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The Kayak’s Cultural Journey

For millennia, indigenous peoples across the world have built and used skin boats to fish and hunt, for sport and travel, even for warfare. Now non-indigenous admirers of the craft are making them, too. Does that matter?

Issue: Fall 2021

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Instrument builder and repairer Mike Morgan has turned his lifetime of woodworking and design knowledge to making kayaks and other small watercraft by hand, based on traditional forms. photo by Simon Morris

By SIMON MORRIS

  1. A Disastrous Experiment
  2. Tuning a Boat
  3. The Magic of Symmetry
  4. The Kayak’s Comeback
  5. Who Owns the Kayak Story?

What is the sound of a well-made kayak? The question might sound like an attempt at a Zen koan, but for the man at the center of this story—Mike Morgan, who makes skin boats as well as musical instruments—the question is a practical guide. Like those Zen puzzles, it’s also a productive question, pointing to a series of others: about the twists and turns that craft traditions often take, and whether a modern maker has any responsibility to knowledge that’s travelled a long way since it left the hands of the people who first generated it.

The town where Morgan lives and works—the hilltop community of Llantrisant, which sits a few miles northwest of Cardiff, the Welsh capital—is fertile ground for cultural explorations of this sort. Llantrisant’s history goes back to at least the Iron Age. The remains of a castle implicated in the 13th-century, Anglo-Norman conquest of Wales speaks of the town’s strategic position at the southern end of the valleys. Across the 19th century, this landscape was transformed from rugged pastoral into a begrimed engine room of Britain’s industrial revolution.

The landscape near Llantrisant, Wales, where Morgan lives and works, shows marks of its long history, both pastoral and industrial.
The South Wales coal mines that inspired this 1940 film are all gone now, but they’ve left a lasting legacy, not least in a culture of music and performance.

The anthracite from the valleys’ hundreds of deep coal mines made huge fortunes for some, such as Lord Aberdare and the Marquess of Bute, and turned the port of Cardiff into an energy spigot comparable to modern-day Basra. Hundreds of thousands of workers from Wales and England were sucked in to work underground, spawning a unique culture of solidarity, radical politics, nonconformist religion, and music—much of it notably celebrated in the 1940 film “The Proud Valley,” starring Paul Robeson. (In 1957, when Robeson was denied a passport because of his communist sympathies, he famously sang down the phone from New York to the South Wales Miners’ Eisteddfod, their annual festival of music and performance.)

The mines are all gone now, and the communities they left are still struggling with the consequences in poor health and poverty. But the industrial tsunami that roared through the valleys for more than 150 years never entirely extinguished a tradition of craftsmanship that has kept Wales in touch with its pre-industrialized self. In many ways, Morgan exemplifies that tradition.

A DISASTROUS EXPERIMENT

Morgan, now 69, has been making skin boats that come from this corner of the world since 1989. One, called a coracle (or cwrwgl in Welsh), has been made in Wales for millennia and is still used on the Teifi and Towy rivers in West Wales. In North America, its closest cousin—“the bull boat”—is a small, one-person craft that was traditionally made using bent willow or wood laths for the bottom, woven hazel for the gunwales, and the hide of one animal (now canvas or nylon) for the outside.

Variations of the nimble and ancient coracle (or cwrwgl, in Welsh) have been used to navigate the local waterways for millennia, and some are still in practical use today. photo by Harvey Golden

Like the kayak, the Welsh coracle has numerous variants, each specific to its river. In 1974, a Welshman crossed the English Channel in one to prove a point, but unlike the seagoing kayak, it wouldn’t normally venture beyond a river estuary. Such ambitions were left to its larger sister, the curragh; the craft is better known as an Irish boat, but it’s also native to Wales.

Morgan built one of the two curraghs that were used in a famous, but ill-fated, attempt to transport a three-ton rock from the Preseli Hills in West Wales 240 miles to Wiltshire in the west of England. The idea was to demonstrate how the bluestones,  which form part of Britain’s most famous ancient monument, Stonehenge, were carried there. The boats performed superbly, but soon after starting out, the lashings holding the boulder gave way and it sank to the bottom in 50 feet of water.

“When it snapped away and this big stone went to the bottom it almost caused World War Three because it landed right next to a microphone that they used for listening for Russian submarines out there, apparently,” Morgan told me. “I haven’t heard it, but they’ve actually got a recording of this thing hitting the floor.”

“When we lost the [bluestone], suddenly the boats came into their own and they absolutely skimmed across the water, once we lost the dead weight,” Morgan said. photo courtesy of Mike Morgan

TUNING A BOAT

I was first introduced to Morgan, in 1997, by a television cameraman friend with whom I shared a love of boats and adventure. At the time, Morgan, a professional instrument maker and repairer, was putting the canvas skin on the frame of a kayak at his home in Llantrisant. The particular design he was building is often known by its Russian name, baidarka, but the Unangax̂ people of the Aleutian Islands—the 900-mile archipelago that swoops westward from Alaska—who developed this boat over thousands of years, know it as an iqyax.

Mike Morgan’s fascination with skin boats has led him to explore making numerous types, like this iqyax, with its flexible frame. image courtesy of Jerry Cross

Morgan’s fascination with the oddities of the iqyax—the bifurcated bow, the blunt stern, the fluting effect caused by the skin sucking in between the ribs as it slides through the sea, the way it’s deliberately made to flex in the water rather than remain rigid—is infectious. Just contemplating its architecture makes you see how there could be an entirely different way of looking at the world. Here is something that was essential to the survival of a people, foundational to their culture as both a means of transport and a tool for hunting. Over the millennia, the iqyax design evolved as a way for people to survive, and thrive, in one of the harshest environments on Earth.

Listening to Morgan talk about kayaks, it quickly becomes clear that his understanding has been informed by his work on musical instruments, particularly the quality of resonance in their wood. “I think that’s the link between doing all these things,” he tells me. “Violin makers and guitar makers are constantly tapping wood to listen to the sound. You know when the thing is working because it’ll ring. You become attuned to resonances within the materials that you’re using.”

Intimately linked with resonance, Morgan believes, is a material’s flexibility. “Once you start making it and feel the thing moving on your hand, you suddenly become more aware of how the thing will work in the water.” Then comes its moment at sea. “When the thing is flexing underneath you, you can feel the resonances. If you give a good old thump, it rings. You actually get a musical note.”

Decades of making and tuning wooden instruments have given Morgan a sense for how a wooden boat should feel—and sound. “If you give it a thump, it rings,” he says. “You actually get a musical note.” photo by Simon Morris

Morgan says there is also a physical harmony to the kayak’s design that only emerges once it’s on the water. A modern ship or boat might also flex in heavy seas, at least up to certain tolerances, but those boats are essentially rigid structures. A well-made iqyax has an articulated frame comprising three sections, each attached by movable joints. This allows these kayaks to work in sympathy with the waves, which, if treated as an enemy, could break the boats apart.

George Dyson, the well-known historian of technology, began making baidarkas (or iqyan) as a teenager, and later wrote a book entitled “Baidarka: The Kayak,” (Alaska Northwest Books, 1986) which celebrates the kayaks’ extraordinary qualities. When I talked to him on Skype, he told me that in standard boat designs, flexibility can waste energy. But with a good iqyax, “you can allow the waves to actually pass through the boat, then you save energy.” To accomplish this, Dyson says, “The boat has to be tuned the same way a stringed instrument has to be tuned. You don’t want any dead spots.”

In a treeless landscape where driftwood was the only source of timber for the frame, and tools for shaping it were few, not only the iqyax but also its geographical cousins—the open umiak; the sturdy King Island kayak; and the slender, low-profile Greenland boat—all required uncommon geometrical feats of construction.

THE MAGIC OF SYMMETRY

Morgan has built versions of all those boats, and during the years of labor this required he learned that the margin for error is almost microscopic. “You’ve got four different lines coming together in the front. You can’t have anything wrong or it’ll show up in the skin. It’s quite magical, really.”

From Morgan’s house, you can still see the chimney of the former colliery where his father worked as a miner, before “The Dust” (pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease, which afflicted so many coal miners) forced him to retrain as a carpenter. His father is probably where Morgan got the making gene. As a boy, he was so keen to play the classical guitar that he got his father to make him one. They had to make the ribs (the curved sides of a guitar) by bending wooden strips around a copper tube, which was heated by a gas lighter. With his father working full-time, Morgan tried to help build the guitar, as best he could. “I was so anxious to get this thing that I think I bullied him into finishing it.”

Morgan “bullied” his father into making him his first guitar. The f-hole instruments he’s been making recently are “a bit of a luxury” because of what they cost in materials and time, he said. photo by Simon Morris

In 1970, when Morgan was 18, his father got him his first job—working on the construction of the main highway through the South Wales valleys. For years after leaving school, Morgan toured the working men’s clubs as a guitarist and singer in a band, ultimately enrolling in the Welsh School of Instrument Making and Repair. But by then he’d already made his first guitar, using some birdseye maple given to him by the foreman of one of the factories he worked for.

Morgan still has that guitar, more than 40 years on. “The sound on it is absolutely remarkable,” he says. “You know, you can put a dozen Martin or Gibson guitars on stage and this will be the one that will ring out the best.”

THE KAYAK’S COMEBACK

The lightness, versatility, and human scale of the kayak and the canoe make them unusually accessible boats, giving them almost a democratic quality. That is undoubtedly one reason these boats were long ago adopted by modern industrialized societies for sport, recreation, fishing, even warfare. Some of my first outdoor adventures were on cold English rivers in fiberglass kayaks that we had made in a school shed, getting high on the solvent. Like most people who used these boats, we were unaware of their origins, despite their exotic names.

When Morgan meets fellow kayakers, he’s been surprised to find that many of them question the point of making skin boats using ancient techniques, when fiberglass and plastic are more robust, and now available ready-made. That attitude—being oblivious to the heritage of your own boat—frustrates him. And I couldn’t help but sympathize. When I was first introduced to Morgan, in the 1990s, by cameraman Jerry Cross, I was so struck by his craft that we started developing plans for a documentary film about him.

Our goal was to follow Morgan to Greenland, where he would learn from kayak makers who still maintained their tradition. At a time of shrinking TV budgets and with other commitments, the idea ended up stillborn. But I’ve remained fascinated by Morgan’s work, and the insights the work has brought him.

Morgan’s quest to deconstruct and understand the techniques of kayak-building—and ultimately, to build his own boats— stretches back to the 1980s. photo by Simon Morris
Harvey Golden, who runs the Lincoln Street Kayak and Canoe Museum, has studied hundreds of skin-boat designs from around the world and made several of his own, including this Cleddau coracle. photo courtesy of Harvey Golden

Morgan’s introduction to kayaks occurred in the late 1980s when a climbing friend told him he had kayaked out to an island in the Bristol Channel. That prompted him to buy his own secondhand boat and set him off on a journey to understand the techniques that had created the kayak’s direct ancestors. In pursuing that quest, Morgan found himself among a relatively small group of kayak devotees from a nonindigenous background—people like Dyson, as well as Harvey Golden, who runs the Lincoln Street Kayak and Canoe Museum in Portland, Oregon.

Golden has catalogued 230 of the 600-odd kayaks that he estimates are in museums and private collections around the world; he has also published details of their construction and history. The availability of such histories has allowed Morgan to build his own kayaks using surveys he’s done himself at the British Museum in London, along with others by John Brand, the author of the much-cited Little Kayak Book.

WHO OWNS THE KAYAK STORY?

While Morgan is plenty aware of the potential sensitivities in his work, he is unapologetic about the value of studying and re-creating kayaks from museum examples, which he says are crumbling fast. And despite the deterioration of those old boats, the kayak-making tradition seems to be getting a second life in various corners of the world.

Although there are plenty of modern versions using modern materials, handmade, traditional wood-and-skin boats have been making a comeback. photo by Simon Morris

After nosing around in indigenous communities, Harvey Golden has come to believe there are more indigenous kayak-makers now than there were half a century ago. Exact numbers are difficult to quantify, but Golden says his conclusion is partly based on a 1987 article in Sea Kayaker magazine by the late historian John Heath, who described the first national meeting of a kayak club called the Greenland Qajaq Association in 1985. The club was founded by three young, indigenous Greenlanders who were inspired by an exhibition of three ancient kayaks on loan from a Dutch museum. (The club’s slogan: “Kayak—we are starting to use it again.”) There are now believed to be 25 qajaq clubs around Greenland, and even a chapter in the U.S., of which John Heath is an honorary member.

Golden himself has built 70 replica kayaks, published his surveys, and continues to share kayak designs. Yet he recoils from the idea that he is preserving a tradition. “I don’t think anyone from outside that culture has the authority to say they are preserving anything,” Golden told me. “I’m describing what I see. But preservation has to come from within the culture.”

The iqyax design, with its distinctive bifurcated bow and blunt stern, evolved to handle the big seas off the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Strait. illustration by Harvey Golden

Dyson, who shares Golden’s sentiments, told me that he stopped making and writing about kayaks because he felt he shouldn’t speak on behalf of the people whose heritage they are. His most recent book, “Analogia” (Penguin, 2020), a meditation on technology and society, explores the kayak’s role in the often-brutal colonization of the Aleutian Islands. During the 19th century, Russian traders, hungry for valuable sea otter pelts, first exploited the iqyax and its expert indigenous handlers as superb assistants for hunting, then largely destroyed the culture that had created the traditions the Russians so greatly prized.

Back in the 1990s, when I first started exploring this topic, I’d always hoped to travel with Morgan to Greenland to meet indigenous kayak makers. We couldn’t raise the money needed for a trip, but I still wanted to know what people who had inherited the age-old, skin-on-frame tradition would make of what Morgan and Golden are doing. So I called Noah Nochasak, an Inuk kayak maker in Nain, Newfoundland.

Nochasak has been making skin-on-frame boats for more than 10 years and is largely self-taught; his first instructor was the internet, and he admits his first kayak wasn’t very good. Despite having an engineering diploma, these kinds of boats are “more complex than I gave them credit for.” The elders who might have taught him were now too old to offer much help, so he turned to Maligiaq Padilla, a kayak builder and ten-time winner of Greenland’s National Kayaking Championship (which turns out to be an unusual and remarkably grueling event). Today, Nochasak is an accomplished builder, funded by the regional government to teach all things kayak in Inuk communities.

The East Greenland kayak’s elegant, slender form, and minimal freeboard (the distance from the waterline to the upper deck level) made it a superbly swift and silent hunting platform. illustration by Harvey Golden

Nochasak says that reviving interest in traditional kayaks can be “tough” in his community, where mining has brought money and everyone loves their outboard motors. But he wants to make kayaking—which, for Nochasak, includes actually making these boats—accessible for everyone. In his view, anyone like Morgan or Golden, who are not only making and boating in kayaks but also intensely studying their history, is taking this tradition forward.

“If anyone’s interested, that’s a good thing,” he told me. And he thought Golden in particular had “taken it to another level. The kayak world is lucky to have him.” Nochasak went so far as to voice a sentiment that perhaps can only be said by a native member of the Inuit culture: “The Inuit have got to put the work in, if [Golden] is.”

I also spoke to Sven Haakanson, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington. Despite the Scandinavian name he inherited from his grandfather, Haakanson was born and raised on Kodiak Island, in an Alutiiq community. Haakanson believes that recovering knowledge of skin boats is an important part of reversing some of the cultural loss the Inuit have suffered; to that end, some of his coursework involves teaching traditional boatbuilding skills.

Morgan builds kayaks like this King Island boat in a shed at home, and “skins” them in his back garden. photo by Simon Morris

To Haakanson, talk of cultural appropriation is misplaced—unless someone is profiting off the knowledge generated by his community. (Since Morgan’s skin boats are purely passion projects, which he doesn’t sell but instead donates to schools or museums, he seems innocent of this charge.) Yet Professor Haakanson still isn’t entirely satisfied.

“He could come back and share the knowledge he’s learned with the community,” says Haakanson. “Here’s somebody who’s inspired by their knowledge, and he’s taken it to another level. Why not build a relationship where [this knowledge] can be even more meaningful?

Morgan says he’d love to travel to Greenland for some kind of knowledge-sharing experience, if he could find the money to do it. In the meantime, Morgan sees himself as a follower of a trend called “experimental archaeology.” In this discipline—practiced most famously by Thor Heyerdahl on his Kon Tiki expedition, and taught in dozens of universities around the world—practitioners strive to build appreciation of indigenous knowledge by attempting to make, hunt, and live by the tools that people used hundreds if not thousands of years ago. “I think there are so few people doing [this],” Morgan says, “if I’m holding my end up in Britain and helping out with research in Britain, then it all adds to the greater good.”

Preserving? Appropriating? Teaching? Experimenting? In the end, perhaps it isn’t necessary to define what nonindigenous, skin-on-frame kayak makers are doing—as long as they don’t cross a line into claiming to be owners and arbiters of the tradition. Yet another way to examine these questions is across the long arc of human history. By that measure, an aesthetic sensibility, guided by an appreciation of skill and design nurtured in one culture, eventually becomes a route into illuminating and sharing the achievements of another. Which might leave most anyone feeling grateful for the devotions of makers like Mike Morgan.

More stories from this issue:

Italy’s Ancient Textile-Printing Mangle

Eco-Fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion

Can the U.S. Bring its Supply Chain Back Home?

Latest content:

Watch “Mike Morgan’s Quest to Make Traditional Skin Boats”

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Metalsmith Forges Opportunities for Black Women Artists

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