Sunday, December 18, 2011

Inupiat Plant Food

When someone mentions Eskimos or Inuit or people of the Arctic, the stereotype that most often comes to mind is snow houses and people in fur parkas eating whale blubber. However, as short as summer in the Arctic might be, people there eat plant food along with animal food.  As a matter of fact, people of the Arctic eat a wide variety of plant foods.  And we are fortunate to have a book with an extensive list not only of what they are but also how to prepare them.
The book is called, "Plants that we Eat." Although the book focuses specifically on plant foods that are part of the Inupiat diet, the listing for each plant also includes a map of Alaska that shows the range of the plants.  And although different Alaskan Native groups probable had their own preferences and their own unique ways of preparing plant foods, we can assume that many of the plants listed in this book were eaten by more than just the Inupiat. For that matter, many of the plants listed in this book can be found in the temperate zones of the lower 48.
If you are interested in wild foods, this book would be a good addition to your book shelf.

Aleut/Unangam Masks

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Sand Point on Popov Island in the Shumagin Island group. The Shumagin Islands lie off the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula close to the eastern boundary of the Unangam territory.  Popov Island is now the only Island in the Shumagins with a substantial permanent human population.
Unga Island in the background. Popov Island in the foreground.

But until recently, neighboring Unga Island was populated as well.  And before the invasion by the Russians in the years following Bering's discovery of Alaska in 1741, Unga had a vibrant culture of which little has survived, save some masks.

I am guessing that Aleut culture on Unga was vibrant pre-1741 based on the fact that they made these stunning masks.  The making of art generally is impossible without a certain prosperity that affords people the leisure time to create art.  But besides the minimum level of prosperity, the making of art also requires that a culture have pride and confidence in themselves and their way of life.

Two more masks from Unga. Several things about these masks are worth mentioning.  The masks have holes bored into their chins and foreheads, an indication that hair or something else may have been attached to the masks at one time.
Another point worth mentioning here is that masks are usually provided with eye holes so the person wearing the mask can see.  As is apparent from the pictures there are no holes where the eyes are.  The person wearing these masks used the holes bored in the nostrils for eye holes.  This means that the masks are quite a bit taller than a human head.

The mask in the lower left corner may be a good indication what these masks may have looked like with all their added decorations in place.

If we compare the Unagam masks with those of Yupik people we can see right away that there is a good deal of difference in them.  Yupik masks are seldom purely human but often show additions of animal features or blends of human and animal features.  It appears that they depict transformations of fusions of humans and animals.  The mask from Unga by contrast show strictly human features, albeit, big-nosed humans.
Unfortunately, little is known about how the masks of Unga were used.  Unlike the Yupik culture which had little European influence until the 19th century, the Unagam culture was impacted by the Russians almost from the start of the Russian invasion.  As a result, pre-contact religious practices and the manufacture of accompanying parephenalia were stopped.  And the number of generations that intervened to the present day did not carry knowledge of traditional practices forward.

Food Gathering, a Communal Affair

One of the things I realized in writing about wild foods is that someone lost in any kind of wilderness whether it be arctic, woodlands or desert and finding food and surviving has the odds stacked against them.  Finding wild food requires not only knowledge and good timing, but perhaps most importantly for long term survival, community.
Mono women processing acorn meal.
It is one thing to be out in the wilderness for a few days or even a few weeks and getting by on wild food one can find.  It is quite another thing to live in the wilderness on a permanent basis.  Permanent wilderness living just like permanent living in civilization requires community.  Without community, living is simply more difficult than living in a community.
What is apparent in reading about food gathering in pre-industrial cultures is that while they all ate lots of different wild foods, they also invariably had some staple that became available seasonally and that everyone pitched in to gather when it became available and then worked to stockpile it for the times of the year when little or no food was available.
Acorn storage structures - note the stilts to keep the storage baskets off the ground and away from easy access to would-be competitors.

Given that communities living off wild food stockpiled against lean times, the chances of someone wandering into wilderness during the lean time of year and surviving on wild food are pretty slim.  The reason is simply that at certain times, there is no wild food to be had.
People living in a community had the resources of the community at their disposal, that is, the stockpiled food. Once people left the community, for instance to go on raids or extended voyages, they typically took some traveling food with them.  Barring that, they subsisted on some sort of food that was readily available and more often than not went hungry.  Long trips and raids consequently had to be made during times when some sort of wild food was readily available.
But the role of the community in wild food was not just in gathering, but also in processing.  Many wild foods need a good deal of processing before they could be put up against lean times and that generally required all available hands.  Even the gathering of surpluses required the whole community.  If the human community didn't collect the acorns or nuts or whatever, the animal community would.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Long Boats in Surf

Human powered displacement boats should be long and narrow for maximum efficiency. However, when you try to paddle one of these boats in surf or breaking waves, they tend to shoot over the top of the wave.  The stern stays in the water and the bow heads out into thin air, that is, until the boat's center of gravity moves past the crest of the wave.  At that point, the bow feels gravity and comes crashing down.

This is a photo of one of Ralph Frese's replica fur trade canoes out on Lake Michigan when some swell was running from the north. The canoe isn't quite up to its center of gravity, so the guy in the bow has a ways to go yet before he comes crashing down.  Ralph told me that when the canoe did come crashing down it shot water twenty feet up in the air, but not a drop got into the canoe. 

Here is a similar situation with an Indian boat in the Kerela region.
But scary as it looks to paddle a long skinny boat into breaking waves, paddling them down a breaking wave is even more scary since a long boat will try to broach if the wave is moving faster than the boat.

Boats and Oxen

This post is dedicated to the use of oxen on and around boats.  I am not suggesting that people with boats should go out and get a team of oxen  but if you already have a team of oxen, you might consider putting them to good use around your boat.
Oxen used for surf launching and landing

This picture shows a team of oxen standing by to pull this Block Island Cowhorn up the beach and out of the reach of the surf.  Pulling boats up on the beach used to be common practice in places where there were no suitable harbors.  Coming in through the surf had to be an adventure and you also had to have a boat built for the task.  Don't try this with a keel boat.

Here's the same scheme in Portugal.  Picture apparently supplied by António Fangueiro and lifted from
And finally, a vaporware concept for the use of oxen directly on a boat.  This one by an unknown Roman writing sometime around 400 AD.  

At first glance, it might not be apparent what our Roman conceptualist was proposing, but if you take some time to study the picture you will  see that two teams of three oxen are harnessed to two capstans which apparently are linked to paddle wheels at the side of the boat. 
The picture comes from a post by Ugo Bardi on the collapse of the Roman Empire. Ugo did not suggest that schemes such as this made the Roman Empire collapse.  Rather, he suggested that when the Roman Empire was collapsing, people were proposing to solve the apparent problem with fanciful technology like the oxen in the boat.  
Here is an excerpt from Ugo's article:
"The author described all sorts of curious weaponry. One that you can see here is a warship powered by oxen. Of course, a ship like this one would never have worked. Think of how to feed the oxen. And think of how to manage the final results of feeding the oxen. Probably none of the curious weapons invented by our anonymous author would ever have worked. It all reminds me of Jeremy Rifkin and his hydrogen based economy. Rifkin understands what is the problem, but the solutions he proposes, well, are a little like the end result of feeding the oxen; but let me not go into that." And we have to consider transmission losses and the added weight of the oxen, etc. etc.  
So, the long and the short of it is that history has shown that it is best to keep the oxen on the beach.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Indian Wild Food How To Books

This current post was inspired by my own earlier desert survival posts.  What I realized in the process of writing was that living in a particular place is not really survival.  The term survival implies that one lives in spite of various hardships.  I don't really think that Indians who lived in the deserts of the US southwest were merely surviving.  I think that for the most part, they were living comfortably.  Surviving is what you end up doing when you don't know what you're doing.  So toward that end, I thought I'd look at some of the books on my shelf that dealt with how the Indians made a living, where they got their food and how they prepared it.  Theoretically, if one reads these kinds of books, one might figure out how to live in the wild.  So let's look at the books.

Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes is really a pretty good book in spite of the overly dramatic title. I guess this kind of title grabs more attention than Natural Economy of the Pre-industrial Paiutes.  The book tells us, among other things that the Paiutes had multiple tribes and that each tribe tended to be named after their main food source, for instance Trout Eaters or Cattail eaters. Today we would call them locavores, people who eat only locally grown food.  But back then, everyone was a locavore by necessity.
One important fact that comes out of this book is that availability of food was seasonal.  Pine nuts appeared in the fall.  Cattails were at their best in the spring.  Fish came out of the lakes and ran up streams to spawn the same time each year.  And there were lean times like the dead of winter when people ate what they had stored.  What is apparent when you read this book is that one cannot simply walk into a wild region and expect to find food any time of year.  The Paiutes, like any moderns society needed to store food to survive the lean times of year.  Even the ground squirrels and wood rats and birds had to store food against the lean times.
The book also has a chapters on various Paiute technologies such as the construction of traps, the processing of food, making of cordage and nets, the building of tule reed boats and more.  While these descriptions probably leave a few things out, they are detailed enough that someone wanting to replicate the Paiute technologies would at least have a place to start.

Indian Uses of Desert Plants is a survey of plants most commonly used by Indians of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  Several things stand out.  One is that the plants in this book are all fairly common.  They are all plants you will have seen even during a casual stroll around the perimeter of a road side or from the edge of a hiking trail.  While deserts will have small micro-environments around springs and water courses, by and large, the number of different plants growing in the predominantly dry areas isn't large so that even a casual observer can quickly learn all the main plants.
What struck me about this book was that just about all the plants one commonly sees in the desert seemed to be listed in this book.  It appears that there was hardly a plant in the desert that wasn't used by the Indians for something or other.  Every plant in the desert, even the most insignificant looking ones were good for something, tools, food or medicine.
While this book does a good job of listing plant uses, it is only a survey book and not a how to book.  You won't find recipes here for mesquite bean soup, only the fact that the Indians ground mesquite beans into a meal and ate it in various forms.

This is a book similar to the book about the Paiutes and even has a similar sounding title, only it is more detailed and three times as fat as the Paiute book.  The focus of this book is more on various technologies of the California Indians than the foods that they ate. But even with its 448 pages, a book like this can only be a survey, at best, or selectively detailed since California  probably encompasses more bioregions and Indian tribes than any other state in the US. In any case, while this book cannot do justice to all the Indian technologies of California, it does do a good job of covering those that it does focus on. Bow and arrow making, pottery, weaving and traps are covered in good detail. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in Native technologies.

Early Uses of California Plants is a small book and avoids an overly dramatic title like some of the others reviewed here, but is thorough and detailed in what it does cover.  It only addresses plants, gives a picture of each for identification, along with some color plates bound into the center of the book and describes each plant in detail.  My favorite entry was on acorns, perhaps the most important food for California Indians in the regions where the oaks grew.  We are told that a family in Mendocino county would collect as much as 500 pounds of acorns in a year.
The book covers food plants as well as medicinal plants.  Details on medicinal plant use are generally slim other than to mention that they were used for certain conditions.  I guess you can't expect to become a medicine woman or man by reading a 104 page book.  Still, lots of good info in a small package.

Before California is about history and archaeology of the state of California before it became the modern political entity that it is today.  The book isn't primarily about food and technology of California Indians but does provide some good perspective on how lifestyles of California residents changed over the millennia. I personally had always thought of the human past as having had two distinct phases, the historical past where humans invented civilization and the time before that.  The time before civilization always seemed to be invariant for thousands of years on end.
But if you look at a narrow region like California as Brian Fagan does, then you discover that the climate and population density of the region varied greatly over the time that people first appeared on the scene about 10,000 years ago.  Perhaps not surprisingly, people first entering California ate all the best stuff first and ate the less desirable stuff only after the best stuff was gone. We now think that the main food of the Central California Indians was the acorn, but Fagan tells us that this wasn't so.  Acorn processing only started some 1000 years ago.  Acorn processing takes quite a bit of work and although California Indians knew about it for longer than 1000 years, they didn't bother eating acorns because there was enough stuff around that took less work to collect and process, like grass seeds.
Do Californians eat acorns now?  No, they've stopped because it's easier to buy food that somebody else made.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Wild Food, Does the Bear Eat in the Desert

I was going to call this post desert survival, part 2, food, but changed my mind.  The chances that someone would need to find food in the desert is remote at best.  Furthermore, the chance is slim that anyone would find wild food in the desert if they were  not schooled or at least self-educated in finding wild food. For that matter, someone who has never shown an interest in wild food is not likely to find any in an emergency situation. 
Still, wild food fascinates me and wherever I am, I am always on the lookout for it.  So anyway, today's post is about wild food and some possible clues about what is edible and what is not given a situation where you might want to eat some wild food but don't have the local wild food guide handy.

 Rule number one is not to look for food where there isn't any like in the place above.  Food is usually associated with water though not exclusively. Water supports vegetation and vegetation attracts animals. So use your water finding skills.
In this case we walked downhill into a valley where we found evidence of water. If you see cotton woods in the desert, you can be sure that you're near water.

 Another clue is to see what the other critters have been eating.  It passes through them and they leave deposits, in this case something with a lot of seeds in it.  At the time I saw these piles, I had no idea where the seeds had come from, but just a ways down from the piles there was a grove of mesquite trees and mesquite bean pods littered the ground.  Aha, someone had been eating mesquite beans. I chewed on a mesquite pod and found it to be tasty.  Slightly sweet and if ground and maybe roasted a little, tasty. 

Finally, here is a shot of a pond of water with cattails growing in it.  Euell Gibbons claims that the white core near the bottom is edible.  I have chewed on them and found them to be tasteless and unappealing, but if you were hungry enough, you could probably make a meal of them.
And there were frogs in this little pond as well but they would take some skill to catch unlike cattails which sit still.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Water in the desert

I've been out of town for over a month and am now getting back in the swing of things.  Time to spin up the boating fly wheel again and do more boating and boat building.
But before I post more boating news, I thought I would make a brief detour into the desert where I spent a good part of the last month. 
So what does a boat guy know about deserts?  Not much really, but I thought I would make some comments on desert survival, a skill that has something in common with survival anywhere, namely, paying attention to what's going on around you.
To survive in the desert, you need the same three things that you need anywhere, namely, food, water and shelter. So here it goes, my take on desert survival, part 1, water. The observations are based on locations in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.
A desert, by definition is a place where there is little rainfall. However, it doesn't mean that there is no water in the desert at all.  It does rain in the desert occasionally especially at higher altitudes and if you know where to look, you might be able to find water.

This is a lava flow, a common feature of Western deserts.  No water is in evidence.  Even if it does rain here, the water disappears into cracks and becomes inaccessible.

However, right at the border of the lava flow were these sandstone formations.  Still no water in evidence.

But there were depressions in the surface of the sandstone that collected water during a recent rain.  If you were desperate, this water could keep you alive.  If you are carrying a water purifier, even better, but then, who walks around the desert with a water purifier?   
A pervasive feature of deserts are dry water courses.  You can plainly see that water has run here at some point and will again next time it rains.  But it isn't raining right now and the bed of the sometime water course is dry.  But oftentimes, the water has simply gone underground, and oftentimes, the dry stream bed crosses a section of impermeable bedrock that brings the water close to the surface.  If there is water close to the surface on a more or less permanent basis, water loving plants such as sedges or willows will grow there.  So keeping your eyes open for these plants might lead you to water.  You might have to dig to get at the water, but you might not have to dig far.
Animals can also be an indicator of water.  If you see tracks converging, they might lead you to a water source. Birds will also know where water is and will congregate there.  

The white diagonal streak is a sometime water course.  It looked dry, but then I noticed birds flocking to a dark spot right near a cliff, and sure enough, there was some surface water there.

Deserts will sometimes have rivers and creeks, especially near mountains which capture the rain at higher elevations and then drain into the valleys.
Here is the desert landscape at the Burro Creek campground in Arizona.  No water is in evidence here.

But a little ways downhill into the canyon there are plenty of water loving cottonwoods and willows.

And a little walk leads us to enough water to swim in.
Of course, the easiest way to find water in the desert is to know ahead of time where it is.  Before the advent of civilization, horseback travelers had to plan their routes to take advantage of water holes.  Nowadays, you just need to drive to the nearest filling station to get your big gulp of soda water.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Playboat Camera Angles

As usual, when students build new boats I try to take some pictures.  Once again, I am reminded that taking good pictures is work.  The problem is not only one of lighting and camera angles but also what else is in the picture that you don't want to be. 
This is a good angle. Makes the kayak look really good.  What I've found in general is that shots from the ends of the boat emphasize the rocker and longitudinal curvature of the whole hull.  Shots of the deck are usually much more boring. Only problem is that the kayak seems to be glued to the underside of the VW van.

This angle not so good and again, van placement is unfortunate.  Kind of makes the kayak look like one of those Greek creatures that are half one thing and half another.

Same problem here as the previous picture, only now the kayak looks like one third bush, one third kayak and one third shadow.

Baidarka-Iqyax^ Interior

Inside of the baidarka, newly built with the sun coming through the skin.  Sure is pretty.

Play boat demo

It was launch day, Mandy and Andre launched their latest creations.  Foreground, Andre turning his playboat on a dime. Beautiful day.  Summer in Alameda, finally.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Low Entropy Boat Building

Entropy has generally had a lot of bad press.  Entropy is seen as something undesirable, as a general increase of disorder in the universe.  But, as people like Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine have been pointing out, order in the universe is created by burning energy and creating entropy.  You get a local decrease in entropy or increase in order and organization by a larger net increase in entropy.
So things like culture and technology arise from the burning of energy and the creation of entropy. So if more entropy also means more order and organization, why should we opt for low entropy boat building? That is, why should we do things like build skin boats instead of plastic roto-molded boats?  Interesting question, I think.  While hi-tech (high entropy) boat building produces some fabulous boats, lo-tech (low entropy) boat building is a hedge against energy scarcity.  That is, sometimes it is interesting to design boats for low energy scenarios, for environments where energy is scarce, or for some reason or other, you just don't want to use a lot of energy for esthetic reasons like you don't like the noise that high entropy machinery makes.

Why Aleuts don't build kayaks any more

Aleuts build kayaks up to about WWII and maybe a little after.  Today, the practice of building kayaks in the Aleutians has stopped.  There are many reasons why the building has stopped, but the primary one no doubt is economics - the kayak has become economically irrelevant in the lives of the Aleuts.  Other kinds of boats have replaced the kayak.  This becomes apparent when one spends any amount of time in an Aleut village like Sand Point.  The major activity nowadays is fishing and to make money at fishing in today's world one needs a commercial fishing boat, not a kayak. See evidence below.

There is also the fact that if you spend a good deal of time out on the water in your fishing boat, you are not likely to want to go out in a kayak in your spare time. But if you are working in Anchorage at a desk job, then maybe going out in a kayak on weekends might seem more attractive. 

What is possible, contd.

On our last day in Sand Point, we found some dry suits airing out on the railing of the motel we were staying at, the Anchor Inn. At first we thought they belonged to some kayakers, but in talking to the owners of the dry suits, we discovered that they belonged to some jet skiers who were using jet skis to travel from Seattle to Nome. The trip is apparently being financed by a cable TV network which will air a show on the trip sometime in 2012. Partial video below.
After talking to the jet skiers we went down to the harbor to look at their rigs.
Expedition logo

Here's the jet skis and Mike Livingston for scale.

Due to the general unavailability of gasoline en route, each ski had six extra 5 gallon tanks.    
After Sand Point, these guys were headed for King Cove and after that to False Pass where they would cross from the Pacific into the Bering Sea.
So OK, it's a stunt of sorts to travel from Seattle to Nome by jet ski.  For one thing, there aren't enough places to get gas. At one point, these guys had to get gas flown in to them, but other than that, doing the trip by jet ski isn't much different than traveling somewhere by motorcycle. 
So does this mean that we will now start seeing jet skis being used for long trips along our coasts, or to cross to Hawaii from LA?  Who knows.  It is possible no doubt long as you can get someone to bring them gas.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What is possible?

The current boat I am working on is yet another iteration of what I like to think of as my version of the perfect bay boat, bay kayak, that is.
One version of the bay boat, a canoe with outrigger for stability. However, too slow for long distances.
The perfect boat, for my current purposes at least is a boat that is fast enough to do a six mile bay crossing in a reasonable amount of time.  The boat also has to be car-toppable and be human powered, that is propelled by oars or paddles.  By reasonable amount of time, I mean that I want a boat that I can paddle at 4 mph.  Average speed will be less due to aimless drifting and beverage breaks, but if I can push the boat at 4 mph without making it an athletic event, then I will be happy. The boat also has to be reasonably stable, that is stable enough that I can stop and rest or take a photograph without having to do fancy bracing with the paddle or put another way, a boat that does not require my constant effort to keep it upright.
The outrigger canoe afloat.  On flat water, it is stable enough to stand up in.
Of course, speed and stability are conflicting requirements in a boat and so they need to be balanced for the proper compromise. The canoe with outrigger pictured above is not a proper bay boat because it is too slow. But it would make an ok fishing platform. In any case, I am sure that the boat I am currently working on will be a reasonable bay boat.
Which brings me to my main point, namely, what is possible?
San Francisco, six miles distant.
What I would like to do is periodically paddle over to San Francisco, in a boat that can do the trip in an hour and a half each way.  If it is summer and the trip over is started before 11, there will be little wind.  The trip back on the other hand will have lots of wind, although it will be a tail wind, 20 to 25mph being common. So if I start at home, drive to where my kayak is, launch it, that is half an hour added on to the 1.5 hour trip over for a total round trip of 4 hours.  If we add another hour for lounging about at the destination, perhaps to have a cup of coffee, then the whole trip will be about 5 hours.  If we add another hour for dallying along the way, then the total trip will turn into a 6 hour event, that is, 6 hours to go to San Francisco for a cup of coffee.
And once again, we have to ask ourselves, what is possible?  It isn't the physical constraints that make a paddle to San Francisco for a cup of coffee such a rare event.  It is more a matter of how much time it takes.  I can take a one hour paddle by launching off the boat ramp which is half a mile from my house. Total elapsed time for launching and landing is half an hour. So I could do a one hour paddle in 1-1/2 hours.
I do in fact do the short paddle near my house fairly often and the paddle to San Francisco only rarely.  What is possible in part has to do with how much time I allow myself for paddling.  When I think of the people whom I know that do more extensive paddles, they are invariably single people with few responsibilities other than to themselves.  So what is possible?  Perhaps what we allow ourselves.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Polynesian Boats in SF Bay

 There's a bunch of Polynesian boats that have just showed up in SF Bay this past week.  I went to visit them yesterday and here's some pictures I took.  Their website is
The hulls of the boats are fiberglass and resin, but the decks and other topside trim is wood. 
The venture was financed by a German philanthropist including the building of the boats and all else that is involved, but the people on the boats are from the traditional canoe voyaging countries and it is great to see them undertaking such a voyage.  Apparently they have GPS on board, but it is used as backup -  navigators on board try to come up with the right course to sail which is then confirmed or corrected by the GPS.  

 Here's a part of the steering oar.  When under way, someone has to hang on to this.  It's about six inches in diameter and a hunk of wood, but balanced so the person steering isn't supporting all the weight.