Little Boats Made of Driftwood and Sealskin

Building small-scale replicas may have been a way for Aleutian boatbuilders to pass on skills. It also preserved history in miniature.

Published August 29, 2016

“Can you see anything?” Henry Carter was asked in 1923 as he peered into King Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Yes,” he replied, “wonderful things.” This column explores other wonderful things—intriguing artifacts or technologies that give insight into coastal cultures.

When Imperial Russian explorers sailed from Siberia to Alaska in the 18th century, the first people they met were paddling boats unlike any the foreigners had ever seen. The visitors called the craft baidarka, Russian for “little boat,” a fairly banal name for a boat built with such skill and ingenuity. Though kayaks were used for hunting across the Arctic, the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands had a unique take on the construction of the close-decked boats they called igyax. This model from the collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Providence, Rhode Island, shows the distinctive bifurcated prow and flattened stern of the lightweight vessels, which were made of seal or sea lion skin stretched over driftwood frames.

The crew on Vitus Bering’s 1741 expedition was amazed by the speed and seaworthiness of the indigenous boats and the fact that they were used to brave waters that had claimed Russian men and ships. The Unangan had used one- or two-man baidarkas for generations to hunt among the treeless islands. Just as the model’s deck is covered with equipment, a real baidarka carried an array of hunting tools, including a bow and quiver of arrows, harpoons, lances, and a wooden throwing board that allowed a skilled hunter to cast a harpoon with astonishing range and power. With these tools, the Unangan hunted sea otters, sea lions, and even whales. The human figure in the model wears the traditional paddling jacket and sprayskirt, made from carefully stitched seal gut, a material that is lightweight, breathable, and waterproof. With paddle and fishing line in hand, the figure captures an image of Alaska’s past in miniature.

In the decades that followed Bering’s visit, the hunters of the Aleutians and their baidarkas quickly became central to the Russian fur trade. By the 19th century, the Russian-American Company’s fleet consisted of hundreds of baidarkas, each paddled by a pair of conscripted hunters, mostly Unangan or Alutiiq from Kodiak Island. The savage exploitation of the island chain’s people and the sea mammals they depended on changed the Aleutians forever.

Remnants of baidarkas exist in archaeological sites, as do the remnants of baidarka models, which may have been used to teach children boat-making skills. “The fascinating thing about models we have from archaeological sites is that, because they’re in fragments, you can see how the frame was built,” says Jenya Anichenko, a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton’s Centre for Maritime Archaeology. “Every little part of the frame was carved individually, as they would be in an actual baidarka.”

By the time this model was crafted sometime after 1880, small-scale baidarkas were being made for sale to visiting fur traders, whalers, ethnographers, and tourists. This Aleutian-style baidarka was part of a collection of miniature North American watercraft acquired by a Seattle fur and curio shop, the Hudson Bay Fur Company (which was later sued for trademark infringement by the Hudson’s Bay Company).

The age of the baidarka came to a close with the end of the fur trade, but the boats haven’t been forgotten. Inspired by historical sketches, models, and a handful of full-sized craft in museums, baidarkas are still made today, albeit from modern materials. They’re no longer used to hunt whales and otters, but a few baidarkas still ride the waves, paddled by enthusiasts in the Aleutians and around the world.