946:306).

The 30" beam makes this kayak the widest in the Arctic while the average length of just over fifteen feet makes it almost the shortest of Eskimo kayaks. A Hooper Bay informant said that this length kayak handled better in heavy seas than a longer vessel.
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Kayak Accessories

A small sled was an important kayak accessory and was used to haul the kayak to the floe edge and over ice floes. When not in use, it was stowed on the after deck. The foredeck carried extra paddles, gaffs, and a great variety of specialized spears, darts and harpoons for use against different seals and waterfowl.
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Gutskin Parkas

The hunter wore a gutskin parka cut full to allow the parka to be sealed with a tie around the cockpit coaming. Sealskin formed the underarm part of the parka to prevent chafe due to constant rubbing on the cockpit coaming while paddling. The parka was sealed tight around the face with a drawstring and fishskin mitts with sealskin palms had their long cuffs tied tight over the parka sleeves. Thus equipped, a paddler could capsize and remain dry except for his face. The ability to right oneself after a capsize was reported for this area. Hooper Bay informants howevewr, could not remember this as being possible or important.
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Seats, Canteens & Buoyancy Bags

Bearded seal stomachs with a fine mesh grass covering were carried inside as a type of canteen. In rough seas these could be emptied, inflated with air, and shoved in the kayak ends to act as extra buoyancy chambers should the kayak fill with water. Also inside the kayak was a wooden slat seat on top of a woven grass mat. Both helped keep dirt from working down between stringers and cover where it could chafe through. Another grass mat was carried inside to use as a windbreak when butchering game on an ice floe. It could also be used as a sail when two kayaks were tied together. A kayak sled was put crosswise over the foredecks and the mat secured to it in front.
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Paddle Types

Because the kayaks of this area became so broad and deep, use of the double-bladed paddle was difficult and consequently it was only used for speed -- often from a kneeling position. Kneeling and occasionally standing were paddling positions used with the single-bladed paddle as well. A short paddle was used to scull the kayak to within harpooning distance of sea mammals. It could be noiselessly operated with one hand on the side away from a dozing animal with a weapon held at the ready in the other.
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Other Traditional Uses of the Kayak

Other than its use as a sea mammal hunting tool, the kayak was used for spearing waterfowl, fishing, racing, gathering firewood, occasional clamming by the women, transporting goods and ferrying people across bays, streams and rivers. One informant saw six people in a kayak crossing a stream -two in the cockpit sitting back to back, one prone in the forward hull, one prone in the after hull and one each prone on forward and after decks.
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Traditional Construction & Customs

Although kayak skin covers seldom lasted more than a season, the frame was good for many years if kept in proper repair. New kayaks were built piecemeal during late winter or early fall. Curtis described the process in detail as he saw and heard it in 1927.

"Their construction takes place with ceremony in the men's house, usually under the supervision of some old man well skilled in boat-making. The men measure and cut each individual part of the wooden frame according to a prescribed system based on the length of various members of the body or a combination of such members. Thus each man's kaiak is built according to the specifications of his own body and hence is peculiarly fitted to his use.


After each part is meticulously made according to measurement, the frame is put together with lashings of rawhide. The workmanship must of necessity be fine, because no cutting with edged tools may be done once the parts are finished and are being joined.


The night after the lashing of the kaiak frames is completed, the women gather to cut sealskins to size for the coverings, three thick and heavy hair-seal skins for the bottoms and sides, and two spotted-seal skins for the lighter decking. As they work, the women wear waterproof parkas, which are believed to prevent any evil influence from entering or afflicting the new kaiaks. After the cutting is finished, the women prepare food for the men.

The following day, while the women, dressed as before, are sewing together the skins, the kaiak owners sit before the bows of the completed frames and sing their hunting songs in an almost inaudible tone, since these songs are both sacred and secret. Kaiak owners often have their sons beside them to learn these chants, which descend from father to son. After the singing, when the hides are nearly sewn, each wife brings to her husband a new wooden dish of fish or berries. Stripped to the waist, he throws a portion of the food to the floor as an offering, and prays for good luck during the coming hunting season. He then gives the food to the oldest man present (often the one who has supervised the kaiak-making), who distributes it to all the men at hand. The owner then walks once about the kaiak frame, pretending to carry a lighted lamp. Next he motions as if to shove a lamp underneath the bows, that seal may see and approach his kaiak as he hunts.

As the last flap, on the after-deck, is sewn, after the frame is shoved into the completed covering, the now naked owner, accompanied by all the men present, sings his childbirth song to his new kaiak. The owner washes the cover with urine to remove any oil that may adhere to the surface, and rinses it in salt water. He then hauls his craft through the smoke-hole of the house and rests it in the snow, which will absorb dampness from its surface. Later he puts the kaiak on its rack and drapes over it his talismans, strung on belts, which are later to be kept in the kaiak. Here it remains a day and a night. Then at night he carries the craft to the ice where he sings his hunting songs, sacred only to him and to his family. Outside in the freezing weather the skin coverings bleach white. As soon as each new kaiak is finished, the owner performs his ceremony.

On returning to the men's house, the owner dresses in new parka and boots, and, grasping a bunch of long grass fibres, makes motions of sweeping toward the entrance. By this action he brushes outside any evil influence or contamination from his kaiak, the covering which has been made by women (1930:12,13,15). "

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Dwindling Use of the Kayak

In her 1940 trip to Hooper Bay, Margaret Lantis reported sixty-three kayaks in a population of 360 people (1946:164). Today (1978), with over twice that population, the number of useable kayaks has dwindled to less than a dozen and all of these appear to have been made ten to twenty years ago.
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Kayak Construction in 1976

When I first arrived in Hooper Bay in 1976, I was fortunate to find sixty-nine year old Dick Bunyan who was a skilled kayakmaker with over twenty kayaks and two umiaks (open skin boats) to his credit. He agreed to construct a kayak frame for the National Museums of Canada from driftwood using intermediate technology consisting of a few modern hand tools plus steelbladed traditional items such as an adze and curved carving knife. I arrived in Hooper Bay on a Friday and the next day Dick started workinq on the kayak.
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Making Curved Deck Beams

He selected a large stump from a pile he had gathered in back of his house and, using an axe and wooden wedges, split it into pieces that would be suitable for the curved deck beams of the kayak. He explained through an interpreter that maximum strength was obtained by having wood with a grain that was already curved the way the finished piece would be. I too, set immediately to work filming, photographing, measuring and recording all relevant details of the construction and continued this routine every day for the next month until the frame was completed.
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Kayak Construction Tools

Dick Bunyan's adze was made from an old hatchet blade and with it he could shape a piece of wood to look as though it had been smoothed with a plane. No sandpaper was ever used. The curved carving knife, made from a muskrat trap spring, was the perfect tool to hollow out all concave surfaces.
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Anthropometric Measurements

Dick's only measuring device was a 75 cm-long stick that was used to transfer measurements first determined anthropometrically. For example, the diameter of the hole in the bow is equal to the width of the closed fist with the thumb outstretched; the diameter of the cockpit coaming is equal to the distance from the armpit to the first joints of the fingers that grip the coaming. All parts of the kayak were similarly measured. Each community had its own standard set of anthropometric measurements which accounted for great intra-community uniformity as most of the men were of the same general build.
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Prefabrication of Parts

After the final shaping of the deck beams, Dick carved out the upper bow block and the stern handhold, then attached them to their associated deck stringers with notched scarf joints. The deck stringers were made from pieces split out of a large driftwood log. The splitting was done using small hardwood wedges carved from a broken hickory axe handle. The wedges were inserted first in the end grain of the log along the plane of the growth rings. As the split started down the log, more wedges were inserted and pounded home until a whole section was split off. The outer ring of last new growth on the log was initially split off and discarded because of insufficient strength.
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The gunwales, major strength members in all kayaks, were fashioned from one driftwood log that Dick first squared up with a hatchet and adze and then halved by sawing with a portable circular saw. The saw-cut sides became the outer sides of the gunwales in the finished product.

The general method of work was to first split out pieces from the driftwood log or stump, then rough-shape with a hatchet, and final-shape with the adze and curved carving knife. In this fashion Dick prefabricated all 57 pieces of the kayak. The rough work was done outside while the carving knife work was done indoors. Dick did not use a workbench. Indoors he sat on a small wooden box. All wood scraps and shavings were recycled in his wood stove.
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In a little over three weeks the parts were complete and ready for pre-assembly trimming, painting and bending. The gunwales were joined at the ends and spread apart in the middle to check for even bending. One gunwale, judged less springy than the other was planed down a bit on the outboard side, rechecked and pronounced finished. The ribs were bent cold by clamping the teeth down on them and bending by hand, tying the ends together with a nylon cord that was later used as the rib/stringer tie.
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Cockpit Coaming

At this point Dick enlisted the aid of several neighbors. Aloysius Hale formed the outer coaming lip into a circle by spot heating it with hot water, bending it with his hands and tightening up a line connecting the ends. I painted the gunwales, ribs and stringers while another neighbor cut mortises into the gunwales for the deck beams and ribs. Dick supervised closely.
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Frame Painting

The paint that I used was a powdered red ocher-color rock traded from Nelson Island. The powder was mixed with a little water and rubbed on the wood with a cloth. I could discover no functional reason for the use of this paint. Dick told me: "We've always done it this way."
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Fitting Deck Beams to Gunwales

When all was ready the deck beams were fitted into the gunwales, the gunwale end bolted together and the bow and stern pieces added along with the deck stringers. While this was all very straightforward, the next step in the assembly was rather critical.
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Setting Reverse Sheer

Bering Sea kayaks have a slight reverse sheer achieved in the following manner. The gunwale/deck beam/deck stringer assembly was placed upside down supported by two boxes. The keelson pieces, attached to their respective lower bow and stern blocks, next fitted into place. As they were prefabricated extra long, they overlapped amidships. By trimming them slightly short and joining them with a notched scarf joint, the ends of the kayak were put in tension resulting in the gunwales bending upwards (remember the frame is upside down) causing reverse sheer to form.
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Rib/Stringer Assembly

The keelson was then blocked and temporarily tied to prevent any rocker from forming. The first rib was fitted in amidships and the others worked in toward each end. Next the stringers were fitted to length and held in place with more temporary ties. A length of twine was used for the rib/stringer tie which runs athwartships from gunwale to gunwale. Following other trimming and special lashings, the framework was turned rightside up. The cockpit coaming was lashed temporarily in place while the gunwale-to-coaming stanchions were fitted. With the addition of some touchup paint and trimming, the kayak was finished, exactly one month from when it was started.

Since I wanted the frame left uncovered to display its structure, my work of recording the construction was also complete. On the following field trips to Hooper Bay I concentrated research on the current use of kayaks. In many respects I was 40 years too late.
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Kayak Use in 1976

Locally made flatbottom skiffs powered by one and sometimes two outboard motors became common after the 1940s and the kayak lost some of its functions. The skiff took the place of the umiak and usurped the kayak s seal hunting functions during open water season. Changes in kayak construction included the substitution of canvas for sealskin in covering the frame. Clenched nails at the rib/stringer junctures replaced traditional lashings. Except for uncompromising craftsmen such as Dick Bunyan, the standards of workmanship have drastically declined.
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Use As a Tender to Skiffs

Today the kayak is infrequently used for winter and early spring seal hunting when the skiff cannot easily maneuver among the ice. The kayak has become a tender to the skiff for other activities.

I accompanied Aloysius Hale by skiff to a section of Hooper Bay where nets were set to catch whitefish. The kayak was carried inside the skiff until we reached the fishing grounds where it was put in the water carrying a gill net stored on the foredeck. The kayak was paddled to a nearby spot in the shallows and the net set by driving two end poles into the surf bottom. Aloysius returned to the skiff and came on board leaving the kayak in the water. He scanned the area for seals for about twenty minutes and then returned to the net by kayak to check for fish. A number of other fishermen in the area were following the same procedure until a lone seal was sighted sending the skiffs in pursuit at top speed. They surrounded the seal and took pot shots every time it surfaced. When it came up for air in a distant location all skiffs raced away to again surround the animal. Eventually the seal was killed and the excitement over, everyone returned the less-exciting work of tending whitefish nets. Aloysius caught no fish that day.
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Floe-edge Seal Hunting

One spring I again went with Aloysius Hale -- this time to the floe-edge by snowmobile, pulling a sled with a kayak behind on a sled of its own. Aloysius hauled the sled right to the water s edge and arranged it, his paddle, and boat hook for a quick launch into the water. He settled back against some rafted ice and scanned the area for seals with his scope-equipped rifle ready for use. Unfortunately we saw no seals, however, had Aloysius shot one from shore he would have launched kayak and rapidly paddled out to retrieve it before it sank.
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Tomcod Fishing

Aloysius showed me another current use of the kayak. Traveling again by skiff with the kayak on board we motored up a nearby slough (pronounced slew) little more than 30 to 40 wide. Offloading the kayak which held a net and other equipment, Aloysius paddled a short distance upstream where he drove two poles into the muddy slough bottom. The net was tied between them. Paddling a hundred yards or so upstream Aloysius slowly paddled back towards the net, all the time slapping the water with his single-bladed paddle to drive the fish (tomcod) downstream into the net. When he reached the net he quickly pulled up the two poles and brought them together to close the net. The successful drive yielded a gunny sack full of fish that were dried for eating later in the winter.
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Other than in the above limited uses, the kayak has ceased to function in any viable fashion. Many of the taboos and ceremonies surrounding the kayak complex were eliminated by the introduction of Christianity and most of its functions were supplanted by the motorized skiff. With the decline of the men's house, the ready sources of knowledge and help for kayak building became problematic too. The final reason for the decline of the kayak is that its building is very labor intensive and few people are willing or able to devote that much time when they can purchase or build a substitute or get along without.

Hooper Bay was the last large Eskimo community in all North America to still use the kayak for traditional purposes. While I very much lament the demise of traditional kayak construction and use, I am heartened by the current interest shown in sea kayaking. I hope that we may be intelligent enough to take advantage of the 2,000+ years of kayak development and discover in replicas the joys of messing about in this most perfect of boats. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
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References Cited

Curtis, Edward S.
     1930 THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN.  Volume 20.
              Nunivak, King Island, Little Diomede Island, Cape
              Prince of Wales, Kotzebue.  Norwood: The Plimpton Press.

Lantis, Margaret
              Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 35(3):153-323.


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