Friday, October 3, 2014

Fire Good? Fire Bad? and, Whatever Happened to Pyrodiversity


I recently bought a book called California Indians and Their Environment. California Indians unlike most of the other Indians in what is now the US had never developed any agricultural technologies.  Instead, California Indians made their living exclusively off plants growing wild in their environment.  However, Indians managed their environment by burning practices that encouraged their food and medicinal plants to thrive.
Enter the Europeans.
Fire, an environmental management tool for the Indians was a threat to property for the Europeans.  The use of fires intentionally set  by the Indians, what are now called prescribed fires was outlawed by the Europeans. I imagine that the dwellings of Indians were subject to fire damage just like the dwellings of the Europeans but given  that the Indians set fires to manage the vegetation in their territory did not build dwellings where they would get burned down.  In addition, Indian dwelling may have been more temporary or movable and therefore more disposable or more easily relocated if a prescribed burn was called for.
I have never seen the reasons for antipathy to fire spelled out anywhere in text, but the idea that fire is bad seems almost self evident probably at least in part because of a massive public relations campaign by the department of Agriculture.  The appeals were mostly emotional and aimed at a population that probably had very little contact with forests on a day to day basis. The reasons for preventing forest fires are primarily economical and have little to do with ecological concerns.  Fire is a natural phenomenon and ecosystems have adapted to fire and in many cases depend on fire to keep the ecosystem in balance.  Not so in National Forests managed by the Department of Agriculture.  National forests produce lumber.  The lumber is sold to lumber companies and the Department of Agriculture collects money when the trees are cut down.  Trees that go up in smoke don't produce any revenue and whether by training or by natural disposition, most people, myself included don't like the look of burned over forest. 
The National Park people on the other hand don't sell any lumber and so they can afford to let forest fires burn.  No revenues are lost as a consequence.  Perhaps park attendance goes down during a forest fire but quickly picks up again afterward.  National parks even do prescribed burns since some trees like the giant Sequoias don't reproduce unless the ground is burned over.
But back to the Department of Agriculture anti fire campaign.  While the motivation to prevent forest fires was primarily financial, the advertising campaign instead focused on the fact that forest fires could potentially kill cute baby deer and bears, and so Smokey the Bear was created.
OK, so fire wastes resources, not to mention displacing or possibly orphaning young deer.
Here's the orphaned deer theme again.  no mention of wasted resources this time.
And again, this time, who knows, might be Smokey's nephew that's getting bandaged up there.  Smokey wants to know WHY?
This time, no orphaned animals, but the implication is clearly that those two cubs would be in a heap of trouble if there were to be a fire.  Smokey meanwhile is taking a break from shoveling dirt on top of camp fires to read a fan letter.  In the background, city dwellers recreate on a lake in the woods at a forest service campground in an environment of statuesque ponderosas unmarred by fire.
And for the children, a reminder that there's lots of critters that would be indisposed by forest fires, the advertising campaign bleeding out into the culture at large via children's books.
And finally, WWII poster.  Needs an update there with Putin and Osama.









California Drought

California is in the third year of a drought.  I report on this only because I live in California.  I like where I live right now because as you know, I build kayaks and kayaks need water and the place where I live, Alameda an island in San Francisco Bay gives me ready access to the water.  But the water is salty and not suitable for drinking. In Alameda, water for drinking comes from reservoirs which store winter rain runoff. When winter rains are insufficient, water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers is pumped into the reservoirs.
The picture above shows what California looks like right now to a climatologist.  The darker the color, the worse the drought.  As you can see, a good part of the state is in the chocolate condition.

Let us zoom out a bit for perspective.  Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico also have a bit of drought but nobody has as much chocolate colored drought as California.
The chart above puts names with the colors. Drought goes from Abnormally Dry to Moderate, then Severe, then Extreme and then Exceptional.  As the names indicate, California is having a drought that would not have been considered normal when the names for the severity of drought were made up.
We are told, furthermore, that in the past, Californian droughts have lasted from years to decades, maybe even centuries and nobody seems to know what sort of duration this particular drought will have.
Long term droughts are game changers.  The photo above is of a place in Camp Verde, Arizona called Montezuma's Castle.  The people who built these dwellings apparently abandoned the area during a prolonged drought.  The people who lived there were primarily farmers, raising the usual southwestern crops, irrigated by the river that flowed at the base of their cliff dwelling.
The moral of the Camp Verde story seems to be that no matter how swell the place you're living in may be, if you don't have water, you go elsewhere.
So, even though this is strictly in the realm of speculation, prolonged drought in California could well depopulate the state significantly.  Californian climate refugees would move elsewhere. Farm workers would move back to the Spanish speaking parts of North America. North American cuisine would revert to what it was in the 50's, that is, lots of canned green beans in the winter and canned spinach and canned corn.  Vegetarianism would go back out of style.
The prime users of water in California are of course the farms and orchards that raise the 20 billion dollars worth of crops that are grown in California's Central Valley.  If the Central Valley turned back to grasslands and oak savannah, perhaps some coastal cities could still survive on the water that was left over.  Who knows.  In the meantime, water use is being curtailed.  Lawns are going unwatered, trees are dying and so on. 


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Single Bladed Paddles Get a Tank Test

I've been working on a bunch of single bladed paddles for a number of reasons.  The first is that I was making a single bladed paddle blank for one of my kayak students. And once I got going on that paddle, I thought, why not make a bunch more. The second reason is that when I make double bladed kayak paddles,  I always have some thirty inch lengths of wood left over that I can't use on the double bladed paddles but that are long enough for single bladed paddles.
So I got four paddles roughed in for myself, two are the Aleut single bladed paddles I made out of a double bladed paddle that I had cut in half.  Go back a few posts for the details on that. And two of the paddles were canoe paddles of roughly Ojibwe style.  At least I think one of them is since it's based on lines I took off a paddle I saw at the Ojebwe Museum in Lac Du Flambeau, Wisconsin.
Photo of my SOF canoe at the Encinal boat ramp on SF Bay.  The dark blue part is the Bay.  The medium blue stripe along the horizon is the SF peninsula.
Here's a 3/4 shot of the canoe with paddles spread out for the photo.
A better view of the paddles from the blade end.  The two on either side are the two halves of the former double balded Aleut paddle.  The second from the left has an eight inch wide blade and a length of 64 inches.  The third from the left is based on the paddle in the Ojebwe Museum.  The blade on that one is six inches wide and total length is 68 inches.
And this is a view from the end of the handles.  The two middle handles are based on traditional Ojibwe samples.  The two on the outside are tee handles mortised to the ends of the paddles.  After taking the paddles out I decided to round over the outside edges of the handles some more since I found myself using them with the upper hand on the outer edge of the handle rather than square in the middle as you might think.  This is the kind of thing one discovers on tank tests.
What found on the tank test was that I really liked the Aleut paddles even though they had less surface area than the other two canoe type paddles.  On the other hand, the canoe paddles, especially the one that was 68 inches long worked better for paddling on one side only by transitioning to a rudder stroke at the end of each propulsion stroke.  With the Aleut paddles, I had to do two strokes on one side then switch to the other side to get the boat to swivel back in the other direction.  I'm not sure why that was, it may simply have been that with the canoe paddles with their bigger blade area I was able to do a rudder stroke more easily.

Chairs, Skin on Frame and Lashed

One of my readers sent me some photos of chairs made in Mexico by traditional means.
Full view of the chair.
Lashed construction holds the parts together
Lashings hold uprights to the bottom ring.

He writes in part,
I recently got back from a trip to Mexico visiting my wife's family. When down there we saw a style of furniture construction which reminded me of skin on frame, in that it involves multiple relatively poor quality pieces of lumber lashed together in a way that makes it both strong enough to do it's job and is also very resilient to impacts. It seems to me that this chair and SOF (bicycle wheels as well) are so strong is because loads and impacts are dissipated by transferred them to multiple small, relatively weak, parts instead of concentrating them on one part that must be thus very strong. The type of furniture is called Equipale and was very common in the state of Jalisco. (I do not know if it is a regional style or a national one).
And I'm adding some photos of two chairs of ours that were falling apart because the glue was coming undone. These were chairs where the parts were held together with glued dowels.  The glue failed and the dowels pulled out of their mortises one evening at dinner while a friend of ours was sitting on one of these chairs.  The dowels were still stuck on one end and drilling them out would have been tricky so I just reassembled the parts and lashed around the joints.  The chairs now have some movement in them since the lashings don't make completely rigid joints, but overall, they are hanging together.
This isn't skin on frame technology, but it is lashed and doweled construction where lashings take the place of glue or screws  to hold parts together.
Here I reenforced each doweled joint with a lashing.  Even if the glue fails, the joints will not pull apart.  The string lashings function like ligaments in animal joints.
Here, my lashings pull all the legs toward the center.  This approach is less work than lashing each joint individually. Now that I look at this photo, I'm thinking that I should paint the lashing some color other than white.
Postscript: I first saw these two chairs at a neighbor's yard sale.  I didn't care enough for them to buy them but picked up some lamps.  Next morning the chairs sat out in the alley next to his dumpster so I grabbed them.  Painted one red and the other one blue and reupholstered the seats in yellow vinyl. Subsequently painted the blue chair orange.  I believe the chairs now have a few more decades of life in them.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Qaqamiiĝux̂: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, A Review


I got my copy of Qaqamiiĝux̂ in the mail the other day.  I was expecting a smaller book for some reason.  As it turned out, the book is hard bound and a full 8-1/2 x 11 inches in size and has 382 pages. 
The content is just what the title advertises, a description of traditional foods and how to prepare them.  Nutrition information on various foods is also provided along with safety tips. 
Contents are grouped by food type, marine mammals, fish, birds, caribou/reindeer, plants, tidal foods and other.
If you are not an Alaskan Native or a guest of Alaskan Natives, marine mammals will not be accessible to you, but all the other foods are available to the general public. 
If you were raised outside of Alaska, much of this food will look alien to you, but if you live in Alaska most of it will look familiar.
The book contains a good deal of historical information on how animals were hunted and caught, something that might be of interest to kayak builders given that one of the primary uses of kayaks was as a vessel to hunt and fish out of.
The book contains lots of photos both color and black and white of how the food is gathered and prepared and gives you a good sense of contemporary food culture in the Aleutians.
My only complaint about the book is that it is missing the customary picture of the author.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Qaqamiiĝux̂: Traditional Foods and Recipes from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands


The APIA (Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association) has published a new book on traditional Unangan foods.  I ordered the book but haven't received it yet so I can't write a review yet.
Here is the book description from the APIA website:

Qaqamiiĝux̂ is a compilation of the stories, experiences, recipes, and wisdom shared by elders, food preparers, and hunters from the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands Region of Alaska about the use of traditional / local foods, from the land and sea. Literally translated, qaqamiigux means to hunt or fish for food and collect plants, or subsistence, in Unangam tunuu (M. Dirks, 2014). This book is a cultural, historical, and nutritional tribute to the traditional foods from the region.
Some of the highlights of this book include:
  • hundreds of words in Unangam tunuu
  • traditional values and stories
  • historic and contemporary information on harvesting, preserving, and preparing traditional foods
  • beautiful historic photos from collections worldwide
  • hundreds of recipes
  • nutrition information for every traditional food, when available, including colorful graphics highlighting the nutritional value in comparison to store-bought foods
  • information on the role traditional foods play in the prevention of dietary-related diseases
Author: Suanne Unger
Publisher: Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, Inc.
ISBN:  978-0-9914591-0-0

If you're interested in buying the book, here is a link to the APIA website: traditional-foods-recipes.

Unangan Single Bladed Paddle to Double Conversion and Back Again

When I first saw this picture of a double bladed paddle, I thought it was a new Aleut type.  And so I made a copy of it.  As it turned out, it was too short for me and I never used it after its original trial. Later, the photo showed up on some forum and somebody perceptive pointed out that the double bladed paddle looked like it was two single bladed paddles lashed together, possibly after having been sawed to better fit together. Sure enough, if you look carefully, you can see the lashing that made one paddle out of two.  The picture was taken at the Chicago Field Museum when it was the site for the World Fair.
The problem with using a single bladed blade shape for a double-bladed paddle is that the single bladed paddle is designed to be used more or less vertically so that the full blade is immersed in the water at then end of the stroke.  The blade on the double bladed Aleut paddle is widest near the tip so you can get more blade in the water at the beginning of the stroke at a lower blade angle.

Click on the photo for a better view.  Note the single bladed paddle tucked under the improvised double bladed paddle.
Just recently, it occurred to me that the one paddle out of two process could be reversed and if I cut my too short double paddle in half and spliced some more wood to it. Then I could have two usable single bladed paddles instead of just one unusable double bladed paddle.
The double cut in half on a bandsaw. The half on the right already has its extension glued to it. 

And here, a close-up of the sliced portion of the paddle.
Soon as my paddle transformation is complete, I will report on the performance of these paddles.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pipe-Smoking Sailors & Explorers

I ran into a picture somewhere of a traditional kayaker with a pipe in his mouth.  Then I ran into other pictures of pipe_smoking mariners.  Apparently, once upon a time, pipe-smoking was a normal diversion for men on the water.  Voyageurs, the canoeists who transported furs from the Canadian interior to Lake Superior stopped periodically for their smoke break.  What all these people had in common was exposure to the elements, the cold and wet and tobacco smoke generated by a pipe helped them endure.
This photo looks like a still from a movie set and features the pipe prominently.

These two fishermen are mending nets on land.  They are getting a bit of a break from the harsh sea but the pipes come out all the same.

And of course, there's Popeye, beloved cartoon sailor with a pipe he mostly used to suck spinach out of a can.  
Also found this photo of explorers in Unalaska ca. 1907. When in a cold place, smoke a pipe.

Note that the only guy smiling is the guy front right with the pipe.  Pipe smokers also got to sit down.  No pipe, you have to stand and look grim.
Soon as I find the picture of smoking kayakers, I will post it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Shape of the Unangan (Aleut) Kayak

Unangan and to a slightly lesser extent, Alutiiq kayaks are distinct from the kayaks of other regions in that they are a good deal more flexible. And this flexibility allows any given kayak frame to take on a number of different shapes depending on how they are flexed. And so I thought I would post some photos that show the customary shape of an Unangan kayak, or iqyax^ as the Unangan called it. I've also included one picture of an Alutiiq three-holer. What is notable in all these photos is that on flat water the bow of the kayak clears the water for some distance back. The distance seems to be greater for doubles than for singles, but it is distinct in both cases. Another thing apparent from the old photos is that the deck stringer is more or less parallel to the water line back of the cockpit and slightly rising from the front of the cockpit to the bow. 
Here is an Unangan one-holer probably from the first half of the twentieth century.  The bow clears the water by what looks like about two feet.  Photo credit: Lauren Peters.


An Unangan two-holer with even more bow clearance.
And here is an Alutiiq three-holer in Cold Bay, AK.  Though Cold Bay is in the Unangan region, this three-holer is of Alutiiq style construction.  Note that the paddlers fore and aft are kneeling and the passenger in the middle hatch is sitting. All the same, good bow clearance.
From a functional standpoint, bow clearance helps the bow of the kayak rise to oncoming waves without punching into them. If the bow rises above the wave rather than punching into it, the kayak loses less momentum.  From a construction standpoint, the kayak needs sufficient freeboard, the distance between the sheer line above the water to keep the deck clear of the water. A low-volume flat bottomed kayak does not have enough freeboard to raise its bow very far above the waterline and so it needs more sheer, that is upward curvature of the the gunwales forward of the cockpit to give the bow some elevation.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Unangan (Aleut) Paddle Orientation Revisited

I already have two posts on how Unangan paddlers held their paddles.  To read them, type paddle orientation into the blogger search box on the upper left side of your screen.
Most recently, I have been having conversations with Rob Macks of Laughing Loon Kayaks and he graciously gave me access to some pictures he took of Unangan paddles when he last visited the Smithsonian Institution. Unfortunately I can't post them without the permission of the Smithsonian so I will resort to photos I have posted before.
I haven't seen any Unangan paddles in person, nor handled them.  Rob has. What he pointed out to me is that the Unangan paddles have looms that are roughly triangular with one of the corners of the triangle lining up with the ridge that runs down the center of one side of the paddle.  The looms are also quite deep, commonly about 1-3/4 inches.  The base of the loom's triangle lines up with the flat side of the blades.  What Rob pointed out is that trying to hold the loom with the ridge of the blades facing backwards is uncomfortable because trying to paddle that way has the ridge digging into your palms.
To test the idea of the uncomfortable loom, I carved a loom section out of a piece of two by four with a dimension of 1-3/4 inch deep and 1-1/4 inch wide and roughly triangular with rounded edges so it became more egg-like than triangular in cross section. 
Well, the loom seems a little more comfortable held as shown in the photo below, but not all that uncomfortable the other way around either.  What might be more of an issue, and I have noticed this with one paddle that I made is that a loom with a 1-3/4 inch by 1-1/4 inch cross section is that a loom with these proportions limits how far you can rotate it in your hands to get the right blade angle for efficient paddling.
I will be making a paddle with a loom that is an accurate replica of the Smithsonian type paddles to test this hypothesis.  The idea is that the triangular loom shape will orient the paddle in a favorable way when held flat side back and an unfavorable way when held ridge side back.  
So here is a photo of an Unangan paddler with his paddle.  He looks like a real paddler and so I would expect that when posing for a picture, he would hold the paddle the way he would hold it for paddling, that is, flat side facing backward. Note that the paddler is holding his paddle where the loom transitions into the blade.
This appears to be where you would be holding that paddle while paddling. If you click on the picture above, you will see that that is where the front paddler is holding his paddle.
None of this is conclusive of course, but I suspect that a lot of the dispute about how Unangan paddlers held their paddles has to do with opinions based on Unangan style paddles that aren't very close replicas of the originals.  How you hold a paddle has a lot to do with what is comfortable for you and that has a lot to do with how the paddle was carved and also with how the blades were carved.  Some fairly subtle variations in construction of both loom and blade can easily bias use of the paddle either ridge or flat side towards the back. And as I noticed with my own Unangan style paddles is that I can use them either flat or ridged side back and both ways work although flat side back typically generates more thrust.
Another thing I noticed while looking at Rob Macks' photos of paddles is that on some of them the ridge on the blade was not sharp but rather about a half inch wide and flat.  This type of paddle looked like the basis for the one with the groove down the spine.
One of the paddles in the Smithsonian was also quite long, 8' 6" according to Rob.  It falls into the category of extra long paddles that Jeffrey Dickrell, historian of Unangan kayaks has reported seeing in some historical photos.
So there you have it.  All in all, I suspect that Unangan paddles varied a bit from place to place and from paddler to paddler.  I also suspect that once Russians pressed Unangan paddlers into hunting sea otters for them, paddle and kayak styles became more homogenized than they were before the arrival of the Russians.