I built my first kayak in 1978. It was my own design, a mongrel of elements I’d seen in the classic documentary book, Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, by Edwin Tappan Adney and Howard Chapelle. It had a stern profile from Alaska’s King Island, a midsection from Canada’s Southampton Island, and a bow from Greenland’s Disko Bay. I built it in fuselage-frame fashion as I’d seen my father do for his Hypalon-skinned interpretation of an umiak. I thought my kayak looked pretty good, and it served to get me on the water, but I clearly had learned nothing about traditional Arctic kayaks. When I paddled an old and rough reproduction of a Greenland kayak I got my first inkling of what I had missed.
In the years that followed I built reproductions of traditional Arctic kayaks to see what I could learn from them. In the early ‘80s I took an interest in Aleut baidarkas. John Heath, for years a leading authority on traditional kayak who later became a good friend of mine and a mentor to me, had taken the lines from an Aleut double and published them in Skin Boats. I built that kayak and was impressed by its speed and ability to rise over oncoming waves.
Ten years later I had my eye on a single-cockpit baidarka documented by David Zimmerly in the February/March and April/May, 1982 issues of the now extinct Small Boat Journal. I happened to be in Berkeley, California, and visited the Lowie (now Hearst) Museum of Anthropology and was permitted to see that very kayak, an exquisitely crafted frame collected by Margaret Lantis in 1934 from Atka Island in the middle of the Aleutian chain. The woodworking bore the marks of the builder’s simple tools that the builder used; the bow and stern pieces, which wouldn’t be seen once the skin covering on, were as carefully sculpted as works of art.
Several years later, still captivated by the Lowie specimen, I began work on my reproduction of that baidarka. I had plenty of Alaska yellow cedar for the deck beams and end pieces, including a good crook for the curved lower bow, and clear straight-grained spruce and red cedar for the longitudinal elements. The ribs in the original were round in cross section and while Zimmerly milled his ribs from lumber, resawn, and rounded, but I decided to use saplings. I don’t now recall if saplings were used in the original; trees are scarce on the Aleutian islands. I harvested the saplings from a hillside overlooking Puget Sound. They grew in clumps, very straight and slender, and I found them very easy to bend and shape.
My baidarka was the first kayak I covered with nylon and two-part polyurethane instead of canvas and airplane dope. The dope was quite forgiving of application errors and was easy to work as long as I wore a respirator whenever I got near the vaporous stuff. The urethane was going to be a challenge for me, working alone, because it had to be put on continuously, coat after coat, and was very runny. I set up my drill press with a stirrer I made out of brass and while I was applying one batch it was mixing the next. That worked fine until the can at the drill press broke free and got spun by the mixer. In an instant the contents were flung from the can and splattered in a horizontal line across every wall in my shop and on any tool that happened to be stored at that height. I had my back to the drill press so I got a coating on the one part of me that wasn’t protected by my apron.
I eventually finished a serviceable if rather drippy coating on the baidarka skin. I’d been quite proud of the way the frame had turned out, but now it had a skin that bore a strong resemblance to a syrup-drenched stack of pancakes. To make matters worse, when I stored the finished baidarka in an unheated warehouse in the middle of winter, the nylon went slack with the cold and was as wrinkled as a raisin. During the summer the skin smoothed itself, but as soon as I put it in the water it cooled off and got all wavy again.
I didn’t paddle the boat much at all until about three years after completing it. Fortunately, the skin got tighter with time and the color became darker and richer and concealed the drips. I began to take the baidarka out and bit by bit learned how the Aleut design performed. It was clearly fast, especially given its 16′ 8-1/2″ length. I didn’t have a good way to measure its speed, but when I got a GPS years later, I found I could hit 7.2 knots in a sprint. Zimmerly’s plans note the theoretical top speed is 4.9 knots. When I took the baidarka out for the photos here, I hadn’t been kayaking for months, but I still managed to record 7 knots on the GPS.
In wind, the fairly low profile keeps the baidarka from getting blown around and the long bow counters weathercocking. The slender lower bow cuts cleanly through smooth and rippled water, and the broad upper bow provides lift in oncoming waves. In a following sea, the buoyancy above the waterline created by the spread of the gunwales keeps the stern from being swallowed up by waves. It rises instead and you can feel the waves pushing the baidarka forward. It’s a great boost for starting a sprint to get surfing.
After I finished my baidarka I stumbled upon a hidden key to an Aleut baidarka’s speed. In 1805, Urey Lisiansky, a Russian sea captain traveled 300 miles in a baidarka and wrote: “At first I disliked these leathern canoes on account of their bending elasticity in the water, but when accustomed to them, I thought it rather pleasant than otherwise.” I doubt my baidarka is as flexible as the original Lowie specimen. The urethane soaked through the nylon and bonded it to the frame, so the whole structure is quite rigid. The skin of the original baidarka wouldn’t have restricted the frame’s movement and the flexing would have allowed the frame to conform slightly to the shape of the waves as well as soften the impacts of rough water. Kayakers who have both folding kayaks and rigid molded kayaks know that the folders have a speed advantage when the going gets rough.
The keel of the Lowie baidarka is made up of three pieces and the joints between them are shaped like the moldings on drop-leave tables—a mating quarter-round with a small vertical butt joint at the top. The way the keel is constructed, the ends of the baidarka can move slightly to wrap around the crest of a wave, but resist sagging into a trough.
The joints in the Lowie baidarka may be concealing some interesting bone bearings called kostochki. Joe Lubischer, a Canadian graduate student in anthropology and a fellow kayaker, once mentioned to me that the literature on baidarkas suggested the existence of these bearings but none had been discovered in the museum specimens he knew of. A few months earlier I had just happened to see a bunch of kostochki at the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus. I had gone there to see what I might find in their collection related to baidarkas and was allowed to see a baidarka that had been collected in and shipped from Alaska quite a while ago. To get the unskinned frame to fit into a reasonably sized shipping crate, someone had sawn it into pieces. Unfortunate for the kayak, but lucky for me, and for Joe, that all of the bone bearings were accessible.
The kostochki in the keel joints were elliptical bone bearings cradled in matching recesses carved into bone rectangles which were set into mortices on either side of the curved part of the joint. The allowed a bit of longitudinal movement, but no lateral movement. There were also rectangular strips of bone let into the contact surfaces between the deck ridges and the deck beams. John Heath believed the principle function of all of the various kostochki was to prevent wood surfaces in contact with each other from wearing away over time. The bone could endure the abrasion and keep the joints from getting progressively looser inside of their lashings.
A few years later Joe and I, along with George Dyson, author of the book Baidarka, studied a baidarka on loan from a Russian museum. It was collected in Unalaska in 1826. With a veterinarian’s X-ray machine, we made images of the joints and the films revealed the kostochki inside of them. If I had known about the bone parts when I built my baidarka I would have made them, even if all that work would be hidden away, just to experience a little connection with long-forgotten baidarka builders.
I suspect that the kayak I designed for myself four decades ago will be the only kayak I will ever design. I suppose I’d take some pride and pleasure in coming up with something that performed well, but nothing I could do would fill me with a sense of wonder as the genius that lies waiting to be discovered in kayaks from the past.