Traditional Kayaks (Bidarkas)

Nothing like the real thing! In Alaska the KAYAK was (is) referred to as the BIDARKA (baidarka in Russian). Something that I came across states that KAYAK is "Hunter's Boat" in Inuit, but I have not been able to confirm that. The following page is a collection of images of aboriginal, natative, or whatever you want to call traditional kayaks.

Traditionally, the kayak was a skin-shell boat constructed over a frame of bent, carved and tied driftwood, whalebone or similar materials. The skin covering in this type of boat, usually sealskin, is stitched to the frame. There are modern folding, collapsable, and home-constructed boats that use endless variations (from the purest traditional to the ultra-modern) on this technique.

These native watercraft were designed for hunting seals, whales, tending fish traps, and as a means of transportation. In some areas, caribou were hunted, by using long lances, as the animals swam across rivers and lakes. The taking of game was usually accomplished using atlatl dart-thrower systems; where the knapped-stone or sharpened-ivory or bone head of the dart detatches upon impact from the shaft (i.e., an "assisted" hand-thrown harpoon). The head was attached by skin (leather) cordage to a skin-bladder float made from sealskin or a similar material. This facilitated tracking of the animal, and locating it for additional harpoon shots. Eventually, the victim would succumb to trauma and float to the surface where it could be towed homeward by one or several kayakers. From my own kayaking experiences, I can readily state that the kayak is a fantastic way to approach wildlife... loons, herons, deer, and the occasional nudist.

One of te best sites on aboriginal (first persons) kayaks, umiaks and bark canoes can be found at, The Canadian Museum of Civilization Website. This site surveys the geographic variations in design and has a wonderful sequence on the restoration of a rare boat. More detailed information is available on the site of former Museum of Man employee Dave Zimmerly Arctic Kayaks, including plans, a comprehensive database, and information on courses.

Some great books on skin boat culture and skin-frame kayak building include: Baidarka: The Kayak, by George Dyson; Alaska Northwest Books; ISBN: 088240315X. The Aleutian Kayak: Origins, Construction, and Use of the Traditional Seagoing Baidarka, by Wolfgang Brink; McGraw Hill; ISBN: 0070078939 (1995). Wood and Canvas Kayak Building by George Putz; International Marine Publications: ISBN: 0071559396 (1990) or Robert, Morris. Building Skin-On-Frame Boats. (2000). ISBN: 0881791911 (about $19.96) (see boat-building bibliography).

Image from the Yukon (Alaska), produced by Lomen Brothers of Nome Alaska (c.1900).

Old engraving showing a hunting party with West-Greenland-style kayaks (c.1907). Note the inflated bladder floats (sorry, no source data for this image).


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