Today, a kayak tells us about the Aleut people. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
George Dyson's father,
Freeman Dyson, was a great English physicist. Once
involved with the atom bomb, he later worked with
solar sails and interstellar flight. But here in
British Columbia son George makes an earthier
expression of human ingenuity.
George Dyson is the reigning expert on the subtlest
and most complex vehicle ever contrived. He knows
more about the baidarka -- the Aleut kayak -- than
the Aleut natives themselves did.
Baidarka is a Russian word. The Russians came to
the Aleutian Islands in 1732. To the sea north of
the Aleutians, they gave the name of their captain
-- the moody, stubborn, meticulous Dane, Vitus
Bering. But, to the delicate Aleut kayak, they gave
their name for a small canoe -- the name
A small baidarka is light enough that a child can
carry it. It'll capsize if you put it in the water
without a passenger. It's a whalebone and driftwood
frame covered with sealskin. You have to be a
gymnast to get into one. But, once in, you can skim
the water at 10 knots. You can land a seal -- even
Dyson has studied accounts of baidarkas from the
past 260 years. The Aleuts have constantly changed
and evolved them. They weren't at all conservative
about engineering design. A museum curator in
Anchorage told me, "The Aleuts were born
The baidarka has baffled ethnologists. The prow,
for example, is forked with two tines, one above
the other. We'd thought that was traditional
decoration. Now we see the lower tine is deep and
narrow. It cuts into the water and stabilizes the
boat. The top is flat --it planes over waves for a
Aleut navigators rode their baidarkas far out to
sea -- to California, to the warm Pacific. Aleut
legend tells how we know the earth is round. They
once sent young men out in two baidarkas. They came
back old, without ever having found any edge.
Dyson honors the Aleut mind by mixing experience
with experimentation. He's made small baidarkas. He
made one that was 48 feet long with sails and
outriggers. He tinkers with the shape. He calls the
baidarka "a frame of mind." Now he makes them with
aluminum tubing and bulkheads -- with nylon skin
As those exquisite forms take shape we hear
something the great Russian Orthodox missionary,
Ivan Veniaminov, once said. He recounted the Aleut
ritual of rising in the morning. One must stand, he
face to the East, and opening the mouth inhale
the light and the air, [and cry] I do not sleep. I
am alive. I face you, the life-giving light, and
will always live with you.
Dyson's baidarkas are more than boats.
They are icons of just that way of life and light --
and buoyancy of the spirit.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dyson, G., Baidarka: The Kayak, Anchorage:
Alaska Northwest Books. 1986.
Veniaminov, I., Notes on the Islands of the
Unalashka District. (L.T. Black and R.H.
Geoghegan, tr.; R.A. Pierce, ed.) Kingston, Ont.:
The Limestone Press, 1984. (This includes much
Aleut technology including the baidarka.)
See also Episode No. 668
I'm grateful to Walter van Horn, Curator of
Collections, and Diane Brenner, Archivist -- both
at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art -- for
their kind help with this episode.
From the November, 1896,
Sketch of a Native Alaskan from 1896
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
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