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.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Captain Cook and his Expedition Artist John Webber visit Alasks and British Columbia

I got two replicas of John Webber prints.  I thought that they might maybe be actual Webber prints but it turned out that they weren't.  In any case, they are nice prints.
John Webber was the expedition artist for Captain Cook's voyage of discovery in the North Pacific.  John Webber did sketches of landscapes and local people they encountered.  These sketches were later taken by engravers and turned into etchings that could be printed and brought to the attention of a wider audience.

The first print reproduction I got is called A Woman of Prince William's Sound now called Prince William Sound without the 's after William.  Probably nobody outside of Alaska can find Prince William Sound on a map but if you're curious use your google. The only reason anyone may have heard of Prince William Sound it is because the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground there and spilled oil all over the bay thereby impoverishing local fisheries and ensuring decades of work for Exxon lawyers. But that was a little over two hundred years after Captain Cook visited there.  When Captain Cook visited, the primary residents of the Sound were the Chugach people.  And as you can see from the print, the people of the time adorned themselves with piercings, hair weaves and tattoos much as the people of today.
The picture above shows Prince William Sound as it looked during Cook's visit.  Toward the back is Cook's ship.  In the left foreground are Cook's people in wooden boats.  And in the foreground just to the right of center you can see a two-man kayak.  You can take my word for this or you can click on the image above to see a larger version.The kayaks paddled by the Chugach people were similar to the kayaks of the Unangan people farther to the southwest. The Russians made no distinction between the Chugach and the Unangan people and referred to all of them as Aleuts.  And they called their kayaks baidarkas.
The other print I got was of the Man of Nootka Sound. Nootka Sound is on the west coast of Vancouver Island some distance south of Prince William Sound. People there likewise adorned themselves in modern fashion but paddled wooden dugout canoes instead of kayaks.

The drawing above and the one below are the Webber originals.  These are what the engravers used to base their engravings on.