Building a Traditional Kayak

by John Caddy Murphy

In the spring of 1964, David Bethel, the principal of Nain School, commissioned some Inuit Elders at Nain to build him a kayak. The men were to build the kayak and the women were to cover it with seal skins.

The work was carried out on the roadway going from the center of the town called Main Path, to North Point, through a long string of houses called Hebron End. These were the small, wooden homes built for the people from Hebron who were relocated to Nain when Hebron was closed down by the government and the Moravian Church in Labrador in the 1950's.

One afternoon, the principal invited me to walk down to see how things were going with the kayak. The men were busy working on it. The construction was well underway. There were around five or six men working on it. The kayak was entirely made of spruce wood that had been collected in the Nain area. The wood was cut by hand. There were no metal in the kayak, no nails, screws, supports, or wire, nothing but shaped spruce wood, no doubt carefully chosen to withstand the conditions out in the open sea, and sealskin line that had been stretched between two trees to be in the best condition for tying the kayak together. There was a small campfire burning at the side of Middle Path. On the fire was hung an iron pot, and over the pot was a small canvas tent, that was carefully watched so it would not catch fire. The pieces of wood prepared to go into the kayak were run repeatedly through the tent to be streamed so they could be shaped correctly when tied with sealskin line, with the perfect curve for its place in the kayak.

During this work, there were frequent conversations among the men. It didn't seem there was any leader. The men would look at the kayak from different angles.. Adjustments were made until they all agreed, "daima" (enough).

Mr. Bethel had a publication from the Smithsonian Institute on kayaks of the world. Short kayaks were built and used in Greenland. They were the shortest of all kayaks. They were short so they could be maneuvered around the icebergs and ice pans. The longest kayaks were from Labrador. The reason they were made so long is because of the distance between the swells in the open sea along the Labrador. Mr. Bethel kept looking at the drawings and at the kayak as the men were building it. It was amazingly complicated with many small pieces of wood carefully tied tightly in place. This was to give the kayak incredible flexibility out in the water, a flexibility that would prevent the kayak from cracking and the man in it from drowning. There were many "x" shapes as the wood was placed to give support in all directions.

The men continually stopped to view the kayak from all angles with many consultations and some seemingly very small adjustments. Would it be much different, if they were a group of brain surgeons? In both cases a human life would be at stake where a small error could be fatal.

Mr. Bethel kept studying the book with the kayak drawings and the kayak before him. Finally, he said that it didn't seem right. Compared to the drawing in the book, it seemed the girth of the kayak would be too deep into the water. The men had a discussion over this for quite some time. Finally, one man said in English with a little twinkle in his eyes, "We made it for you." Mr. Bethel wore size 12 shoes. So, it turned out every kayak was customized for a particular person.
If a man died, would his kayak be ceremoniously burned? That doesn't seem likely. It seems the Inuit way would be to give it to someone with close to the same dimensions. The shaped wood around the opening where the man sat was also made to adjust to his girth.

There were enough sealskins at that time available at Nain for the women to prepare them in a very laborious way and sew them together with caribou sinew to cover the kayak.

Later, Mr. Bethel wanted another kayak built but not for him. He said, "Just make it," whatever that meant to them. This time there were not enough sealskins at Nain to cover it. It was covered with canvas that was painted.

Mr. Bethel had many traditional things made for him, like soapstone lamps, fish spears, and a five-pronged bird spear with walrus tusk ivory arrowheads. When a fellow with VSO arrived at Nain to help in the community, Mr. Bethel would sometimes ask him to teach his afternoon classes while he went off in his kayak learning to throw the bird spear that had a fitted piece of wood to give it more speed when thrown. One time he went too far out in the harbour on a windy day and was blown out toward the big Nain Bay. With great effort he managed to get to the other side of the harbour near South Point where he rested and slowly made his way back into the harbour and to Nain.

It would have been good if all the children at Nain could have spent some hours watching how skillfully they built the kayak. The Elders would have been some of the children's grandfathers and grandmothers. At that time there was no airstrip, and airplanes landed on either skis or pontoons at the wharf. So only children living near there would have likely seen them on a regular basis as the kayaks were built. It could have been set up near the school. Hopefully someday this will happen.