Qayaq Building in Alaska

On Nov. 3rd, 1998 I got off the plane in Anchorage- after more than 40 years of dreaming I was finally in Alaska !

A few days later I travelled with a Dartmouth student met thru the internet to the Bering Sea coastal village of Kwigillingok, located near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. Justin was on a Steffanson Fellowship to study the oral transmission of knowledge using skin boats as the medium. As part of this work, we were to help finish a qayaq started by long-time Delta teacher, Bill Wilkinson. This included some structural work, and lots of lashing, and then covering and waterproofing. Bill is working under the tutelage of this father-in-law, Frank Andrew Sr, an 80 + year old yup'ik eskimo with a deep understanding of all aspects of traditional culture. We also examined a qayaq frame Frank had used for sea hunting in the 40's, and learned about paddles, throwing boards . I also learned first-hand about Delta crooked knives, which are single-edged. The handles have less curve than the models I am used to, and it tapers down in height where it meets the blade. Very ergometric and user friendly.

In speaking with Frank Andrew, and a few younger men, I finally began to learn something about the practical realities of Bering Sea qayaq'ing , including dangers and survival techniques. Some old films, made in the 30's and 40's, vividly backed up the stories I heard, with shots of large chunks of ice careening past the camera, and multi-knot flows disappearing under the ice edge.You could die out there! Pictures of seal hunters standing up in their craft to gain a wider field of vision made it clear the level of confidence and expertise these waters required. Strong currents, ice and unpredictable weather make the Bering Sea a harsh kayaking enviornment.

Each village's qayaq has its' own identity, but one from Kwigillingok is a classic Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta type, roughly similar in appearance to a "Nunivak Island" type. Bill has several other qayaq projects under way in Kwig as of this writing.

On Dec. 5th I flew to Chevak to spend the winter working with the community in a qayaq building project that will employ a mix of traditional knowledge and modern materials. Chevak is a village of about 750 Cup'iks (the language is similar but distinct from Yup'ik) located on the tundra about 20 miles in from the Bering Sea coast, on the Ningikfak river. Hooper Bay is about 20 mile NW of here, the nearest village, but the qayaq style from Chevak is different in several aspects.

There is a beautiful qayaq frame hanging in the school cafeteria, along with associated hunting gear. This includes the small sled (qamigaun) , two types of single-bladed paddle, harpoons and darts of various kinds, an "legcik" or hooked gaff/ice-pick (the multi-purpose, absolutely essential tool of seal hunters) and a bow and several arrows.

We hope to build from 5-10 qayaqs this winter. Community participants include students from the school and adult subsistence hunters. Expert guidance from village elders is an essential part of the plan. The project is taking place under Chevak's Cultural Heritage Program, an integral part of the single-site Kashunamiut School District. We hope to have some younger paddlers out on the sloughs and rivers in August for "Sea week", a local cultural festival. This takes place near the old village site of Kashunuk( Qissunaq), some miles down river from the two most recent relocations. Report on the qayaq project.

I will also be visiting Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island in late January, to see about the possibility of some "qayar" building in conjunction with Nuniwarmiut Piciryarta Tamaryalkuti - Nunivak Cultural Programs. Nunivak qayaq'ers have a very strong ocean orientation, and I hope to be able to learn more about this aspect of Bering Sea paddling. Because Nunivak is relatively isolated compared to the rest of the Y-K Delta, the islanders retained a large fleet of qayar[s] later than many mainland communities.

Some Alaska Links:

Information on the above communities: