Qayaqs and Canoes


A kayak (spelled in all four Eskimo languages as "qayaq", "iqyax" in Unangax, also known as a "baidarka" from a Russian loan word in Unangax and Sugpiaq regions) is made of driftwood from the beach, covered with the skin of a sea mammal, and sewn with sinew from another animal. The hunter wears clothing made from the intestines of a seal or bear, puts on a hat of bent driftwood that sports sea lion whiskers, ivory, and feathers, and steps into the boat. He becomes one with the boat, the water, and the animals of the sea.

Kayaks were made and used along Alaska's northern, western, and southwestern coasts, the areas inhabited by Esk-Aleut speaking people -- the Iñupiat, Yupiit, Alutiiq/Sugpiat, and Unangan (Aleuts). They are represented on this map by blues and light green.

Under the guidance of 83 year-old Frank Andrew, family members built this Caninermiut style Yup'ik qayaq, the type used in the Kwigillingok and Kipnuk regions, using only traditional measurements and practices. There are teeth marks in the wood of the circular hatch opening, made by the builders as they bent and curved the driftwood into shape.

The frame is carved from curve-grained white spruce driftwood stumps. It is covered with bearded seal skin, a hide that resists water, and is waterproofed with seal oil. Seams are caulked with a special moss-seal oil compound.

The qayaq is held together with sinew lashings and wooden pegs, making the craft flexible in the water.

The eagle crest painted on this qayaq represents the Andrew family, which has formed an organization called Qayanek, dedicated to research and building kayaks.

These are the members of the Andrews family and founders of Qayanek, in 2000: Frank Andrew, son Noah and grandsons Noah Jr., Troy, and Ethan Wilkinson. Before coming to Anchorage to work on their qayaq, they assembled the frame in Kwigillingok, then took it apart and brought it to Anchorage for reassembly. Because no trees grow on the tundra, the frame had to be built entirely of driftwood. An essential  task is to find a  stump from the portion of the tree where the trunk and roots meet; this has the proper curve for the qayaq's bow.

Noah Andrews and his brother-in-law Bill Wilkinson collect driftwood along the Kuskokwim River for the curved bow and stern pieces that are so critical for strength in constructing the frame of the qayaq.

It took five seal skins to cover the qayaq. The Andrews family harvested and prepared the skins in Kwigillingok before coming to Anchorage to construct the qayaq.

In order to sew the skins into a waterproof cover, the Yup'ik people devised two special types of thread made from caribou sinew. Since caribou are not indigenous to the Kwigillingok area, the sinew was obtained through trade with people further inland.

Mary Ann Wilkinson, Frank Andrews' daughter, explained, "We sew the skins together using a special stitch. You don't pull it tight because if you pull it tight, when it dries up it will be too tight. Then after you sew it, in and out, you reverse it and you put grass in there and make a whipstitch. The grass soaks up water and makes the seam waterproof. . . . We start sewing in the morning and sew all day and all night. We can't let it sit overnight."

The Central Yup'ik people considered a qayaq the owner's most prized possession. It is fast and maneuverable, seaworthy, light, and strong. It was used for transportation, hunting, and, in an emergency, shelter.

The average qayaq length is 15 feet, but each was tailored to fit its owner. The frame of this qayaq, made by Phillip Moses of Tooksook Bay, is made from spruce wood and covered with seal skin. Five women, using sinew thread, sewed the seal hides over the frame. The craft can support 1000 pounds, even though it weighs less than 70 pounds

Phillip used his arms and hands as the units of measurement for this boat. As a young boy, he had learned the art of qayaq construction from his father and grandfather in the qasgiq (men's large sod house).

Master boat builder Phillip Moses, on the left in this photo, confers with his hunting partner David Alirkar. They are from the village of Toksook Bay in western Alaska.

Phillip remembered, "Some people told stories of kayaks and kayaking. They would tell of trips. The stories I heard are from time immemorial. Since the kayak has been with the Yup'ik peoples from those ancestors of ours, our stories and legends would tell of kayaks. They made sure no one was without a kayak and it was a practice to make the grandchildren kayaks. It was even a tradition among the women to make kayaks."

This close-up of the bow of the Toksook Bay qayaq shows a distinctive shape, slightly different from the Caninermiut qayaq that was built just 50 miles away. Every seasoned hunter could recognize where another hunter came from by his boat's silhouette. Central Yup'ik qayaqs, like the two shown here, were constructed with a hole in the bow which could be used as a hand-hold to haul the craft off the sea ice or onto a qayaq sled.

Men and women worked together to cut and tack the skins over the qayaq frame. Phillip Moses had this to say about the covering skins:

"For kayak skins, if they didn't have skins from the previous year they would use skins from two-year-old bearded seals (two-year-old seals have hardly any fur on them) because they were thick skinned. They would scrape the hair off when they used those skins . . . . Also the less fortunate would use the skins of walrus. They would make the skin thinner and use them for kayak skins. Those who just didn't have skins would help each other and complete the kayaks."

Grass mats such as the one at the left that Maria Moses of Toksook Bay is weaving lined the bottom of the boat. This served several purposes: it provided insulation, holding in the kayaker's body heat, it made for a softer cushion than the wood itself, and it served as a wick, drawing up moisture so the qayaq would not become waterlogged.

Hunting on the open sea is the most dangerous and demanding form of hunting practiced by human beings. It requires navigational skills, physical prowess, and knowledge of animal behavior.

This Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) qayaq, also called a "baidarka" after a Russian loan word, was built by Gregor Welpton of Juneau and Nick Tanape Sr. of Nanwalek. It is 17 feet long and can carry 200 pounds in addition to the hunter and his equipment.

Like the other qayaqs that were built as part of the 2000 Qayaqs and Canoes project, this baidarka was held together with pegs and lashings. Because these swell in water, they are stronger than metal nails would be. In addition, the rawhide and sinew lashings make the craft flexible in the water.

These curved knives, sinew shuttle, and other wood working tools belong to boat builder Gregor Welpton. Each was hand-made for a specific part of the process of fashioning the qayaq.

A distinguishing feature of Sugpiaq boats is the upswept forked bow, similar to, but more accentuated than, the Unangax uluxtax's bow. The lower part serves as a cutwater and the upper flotation piece allows the boat to be more maneuverable in rough seas. Nick Tanape commented,

"It helps when you're out there in the rough water. It definitely works. I don't know whose idea it was, but you would have to be very smart to figure that out. They traveled in very rough seas out here. I've been in a boat where a forty- or fifty-foot boat couldn't travel where our people traveled in their fifteen- to sixteen-foot kayaks. They landed on the rocks on the beach with no problem. The bigger boats would just sink."

Because the Sugpiaq people have been using wooden, aluminum, and fiberglass boats for several generations, Nick and Gregor had difficulty finding experienced skin sewers to cover the qayaq. They worked with Grace Harrod, a Cup'ik woman from Mekoryuk, who in turn taught Alutiiq artist June Simeonoff Pardue the waterproof stitch. This consists of a blind stitch on what becomes the outside of the skin and a reinforcing whipstitch on the inside.

June recalled, "The men used to be the ones who would sew their own boats because then their life was in their own hands."

Sealskin is translucent. This view from inside a qayaq is similar to one that hundreds of generations of Yup'ik, Unangax, Inupiaq, and Sugpiaq children experienced, as they rode inside their fathers' qayaqs. Elders recall watching the sea splash against the side of the qayaq as they were transported along Alaska's coast.

In the traditional Unangax culture, the iqyax (kayak) was a cornerstone of survival. Hunting on the open sea was extremely demanding and required great skill. The hunter needed to be an expert marksman with the harpoon and dart, know how to navigate, and understand animal behavior.

This two-hatch kayak, called an uluxtax, was built by Michael Livingston, who began constructing Unangax-style watercraft more than 20 years ago as an apprentice to master boat-builders Phil Tutiakoff and Bill Cherapanoff in Unalaska.

Like Sugpiaq bows, iqyax and uluxtax bows were split to slice the water at the same time they offered stability -- but the designs were different.

Sugpiaq oral tradition holds that the Unangax sterns were also distinctive in being cinched closed with a drawstring. This fact played a crucial part during a raid by the Unangax on their Sugpiaq neighbors. According to the descendants of the defenders, their ancestors found hidden iqyan in the grass, pulled open the drawstrings, and watched as the Unangax fled to sea after their raid, not realizing that their craft would soon fill with water and sink.

This old photograph of the town of Unalaska on Unalaska Island -- the largest community in the Aleutian Chain -- shows the mountainous terrain, treeless landscape, and ample shoreline that characterize the homeland of the Unangax people.

This engraving, made by artist John Webber after returning from a voyage with Captain James Cook, shows two kinds of skin-covered boats that were common in the 18th century Aleutian Islands: the iqyax and the two-hatch uluxtax. The Russians, who colonized the Aleutian Islands beginning in the mid-1700s, commissioned a third type of boat which had three hatches. This allowed two Unangax men to paddle the boat, while a Russian priest or company man sat in the middle hole.

Boat builder Michael Livingston explained, "Aleut kayaks were not really cargo ships. They were more like racing hulls. . . . Their purpose was for getting there quickly, making the kill, and returning to shore. They were hunting machines, hunting tools."

His uluxtax has a wooden frame made primarily of spruce. The pieces were lashed together without metal. In the past, Mike has covered his kayaks with canvas or nylon, but for this special project he used sea lion hides from St. Paul Island.

Mike continued, "three hundred years ago, a hundred percent of the people that lived in Aleut territory knew about baidarkas. Every man, woman and child knew how important they were. They knew basically how they were made, and they knew basically how the skins were sewn on. Today, probably only on-tenth of one percent of the people that live in Aleut territory really know how to make baidarkas."

Seal intestine or, as shown here, bear gut, was an essential part of every kayaker's hunting kit, whether in the far north or the Aleutian Islands. The gut was cleaned, split, dried, and then sewn into waterproof parkas, like the one seen in the photograph of Michael Livingston above. The parkas (called imarniin in Central Yup'ik) were designed with a hood at the top and a drawstring along the bottom edge. This allowed the hunter to tie the parka around the wooden ring that formed the opening of the kayak, making a waterproof seal that kept him dry, even in the highest seas.

The parkas were not only practical; they also had a spiritual dimension. Throughout coastal Alaska, shamans wore these parkas in ceremonies during which they communicated with the spirits of the animals that allowed human survival in the rugged environment.