How strong is a skin-on-frame sea kayak? (Destructive testing)

How strong is a skin-on-frame sea kayak? (Destructive testing) from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.


Katya Palladina was given this skin-on-frame kayak by Phoxx Ekcs after he completed his expedition along the north coast of Vancouver Island in 2011. After 7 years of regular use, it's time to replace the skin and do some minor repairs. This gave us an opportunity to conduct some destructive testing.

We tested the strength of a the nylon fabric skin prior to completely removing it in preparation for re-skinning. It resists blunt force very well but can be punctured by a sharp point. Typically when this happens it's because of dragging against oyster shells or large barnacles. The skin comes off easily from the wooden frame after softening the resin with a heat gun.

This kayak was designed by Kiliii Yu of Seawolf Kayak and built by primitive skills expert Phoxx Ekcs.

It doesn't seem right to destroy this kayak without a reference to the amazing journey Phoxx Ekcs took this kayak through. The full story can be found in our interview with Phoxx on YouTube:


PART 1 "Living Primitively"

PART 2 "The North Coast Trail"

PART 3 "No Limits, No Regrets"

PART 4 "My Most Dangerous Day on the Water"

Interview with Phoxx Ekcs Part 4: "My Most Dangerous Day On The Water"

Interview with Phoxx Ekcs Part 4: "My Most Dangerous Day on the Water" from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

This is the 4th and final part of my interview with Phoxx Ekcs. He talks about kayaking from Cape Sutil back to God’s Pocket through the worst conditions he’s ever encountered -- out through surf and 6 to 8 ft waves -- and barely making progress against strong headwinds. He paddled from sunrise to sundown on the first day after having had nothing to eat for the last 3 days and only a liter of water.

I talked to Phoxx further about his decision to launch his kayak that day. He said that he simply couldn’t stay at Cape Sutil any longer because there weren’t any mussels there. There had been high winds and rain during the few days prior and he thought he was leaving on a relatively calm day.

We wrap it up with a demonstration on how to start a fire using a fire board and spindle.



Interview With Phoxx Ekcs Part 3: "No Limits, No Regrets"

Interview with Phoxx Ekcs Part 3: "No Limits, No Regrets" from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

If each part of this four-part interview can be said to have its own flavor, then this part is bitter. Phoxx talks about some of the most difficult physical and psychological challenges during the trip. For instance, while hiking along the North Coast Trail to Cape Scott Phoxx developed a serious infection in both feet. His feet and ankles had swollen up “like a pregnant woman’s."  You couldn’t tell the difference between his calves and ankles. He had also had sprained toes and huge bruises on his shoulders from the backpack he had been carrying. During the 5 day hike he only ate a handful of salal berries and drank less than 3 liters of water. On day 20 some of the guys at the Cape Scott Light Station told him he needed to stop his trip, leave his kayak behind and hike to Holberg and get a ride to Port Hardy. They even started to talk about calling the Coast Guard to rescue him.

I asked Phoxx recently about his choice of brain tanned buckskins for clothing, Could he have chosen more appropriate clothing for the rain? He responded that he could have definitely stayed more comfortable by simply not moving around. He could have stayed warm, dry and eaten well every day by staying on a good foraging beach and sitting in his shelter during bad weather. But that wasn’t what his trip was about. It was more important for him to reach his goal of getting to Cape Scott rather than be comfortable.


The Phoxx Ekcs Interview Part 2: The North Coast Trail

Interview with Phoxx Ekcs Part 2: The North Coast Trail from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

I’ve received some scathing criticism of Phoxx and his trip. A sample of the responses so far:

“…This made me think he is more of a fool than anything. I just don't see anything at all to be envied, admired, advertised, respected, emulated or promoted...”

“…It would not have taken very much for him to have died, and then we all would be discussing his "adventure" here in much harsher and unforgiving terms. But he didn't die thank goodness. So instead perhaps the words foolhardy or immature can be used.”

“… isn't the Pacific Northwest about the easiest test for primitive living outside of the tropics? I want to see him spend July in Death Valley with an SOF. Or Detroit.”

“…the whole "expert" having a near-fatal hypothermia experience, and the ill-conceived leather-clothing in a damp environment (where the locals historically wore water-resistant cedar-bark clothing), and the idea of keeping some vague "ancient techniques" alive kind of shoots it all down for me.”

“What is exceptional about doing everything so wrong on purpose that you nearly die 14 ways in 28 days? …this is not good publicity for SOF kayaking.”

“If Mr. Phoxx would have skated through his trip in saftety and comfort, now THAT would have been impressive. As it is he comes across as an amateur in so many ways. I hope for his sake and others that he has the attitude of a student and not a teacher.”

“Unfortunately for Phoxx, you have capture him accurately, from the choice of name to the choice in gear. I feel that, "Only after you know the rules can you break them". What he did was put the reputation of our sport at risk …”


People accuse Phoxx of breaking all the rules of sea kayaking safety and taking unnecessary risks, and almost dying of hypothermia because of it. (For the record, Phoxx’s near death experiences with hypothermia occurred while hiking on the trail and not from paddling.) They responded negatively to his inauthentic hodgepodge of pre−European Contact technologies that were not native to the Pacific Northwest, specifically, his skin−on−frame kayak and leather clothing. The leather clothing was a particularly poor choice because it was ineffective protection against the rain. The most bizarre accusation of all is that Phoxx did the trip to make a profit by promoting himself and his story. Without even seeing the whole interview, people expressed their complete lack of interest in hearing about a rank amateur blundering his way through the wilderness and almost dying from his foolishness.

This kind of response surprised me, although it really shouldn’t have. It was certainly a crazy-sounding idea to begin with, with significant risks involved. People had been telling Phoxx from the beginning not to do it. The lighthouse keepers he met at Cape Scott had told him it was unsafe to continue, and that he needed stop immediately. They even threatened to call the Coast Guard on him. (More on that in Part 3.)

What I really didn't expect was that these comments would come from the traditional kayaking community, which I thought might be a little more welcoming to a trip that demonstrated how skin−on frame kayaks could be used for serious expedition kayaking. Some were even concerned that it would reflect poorly on the skin−on−frame community and put the reputation of traditional kayaking at risk.


What was Phoxx’s attitude toward breaking all the rules? Here is what he said at the cafe, when I asked him about his decision not to wear a life jacket or a wetsuit:

“Where is my confidence? If I don’t have confidence without a life jacket or a wet suit I probably shouldn’t be on the water. If I think that I’m going to fall in the water I probably shouldn’t be on the water. Granted, there are things that happen… but you deserve what’s coming to you. If you get on the water on a bad day, that’s your choice. I never put myself in a position where I was in a terrible position except the last few days paddling.”

I do not believe Phoxx was at all ignorant at all of the risks, or of the limit of his abilities, or of what safety rules he was breaking.

For primitive humans, discomfort, illness and death were always present. In our modern lives, we don’t expect to die eating contaminated food or water, being attacked by bears or wolves, falling off a cliff, drowning, starving or freezing to death. One may argue about the authenticity of the mix of modern and primitive technologies used on this trip, but I think exposing oneself to significant risks is an essential part of the primitive living experience.



Interview with Phoxx Ekcs Part 1: Living Primitively

Interview with Phoxx Ekcs Part 1: Living Primitively from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Part 1 of my 4 part interview with Phoxx deals primarily with the daily life on his expedition: where he went, what he wore, what he ate, and the kind of gear he used.

North coast map copy

Phoxx began his trip in Port Hardy and paddled 30 miles west as far as Cape Sutil. His goal was to make it to Cape Scott on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island. Because of rough sea conditions west of Cape Sutil he decided to hike the remaining 30 miles from Cape Sutil to Cape Scott along the North Coast Trail.

Only about half of my interview with Phoxx ended up in the final cut. In one of the deleted scenes we talked in more detail about the risk acquiring paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) from eating foraged mussels and clams. (Surprisingly, he did not find any oysters.)

“PSP was in the back of my head the whole time," he said. "I’m going to wake up and I not going to be able to move. And the next thing I know the paralytic toxin attacks is my heart. And I’m going to die slowly.”

If Phoxx had had a radio he would have called in every night to see if the shellfish area he was in was safe but instead he relied on simple field tests. Supposedly one way to detect PSP is to rub the raw flesh of the animal on your lips and mouth and wait for a few minutes to see if you feel any tingling or numbness. Kiliii Fish described a technique where he would take a small bite and hold it in his mouth for 5 minutes while avoiding swallowing any saliva. If you start feeling any numbness or tingling then you can assume the organism is contaminated.

Phoxx says that he always used the rub test, but thought it was highly subjective and nonspecific. His mind tended to wander and he sometimes imagined that his lips were tingling when they really weren’t. As far as he knows, there is no scientific evidence to validate the test. On day 6 or 7 he experienced burning in his throat after eating a batch of mussels, but didn’t get sick. Sometimes he just ignored the tingling sensations because he simply had to eat something: “When you are hungry you are hungry! Sometimes you just have to eat.”


Even if the shellfish are contaminated, Phoxx said if you eat only one it is not likely to kill you. You could eat one and wait 12 hours and if you don’t get sick you could assume it is safe to eat the rest. I might add that I thought of even safer method: if you happen to be traveling with a friend, you could do what I did while paddling in the Broken Group and let your friend eat a bunch of oysters first. If he’s still alive the next day, then you know they are safe to eat.

Phoxx did very little fishing and caught only one fish, a salmon, which lasted 3-4 days after drying. Foraging on the beach at low tide was simply easier. It was also more risky to be on the water without a lifejacket or wetsuit. When it was windy and raining he would be risking hypothermia.



Phoxx early on abandoned the idea of going entirely primitive, but the “modern gear” he acquired was basically trash he found along the way: a plastic bottle for water, some string, and a tarp. For hiking along the North Coast trail he fashioned a backpack, which was basically his gear wrapped up in his blanket, wrapped up in the plastic tarp, and tied together with salvaged cord. These few items added a little more comfort to the trip. Although he doesn't mention it in the interview, he also said that the move away from an exercise in primitive living also came about from the realization that he was facing a problem of simple survival.

The handful of other modern items he carried included a DSLR camera with 14 batteries in a drybag and SPOT satellite messenger. Apparently there were several days where the messages he attempted to send to indicate his location were not received.


Surviving Vancouver Island’s North Coast: An Interview with Phoxx Ekcs

Phoxx Ekcs- Trailer from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Surviving Vancouver Island’s North Coast: An Interview with Phoxx Ekcs (Trailer) from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Although I had spoken with Phoxx Ekcs through Skype in June, I hadn't actually met him in person until after he completed his 28 day expedition along Vancouver Island’s north coast. He called me soon after his trip and said he would be in Seattle for a couple days. I was very happy to hear that he was in town. If you know anything about his trip, you know what a crazy idea it was −− a “primitive living” expedition in a skin−on−frame kayak with no modern gear. No tent or sleeping bag. No drysuit, and, I would later learn, not even a PFD. He didn’t bring any food or water with him from the moment he left Port Hardy, and fished and foraged for food along the way. No one has ever done anything like this before (as far as 21st century North Americans go). So by “happy to hear from him” I meant that I knew there was a real chance that he might not come back from Vancouver Island at all −− alive, anyway.


We decided to meet over lunch and after slogging through Seattle traffic and finding parking, I found Phoxx standing next to the back of his truck talking to my friend Katya. To my surprise, he had already given her his kayak! I guess he had grown tired of it and was done with kayaking for a while. Katya, a photographer and graphic artist, had already made plans to use the kayak as a canvas and paint designs on it.

Picture 249


Phoxx’s SUV was stuffed with gear −− a large hand−felted wool blanket, baskets, wooden bowls, bark tan paddling vest, bone fish hooks, a gaff made from antler, obsidian knives in leather bags. Both he and his gear smelled strongly of a dozen campfires.

Phoxx was still dressed in brain tan buckskins. He said he had to catch a photography shoot later that day. A commercial photographer was going to take pictures of him and his gear, so he needed to keep his beard on and look the part. He was looking forward to shaving afterwards.



The three of us talked over sandwiches in a busy Capitol Hill café. I took notes but it was hard to keep up with him. He had so much to tell and the stories were rich in detail. It was hard enough to keep everything straight without a map to follow where he went. Fortunately, the voice recorder of my iPhone picked up our conversation over the din of the café.

I remembered that I happened to have a map of Vancouver Island in my car and excused myself to grab it. He pointed out how he had covered over 120 miles round trip from Port Hardy to Cape Scott, half of it sea kayaking and half hiking along the new and challenging North Coast trail.

I had intended to write an article about his trip for this blog, but Phoxx had another idea. Why don’t we just shoot another interview? After all, it’s far better to hear about his journey in his own words. It worked for me too, because personally I prefer cutting video than writing.

We shot the interview the next evening at my place in downtown Tacoma. Phoxx is an intense and engaging speaker, and just flowed with story after incredible story, about making deals with bears, going days at a time without food and very little water, paddling into 8 foot waves and 60 mph winds, and barely surviving hypothermia. Even though I cut out a lot for length, there was so much to tell in this epic journey that the final cut came to almost an hour. I divided it into four parts to make it easier to digest. I will start releasing the interview parts one at a time every few days.

Picture 251

The "Full Circle Kayak Expedition" With Primitive Skills Expert Phoxx Ekcs

Phoxx Ekcs Kickstarter Video.

When I first heard that primitive skills expert Phoxx Ekcs was planning an expedition along Vancouver Island's north coast I knew I needed to talk to him. An intriguing video on Facebook announced his trip to the world to help raise funding for the documentation of the trip (Phoxx plans to go whether or not he is able to meet his fundraising goal). The video didn't offer many specifics, but rather raised plenty of questions. Like his name, "Phoxx Ekcs." Is "Phoxx" like "fox"? Does it refer to a totem animal, his nonhuman guide through both the physical and spiritual world? Does "Ekcs" refer to the letter "X", the symbol of the independent and unknown variable? His Facebook page says he's living in Utah. How much sea kayaking do they do there? Is he really going without bringing along any food or toilet paper?

Actually I didn't ask him any of those questions. We had plenty of other things to talk about. When I emailed him to introduced myself, I said I knew Kiliii Yu, who had taught him how to build skin-on-frame kayaks. Later we talked over Skype and discussed his upcoming 28 day ("one moon cycle") primitive expedition on Vancouver Island.

Phoxx has taught primitive living skills since age 16. He seems to be very passionate about  passion for whatever he does, whether it is slacklining, whitewater kayaking, or sea kayaking. I also got the impression that he desperately needed to do this trip, to finally put himself and his skills to the test, and that nothing was going to stop him.

Primitive living seems to mesh well with traditional kayaks. The trend toward traditional kayaking has presented a challenge to the idea that major kayak expeditions can only be completed with modern (and expensive) kayaks and paddles constructed from high-tech materials. Kiliii Yu demonstrated the durability of traditional skin-on-frame construction in challenging coastal conditions with his successful 31-day trip along the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Accepting the idea the one can complete an expedition living primitively, leaving civilization with only a stone knife and handmade leather clothes, requires a paradigm shift, because preparing for an expedition typically involves acquiring the best gear you can afford -- alpine tents, sleeping bags, freeze dried foods, and satellite phones -- because your life might depend on your stuff. When Phoxx paddles out of Port Hardy this August, he won't even be bringing any food or water with him. He will be living intimately with the environment and not merely passing through as quickly as possible sealed in a GoreTex drysuit.

This is an expedition that deserves to be documented and I encourage everyone to consider donating to the Full Circle Kayak Kickstart fund which will go to cover the expense of documenting the trip through photography and video.