Building an Aleut Kayak

The kayak was developed by native people over thousands of years, and shows incredible sophistication in design and use of materials. There were several groups that used kayaks in their daily lives, and a group that faced the harshest weather and ocean conditions were the Aleuts. They lived in the Aleutian island chain, located between Alaska and Russia. I recently started building a kayak in the Aleut style, but because of the use of power tools and bombproof skin materials, my kayak is structurally better than any kayak built using seal skin and driftwood.

The traditional Aleut kayak is called a Baidarka, and has a distinctive shape, optimized for pursuing and overtaking seals in the rough seas of the Aleutians. In particular the baidarka has a forked or bifurcated bow, made of several pieces lashed together. which gives it various advantages for speed, use of materials, and maintenance. This style of construction is called skin-on-frame, and involves a frame of wood pieces lashed together, and covered by a waterproof skin.


The above piece is a bow in the traditional Aleut baidarka style, and that below is the bow of my kayak, with obvious similarities. The construction style is the same, the bow shape is a bit different. The construction is pieces of wood lashed together by thousands of knots in sinew (waxed nylon in my boat). Instead of being covered with seal skin; my boat is covered with ballistic nylon coated with urathane. The design of Aleut kayaks fit their strategy for hunting and their need to travel long distances and rough ocean and return with a load of seal meat stowed inside the kayak.