Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Kayak Workshop - October 2008

In October 2008, Sean Gallagher, who has learned the traditional kayak construction methods used by his Inupiak ancestors, came and taught a course for us.   Clicking on the image will take you to a slideshow of the event.

The tradition is from King Island, a tiny island off Alaska in the Bering Sea, almost as near to Russia as to Alaska.   Much more information on Sean and his kayaks can be found on his website and blog.

One Kayak Maker, Alyne Jones, writes:

An Eskimo comes to Galloway

When I was wee and happit up to keep out the chill of Winter, my Dad would say ‘here comes Nanook of the North’.

I had no idea who this Nanook was until this Winter when I watched the 1930’s film and realised what an impact it had had on my parents generation.   It graphically told the story of the Eskimo through ethnological observation of the family and the community life of Nanook in a way documentary film had never done before for mass consumption.  The simple life of these people in their daily battle with the most inhospitable climatic conditions on Earth then became embedded into the daily parlance and culture of the West.

When Godfrey said to me that day in October ‘you’ll have to come and build a Kayak,’ I accepted the hand of fate and humbly entered an unfamiliar arena; the world of tools and creating an object of beauty from wood.   When I need something done with tools and wood in my house, I ring the joiner.   My immediate thoughts were that I was being given the opportunity to enter a mysterious unknown world on many levels, the most obvious being the experience of working with tools and how would I manage this totally unfamiliar journey?

Godfrey Smith, the clog and shoe maker from Galloway had met Sean, an Inupiat Eskimo in Edinburgh during the Afghan film Festival in February 2008.   By October that year Sean was in Galloway to teach his first class abroad.

Sean’s grandparents were from King Island, 70 miles from Alaska in the Bering strait, whose whole culture revolved round the Kayak.   This Island was evacuated in the 1950’s and Sean had always been fascinated with the skills of his ancestors and decided he would dedicate himself to finding out how these exceptional boats were built.

Of all the Bering Strait Kayaks, the King Island kayak was reportedly the best made and strongest.   Its strength was such that the Kayak and Kayaker could be launched from a rocky overhang by two strong men.   On a signal from the Kayaker, they picked up the loaded Kayak and threw it over the surf line.

These kayaks were designed to be used in the stormy waters of the Bering Strait and perfectly adapted for a person intent on distance paddling.

Plans for a Kayak Building workshop at Taliesin, our South West Community Woodland Site in Galloway were now laid and this small corner of Scotland was destined to be the first place outside of the United States of America where the King Island Kayak would be built, using locally milled timber .

As a founder member of the Community Woodland and registered as one of the ‘old brigade’, I always go along to support events at Taliesin, usually held three times a year ,by making soup, gathering wood or being general dogsbody, which is the most crucial role in any event.   If anyone asks the secret of how we have successfully run courses now for over 10years, the answer lies in the team who do it and the fact that we all pitch in.

In October 2008 however, fate had detemined my destiny and I was to be a maker and builder of a King Island Kayak and others would support me as I had done for so many others in the past.   After the first few days of measuring, sawing, pegging, planning and lashing, my teacher Sean asked me how I was feeling about learning so many new skills so quickly with the pressure of a limited timescale to complete the task.

My answer was not the one he expected.   Each day for a week my time was consumed with creating and perfecting techniques which required a concentration of purpose.   To be immersed in such repetitive tasks was a form of pure meditation,this was the peace I had glimpsed so many times in folk who used hand tools.

The inner journey that I was taking while tying hundreds of square lashings with artificial sinew was the culmination of all my life achievements and lessons accumulated in my outer journey through life.

The process was so overwhelming in fact, that I am still coming to terms with it.   Curiously, the weather that week in October when we ran the kayak building course was of biblical proportion and challenged everyone concerned on a fundamental level.

It was the wettest week ever recorded and on the second day, the local burns were all running down the road and right through the middle of our workshop area at the gate.   Jem,Jools and Maz didn’t hesitate,the three of them got into a 4 wheel drive with spades and set about clearing culverts up and down the country road which runs by our site.   The old job of the local roadman is not done these days and the result in this case was close down our site due to severe flooding or do something yourself.

We managed to salvage our half built kayaks and moved all the tools and wood to higher ground.   For our teacher Sean, the Inupiat Eskimo, who had come from Seattle it was very difficult, squelching through deep mud holes as he worked with his four kayak builders.   This course was proving to be a test for everyone on so many levels we had never experienced before or anticipated.   Our cook Jools was magnificent, keeping our spirits up as she had realised the enormous task it would have been to relocate our whole workshop.

Each Kayak is 15 feet long and constructed in Galloway timber which had been cut from a wood in Wigtownshire and milled the weekend before.   The long stringers which made the outline shape and the ribs which formed the body of the kayak were pinned together with wooden pegs and reinforced and tied together with lashings of artificial sinew.   This sinew was light and incredibly strong and with over 500 square lashings needed to hold it all together a test of how tough the hands were.   I often used to wear a pair of fine leather gloves while lashing when the skin on the hands became too tender.

So, I am now a kayak builder and have had the complete immersion therapy.   After years of observing how healing working with wood is, how the transformation occurs as the external persona fades away, and the powerful act of quietly shaving away at wood fulfils some deep desire.

I now know that feeling and can only compare it to times in a life where there has been a complete release from external worries and the notion that somehow you are in control.   Nursing an infant, or working with others in a common task is the nearest I can come to analysing the experience.   The job that week was clear, nurture and help to grow more beautiful and complete every day.

That inner journey is still to be absorbed and imprinted in the psyche; the outer one remains: I was a Kayak builder for a week in my life,   What a privilege!

Alyne is currently preparing an exhibition of photographs and storyboards, illustrating the Indigenous Folk Culture of Scotland.  Dates for the touring event available.   Visit her website:

The above account appeared in the Reforesting Scotland Journal, issue 39 (Spring/Summer 2009).

We operate workshops and courses twice yearly at Taliesin Community Woodland Centre.   For more information click here. or for general information about Southwest Community Woodlands Trust, click here   
Do pay Taliesin a visit anytime and enjoy the space.
(click for map)