Section 7: History

Author: Sam Crowley(historical), Alex Ferguson(modern)

"Many people nowadays are vastly impressed with the greatness of our age, with all the inventions and the progress of which we daily hear, and which appear indisputably to exalt the highly-gifted white race far over all others. These people would learn much by paying close attention to the development of the Eskimos, and to the tools and inventions by aid of which they obtain the necessaries of life among natural surroundings which place such pitifully small means at their disposal."
- Fridtjof Nansen from _Eskimo Life_ published in 1894


What does kayak mean?

Hunters boat. The boats primary purpose was to hunt animals on inland lakes, rivers and the sea. In many places where the native kayakers lived they had to turn to the water for food because the land was not fertile enough to support their population. It was also used for transportation across open water and rivers. Most but not all kayaks are considered seaworthy.

It was made of seal skins and wood. The wood was driftwood that was collected off of beaches. Many of the areas where kayaks were paddled are void of the land based raw materials used in making birchbark canoes or dugout canoes.

Archaeologists have found evidence indicating kayaks to be at least 4000 years old.

The word kayak appears in literature spelled different ways: kyak, kyack, kaiak, qajaq.


What does baidarka mean?

It refers to the double and triple kayaks developed by the Alaskan Aleut. It was used for hunting and transporting those unable to paddle. Some groups considered it a waste to have the second paddler be a capable paddler. The triples are considered to have appeared after the Europeans appeared. The Russians are thought to have forced the Aleut to make a third hole so they could travel along with them and not have to paddle. The triples were also used to transport missionaries.


What is an umiak?

An umiak is an open decked boat made with seal skins and wood. It was paddled with single bladed paddles and typically had more than one paddler. It ranged in size from 17 feet to 60 feet. The umiak was typically seaworthy.

Some groups lived nomadically to follow animal migrations. In these groups, the umiak was used primarily for transporting household goods, children, elderly and those unable to paddle a kayak. The women of the village would paddle the umiak since the men were paddling their kayaks. In other groups it was used for hunting walrus and whale. It was paddled by men and sometimes women during these hunts.

It is thought the kayak originally started out as a decked over umiak and evolved into its traditional form.

It is also called a baydar.

Sometimes the umiak was used to hunt together with the kayaks.


Did all native kayaking groups use the two bladed paddle?

No. Some groups used the two bladed paddle exclusively and some groups used the one bladed paddle exclusively. It many times depended on the boats design. Some groups that used two bladed paddles also kept one or two one bladed paddles with them to use for stealthier paddling when hunting or for use as a spare.

There were groups that used the single bladed paddle to roll.


Did all native kayakers know how to roll?

No. The Greenland Inuits and the Alaskan Aleuts were well known for their rolls but not all native kayakers knew how to roll or needed a roll.

The Greenlanders were the masters of the roll. Their narrow boats, the conditions they paddled in and unexpected complications during hunting required them to develop numerous different rolls. In addition to the typical rolling with a paddle, numerous "trick" rolls were known such as rolling with the paddle held by one hand, using a harpoon shaft or using just an open or closed hand. The reasons for this is during a hunt the harpoon line could tangle and upset the boat or an injured animal sometimes attacked the hunter. In either case if the hunter is holding something he does not want to drop (like a knife) or the paddle is temporarily stowed, he had to use these rolls. The Greenlanders also used the bow rescue described below.

Some native kayakers used several different methods instead of a roll. One is the bow rescue where a paddling partners bow is used to pull one self up. This technique relied heavily on somebody being close by. In another technique the paddler pulled themselves into the boat and breathed the air inside the boat until somebody showed up and a bow rescue could be performed. This technique required a boat one could crawl into and someone showing up before the oxygen inside the boat was used up. Certain groups added ballast to their boats to make them stable, the weight varied from 50-100 pounds.


How were kayaks made?

Driftwood would be collected from beaches. The wood would be formed using the tools they had. Tools would have been chipped or ground out of stone, such as obsidian, chert, quartz, or slate; carved from antler, ivory, wood, or bone; or cold-hammered out of meteoric iron or native copper. Wood used was typically fir, pine, spruce and willow. The addition of iron-based tools did decrease the amount of time spent building a kayak since iron does not dull as quickly as traditional materials. Historians are not in agreement if iron improved the quality of the kayak or not. Peterson, in _Skinboats of Greenland_, presents some information that it did.

Seal skins would then be sewn onto a complete frame. Typical skin used was from the bearded seal but some groups did use the sea lion, caribou and walrus skins.

The hair was removed from the skins. The skins were treated with oil for waterproofness. Oil typically had to be applied every 4-8 days depending on the skin used. Care was taken that when a boat was in daily use, that it was removed from the water and allowed to dry once a day.

Sinew was used to lash the frame and sew the skins. The seam on the skins was waterproof because the stitches did not completely pass through the skin.


What is the difference between a modern kayak and a traditional kayak?

There are obvious differences in the materials used. In addition a modern rigid kayak typically has several added safety features such as bulkheads and hatches.

Skegs and rudders appeared on some traditional kayaks but the design was thought to be influenced by western cultures. Most of the features used in modern hull designs can be found in traditional kayak hull designs. The modern skin boat is very similar to a traditional kayak although the modern day skin used is typically waterproofed canvas.

It is important to realize the significant change in the boats use from traditional use to modern use. No longer is the boat used for hunting but instead for recreation. This represents a fundamental change that has affected the boat design and its equipment.


Where did the native kayakers live?

In the arctic of North America from the Aleutian Islands to the East coast of Greenland. This included southern Siberia, the Bering Strait and Northern Canada. Some groups were nomadic and were constantly searching for better hunting grounds. Other groups were not nomadic and lived year round in the same location. Some locations had only 90 days a year for open water and other locations had open water year round.


Were all the boat designs the same?

No, the designs were specialized for the local conditions and needs of the hunters. Some areas had exposed coasts and other areas were relatively protected. Some groups had to transport their kayaks over a long distance to the water and other groups were right next to the water. Transporting the dead animals back to the village was a problem solved in different ways by hunters in different areas.

One historian breaks seagoing kayak designs into five basic forms with minor changes for local conditions. The different designs are found in Greenland, Baffin Island, the Bering Strait south to the Aleutians, southeastern Siberia and the Aleutian islands.


What did they wear?

They used jackets made from skins which were typically waterproof. The wrists and face openings were drawn tight for waterproofness. The waist fit tightly around the cockpit coaming. These formed watertight seals so water did not enter while performing a roll or punching through waves. The jacket used by the Greenlanders helped provide buoyancy when sculling. On warm days they used the equivalent of a spray skirt instead of the jacket. They used mittens made of skin to keep their hands warm. Some groups wore hats with a large brim for protection from the sun and salt spray.


What animals were hunted?

Caribou on the inland waters and virtually any sea mammal at sea. The sea mammals included the seal, sea otter, walrus and whale. Fish such as halibut and assorted birds were also hunted. All the groups did not hunt all of these animals. Some groups avoided hunting certain animals for practical and/or spiritual reasons.


How did they get the animals back to the village?

It depended on the type of kayak used. Some groups would carry the animal on top of their deck. This method required a boat with a large volume so it could handle a 150+ pound animal (typically seal) on top of it. Another method was to land and butcher the animal on shore and stuff the butchered meat into the boat. This method relied on there being enough volume inside the boat for the meat. A gaff hook was used to retrieve the meat since they did not have any hatches. Another method was to tow the animal. Since a freshly killed animal would sink, air would be blown into the animal and a wooden stopper used as a plug or an air bladder would be tied to the animal. They would be tied along side the boat. Floats were used so the dead animal could be cast loose and later recovered in case another animal was spotted or the sea conditions became too rough. In the case of birds or fish, they were often carried under deck lines and fish were sometimes towed after being killed.


What hunting tools were used?

A harpoon was used together with a rope and an air bladder. The harpoon tip is attached to the air bladder with the rope. The harpoon tip was detachable from the harpoon shaft to allow the animal to thrash about and not break the shaft. The rope was typically made of seal skin. The rope would be coiled on the front deck and allowed to play out once an animal was harpooned.

A javelin was also used and is similar to the harpoon. The difference is the tip and air bladder stay attached to the shaft with rope.

The harpoon used a larger air bladder than a javelin which allowed larger marine animals to be hunted. The harpoons air bladders also were used for adding floatation to the kayak in case of puncture or water leakage. They were sometimes used in rescues.

A lance was used to kill an animal that was close by.

A knife was carried to kill a wounded animal or to prepare it to be taken in to land.

Bird darts were spears with three or four forward slanted spikes. The spikes allowed a bird to be brought down if the spear tip did not penetrate the bird and instead slid along its body.

A throwing stick (sometimes referred to as a throwing board or an atlatl) was used to boost the range of a spear or harpoon.

A white blind was used by some hunters to camouflage their upper bodies so they could sneak up on resting seals.

All these could be carried on the deck and ready for immediate use. The deck lines were skin with toggles and bone used to fasten items.

Bows and arrows typically were not used. The reasons for this is the difficulty of handling one in a kayak and water would cause the bow string to stretch rendering the bow useless.


Was kayak hunting dangerous?

Very dangerous.

Some times a wounded animal wound attack the kayak. Walrus and whales were especially dangerous when injured. Some times a walrus would attack a kayak even if the kayak was not hunting it. Sometimes the harpoon line would tangle and upset the kayak.

It is important to remember these people had no thermal protection against the cold waters when they wet exited since there was no equivalent to the wetsuit or drysuit (although in Greenland there was an equivalent to the modern drysuit but that was only used by Umiak crews hunting whales). The water temperature they paddled in could be as low as 27 degrees F since saltwater has a lower freezing point than freshwater. Glaciers helped to lower the water temperature by calving icebergs into the water. To wet exit the boat was considered suicide by many groups. Also, there was no equivalent to the modern PFD.

In South Greenland in 1888 there were 162 deaths. 90 were males and 24 of the males died while kayaking. In 1889, there were 272 deaths. 152 were male and 24 died while kayaking. The population consisted of 5614 of which there were 2591 males.


What happened to the kayaking cultures?

As with most native cultures, outside cultural influences changed the native culture and the peoples need for kayaking. Manufactured goods slowly replaced the traditional materials. Lumber instead of driftwood for the boat frames, iron for the spear tips, the gun replaced the hunting tools, and eventually the power boat replaced the kayak. In some cases the depletion of the local animals due to overhunting caused a decline in kayaking.

Today traditional kayaking is kept alive by schools run in Greenland and the Aleutian Islands. Much of the traditional kayaking technology and skills have been lost. Some boat designs survive only in drawings made by early explorers that did not have any dimensions. Many kayaks stored in museums were improperly stored and have been unintentionally destroyed. All this makes comparison of the modern kayak and its equipment against the traditional kayak and its equipment difficult or impossible.


What is the history of the development of the modern kayaks?

The modern sea kayaks can trace their ancestry via two paths. The first type are those kayaks that are close copies of the Southwest Greenland kayaks.

In the summer of 1959, Ken Taylor made a private one-man expedition to Western Greenland and brought a kayak back to Scotland. This particular kayak excited special interest because it was a more moderate example of the West Greenland type.

This kayak has been copied a number of times, most noted being the kayak built by Geoff Blackford in 1971. Blackford redesigned the boat to fit his own particular dimensions, retaining the upturned stern, and ending up with a plywood model 17 ft (5.2 m) long with a 21 in. (533 mm) beam. In all other respects the craft was identical to Ken Taylor's boat.

Blackford's craft was used as the plug for a fiberglass mould and eventually found its way to Frank Goodman of Valley Products who went into commercial production under the name 'Anas Acuta'.

A noted British mountaineer and exponent of outdoor education, Colin Mortlock, proposed an expedition along the Arctic fiords of Norway to Nordkapp, the northern-most cape of Europe. Mortlock and his team paddled the Anas Acuta kayaks around the Isle of Skye but believed that a new sort of boat would be needed, one that could take huge quantities of supplies without losing too much manoeuvreability and seaworthiness.

Eventually Frank Goodman came up with a kayak design, having a basis in the West Greenland kayaks, but incorporating elements of standard boat design, with a round bilge capable of the extra payload required, and the 'Nordkapp' was born. Many modern boats can trace their design lineage from this root.

The second line of descent for modern kayaks is that of the 'Rob Roy' kayaks.

The McGregor "canoe" was built in 1865 to resemble what John McGregor thought he had seen when looking at sketches of Eskimo kayaks. In shape and size it is fairly similar to a Coaster. The Kleppers were also of a similar style. Many of the kayaks designed in the Pacific Northwest of North America have their roots in this basic shape.

If the designs of the Greenland and Alaskan kayaks are studied, it is obvious that there are a wide range of designs. Each has evolved as suitable for the region that it comes from. From this one can see why some designs are popular in one region and not in another, the Nordkapp style in Britain and New Zealand and the beamier, flatter boats in northwestern North America. Even in a country as small as New Zealand there can be regional preferences, a highly rockered boat in the north and flatter, lower windage boats in the South Island, for example.

Wood and wood/fabric were common up until 1950's when fiberglass was introduced. This was followed by plastic in 1984, the Chinook being the first of the rotomolded boats.


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