History of the Kayak – Coast Mountain Expeditions
History of the Sea Kayak from the arctic to modern sea kayaking Vancouver Island British Columbia
History of the Kayak
A History of the Sea Kayak from the Arctic to Modern Sea Kayaking Vancouver Island
The sea kayak in the arctic, Canada, and British Columbia has a history which spans at least 5,000 years. “It is a fitting tribute to the arctic peoples, builders of the first sea kayak that it survives today as the worlds most popular self propelled watercraft.”
The birth place of the kayak was almost certainly the inhospitable coast of Siberia. We know that the peoples who eventually settled the Americas crossed from Siberia sometime during the last Ice age when the land or ice bridge “Berengia” connected the two continents. The kayak – “qajaq” or its more primitive ancestor the “umiak” probably first arrived in the North American arctic about 10-15 thousand years ago, with America’s first people.
The oldest known archaeological evidence of a kayak goes back 2,000 years B.P. and there is inferential evidence dating it back another 2,000 years. However, given the reality of surviving the harsh environment, arctic peoples most likely always had some way of getting onto the water to hunt or fish. An 8,000 year existence for the kayak is possible, but we will probably never know for sure.
It is believed that Siberians first took to the water in a skin-covered, wood framed boat known as an umiak. The umiak was an open boat whereas the kayak or qajaq had a covered deck which likely evolved when hunters ventured further out onto the exposed sea. The covered deck of the kayak made it more sea-worthy and better able to shed waves. Furthermore, several native groups developed the ability to roll kayaks back up after capsizing. The umiak and the kayak existed side by side, both finding useful niches for transporting and hunting. Interestingly, despite being the birth place of the kayak, very little archaeological evidence of the covered kayak can be found on the Siberian Coast.
The Aleutians and Greenlanders took the kayak to an apex in design and seaworthiness — not to mention skill in handling and rolling. Since these two groups lived in predominantly ice free regions, it is not surprising they took the design to its highest form. The peoples of the Eastern Arctic and Baffin Island in Canada only had open water a few months of the year. With necessity being the mother of invention, less effort went into kayak design and more into sleds and dwellings. During pre-contact times, as many as 40 different designs were used throughout the arctic in Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Greenland, each developed for a specific hunting, transportation and environmental conditions. Kayaks were used on the sea to hunt marine mammals such as seals, walrus, and whales; and on rivers and lakes from which to hunt caribou.
In the 1740’s, under the leadership of Vitus Bering, Russian explorers were the first to come into contact with the Aleutians and their sea kayaks. They returned primarily for trade, in particular for furs which were popular throughout Europe and Asia. Above all, the Sea Otter was most prized for its fur. When the Russians saw the skill and agility of Aleutians hunters in their kayaks they were exploited, even kidnapped, and taken aboard ships to be used for hunting of Sea Otters. The Russians took these skilled sea kayaking hunters throughout coastal North America, from the arctic as far south as Catalina Island, off California where Jesuits priests, made journal references to “natives in skin covered boats”. It was during this time under the direction of Russian traders, the Sea Otter was hunted to extinction south of Alaska—sad commentary to the skill and savvy of the Aleutian kayak hunters.
A quick look at the structurally complex frame of the kayak suggests a highly developed streamlined design similar to a modern aircraft. The Wright brothers would have been well served to have an Aleutian kayak builder on hand when they constructed their first aircraft. Considering the age of the kayak, it was easily the most advanced, hydro dynamic watercraft in the world. Even the early boats of the Egyptians, ancestors of the people who constructed the pyramids, lacked the engineering prowess of the ancient kayak. It is a fitting tribute to the builders of the first sea kayaks that it survives today as the worlds most popular self propelled watercraft.
In the early 1900’s the traditional sea kayak slipped in dis-use and history as Russian, European, and American settlers introduced modern ships and boats. Today, very few traditional skin kayaks are still in use and the knowledge of their construction is quickly fading. Except for a small group of dedicated British kayakers, plying the cold and turbulent waters of northern England and Scotland, sea kayaking would have disappeared entirely.
It wasn’t until the mid 1960’s when 17-year-old George Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson, arrived on the North West coast of Canada that interest in the kayak was rekindled. After traveling to Alaska and rediscovering the marvelous sea kayak in museums, he returned to British Columbia, Canada where he began constructing modern day replicas of the ancient kayak using aluminum and nylon. His contemporaries, Mike Neckar, Brian Henry, and Steve Schleicher… took the idea one step further and founded the British Columbia composite (fibreglass) kayak industry in Canada which led the world in creativity and design until recently when two of the largest companies, victims of their own success were bought out by American corporations.