From the bookshelf: Kayak book a technical, impressive read

Posted: Thursday, May 05, 2005


  Eastern Arctic Kayaks: History, Design, Technique, By John D. Heath and E. Arima

Eastern Arctic Kayaks: History, Design, Technique, By John D. Heath and E. Arima

Eastern Arctic Kayaks: History, Design, Technique

By John D. Heath and E. Arima

Published by University of Alaska Press

176 pages

$45 (hard cover)

When Europeans first penetrated the arctic reaches of the New World, they learned they could only survive by adopting technologies from the region's indigenous people. One item that particularly impressed them was the kayak.

Today, the kayak has become the Inuit gift to the world. An Internet search brings up more than 5 million hits for the word. People around the globe paddle kayaks made of space-age materials but modeled on ancient prototypes.

This popularity has kindled an interest in the details of kayaks, including the specifics of their history, design and use before modern mutations. "Eastern Arctic Kayaks" speaks to that interest, with a focus on the traditions of Greenland and Eastern Canada, arguably less well known than those of coastal Alaska.

The book's authors listed on the cover are John Heath and E. Arima. Heath, one of the world's foremost authorities on traditional arctic watercraft, provided the impetus for the book but died before its completion. Arima is a Canadian ethnologist who works for Parks Canada specializing in Native history and culture. Although they wrote the bulk of the book, it is really an anthology with six other writers contributing material, too.

The book covers an array of topics. On history, "Eastern Arctic Kayaks" looks at archeological finds that shed light on kayak origins and also surveys kayaks, some at least 400 years old, found in museums in Europe and the Americas. Design information includes meticulous draftsman's drawings of dozens of boats, discussion of construction techniques and a chapter entirely devoted to traditional paddles. Technique is covered in chapters discussing training, sports and the famous "Eskimo roll" capsize maneuvers.

"Several Inuit peoples knew how to right an upside-down kayak by ingenious methods. However, I feel that the Greenlander took this life-or-death maneuver to its highest and most diverse perfection," Heath writes in his chapter on the kayaks of Greenland.

The section of the book on these maneuvers is detailed and daunting. Where else could you find a calm description of what to do if you find yourself upside-down in a frigid sea in a bad swell with your paddle floating away? Paddlers will be awed and perhaps inspired by the cool heads and amazing skill the master kayakers demonstrate.

The book is full of unusual tidbits, such as the use of paddles as hydrophones to attract seals, a unique kayakers' psychiatric condition of disorientation and panic, and games Inuit families played with their little boys that set them from infancy on a course toward kayaking competence.

Woven into the diverse material are notable translations of Native elders reminiscing about hunting methods, perils at sea and other aspects of traditional life involving kayaks.

The book highlights the variety of kayaks throughout the region. Craftsmen tailored their boats to particular uses, sea conditions and even individuals. They had to make tradeoffs between stability and maneuverability. The book makes it clear that building even a small kayak involved a plethora of design decisions.

The cockpit opening is only one example. Eastern kayaks have single openings, in contrast to the Alaska bidarkas, which may have two or three. The cockpit may be large enough to admit cargo or even a passenger, or it may be so tight that the mariner must have double-jointed knees to wriggle in. It may be round, egg-shaped or flat at the back. It may be flat or tipped up in front to shed waves.

This level of detail, the diagrams and the measurements signal that this is not a book for beginners. It assumes readers are familiar with the basics of kayaking and boating terminology, although it does provide a nice glossary. It skims over background material and relegates the part on kayak origins to the last section.

"Eastern Arctic Kayaks" contrasts, in its technicality, with the 1986 book "Qajaq: Kayaks of Siberia and Alaska," by David W. Zimmerly. "Qajaq" is an easier introduction to the subject matter and covers the rest of the kayak's traditional range.

Fans of "Qajaq" will enjoy "Eastern Arctic Kayaks." Those interested in the subject who have not read either book should read "Qajaq" first.

It is difficult to read "Eastern Arctic Kayaks" cover to cover. Although the writing is lucid, its dense content and fine print belie the book's brevity. The organization is random, and the use of diverse authors leads to some repetition.

These factors suggest that the book is best used as a reference, to be dipped into for specifics. A detailed index facilitates this.

The book's images deserve special credit. In addition to the meticulous diagrams, it includes classic photographs of traditional kayaks and people associated with them. Despite a few glitches in translating measurements between the English and metric systems, it is apparent that all involved in the book's creation took pains to assure that it is comprehensive and accurate.

"Eastern Arctic Kayaks" also deserves kudos for its tone. It gives credit to Inuit boat builders and maritime hunters for their accomplishments, naming individuals whenever possible and including Inuit terminology (with explanations for English speakers).

All told, it conveys a deep respect for the sophisticated engineering and athletic prowess that created the kayaking tradition.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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