It’s now 4000 years after the creation of the oldest kayak artifact, and we humans still find ourselves enthralled by the technology of the skin-on-frame kayak. The earliest kayaks were built from driftwood found on the beach and covered in the skins of marine mammals. The appeal of these skeletal kayaks shows in the endurance and resurgence of skin-on-frame kayak technology in the sea kayaking world today.
I’ve gathered here a collection of information about both skin-on-frame kayaks in history and in modern times. Enjoy and email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is a kayak?
Before I go any further into kayak history and all the details, we should know what makes a kayak a kayak and not simply a claustrophobic canoe. This ‘sense of claustrophobia’ gives us a clue– the kayak is a boat that practically traps the paddler inside it! So what is a kayak?
- A kayak is a small boat that is human-powered, originally derived from indigenous technology.
- A kayak has covered decks that keeps water out when the conditions are stormy or rough.
- Kayaks typically have a relatively small opening that the paddler sits inside of. This opening can be tiny (Greenland kayaks), or quite large (western Alaskan kayaks).
- Kayaks today are usually paddled with double-bladed paddles, but many historic kayakers used single-bladed paddles.
History of the kayak
The first kayaks appeared in Siberia, probably descended in construction from large open skin-on-frame boats known as umiaks, and possibly inspired by the seagoing, partially-decked, sewn-plank canoes of the people living along the Amur river. Along with the varied native cultures that adopted and continued to evolve the kayak, they quickly spread eastwards along the northern Pacific Rim.
The major distinction between covered-deck canoes and the first kayaks was the construction style– kayak hulls were no longer constructed of the scarcely available wood or bark, but instead made of the skins of marine mammals, sewn over a ‘skeleton’ of spare driftwood members.
By 1000AD the kayak had spread all the way to Polar Greenland by the peoples of the Thule culture. Those people eventually became the Inuit, and central to their subsistence lifestyle in the incredibly harsh Arctic was the technology of the skin-on-frame kayak. Indeed the kayak was a defining characteristic, a marine mammal hunting system for the Thule peoples. This made them distinct from the Dorset culture that they slowly displaced or assimilated from 1000-1600 AD.
Why was the kayak so important?
Kayaks allowed, for the first time, humans to survive in cold northern regions and hunt for marine mammals with great success. They were used on coastal waters, inland waters, and even the open ocean, as reported of the Aleut by Russian traders. Before the invention of the kayak and its subsequent pairing with a sophisticated harpoon system, humans had trouble reliably hunting the widely available marine mammals.
In order to understand why marine mammals were so important to northern indigenous peoples, first we have to imagine what the conditions were like for them. The cold in the North was incredibly intense, and scarcely any plant life grows. In order to stay warm without the use of fires, northern native peoples created body heat through the burning of consumed animal fats. The marine mammals, often seals, provided most of the the material needs in the North: hides for clothing, meat/fat for food, fat for fuel, and bones and ivory for tools.
Native kayak types famous in history
Kayaks were designed and used by indigenous people all across the Arctic and sub-arctic coastal regions, beginning in Siberia and spreading out to eastern Canada. Distinctive types were created by the Koryak, Chukchi, and Yuit (Siberia), as well as the Aleut and Inuit (North America). I won’t go into detail describing the variation here, but you can visit Harvey Golden for a detailed geographic typology.
You can see ‘typical’ kayaks of Western Greenland both at the top of this page and at left. Greenland kayaks are known for having low volume, being unstable and fast. They also have a tendency to weathercock, or turn their bows into the wind to assist in hunting upwind towards their seal prey. Nevertheless, foreign visitors often noted how skilled and capable the Inuit were when combined with their boats. Greenlanders typically returned with their catch by towing it in the water behind them, so they did not need high volume. In addition, Greenlanders are observed to primarily paddle in calm waters, though they were well prepared for difficult conditions should they arise.
Rolling: Greenland kayaks are likely the most famous because a system of kayak rolls, or techniques to right a capsized kayak, were known and practiced. These rolls allowed a Greenland Inuk to survive in the event of a capsize, as falling out of the kayak and becoming immersed in the icy waters of the arctic often meant a quick death. For them, it is not too much to say, “Roll or die.”
We know of the Aleutian island chain as a stormy, inhospitable set of rocks surrounded by the ocean. Adapting to this environment, the Aleut designed highly seaworthy craft, of a moderate volume and a characteristic squared stern. They are often also known to have bows that are split into two sections, presumably to alter the bow’s cross section into a complex shape.
Aleuts are known for hunting sea otters in a period of history when they were essentially enslaved by Russian fur traders. You can read more about the history of this hunt in George Dyson’s Baidarka.
There is some controversy over whether the Aleut or did not have the ability to roll their kayaks. What is known, however, is that Aleut kayaks were designed to carry a significant amount of cargo (seals butchered on land) and were often paddled with ballast to offset their tippiness when unloaded.
Skin-on-frame kayak construction
The original impetus for skin-on-frame construction was likely the availability of materials. For arctic and sub-arctic peoples, wood was scarce and valuable, so the idea of piecing together a frame arose from pragmatism. The frames were usually constructed from driftwood, then later covered by animal hides (usually seals), which were laced and sewn together, acting as the final structural element to an exceptionally strong and durable vessel. The photograph to the left shows a Greenland-type kayak built traditionally by me and my good friend Brian Schulz. I’ve published an article on the construction details of this kayak in the Bulletin of Primitive Technology as well as here online.
The kayak frame
Frames were once built of both driftwood or even bone (in the high Arctic). Skin-on-frames today have been built with aluminum and even carbon fiber, though most are made of wood, which has often continued to be the lightest material of sufficient strength.
The three major components of the frame are the longitudinal members (gunwales, keelson, stringers), the deck beams, and ribs. I could easily write ten thousand words on the complex and varied frame construction methods involved in skin-on-frame building, but the space available limits me to a brief description. You can see photographs of the modern process or even a video of the entire building process.
A kayak frame begins as a set of long runners called gunwales. These two mirrored pieces span the full length of the boat and are connected structurally by transverse members called deck beams. These usually jointed by lashing or complex mortice-and-tenon joints (peg in a hole), the latter being much stronger. After the deck beams are fitted, the kayak is flipped over and then ribs are bent and placed into mortices. Indigenous people seldom used steam-bending of wood for ribs, preferring to use compression by chewing, or by heating and bending using oil. The ribs determine the kayak’s hull shape to a large degree, and are then lashed together with long runner known as stringers. Finally, the stems, or endpieces of the kayak are lashed into place. There are various additional steps, such as the addition of stringers on the deck, that may also occur in framing.
The kayak skin
Managing the construction of a kayak in the past was always a divided labor. Native women handled all things dealing with hides, including the sewing of kayak skins, while men were responsible for construction of frames. This system of interdependency and specialization gives us a glimpse into the complex social structures that governed hunter-gatherer societies of the North.
Skins were first sewn together before being fitted to the kayak’s frame. Although greatly variable, it often took six ringed seals to cover a single Greenland kayak. In lieu of seals, seal lions or caribou were used, all dependent on region and availability. Once a kayak was skinned, its skin would last anywhere from a year to five, changing from culture to culture. It has been my experience that kayaks in warmer and wetter regions are likely to deteriorate more quickly.
Two types of major stitches were used to sew a skin, all usually done with braided sinew. The amount of this amazingly tough cord from tendon (whale was preferred) should not be under-estimated! As much as a mile of cordage is evident in modern Aleut replicas. The first stitches done in the Greenland tradition were a long draw stitch, used to bring the two side of the skin up around the hull of the kayak to meet along the center of the upper deck.
The second set of stitches was much smaller and used to create waterproof seams. There are a number of these waterproof stitches, though the precise technique for doing them is nearly a lost art today. Often such stitches were done twice, one to bring the two edges together, and another to fold and flatten the seam. These stitches were also often subcutaneous, or done where the needle never penetrates completely through the layer of hide, thus preventing the creation of holes which might leak slowly.
Once the skinning was complete, various animal fats such as seal blubber were used to waterproof the skin and seal seams. This fat mixture varied and could even be composed of trout fat!
Modern skinning is a very different affair, typically utilizing cotton canvas, nylon, or polyester. There are innumerable techniques for sewing on the skins, though more traditional methods closely mirror the original builders of skin-on-frame kayaks. Waterproof coatings nowadays vary from paint (also used by Greenland Inuit in the last century) to high-tech polyurethanes which allow the creation of strong and ultralight boats. I will say from personal experience that a kayak skinned with actual hides is ultimately much tougher and more durable than even the toughest modern materials, albeit with increased weight comparable to fiberglass or plastic kayaks.
Usage and subsistence in modern times
Today kayaks are seldom used for their original intentions. For me personally the highest art of the kayak is to actually use it for subsistence and survival. First, let’s talk about uses for kayaks, and skin-on-frames in particular, at the beginning of the 21st century.
Rolling as a sport
The kayak roll originally began as a cultural technique used to counter the capsize in dangerous conditions. In cold waters, a roll means the difference between life and death, but not all native cultures developed the ability to roll, a difficult process to learn at best. The most advanced techniques for rolling are found in Greenland, even today, encompassing some 35 rolls that are used in the National Championships. Though rolling continues to see extensive use for survival purposes, it would be more precise to say that most rolling today takes the form of sport, as evidenced by the Greenland Championships themselves.
Properly executed, the different types of rolls allow a paddler to recover from a capsize in all kinds of conditions, some of which are relevant now, and some of which are more historic (arms tied up with your harpoon line). The Qajaq USA site lists in detail the different rolls from Greenland, and many sport rolling enthusiasts use skin-on-frame kayaks.
Kayak Touring and Expeditioning
Kayak touring involves paddling with the kayak as a form of transportation, often for a duration longer than a single day. Kayakers who tour often camp in wilderness areas overnight, and indeed the unique abilities of the kayak allow access to remote areas that can be accessed by few others. Kayak touring is the most popular in regions of the world with archipelagos, such as the Pacific Northwest of North America (Alaska, BC, Washington coasts) and Patagonia in South America.
With the resurgence of skin-on-frame kayaks in popularity, we are seeing many paddlers doing short tours in the Pacific Northwest. However, few paddlers today do world-class touring in skin-on-frame kayaks, although my own personal mission is to see the skin-on-frame kayak paddling the most challenging expeditions in the world. This translates into promoting the modern skin-on-frame as a viable form of transportation as well as actually expeditioning myself. One recent 30 day expedition off the coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island can be seen in the December 2010 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine.
The past five years have seen a literal explosion of interest in kayak fishing. It’s of little surprise to those who still see the kayak’s lines into history as a tool for subsistence and survival.
Today kayak fishing is championed primarily from a type of boat called a sit-on-top kayak. These small boats, though not technically kayaks, are efficient vessels for fishing in calm waters, most typically in warmer waters. Despite this, however, skin-on-frame kayaks have also been seeing increased usage in kayak fishing. Their greater safety in rough water and ability to be home-built have slowly been winning converts to this style of kayak fishing.
Kayak fishing has always been a major impetus for me as kayak-builder. My interest in primitive skills and survival led me to designing entire systems for fishing from a kayak, much as the pre-Inuit Thule culture of the arctic used the kayak– as a central tool to a method to hunt and feed themselves reliably.
Present-day interest in traditional kayaking has grown considerably since its re-popularization, due in part to efforts by George Dyson and Corey Freedman.
The two aspects of traditional kayaking that differ substantially from the current strand of modern paddling are kayak rolling and techniques derived from the use of traditional paddles.
Traditional paddles & strokes
The two styles of paddle seeing the most usage are the Greenland-type paddle and the Aleut-type paddle. Both have seen substantial alteration at the hands of do-it-yourself builders, and far from being an exercise in futility, have actually improved by way of an increased database of knowledge about paddle variables.
Greenland paddles, like most traditional paddles, are used in a different way from modern spoon-bladed ‘Euro’ paddles. The movement of the forward stroke involves the rotation of the torso from the core muscles of the abdomen, and takes the strain away from the arms and shoulders. Though there are a number of forward strokes, a Greenland-style stroke often begins with paddle-blade entry near the paddler and ends behind him. The paddle’s position is also canted at an angle upon entry, preventing flutter and creating a smooth and seamless stroke.
Greenland paddling is touted as being less fatiguing, as the paddles themselves usually offer reduced surface area and resistance, resulting in a higher cadence of paddling relative to power per stroke. A significant part of the reason that this reduction of fatigue occurs is also due to the stroke technique itself, which, in utilizing a paddler’s core muscles, distributes the work of paddling more evenly.
Strokes in Greenland are also quite diverse, resulting in a large number of ways to improve kayak handling. Because of the symmetry and foil-like nature of the blades, the Greenland paddle can be use to turn the kayak swiftly (from the leverage of an extended stroke), slip sideways in the water, or brace with efficiency.
Traditional paddles often have low resistance against the wind, due to their reduced surface areas. Indeed, an oft-touted (and much disputed) advantage of modern spoon paddles is feathering, a feature of paddles that has the two paddle blades turned relative to each other. This theoretically reduces resistance against the wind and offers a more ergonomic paddling position, at the expense of greatly increased exposure to repetitive stress injuries. A modern spoon-bladed unfeathered paddle adds considerably more resistance against the wind than a Greenland paddle.
Traditional paddles, bracing and rolling
In the arena of bracing and rolling, Greenland paddles in particular offer distinct advantages in their usage. Their symmetric shape and ability to be used in an extended position gives rollers the opportunity to greatly increase their leverage against the water, and to find and setup into any number of positions underwater to return to the surface.