The Inuit kayak and its descendants

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The Kayak is an example of Inuit technological ingenuity that made it possible to live in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. These light, single-passenger boats were used primarily for hunting rather than a means of transport.

The Inuit build these boats from the materials to hand. The frame is generally of wood, formerly driftwood and with Arctic Willow for the ribs. The frame parts are pegged and/or lashed together with sinew or sealskin cord, or nowadays with nylon line. The apparently flimsy components combine to form an extremely strong completed frame, which is then covered with a waterproof skin.

Canvas is commonly used these days, although a few are still covered in the traditional manner with the skin of seal or caribou. These kayaks have a misleading look of fragility about them, but they are immensely strong. The frame can flex in the water, and the skin absorbs impacts from waves and even rocks with little damage.

There are a wide variety of designs, depending on the local conditions and the animals being hunted, but the long, narrow shape and skin-on-frame construction is found from Siberia, across Arctic North America, to Greenland. Some were designed for hunting caribou on inland lakes and rivers, but most were for hunting sea mammals on the coast. In each case, the hunting equipment is carried on the decks, secured under leather straps with fittings of ivory or antler.

The hunter silently approaches his prey to within range of the harpoon, lance or rifle. Great skill is required to avoid becoming entangled and capsized during the hunt, and the ability to roll the kayak was very valuable. Walrus are particularly dangerous, and liable to attack and crush the kayak when provoked. In the past, when the kayak was still widely used for hunting, a high proportion of male deaths in Greenland were due to kayak hunting accidents.

Within the last century the arctic kayak form has been adopted, copied and modified by boat-builders in Europe and worldwide. Initially they were built in wood and canvas, then plywood, and most recently glassfibre and plastic. New materials and manufacturing techniques have led to the development of a new generation of folding kayaks, where the frame is assembled and inserted into the waterproof skin.

Although distant from the ethos of using natural, locally-obtained building materials, these craft behave on the water more like their ancestor skinboats than the glassfibre "hardshell" kayaks. Folding kayaks are very resilient and can continue to perform well even if part of the frame is damaged. They are also easily repaired in the field and this makes them an ideal choice for extended trips in remote areas.

In the Arctic today a few communities continue to use kayaks for hunting, but most now use modern boats with outboard engines. There is an increasing interest in the kayaking heritage, however, especially in Greenland where an annual National Kayaking Championship is held. Kayaking traditions are also being promoted in other parts of the world.