Monday, May 14, 2012


It used to be that the only way to get your memoir published was to be a famous person or an interesting writer or to have such an interesting life that someone else wanted to write your memoir for you, as told to style. The truth is that a lot of people have had interesting lives and it is too bad that more of them don't write memoirs, but then, what would we do with billions of memoirs.  Where would we store them all?  And if you think about it, a lot of the memoirs would be more or less similar or at least that is what people think.  And so, hardly anyone writes memoirs at least in statistically significant numbers and instead of there being a vast and repetitive glut of memoirs, there's a vast array of lives that have never been documented in print.
So it seems that Andrew Gronholdt had the sense that his life lived mostly in the Aleutians during a time when traditional Aleut culture was rapidly being overcome by the mainstream American culture might be worth putting down in writing.  Apparently, Gronholdt worked at his memoirs but but died without getting them published.  According to the book, Gronholdt's daugher, Sharon Gronholdt and her friend, Mike Livingston decided to edit Andrew's writings, lay out the book, add photos, many of them taken by Andrew and publish the book themselves though Blurb, a print on demand publisher.
So there it is.  Mike Livingston sent me a copy.  I have leafed through it, looked at the pictures and started reading it.
The title and the cover picture both made me think that the book was primarily about bent wood hat making.  But it isn't.  It's about Andrew Gronholdt's life just off the Alaska Peninsula in the north Pacific in the Shumagin Islands, the place where Vitus Bering discovered Alaska and sea otters and set off the chain reaction that led to the colonization of Alaska by the Russians.
The Russians sold Alaska to the Americans who then began to work on Americanizing the native population.  By the time that Andrew Gronholdt was born, the Americanization was just about complete and much or even most of the Aleut culture was disappearing.  Andrew Gronholdt, however, must have had a sense that the culture needed preserving or in the case of wooden hat making, reviving from the death it had suffered a few decades earlier.
The book is lavishly illustrated with photos as well as some of Andrew Gronholdt's sketches and working designs for various Aleut inventions, not only the hats but also bailing pumps, fox traps and other things that Andrew was interested in.
The book at a price of $109 a copy is probably not within everyone's budget, but if you are interested in Aleut or Alaskan history at the beginning of the twentieth century, you may want to talk your library into getting a copy. Or if you do have the $109 you can get a copy at Blurb.
By the way if you think your own life or the life of someone you know is worth documenting, co-editor Mike Livingston encourages readers to just do it and put together a book and publish it through Blurb or one of the other self-publishing houses.  We probably don't need everyone to write a memoir but a few more might give the humans of the future a bigger window into the past.

Why Are Sea Otters so Cute?

The sea otter post on my blog is the all-time most popular. No other post even comes close. I guess there are a lot of people out there who want to look at pictures of sea otters. Sea otters are probably the cutest animals there are, cuter than pandas even. 
What makes them so cute? I think that the key to sea otter cuteness is the fact that they look like cuddly baby animals even as full grown adults.  I think it's all that fur that makes them look so cuddly.  And they lay on their back and they stick their furry paws up in the air and the fur makes their eyes look like little buttons and that black furry nose, so cute.  Makes you want to just pick them up and squeeze them.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Whatever Happend to Do It Yourself?

Boat plans from Popular Mechanics Magazine
Whenever I am giving a kayak building demonstration somewhere in a public space, some guy in his sixties or seventies will come up and say, "Yeah, I remember building one of these in the Boy Scouts."  The point worth mentioning here is that it is never a forty or thirty year old or even a fifty year old that comes up and says, "Yeah, I remember building one of these in the Boy Scouts."  My statistical sample isn't very large, but it seems to me that sometime in the post-WWII era, people built stuff and then they stopped.

So what happened? 
I have some theories. 
One of the factors that encouraged the do it yourself movement was prosperity and the high cost of wages.  Since most things consumed in the US were made in the US rather than imported, manufactured goods were relatively expensive because of the cost of labor.  So if you made something yourself, you could save on the cost of labor. Also, since manufacturing was still a big part of the US economy, the skills to make things were still valued and encouraged.  Schools were still expected to turn out graduates that could enter a job market where manual skills were valued. 
Folding kayak built from Popular Mechanics plans
And there were magazines like Popular Mechanics and Mechanix Illustrated to cater to do-it-yourselfers with plans and instructions. It seems like the golden age of  home made projects.
The other factor working against home made boats is the invention of roto-molded boats. This process eliminates most of the human labor from the making of a boat.  Kayaks and canoes can be made in a mold.  A little clean-up and some trim is all that needs to be added to make a finished boat.  The cost of these boats is so low compared to making your own that the effort hardly seems justified from a cost perspective.
Still, various plywood boat kit manufacturers seem to be making a living turning out kits for home builders. But a kit is not the same thing as making something off a set of plans out of a magazine.  I suspect that kits are popular because the general level of confidence to make something by hand has declined considerably since the middle of the twentieth century. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

On the Evolution of Kayaks

There is a notion drifting around the skin on frame kayak world that skin on frame kayaks benefit from 4000 years or so of evolution.  The implication is that skin on frame kayaks were about as well adapted to their environment as could be.  Well, maybe.  But I want to express some contrary opinions on the topic. 
First of all, kayaks were designed and not evolved.  Evolution is imagined to proceed by random changes to a design which is then approved or rejected by the environment.  Kayaks are built by humans who by virtue of experience and ability to communicate with other kayak builders have some knowledge of what makes them work.  As a consequence, changes to kayak design are not random but rather, directed. So human designs can change rapidly and become optimized in a much shorter time than evolved designs. 
Secondly, evolution as imagined, only benefits current conditions.  That is, evolutionary fitness is potentially lost if conditions change.  If there was a major change in conditions, say 500 years ago, then both the 4000 year old and 1000 year old design would have to adapt, one design having to throw 3500 years of evolution on the junk pile and the other only 500 years of evolution. 
Actually, this is what happened.  All kayak designs were thrown on the junk pile when modern petroleum powered boats were developed.  Kayaks as a species went extinct in the arctic but mutated into recreational craft and migrated into industrial cultures to the south.

In addition, little is known about kayaks older than 400 years.  So whether they evolved in the sense of "improved" in the last 4000 years is strictly speculation.  I would imagine that kayaks of 3000 years ago were probably as good as kayaks 1000 years ago. I would think that one hundred to two hundred years would be sufficient to refine a design about as much as was possible.  After that, improvements would be minimal.
What did probably happen in the Arctic was that conditions changed periodically.  Since the kayak was a hunting craft its success had to be judged by its ability to bring its builder within range of prey.  If prey changed or hunting conditions changed old adaptations might have to be discarded and replaced by new designs. 
And the last big change to kayak designs happened roughly 400 years ago when European whalers showed up in the arctic, bringing with them steel tools and later, milled lumber.  Steel tools allowed a range of joinery in kayak frames that was previously inaccessible.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Iqyax^ (Baidarka) Flexibility Revisited

One more time now. Back to the topic of what makes baidarkas flexible and why one would make a baidarka flexible. This I hope to be a definitive treatment of the topic, by me anyway. 
I touched on this in a previous post prompted by a visit to the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley. What I discovered on that visit were a bunch of modification to the Atkan Iqyax^ in the museum collection, apparently made to reduce the flexibility of its frame.
There are some accounts on the topic of flexibility that indicate that the Unangan builders tuned the flexibility of their iqyan to suit conditions.  High flex iqyan were built for rough water conditions and low flex iqyan were built for smooth water conditions.  The flex of any given iqyax^ couldn't be modified on the fly but as the frame in the Hearst museum indicates, flex of a flexible iqyax^ could be reduced by modifications to the frame when the skin was off.
On a related note, Father Veniaminov commissioned the building of an iqyax^ with bone shims in Unalaska roughly 200 years ago when there were still people who knew how to build such boats.  His informants told him that the shims increased the speed of the boats. When he tested the iqyax^ with the shims, he found that it was no faster than an iqyax^ lacking the shims. But even though the test was inconclusive, it may be that he tested the boat only in smooth water conditions where the shims would offer no advantage.  In addition, we do not know if his builders tuned the flex of the commissioned iqyax^ to take advantage of the shims.
So without further ado, on to the details of how to tune the flex of an iqyax. Let us start with a picture.
The picture shows two aspects of the iqyax^ frame.  The top frame is shown in roughly neutral position such as the iqyax^ would assume on flat water.  The bottom frame is shown in flexed position with the ends pushed up such as it might look at the bottom of a wave trough.  Not shown is the frame with the ends flexed down, a configuration the frame would assume when going over the crest of a wave.
The important thing to note is that the keelson is slightly curved in the relaxed position. Flexing the keelson more as in the bottom picture would move the tail fin and bow assembly closer together, closing their respective gaps between them and the deck end cross blocks. Likewise, if the ends of the frame flexed down, the keelson would straighten out and the tail fin and bow assembly would move away from the deck, increasing the size of the gaps.
The question for the builder is how to tune the flex.  Should the kayak in the neutral, unstressed position have gaps at the tail fin and bow assembly or should they be tight up against the deck cross blocks?  My guess is that for optimum flex, there should be about a half inch gap both at the tail fin and bow assembly in the neutral position.  This allows flexing of the keelson upward and downward.
If there is no gap in the neutral position and the ends of the keelson flex upward, the keelson would exert pressure on the ribs and flatten them, thus distorting the hull.  If the gap is there, the keelson ends can flex up and close the gaps without distorting the ribs. 
The parts of the frame are joined in such a fashion that the keelson, the bow assembly and the tail fin are all lashed or pegged together tightly so that they act as a single unit. That is, the parts of this assembly do not move with respect to one another.  The keelson is lashed to the ribs, however, the ribs are loosely set into their mortises so they can pivot forward or backward as the keelson flexes.  Also, the tail fin is slotted into the back of the rear cross block but is free to move forward or backward.  Likewise, the rear deck stringer is not lashed to the tail fin to allow it freedom to move forward and backward.
At the bow, the bow assembly joins the deck.  The deck plate joins up with the ends of the gunwales but like the tail fin, can move forward or backward, opening up a gap in the process.
The picture shows the gap between the end of the deck on the left and the bow plate on the right.  The deck stringer has been lashed to the bow assembly, a modification to limit the motion of the bow assembly away from the end of the deck.
The notch in the tail fin mates up with the tail cross block.  The lashings between the tail fin and the cross block are an add-on and limit the ability of the tail fin to move forward and backward.
This picture shows one of the two lashings that join the tail fin to the keelson.  This joint is quite rigid so that the tail fin would move with the keelson rather than sliding back and forth on the keelson.
So to recap, to build a flexible iqyax^ the key is to allow the tail fin and the bow assembly to move closer to or away from the ends of the deck as the keelson shortens as it is flexed or lengthens as it is straightened.
To allow internal movement of the frame also requires the cooperation of the skin.  If the ends of the kayak are to move in and out, the skin must have enough stretch to allow this motion.
Modern synthetic skins may or may not have enough stretch to allow motion of the frame.  Also painting the synthetic skin with a sealer that penetrates the skin tends to glue the skin to the frame, essentially preventing internal motion of the frame and cancelling any structural allowances for frame motion.