I began building reproductions of traditional Inuit kayaks in 1978 after the first kayak I’d built—to my own design—taught me how little I knew about kayaks. The Hooper Bay was the first of the reproductions I built to explore the technology of Arctic cultures whose survival depended upon kayaks; it was followed by several Greenland-style kayaks. The most sophisticated of the designs I built to was an Aleut baidarka collected in 1936 and housed in the Lowie Museum of Anthropology (now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology) in Berkeley, California. I visited the museum and was given access to the collection storage area to see the unskinned frame. It was beautifully carved, and each piece of wood was finely textured with the marks of the edge tools that had produced it. The baidarka was undoubtedly the work of a highly skilled craftsman and I was sure there was much I could learn by reproducing it.
My baidarka clearly showed that the Lowie specimen had been very fast and had remarkable seakeeping abilities. It sparked my curiosity about Aleut kayaking equipment; I next made an Aleut paddle and bilge pump. I was also intrigued by the bentwood visors the Aleut hunters wore. Called chagudax̂, they were beautifully painted and often decorated with long, arching, walrus whiskers. To keep the whiskers from interfering with throwing a harpoon, they were usually set on only one side of the chagudax̂. The visors not only shielded a hunter’s face from sun and rain, they also put his eyes in shadow to conceal them from skittish prey. And by some accounts, the underside of the chagudax̂ made distant sounds more audible.
As I was researching the visors, I learned about Andrew Gronholdt. He was born in 1915, on Popof Island on the eastern end of the Aleutian Island chain. His father was a Dane and a boatbuilder, and his mother was Aleut, or Unangan, as the people of the islands refer to themselves. Andrew learned woodworking from his father and later in life put those skills to use working as a shipwright. His interest in his Unangan heritage led to study of the chagudax̂. Andrew became the recognized authority on the making of them, and classes he taught spawned a revival of the skills.
I was surprised to learn that Andrew lived in Edmonds, Washington, my hometown. I paid him a visit in 1993; he was 78 years old then, soft-spoken, cordial, and very willing to show me his work. He had both chagudax̂ in various stages of completion and a finished qayaatx̂ux̂, an even more elaborate type of headwear with a long bill and a conical shape with a closed crown. Several years later, when I was visiting the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural history in Washington, D.C., I saw that very qayaatx̂ux̂ on display in an exhibit of Aleut culture.
I was daunted by the complexity of carving required by the qayaatx̂ux̂ and focused on the simpler chagudax̂. Andrew let me trace several of his patterns and showed me how he bent the shaped wooden pieces over bending forms he’d made of galvanized sheet steel.
He told me he made walrus whiskers from nylon weed-whacker monofilament. To straighten it, he would stretch wraps of it on a board with two nails in it and warm the monofilament with a heat gun. To taper a straightened length, he’d put one end in a drill and spin it while pinching it with sandpaper.
I was quite grateful for the time I spent with Andrew and went home equipped with what I needed to know to make my own chagudax̂. I made two, carefully painted both with Unangan-inspired designs, and adorned one with the faux whiskers. To give the glass beads used to decorate the whiskers a local touch, I made them by spinning molten glass on a bicycle spoke coated with kaolin as a parting agent. I collected glass from old debris uncovered by low spring tides: broken beer bottles for brown, a Noxzema jar for blue, and a Ponds Cold Cream for white.
I had put too much work into the two chagudax̂ that I’d made to risk damaging or losing them while boating, so I kept them as works of art and remained curious to know how they would work. I had been experimenting with PVC plastic cut from drain pipe to make megaphones and found that an 18″ section of 4″ drainpipe, cut down one side and heated for about 8 minutes in an oven at 170 degrees, would create a flat sheet 13-1/4″ wide—just a fraction of an inch shy of the tracing I’d made from Andrew’s patterns.
After cutting the blank for the chagudax̂ from the sheet, I heated it again, a little less this time, and bent it into shape, let it cool, and then drilled and lashed the overlap. I painted the underside a dark brownish red, as Andrew did his hats. For the top, I didn’t adopt the Unangan patterns for my own, but used elements from my family’s private signal. After the paint was well cured, I custom-fit the visor by giving it a few minutes in the oven, then molding it on my head and letting it cool there. With contact along the entire perimeter, it has a comfortable fit, even where the bill’s edge makes contact with my forehead.
On my cruise at the end of last summer, I quickly grew to like the PVC chagudax̂. In bright, hot, sunlight it darkened the overhead glare in a much wider area than a baseball-style cap and protected the tops of my ears from sunburn. In a downpour, I wore it under my cagoule hood and was well shielded from the rain. And a chagudax̂, whether wood or PVC, doesn’t get soggy. It does indeed have an acoustic quality, though I noticed it mostly when I was motoring: when I looked down into the boat it made an almost startling amplification of the motor behind me. If the top of my head gets cold, I can wear a stretchy watch cap either over or under the chagudax̂. Thanks to Andrew, this versatile part of Unangan technology has found a place aboard my boat.
Andrew died in 1998 at the age of 82, and I regret that I had paid only one visit to him. There surely must have been more about Unangan culture and kayaking that he could have taught me. When I was doing more research at the time that I was getting ready to make my PVC chagudax̂, I read that he and Elisabeth, his wife of 65 years, had a daughter, Sharon. I searched the web for her and was ultimately able to connect with her through a Facebook page. I emailed her about my visit with her father and attached a photo of my chagudax̂, including the one I’d made from PVC drainpipe. I was a little worried about how she might react to taking Andrew’s inspiration away from the Unangan bentwood tradition and interpreting it in plastic. I was relieved when she replied: “You are a true Unangan! Our people made do with the materials available to them, right?”
The book, Chagudax̂: A Small Window Into the Life of An Aleut Bentwood Hat Carver, is available from Blurb, a self-publishing company.