In American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Alan Taylor describes the Russian exploration, exploitation, and settlement of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska. I was intrigued by his description of the Aleut baidarkas.
"The surrounding waters abounded in fish and sea mammals, which were central to the Aleut diet and life. They developed an ingenious, compact boat known as a baidarka (akin to the Inuit kayak): sealskins sewn and stretched over a framework of driftwood and whalebone. Small and light, yet capable of riding through severe swells, the watertight baidarka snugly held one man or two. In 1788 an English visitor, Martin Sauer, admired the Aleut baidarka: “If perfect symmetry, smoothness, and proportion, constitute beauty, they are beautiful: to me they appeared so beyond any thing I ever beheld.” Wearing watertight parkas made of seal gut or bird skins, the Aleut quickly, silently, and smoothly paddled into the swimming masses of seals or sea otters to kill with stone-tipped harpoons attached to an inflated bladder to hinder the wounded animal’s flight." (Alan Taylor, American Colonies)
Wanting to enrich our mental picture of indigenous and frontier Alaska my research assistant, Brian O'Reilly, and I tackled several questions: what did a baidarka look like? Could we find historic drawings and photographs? Is anyone still building them?
Sometimes a picture is worth 1000 words, but on the other hand, sometimes words can supply a picture not available in a film or photo. Here is a description by a midshipman on board one of Capitan James Cook's vessels about sailing among baidarka's in Unalga Pass in June 1778:
“We found ourselves going thro’ the water above 6 knots, yet… the Indians in their Seal skin Canoes kept way with us very easily.” (1)
One senses the those Aleuts were showing off, not just their "canoes," but their own strength as well. Records indicate that the arms of the indigenous men were much thicker and stronger than those of Europeans. Herewith some pictures:
N. B. Miller, Sea Otter Hunters and Kayaks Showing Waterproof Garments and Kayak Covers, Unalaska, 1896 (2)
Double-hole Kayak (Baidarka), circa 1929, King Island, Alaska (4)
In the image above, modern day baidarka-builder Mitch Poling is showing a scale model of a Baidarka. In the video that follows he relates the history of the baidarka and explains that he was brought up in Alaska's Prince William Sound among baidarkas. The short film includes historic images and tells us that these delicate-seeming craft were paddled all the way from Alaska to Fort Ross in California, where the Russians established an outpost (1812-1842). Click here to see the video.
(1) George Dyson. "The Aleutian Kayak: The Aleuts Built the Baidarka to Suit Their Life as Hunters on the Open Ocean. The Sophisticated Design of This Kayak Is Still Not Entirely Understood." Scientific American (2000): 84-91. [Page number for quotation ??]
(2) University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, 1896 [Really?? Did UW access this picture the same year it was taken??]
(3) Crary-Henderson Collection; Anchorage Museum, Gift of Ken Hinchey, B1962.001.776 (detail)
(4) "Gift of the Old Town Canoe Company" [Can we learn more about this baidarka, such as where it is now??]