Archive for the ‘Baidarka’ Category

Shop Cats

December 18, 2007

Almost every shop that I have ever worked in has had a resident cat. The shop that I have used for the last eighteen years is no exception. In that time, there has been a succession of shop cats, kept ostensibly for rodent control, but who, ultimately contribute much more to the community. In fact, some of these felines were not particularly adept at catching rodents. However, those who may not have been particularly able hunters have, almost without exception, been possessed of huge personalities.
              Three of the most interesting cats that have dominated the shop over the years were Tigger, Furgus and Punch. While these three cats were very different from one another and did not, in fact, manage the shop at the same times, they all loved boatbuilding. Thus it turns out all of my pictures of these three involve building baidarkas, an skin-on-frame kayak native to Alaska. Tigger liked being involved in any project that we had going on. He was always around but rarely underfoot.

Tigger under a baidarka skinTigger with boat frame

 Punch and Furgus on the other hand needed to be in the middle of everything and were always underfoot. When he was a kitten we had to go to great lengths to make Punch feel involved while keeping him out of the way.


              Furgus just ended up in the middle of everything.

Furgus demonstrates frame lashing


Winter Reading

December 12, 2007

Qayaqs and CanoesSome good friends from Alaska recently sent me a great addition to my library. A book and video tape called Qayaqs and Canoes, Native ways of Knowing .  Anyone who appreciates baidarkas, umiaks, or native Alaskan handcraft will appreciate this book. Really a series of essays, and observations based on interviews with eight native boat builders, their apprentices and supporters, the book is the direct result of a project called Qayaqs and Canoes; paddling into the millennium. Filled with evocative photographs of some magnificent artwork, and due to the format based on interviews, you can pick the book up and start reading almost anywhere.
           It reminded me of another wonderful book in my collection Our Boots, An Inuit Woman’s Art. Again, like Qayaqs and Canoes, magnificently illustrated with museum quality photographs, interviews and examples from premier Inuit makers of mukluks.
           And while on the topic of books, let me take a moment to plug fellow blogger Gavin Atkin’s new book; Utrasimple Boatbuilding, available like the other two books here on Amazon. This looks like a perfect book for the beginning boat builder. You can read more of Gavin’s work at intheboatshed.

Of Kayaks and Snowshoes

February 12, 2007

The idea of taking skills learned from one craft and applying them to another is basic to creative thinking. One example of this cross-pollination of skills is the seat in my single hatch kayak,  Selkie.         
             Selkie has a removable seat that pivots, drains, and even allows wet shorts to dry. The idea for this, like many good ideas, is not new. I came up with it after making my first few sets of snowshoes. first sets of snowshoesAs I learned to weave different materials, rawhide, and then rope, and then quarter inch webbing, I was struck by the sheer ingenuity, and the variety of different weaving patterns. I began to wonder where else I could apply this newfound craft. Then I came across an old Old folding camp chairmodel of a folding camp chair that LL Bean and a few other companies used to make and sell before the advent of ubiquitous foam and plastics. The by-product of these to experiences was the seat for the Selkie. Made of bentwood with a woven seat surface, my kayak seat may be more elaborate than need be, but is comfortable and dry.

   Cockpit of the Selkie  Kayak seat  

        I emphasize the word dry because of all of the hopelessly befuddled, poorly thought out examples of shoddy design; the solid molded kayak seat has to rank as one of the shoddiest.
             It is virtually impossible to get into a sea kayak without dripping water onto the seat, if the seat has no way to drain, then the paddler has no choice but to sit in a puddle every time he or she enters their boat. One might think that this piece of knowledge would be so basic that designing a modern sea kayak without a self-draining seat would be as rare as designing a modern automobile with no reverse gear. Not so, too many boats I have seen have a solid piece of plastic or fiberglass shaped to conform to the anatomy of the human posterior-with no drain. A perfect birdbath, only you get to sit in it.
             The consequence of sitting in a continual puddle is more than just a little uncomfortable. There is even a condition called in the common vernacular “kayak but”, basically it is trench foot, only it is not on your feet. If you don’t think that’s a big deal go to this excerpt (reprinted with permission) from the 2005 January/February issue of the Wilderness Medicine Newsletter.

Trenchfoot Article WMN 2005

             I spoke with Dr. Murray Hamlet who was one of the consulting editors for this article in the Wilderness Medicine Newsletter, he confirmed that “kayak but” is essentially the first stages of immersion foot (trench foot). I asked him if, like trench foot, this is a permanent injury. He said he had not followed enough cases to say definitively, but since this is a preventable injury, it was not something to test.
             Clearly, there is more than one possible solution; paddlers who always wear a full dry suit have a barrier between themselves and puddles. Another solution Dr. Hamlet suggested was to get a good piece of astro-turf and sit on that. The astro-turf allows air to circulate and water to drain. Sound strange? Perhaps, but then I built a terrific seat based on a snowshoe.

Passamaquoddy Bay

January 16, 2007

               I first discovered the Passamaquoddy about a decade ago when I was invited on a kayak trip by a friend who runs a Sea Kayak touring company. The trip was a revelation for me. We set out from St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and I was impressed by the twenty-eight foot tide and the lack of lobster buoys, since the lobster fishery in Canadian waters is a winter fishery. This also meant that there was a significant lack of commercial vessel traffic. We were only a forty-minute drive from Calais, Maine, but it felt more like a thousand. As one drives from St. Stephen to St. Andrews, there is a very noticeable shift in the geology from granite ledges and fir trees, to red sandstone and cedars. Paddling past sandstone arches sculpted by the tides and beaches of pink sand in a northern climate is a very different experience from the barren beauty of the granite ledges of the Maine coast.

              The trip included seven clients and two guides, and I went as a guest of the guiding company. Mine was the only skin boat, certainly the only bairdarka in the group. I think that at first my skin boat, handmade paddle, and paddle jacket drew a certain skepticism, but as the trip played itself out I won many converts for the baidarka. The weather was good, the company engaging, and the food was excellent. Sitting around a campfire on the beach each evening and discussing the geography, the history, and the marine environment, was a true education and the beginning of a love affair with the region.

               A chain of islands crosses the mouth of the bay and separates it from the rest of the Bay of Fundy. This gives the whole Passamaquoddy a feeling of protection that is misleading. While the island chain does protect the inner bay from the swells of the Bay of Fundy, the entire tidal contents of the bay must flow out and in around these islands twice a day creating extraordinarily dangerous currents, standing waves, and whirlpools. Another factor of these strong currents is that they stir up the small marine life in the water making a fantastic feeding ground for finback whales, minke whales and occasionally the rare right whale. There are strict protocols concerning approaching these animals no closer than 100 meters, however, no one told the whales. On one occasion, I was a part of a group of paddlers just drifting along, minding our own business, when a pod of curious whales surfaced all around us. This is not only a very rare experience but also a potentially dangerous one. It left all of us both awestruck and feeling very small.   

Finback whale seen from kayak

                Over the years, I have been drawn back to this area again, and again, because of its great beauty, the abundance of marine mammals and coastal birds. It is a spectacular area for kayakers to explore with a guide or as part of a guided trip, but, and I cannot emphasize this enough; these are very dangerous waters. Even expert paddlers who guide in other parts of the world would be wise to get a local guide with experience. Seascape Kayak Tours has been doing this longer than anyone else has in the area and has won a number of awards for the quality of what they do, check in with them, in my opinion they are the best.

               Another part of the attraction of this area is the many creative and inspirational people I have met over the years, like Harry and Martha Bryan. Harry and Martha moved to the area to homestead in the 1970s. Harry is a boat builder and Martha works in canvas, they do beautiful work, and that alone is enough reason to visit, but they are also an inspiration to those of us that think we should leave less of a footprint in passing through this world. Harry’s inventions, his bio-diesel sawmill, band saw, and peddle-powered tools, are as neat in their own way, as his boats. The Bryans are just one example, another is a wonderful and funky inn in St. Andrews called Salty Towers. Part B&B, part Inn, part art gallery, it is also a bit of a local hangout for musicians and artists. Jamie Steel, who runs Salty Towers, is one of the prime movers of the St. Andrews Paddlefest, held each May. Paddlefest started in the early 90s as an Earth Day celebration and beach clean up, and was the brainchild of Bruce Smith, of Seascape Kayak Tours. What was once as a one-day event for local sea kayakers has evolved into a weekend event that combines sea kayaking, beach clean ups, and live music in several venues.

              I wanted to share my reflections on this beautiful place because it has been a source if inspiration for me as an artist and outdoorsman, and because this truly unique area is currently threatened by a scheme to build a Liquid Natural Gas Terminal on the U.S. side of the bay. The project would involve building a pipeline across Northern Maine and introduce regular traffic of LNG tankers into the bay. There has been a lot of heated debate about whether bringing LNG to the area would be a good thing or a bad thing. As near as I can see, it would be a good thing for those people who stand to make fortunes off the lack of sound energy policy in the U.S., and a bad thing for the rest of us. I only bring this up (politics is not one of the themes of this site) because any readers who have found my description of the area interesting might want to check it out sooner, rather than later…there may not be a later.

You can find out more about this subject at

Wooden Hats

January 14, 2007

One of my hopes for this site is that visitors will get ideas for projects of their own. Quite often, I have gotten ideas for projects by looking at objects from other cultures, or other times. One set of examples of this are my wooden kayak hats.
           When I first started building baidarkas, and was researching their construction, I kept running into pictures of native Alaskans in their long-billed wooden hats. The hats looked unusual enough that I wanted to know more about them.
           My experiences in experimental archaeology have taught me that, if you cannot find something out through the historical record, then one solution is to set up an experiment. I set out to make my first wooden hat in order to test it so I could determine for myself what might have been the practical advantages of such headgear. I did not use the exact same woods (I used what I had at hand, as I suspect the original makers did) and I employed more steam bending than carving technique. What I made had as close to the same shape, size, and weight, compared to the originals as I could get, and then I took it out and tested it.

Double Baidarka with Kayak Hats

           As it turns out, quite a lot has been written about the cultural importance, and the potential spiritual importance of the original Alaskan headgear. A great book, which I only came across after starting these experiments is, Glory Remembered; Wooden Headgear of Alaska Sea Hunters, by Lydia T. Black (Alaska State Museum, 1991). There have even been speculative writings on the possible camouflage provided by these hats since they change the profile of the human paddler into something less recognizably human to the mammals that were the prey of the Alaskan hunter. What impressed me, however, was that this was a great and very practical hat for kayaking. Completely waterproof; it provides terrific shelter from rain as well as sun. It is cool, light, if you still think it looks funny; then it also provides entertainment value.
           I have grown so used to these wooden hats that, when I am in one of my boats, I feel totally exposed without one. Oh yes; you can also use these wooden hats as a spare bailer.

Wodden Kayak Hats

         Making wooden hats, like making wooden paddles, or making boats for that matter, is slightly addictive. Now I have a collection of hats.

Sea Kayaks

October 30, 2006

           Over the years I have built a collection of sea kayaks. I got interested in the process after a conversation with some friends who were sea kayak guides. Originally I was interested in the number of modern kayak designs that trace their inspiration to Greenland boats, but I also wondered what alternatives there were to these designs. That was when I discovered George Dyson and the western sea kayak designs that are generally lumped under the generic Russian term; “baidarkas”.
            The first baidarka I built was a behemoth twentyfour foot long double based on a Kodiak type. Although she was fairly light, her length meant she had to be moved by trailer. She could carry huge amounts of camping gear, and supplies. The Kodiak double was built as a “skin” boat; that is a cloth skin over a wood frame. The frame was built using drawings and photographs from museums. The skin was a 26 oz nylon that George Dyson was selling as kayak skin. It was easy to work with, and when painted with a hypalon paint combined virtual indestructibility with the softness and flexibility of traditional boats covered with animal skin.
             The Kodiak boat was a great platform from which to launch a series of adventures onkodiak-double.jpg the Maine coast and in the Canadian Maritimes. It also proved to be the first of what turned into be a fleet of boats. Mostly Aleutian single cockpit boats of various sizes, although an occasional Greenland type snuck in as well. frames.jpgI experimented with different species of wood to see what effect this would have on performance. The problem with this line of approach is thatthree-singles.jpg it creates more questions than answers and thus more boats.


             Most of the time when I pass by “the fleet” on my way into the wood shop I am reminded of the many wonderful trips these boats were part of. Sometimes, however, the presence of so many boats is a little oppressive. I can’t possibly need all of them, in fact some would not get used at all if I did not loan them out to friends from time to time. I am reminded of a T shirt I saw one day that read “Plures naves quam mentes” (More boats than brains).