First Lecture in Series to Address the Art of the Kayak

Cockpit of historic Alutiiq kayak, ca. 1868.  Courtesy Presidents and Fellows of Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and via alutiiqmuseum.org.
Cockpit of historic Alutiiq kayak, ca. 1868. Courtesy Presidents and Fellows of Harvard University, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and via alutiiqmuseum.org.

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

A local craftsman will lead a lecture about Alutiiq kayak carving techniques focused on one example in particular. The Alutiiq Museum is currently exhibiting a seal skin-covered kayak, which Jim Dillard says was probably crafted in the late 1850s.

“Those early kayaks were incredibly tough, and the reason they’re incredibly tough is because of the manner in which the materials were prepared, and those materials were prepared, unlike most replica kayaks today, those materials were prepared in a way that maintained all of the natural strength of those natural materials.”

It starts with the base material of the kayak: the wood.

“What retains the original strength of the wood is to maintain the grain line throughout the boat, and the Alutiiq people knew that and split their wood rather than saw it of course, and that process retains most of that strength, whereas a sawmill these days, we usually cut the strength lines.”

Alutiiq crafters also had a clever method to increase a boat’s flexibility.

“A technique of tying pieces of wood together to where they would not come apart yet would slip and slide, making the boat even more flexible, and it’s again that flexibility that is so essential to making that boat and those boats as tough as they were.”

Dillard says he can make an educated guess about what tools crafters might have used to construct the kayak on display. He explains, at the time it was carved at the end of the Russian era, the Russian population commissioned blacksmiths to make a lot of axes.

“And so we assume that the axe was used to build especially the bow piece of the kayak, and then an adz, a curved adz which carves out the inletted places, especially in the bow piece, and then a crooked knife, and that’s the simple toolkit.”

You can learn more about the kayak and how it might have been crafted at Dillard’s lecture, the first in the Alutiiq Museum’s fall lecture series. It’ll begin at 7 p.m. Thursday night / tonight in the Kodiak Public Library.

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