KAYAK HUNTING IN ILLORSUIT
Skinning the Kayaks
Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak
Ken Taylor / Cameron
May 4, 2013; revised June 27, 2018
Skinning Drever’s kayak in 1938
This is a photo by Harald I. Drever of the kayak made for him in 1938 being skinned. Here, with the four skins already held in place on the kayak frame by a 10 or 11 inch “pocket” sewn at each end to fit over the bow and stern, they’re at the next step of cross (or zigzag) lacing the skin to pull it tight across the hull of the kayak.
The woman standing on the left is Karen. In 1959 she was one of six women who sewed the skins onto my kayak.
Skinning my kayak
Work on my kayak got started was in early September. To skin it we would need four Harp Seal skins and there were only two available in the village. That species of seal is more plentiful in the spring and fall, on their migrations to and from their breeding grounds. And 1959, as I was told as soon as I arrived at Illorsuit, was turning out to be a year of very few seal. If anything, you could say that I was lucky to get my hands on as many as four!
While Emanuele was working on the frame, one day Enoch saw a Harp Seal somewhere near the village but wasn’t able to catch it. While we were at Umiamako one of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters caught one and agreed to sell me the skin. On the way back from Umiamako I was able to buy a different skin at the Nuugaatsiaq village store. Finally, on October 9th on my way back to Illorsuit from Uummannaq, the boat had to call in first at Nuugaatsiaq and I was able to buy the skin of the seal caught at Umiamako. So I only just managed to accumulate the four needed, only days before it was time to leave. But the four skins were quickly prepared by Tobias’ wife Emilia, with help from Anna and Louisa and on October 12th the six women got them sewn onto the kayak frame.
This scarcity of Harp Seal skins meant, unfortunately, that there were none we could have used to skin Heath’s kayak with. So Heath ended up with just the wooden framework of the kayak built for him by Emanuele. That and the harpoon with throwing stick and paddle made for him by Johan Zeeb.
Here are the six women who did the work of sewing the skin covering onto my kayak. “Old Karen” is second from the right. The others are (from the left): Else Ottosen; Sarah Zeeb; Anna Zeeb; Regina Nielsen; [Karen]; and Emilia Nielsen.
The skinning of my kayak that day also began with fitting the “pockets” onto bow and stern and then cross lacing the skin to pull it tight across the hull. Knud, again “in charge,” Emanuele of course and also Johan and Tobias helping. And you wouldn’t believe how hard they pulled on that cord. To say the least, they got the skin stretched as tight as a drum across the kayak’s hull. It looked to me like the cord they were using would surely pull free of the skin (it was threaded only half way through the thickness of the skin).
But all went well (of course) and with that done we were ready for the six women to sew the skins together across the decks. As part of doing that they inserted the several “patches” needed to fill the gaps left by the uneven shape of the four skins. Sure enough each deck needed one large and one very small patch of spare skin, as well as triangular inserts in front of and behind the cockpit.
Before beginning to fit the four skins to the kayak frame they had been soaked in salt water for two days and then sewn together, end to end, with flat seams. With that done the “pockets” were then sewn to fit over bow and stern. All this was done by Emilia, Anna, and Louisa. The initial lacing over the hull of the skins (as I’ve just mentioned) and also the sewing of all the seams, both flat and raised, is done without ever penetrating all the way through the thickness of the skin. In this way, there are no holes for the water to leak through and the entire covering of the kayak is completely water tight.
Sewing the four skins end to end was done with flat seams to have a minimum of wear and tear and water resistance. But on the decks, the women used raised seams. These were considered the most watertight but had the disadvantage of it’s being more difficult to scrape the decks free of ice at the end of the season (see Golden’s “Kayaks of Greenland” [KoG], pages 73-4). As in the one made for me, the Illorsuit kayaks all had raised deck seams.
Here are Golden’s sketches of how “flat seams” and “raised seams” are sewn (KoG, pages 72 and 73).
Flat seam stitching
Raised seam stitching
The six women hard at work. They were actually doing the job indoors but brought the kayak out through a window for me to get these photos. Here the skin is already in place with the “pockets” on bow and stern, the lacing has been done by the men, and now the women are working on the deck seams. Emanuele is waiting for when it’ll be ready for him to attach the bow and stern deck thongs and in due course the cockpit coaming.
A closer look which lets you see where the skins meet across the after deck and shows the gaps where patches of skin will have to be added. The skin, of course, is still wet while this is being done. Once it dries it’ll be as tight as a drum. You can also see the cord of the cross lacing. That’s Enoch’s wife Regina looking up at the camera.
And here the sewing job is finished and Emanuele has attached those loops of thong, each with its two “buttons” of decorative ivory, at bow and stern. That they are loops, and not tight across the width of the kayak, is a characteristic of Golden’s Type VI kayaks (see KoG pages 328, 329, 331, 341). As best I remember, all the kayaks I saw in 1959 had these loops of thong. Emanuele has now also attached the coaming to the skin. He had prepared the coaming with a series of pegs of bone which he then hooked the skin onto, one by one. At the back of the coaming, where your back would come in contact with it, the pegs of bone were set on the outside and the skin pulled up and over the coaming — as you can see in the photo (it’s the stern of the kayak that’s closer to the camera). Golden comments that “this method of attaching the [skin] to the coaming is apparently very old [from the 1600s and 1700s] … [but has been] ‘held-over’ in certain parts of the northwest coast … ” (see pages 87, 327, 339). The coaming is held in place in that way, attached to the skin and not at all to the wooden frame.
I think it’s worth mentioning that the sealskin is stretched and sewn so tightly onto the wooden frame that (when dry) it powerfully “holds the frame together” and adds considerably to the strength of the kayak!
The way they prepared the four Harp Seal skins was with the outer, black epidermis not removed. This gives the most waterproof skin. Also, skins of this kind for kayak covering can be most quickly prepared. No doubt that was one reason why this kind was used as there was very little time left before I would be leaving. Unfortunately I didn’t learn if all the kayaks are skinned in exactly this way. Certainly, as you can see in the photos of un-painted skin covered kayaks, the black epidermis had already worn off the skins of all the kayaks I saw in use. In the photos I show (in other chapters) of the kayak at Loch Lomond and at Hellerup harbor, the following spring, you can see that the black epidermis is still intact. But by the time of the photographs of the kayak taken after it had been deposited with the museum in Glasgow the skin was looking like all the other kayaks in Illorsuit — a mottled brown color, not black. Evidently, the black outer layer of the skin had completely worn off by that time. And this end result, of course, suggests that all the Illorsuit kayaks were skinned in the same way as mine.
The photo on page 75 of Golden’s KoG shows a kayak being skinned using seal skins with the black layer already peeling off. And one of my photos of kayaks on racks in Uummannaq town shows a kayak with a black fourth skin (the one closest to the stern). My guess is that skin had been added to the kayak some time after the others, probably because a repair to the wooden frame had been needed.
Another point of interest is that, during the time that I was there, I didn’t see or hear of any treating of these skins with blubber, etc. to improve their water-proof quality.
But, the kayak still needs its various deck thongs with their bone or ivory fittings, and the bone “knobs” on the tips of bow and stern. Unlike the thongs at bow and stern, the deck thongs can be put in place by reaching inside through the cockpit. The same group of men who had done the lacing of the skins across the hull did this job. Emanuele had prepared holes through the gunwales for these thongs to be threaded through. But the hole the men now made in the actual skin was little more than a pin prick and, as they let me find out for myself, it took a strong, strong pull to get the length of thong to go through. Ideally, the thongs for each deck would be the visible part of one long, continuous piece. Even, as Golden mentions in his KoG, page 79, one single length might be used for all of the deck thongs on the fore and after decks. In fact the job was done, for the fore deck, with a thong which was not long enough and you can see the splices that were needed in various of the photos.
both photos: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
These photos from Kelvingrove show how the deck thongs with their ivory and/or bone fittings were arranged. On the fore deck, first a pair of thongs with an ivory slider at each end. These sliders can be used to tighten the thongs whenever this is needed while also keeping the thongs very slightly clear of the surface of the deck skin and much less likely to ever become frozen to the deck. In front of those two, a single thong joined by a large slider to the nearer of the first pair. This third thong was called the asatdlerfik (see Birket-Smith 1924, page 264). As the name indicates, the asalloq (plural asatdlut) or “pistol grip” rear leg of the harpoon line tray should be hooked onto this deck thong. In front of it one more thong with no sliders. An approximately 2 feet six inches long wooden spar is tucked under the second and the fourth of these deck thongs on the far left. It serves to keep in place the remarkably flimsy, diagonal, left hand leg of the line tray and can also be used to slide one end of the paddle under to provide a sort of outrigger for stability when the kayak is stationary. The fourth deck thong is where the back (open) end of the gun bag is attached.
While some hunters have a special skin loop sewn into the deck seam near the bow for attaching the front end of the gun bag, on a kayak like mine the bow deck thong would used. On the after deck a pair of thongs with two ivory sliders. These are to keep the sealing float in place. It has two hinged together 12 inch lengths of bone which tuck under these after deck thongs. And I’ve already mentioned the loops of thong, each with two decorative ivory buttons, one near the bow and one near the stern. On the right hand end of the masik, the upstanding “tab” of bone or ivory held in place by its own short length of thong. This and a hook of bone at the base of the right hand leg of the line tray are the two supports that hold the harpoon in place. And last but not least, the protective “knobs” on the tips of both bow and stern. All of these arrangements for the hunting gear can be seen in use in the several photos of Tobias preparing a seal for towing and towing it back to camp in Chapter Eight “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.”
These photos also show very clearly the seams between the four Harp Seal skins used and the various patches between these. In 1959 I never saw or heard of skins from other species of seal being used to cover kayaks. It is interesting, then, that the Goodnow kayak from 1896 was covered with just one seal skin on its front and just one seal skin on its back half. These will have been from either Hooded Seal or, possibly, Bearded Seal (see Petersen 1986, page 29 where he speaks of both kinds having been used). Given how important Bearded Seal skins were in the making of harpoon lines, sled traces, dog whips, kayak deck thongs, etc., my guess is that these will have been Hooded Seal skins.
photo: Mark Starr
While Kent’s kayak from the early 1930s was covered with four Harp Seal skins —
both photos: Vernon Doucette
Drever’s kayak from 1938 was covered with what look to be two Harp Seal skins on its front half and one Hooded Seal skin on the back —
photo: Harald I. Drever
It seems likely that by 1959 using Hooded Seal skins for covering kayaks was a thing of the past. In 1959-1960, compared to 1,025 Harp Seal there were only 17 Hooded Seal caught in the entire Uummannaq district (Bogen om Grønland 1962, pages 287-363). Only one of these 17 was caught at Illorsuit.
Skin or canvas on 1959 kayaks
As mentioned, it was hard in those days to get enough Harp Seal skins for all the kayaks to be sealskin covered. Some of the kayaks had to be canvas covered. In H. C. Petersen’s “Instruction in Kayak Building” (1981) he tells how to cover a kayak with canvas and not at all of how to do so with sealskin. He speaks of how “the seal population of Greenland began to decline at the beginning of the present [20th] century …” (page 55).
In 1959, all the eight kayaks at Uummannatsiaq were canvas covered, and in Illorsuit one of the eighteen. All the canvas covered kayaks I saw were painted white, for camouflage. Six of the skin covered kayaks at Illorsuit were also painted white, and one of them sky blue. From the Umiamako photos, you can see seven seal skin kayaks plus 5 painted white. These white ones may have been canvas but but I think that unlikely. Of all the Uummannaq Bay villages, it was at Nuugaatsiaq that the hunters caught most Harp Seal in 1959-1960. Their catch for that 12 month period was 218, compared with 97 at Illorsuit (Bogen om Grønland, pages 287-363). Most likely, all of the Nuugaatsiaq kayaks were seal skin covered.
I was told that a canvas covered kayak isn’t strong enough to bounce around on the beach the way a skin covered one can. But the main disadvantage of the canvas seems to be that it isn’t strong enough to withstand the scraping of the first thin sea ice forming at the beginning of winter. As you can see in several of my photos, virtually all the sealskin covered kayaks had deep scrapes near the bow because of this. These were real gouges. You could probably have fitted a pencil into the gouges on some kayaks. What happens is that you go out hunting on a totally calm but very cold day, with no ice on the water. Later in the day the temperature suddenly drops a degree or two and a thin skin of ice forms on the surface of the water. And you have to force your kayak through it. I was told that sometimes the ice becomes too thick for you to simply force your way through. Then you have to turn sideways, break the ice with your paddle, turn again and paddle forward a few feet. And so on. Obviously it’s quite a risk but one that most hunters used to take as the scrapes and gouges near the bows of their kayaks clearly show! Kent tells of one time a villager called David only just managed to make it home through ice of that kind. “not only had David to break his way through [the ice]; he had to propel that constantly accumulating weight of ice that formed on the kayak, and wield with iced-up mittened hands an ice-incrusted paddle” (Salamina, page 250).
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