Monday, August 17, 2009

Aleutian Ikyax aka Baidarka

(Note that sound was disabled at the source i.e. YouTube.)
Note that no nails were harmed in the making of the ikyax. There are no fixed joints, which makes the craft ocean ready as demonstrated at the beginning of this video.

There is a rich heritage of Indigenous people’s traversing the oceans of the world. These voyages were not merely shadowing the coast, but actual trips into the vastness, hundreds of miles from shores. According to Balick and Cox [1996, pp.100 - 101] these journeys were more frequent than the much described Norse voyages. In fact, the journeys helped to populate the Polynesian islands, “and the precise star course has been preserved in chants.” [Ibid. p.101] Going northwards, one comes across a string of barren, desolate islands separating the Old World from the New. These are the Aleutian Islands. They sit in the North Pacific between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the Alaska Peninsula.

“Island vegetation reflects the varying landform characteristics. Vegetation at the more exposed higher elevations support willow and crowberry dominated dwarf shrub communities. Vegetation at lower elevations, which tend to be more sheltered, comprises mesic graminoid herbaceous meadows dominated by a variety of herbs, especially bluejoint. Coastal areas tend to support dry graminoid herbaceous vegetation, while bogs are home to low scrub species (Ricketts et al. 1999). Introduced spruce constitutes the only tree species to be found in the ecoregion.” [3. Aleutian Islands. 2003.]

This describes the home of the Aleutian Island people. They are the makers of an ocean-going canoe that they use for whaling, sealing and other fishing activities. It is better known by its Russian name, baidarka (pronounced Bye-dark-uh), but the Aleutian islanders call the single baidarka, Ikyax and the double/treble Uluxtax, (prounounced oo-look-tock). There are two striking features of the ikyax. The first is the design of the vessel and the second is the framing.

The ikyax has a unique design to it that makes it a formidable vehicle in the water, but awkward when not being used. It is light enough for a child to carry it. Traditionally the Aleut used one and two-holed ikyax/uluxtax. However, once the Russians discovered them, they were encouraged to design a three-holed uluxtax. (This design allowed the Aleut to ferry missionaries, traders, and so on).

Experienced kayakers and kayak builders were skeptical of its design being functional at all. George Dyson, a leading expert on the ikyax is responsible for bringing back the boat after an 80-year absence. For his project to build a ikyax, he used the traditional structure, but his own materials. The first test was the design. He wanted to learn why the boat had such an odd design. That “odd” feature of the ikyax is the bifurcate bow. That is, it is forked or split into two distinct parts. The top piece is straight, following the shape of the canoe, but it stops short and is has a flat end. From below, from the keel line the bottom fork follows the line and curves upwards as one would expect. Looking at the stem of the boat, one sees another difference. The stem “seems to stop suddenly in a small vertical ‘fin’.” [Baker, 2003]

The University of Houston’s College of Engineering produced a series that included a discussion of the ikyax. In their discourse, they talked about the forked prow of the ikyax.
“The prow, for example, is forked with two tines, one above the other. We’d thought that was traditional decoration. Now we see the lower tine is deep and narrow. It cuts into the water and stabilizes the boat. The top is flat – it planes over waves for a smoother ride.” [Lienhard, 1988]

The second feature of its design is the overall flexibility of the design. The joints, including the lashings were formed so that there was movement. Even the keel was built in three pieces so that it could flex. The craft was designed to move with the water, not in spite of it.

The second feature is the framing. The traditional ikyax was framed with carved driftwood. There are no natural trees on the Aleutians that are big enough to frame this boat. The islanders have adopted a cultural pattern that relies on the randomness of driftwood arriving on their shores. The driftwood is collected and then steam-bent to shape the ribs, keel, etc. The frame is then covered in sealskin sewn with sinew.

The ikyax was not decorated on the outside. The driftwood was dyed red with most likely red hematite, but only part of this was seen when the skin was put on the frame. One researcher asked about the colour, but the informant did not know why the colour red was used for the frame. There were “decorative” markings on the wood in the interior of the vessel, but there is only speculation as to what their purpose is. These “spirit lines” were carved into the gunwale. Although they’ve been referred to as “spirit lines” some ikyax enthusiasts were more inclined to interpret them as assembly instructions, “this end up, insert in slot B” etc. [Kohut, 1999] Wolfgang Brinck mentions in an earlier post that he made up the term for his book on the subject. [Brinck, 1999] However, there was a spiritual connection between pilot and craft.

“In Aleut oral tradition the kayak was his male hunting partner, to share
there lives together, even in marriage. When the hunter rose in the morning
to greet the sun he greeted his kayak and shared the nights activities in
spoken word. They were bound together truely. They would either share the
same grave or be LOST at Sea.” [Monge, 1997 quoting from Lamblin, 1980]

The above comment regarding the gunwales alludes to the way the ikyan were manufactured. The men gathered in a building and began to assemble the pieces for the vessel. The women’s job was to sew together the seal-skins for the coverings. They worked elsewhere and not in the place where the men were working.

“From QAYAQ by DW Zimmerly:

"As the last flap is sewn the now naked owner, accompanied by all men present, sings his childbirth song to his new kaiak."

"The owner washes the cover with urine to remove any oil that may adhere to the surface."

George Dyson says that the Aleutian Islanders tinkered with their design over the years and even when the Russians arrived at their islands, they accepted some of the changes they brought. These include a rudder, sail and three-holes. The rudder as adapted was more of a “trim tab to counteract wind and currents. Steering was usually done with the paddle.” [Zimmerly, 1983. p.83] The sails were also used to help the heavier three-man boats sail further and faster.

But the bifurcated frame stayed the same. For all the Indigenous watercraft in the area, it is surprising that there is no replication of design. The Aleutian Islanders are the sole users of the ikyax, while their mainland counterparts use several different styles of kayaks. There are also other boats used by all these people for other uses.

It is amazing that for a woodless terrain, the Aleutian islanders have designed such a unique craft with a random resource. They are fully connected to their environment and understand the implications of their existence. Yet, they have engineered the perfect vessel that can take them from their barren land into the life-giving sea using the resources of the sea, drift wood and sea mammals.

When the Aleut rise in the morning, they stand naked facing the East, inhaling the light and air and cry; “I do not sleep. I am alive. I face you, the life-giving light, and will always live with you.” [Lienhard, 1997 as taken from Veniaminov, 1980]


“3. Aleutian Islands Tundra. : Landscape Description And History”. CBI – Eco Region Assessment. April 2003. Conservation Biology Institute. November 22, 2003.

Balick, Michael J. and Paul Alan Cox. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany. New York:Scientific American Library. 1996.

Baker, Shawn W. “Baidarka”. Kayak Forum. January 29, 2003. Kayak Wiki. October 28, 2003.

Baselt, Randall. “Questions re skin completion ritual” Baidarka Mailing List. January 29, 2003. Baidarka Mailing List Archive. October 28, 2003.

Brinck, Wolfgang. “Re: baidarka Vernon’s reply”. Baidarka Mailing List. January 12, 1999. Baidarka Mailing List Archive. October 28, 2003.

Kohut, Chris. “Re: baidarka ouchie?”. Baidarka Mailing List. July 25, 1999. Baidarka Mailing List Archive. October 28, 2003.

Lienhard, John H. “No. 669: Baidarka”. Engines of our Ingenuity. 1997. University of Houston. October 28, 2003.

Mongue, Randal. “Re: Skin Boat and Hard-shell”. Baidarka Mailing List. November 18, 1997. Baidarka Mailing List Archive. October 28, 2003.

The Dogrib Birchbark Canoe. 1997. 28 mins. Lone Woolf TV Production Services.

Zimmerly, David W. 1983. “Building the One-Hole Aleut Bidarka: Part II” in Small Boat Journal (30): 78 – 83.

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