The Aleutian Kayak; April 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Dyson, sidebar by Schlenoff; 8 Page(s)
When Russians first reached the Aleutian Islands and the coast of Alaska in the 1700s, the waters were thick with small, swift, split-prowed boats to which the explorers gave the name "baidarka." Made of driftwood, lashed with baleen fiber and covered with translucent sea-mammal skin, these craft were entirely creatures of the sea. The Aleuts paddled the lightweight, flexible kayaks at great speeds in the treacherous waters of the area, hunting whale, otter, sea lions, seals and other marine creatures with hand-launched darts, spears and harpoons.
Over time, however, the design of the baidarka was altered to suit the newcomers' needs. Certain forms of the craft-including a narrow, open-jawed, high-speed version-ceased to exist. Because the tradition of building these kayaks was largely unrecorded, a host of unanswered questions have arisen for contemporary scholars, kayakers and Aleuts. Just how fast were early baidarkas? Why the forked bow and the oddly truncated stern? Did Aleutian hunters have an intuitive understanding of design principles that continue to elude engineers and mathematicians to this day?