Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/September 1891/Eskimo Boats in the Northwest

1196654Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 September 1891 — Eskimo Boats in the Northwest1891John Murdoch



AS we came in sight of the Eskimo village at Cape Smyth, late in the afternoon of September 8, 1881, some one called out that a boat full of natives was coming off under sail to meet us. We all rushed to the rail, eager for the first sight of our future neighbors, and saw running down before the wind a large boat shaped like a fisherman's dory, with one mast and a single square sail, of blue drilling, which looked almost black through the mist.

As she neared us the sail was taken in and the mast lowered, but the strong wind drifted her past us, and all hands were soon busy with their paddles driving her up against the wind till they were near enough to catch a line thrown from the schooner and gradually haul the boat alongside. A strange party they were as their boat was towed astern, dancing in the waves, while we crowded to the taffrail to look at them, and hail them with the few words of Eskimo that we knew.

All were dressed in deer-skins, over which many had drawn water-proof hooded frocks made of the entrails of the seal, while others wore outside gay frocks of calico, fluttering in the strong breeze which blew back the long hair from the men's foreheads.

All were grinning and shouting, and very strange to us looked the curious labrets or lip-studs which all the men wore at the corners of the mouth, like a couple of large sleeve-buttons stuck through holes in the under lip.

But the strangest of all was the boat they were in. About thirty feet long and six feet in the beam, she was merely a skeleton of wood covered with skin tightly stretched across this frame. This was the big family boat, used for traveling and the chase of the whale and walrus, the umiak. Like all the Eskimos who have boats at all, and but very few do not use them, the Eskimos of Point Barrow and Cape Smyth use two kinds of boats: one called an umiak, a large open boat capable of holding fifteen or twenty people; and the other called a kayak, which holds only one man, and is very like a racing shell boat or one of our "Rob Roy" canoes, which, indeed, were modeled after the Eskimo kayak. It is narrow and sharp, and decked all over except a round hole in the middle where the man gets in and sits with his legs under the forward deck.

All the Eskimos, except perhaps some of them who live in the wooded regions of southeastern Alaska, who are said to use birch bark canoes like the Indians, cover their boats with the skins of marine animals, using the skins of the larger seals for the umiak, and those of the small seals for the kayak.

It is no small undertaking for a man at Point Barrow to collect wood enough for the frame of an umiak, for he has only the drift-wood on the beach to select from, and the larger parts are often elaborately pieced together. When a suitable stick for making a stem or stern-post is found, the finder marks it for his own—and it is the unwritten law of the community that such marked property shall be respected—and when he has leisure goes out with his little adze and works away at it on the beach till he has hewn it into shape before he brings it home.

When he has at length collected all the pieces for the frame, he begins to put them together, without using a single nail in the whole structure. The heavy parts of the frame are neatly mortised together and secured with wooden pegs, while the lighter parts, such as ribs and gunwales, are secured by regularly sewing them with long, thin strips of whalebone, which are run through holes drilled in the two parts to be united.

The following pieces make up the frame of the umiak: Along the middle of the bottom runs one long timber, to the ends of which are scarfed the stem and stern-post, made of natural knees, and slanting so that the top of the boat is longer than the bottom. The top of each part is widened into a square block. This makes a high seat for the steersman in the stern and a sort of shelf in the bow. On each side of the bottom is another stout strip of wood, deeper than the keel, which make the edges of the flat bottom, being bent in and scarfed to the stem and stern-post, but spread apart amidships by the floor timbers, which are laid across the keel inside, but mortised into these side strips. There are a dozen or fifteen floor timbers, longest, of course, in the middle of the boat.

From the side strips rise fifteen or twenty pairs of ribs, fastened on with lashings of whalebone. These slope out a good deal amidships, but grow more nearly vertical toward the bow and stern. On the ends of these ribs are lashed the gunwales, round poles about two inches in diameter, running from bow to stern on each side. These run out beyond the stem and meet in a point, but only project a little beyond the stern-post. Along the ribs inside, about half-way down, is fastened a stout strip of wood on which the seats or thwarts, seven or eight in number, are secured, and to strengthen the frame still more another strip is fastened on outside of the ribs.

When these pieces are properly put together we have the framework of a long boat, with a broad, flat bottom, sharp ends, and flaring sides, with a good deal of "sheer" to the gunwales—that is, with the edge of the boat running up at the bow and stem. To cover this frame they sew together, with an ingenious water-proof double seam, skins of the walrus or the great bearded seal which have been deprived of their hair and dressed with a little of their natural fat, so that they are quite water-proof.

Skins of the bearded seal make the best boat covers, and six good-sized ones are enough for one boat. When the cover is ready it is thoroughly wet and stretched over the frame, the edges being drawn over the gunwales and laced to the strip which supports the seats. Of course, when the skin dries, it shrinks as tight as a drum.

To propel these boats they have a square sail, used only with a fair wind, broad-bladed paddles, and ridiculous little narrow oars, which the women pull with great vigor, but to very little purpose, never keeping time or stroke. The mast stands on one of the floor timbers nearly amidships, and is held up wholly by four stays, two forward and two aft. When the sail is not in use, mast and all are taken down and laid in the bottom of the boat. In traveling along the shore, to save the trouble of paddling, they often harness up three or four dogs and make them trot along the beach, drawing the boat by a long tow-line.

In these boats they chase the walrus, the white whale, and, most important of all, the great "bowhead" or polar whale, from which come the whale oil and whalebone of commerce. In them, too, they make long journeys along the coast in summer, carrying their tents and all their household goods, and sometimes go two or three hundred miles to trade with other Eskimos.

This boat is in no way exclusively a "woman's boat," as it is in Greenland, though the women use it as well as the men, but it is the boat for general use. Nearly every head of a family, unless he is very poor indeed, owns an umiak.

In winter the leather cover is removed and put away in a place of safety, and the framework carefully laid up, bottom up, on a special scaffold out of reach of the dogs.

Though the umiak is not a "woman's boat," the kayak is the man's boat par excellence. The Point-Barrow Eskimos, however, do not use kayaks as much as some others, especially the Greenlanders. All the men, however, and most well-grown youths own kayaks of very good model, and can manage these ticklish craft very skillfully, though they can not compete with the Greenlanders.

Kayaks are mostly used during the summer journeys and for pursuing swimming reindeer and wild fowl on the lakes and rivers. These canoes are very narrow and easily capsized. One which, we brought home, and which is now in the National Museum at Washington, is nineteen feet long with only eighteen inches beam, and is just deep enough to hold a man's legs under the deck, which is arched for a short distance forward of the hole. It weighs only thirty-two pounds. The framework of the kayak is very light. The stoutest of all the parts are two strips or gunwales one on each side, about three inches wide and half an inch thick, kept apart by slender deck-beams, which are longest, of course, in the middle of the boat. The ribs are hoops bent into the shape of the letter U, and there are forty or fifty of them mortised into the lower edge of the gunwale, while they are kept in place by slender strips of wood lashed along outside of them from stem to stern. A stout deck-beam across the back of the hole for the rower to lean against and a hoop round the edge of the hole complete the frame of the boat. It is all fastened together, like that of the umiak, with wooden pegs and lashings of fine whalebone. Such a boat is covered with five or six skins of the smallest seal, carefully dressed with the hair and black epidermis or outer skin removed. These skins when freshly prepared are of a beautiful cream-white color, which soon turns, however, to dull yellow. These six skins are sewed together side by side, the head of one skin to the tail of the next. Then the cover is thoroughly wet, the boat is laid down on it, and the edges of the cover stretched up over the deck as tightly as possible and sewed together in an irregular seam, running lengthwise along the deck. Finally, the edges round the hole are stretched over the hoop and firmly laced with a thong. This finishes the boat, except for making some loops on the deck fore and aft to hold spears and such things, or whatever load the man may wish to carry.

When a Point-Barrow Eskimo is simply traveling along and does not care to make any great speed, he uses an ordinary paddle with one blade, like those used in the umiak, but somewhat lighter. As he has to sit in the very middle of the boat, he can not use this as an Indian would, wholly on one side, driving the boat ahead with straight strokes and overcoming the tendency of the canoe to go off to one side by feathering his paddle in the water or by an outward sweep of the blade. First he makes three or four strokes, say, on the right side, and then, as the boat begins to sheer off to the left, he lifts the paddle out of the water and makes three or four strokes on the left side till she begins to sheer to the right, and so on. They do this pretty skillfully, so that the boat makes a tolerably straight "wake," and goes through the water at a pretty fair rate, but, of course, can make no great speed.

When the time comes for hurry, out is drawn from under the deck the double-bladed paddle, such as we are all familiar with from the writings of Captain Ross and Captain Parry, Dr. Kane, and all the explorers who have visited the Eskimos of the eastern regions. This is about six feet long and has at each end a broad, oval blade, far more serviceable than the narrow oar-blades of the eastern kayak paddles. The man grasps this by the middle and dips each blade alternately, regulating the force of his strokes so that the canoe goes straight through the water without veering to right or left. With the double paddle the kayak can be made to fairly fly through the water.

A reindeer caught swimming in a lake (the deer often take to the water in summer to escape the plague of gnats and gadflies) has little chance of escaping. The swift kayak soon overtakes him. The hunter has already pulled from its loop on the forward deck one of his pair of light lances and has it lying loose on deck, the butt resting on the loop in easy reach. As he ranges alongside his victim he catches it up—a quick downward thrust, and the deer floats a lifeless carcass.

It requires no small skill to manage one of these little craft without upsetting, but the boys begin to learn at an early age, so that balancing grows to be a second nature, and the kayak man is as much a part of his boat as a good rider is of his horse. Getting into a kayak, even, is an art in itself. I once watched a couple of young fellows launching their boats in the lagoon close to our station. A place was selected where the bank was steep, but not high, say about a foot above the water, while the water was just about deep enough to float the kayaks. Then the boats were carefully laid in the water alongside of the bank—it would not do to shove them in over the gravel or allow them to scrape on the bottom, they are so delicate—and held in place by sticking down the blade of the paddle into the gravelly bottom on the outer side of the canoe. Balancing himself by holding on to the handle of the paddle with his left hand, each man cautiously lifted his left foot, and wiping it perfectly clean of sand and gravel with his disengaged right hand, carefully stepped into the canoe. The right foot was then raised with equal care, wiped, and inserted into the hole.

Still balancing himself with the paddle, each man adjusted his clothing, carefully sat down, thrusting his legs under the forward deck, and settled himself in position. A gentle shove-off from the shore, a stroke or two of the paddles, and they were off.

The Eskimos are always very careful to avoid getting any sand into either kind of boat, for it works down among the timbers where it can not be cleaned out, and, gradually getting between the skin and the framework, soon cuts through the former.

Both, kinds of boats are always drawn up out of the water, except when in actual use, and the kayaks, like the umiaks, are always stripped for the winter.

In summer the men often make quite long excursions across the country after reindeer, traveling mostly on the lakes and ponds, crossing from lake to lake with, the kayak carried on one arm, which, is thrust into the hole up to the elbow, with the hand grasping the frame inside. The trading-parties that go east in the spring start before there is any open water along the shore at Point Barrow, and travel along the level shore-ice with the umiak lashed to a flat sled drawn by the dogs and all the men and women. Tent, kayaks, and all the baggage of the party are loaded into the umiak, and so they travel on till, in about two days' journey from the Point, they find the open water which, has come down from the great rivers. Then they land the sledges, to be picked up on their return in the autumn, launch their boats, and proceed on their journey by water.

The umiaks are first launched about the middle or end of April, when they are dragged on sledges out over the ice to the off-shore open water for the spring whaling. They are constantly in use from that time, whenever the ice will permit, till well into October. The kayaks are seldom brought out till the ponds are free of ice—about the 1st of July—but the middle of October generally sees all boats of both kinds laid away for the season.