Watch it on Vimeo.
I'm happy to finally announce the release of my short film, "The Last Baidarka of Prince William Sound: An interview with Alutiiq kayak builder Mitch Poling" on Vimeo. Mitch Poling grew up in a small Alaskan village where men still used skin-on-frame kayaks for travel and hunting. He has spent the last several years helping revive the lost art of traditional kayak building in Alaska by teaching what he has learned through studying the last surviving Chugach baidarka from his youth.
Many thanks go to Richard (aka Ricardo) who conducted the interview, and who has been a willing partner in so many of my creative projects. Of course, I am forever grateful to Mitch for trusting me with his image and story. It is a huge responsibility when presented with a good story to tell it accurately and in an engaging manner.
A lot of the material in this interview is covered in the PowerPoint presentation he has given at traditional kayak symposia and workshops, titled "Building Chugach Baidarka". I highly recommend seeing it, if you ever get the chance.
I am including a transcript of the full interview below. You will find that it contains a lot of information that is not in the movie, such as details on kayak construction, how Mitch boils wood rather than steaming it for bending, and how his parents were the ones who introduced swim suits to Chenega and started the fad of swimming during the summer.
For an in-depth look at how the villagers of Chenega relocated after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake and tsunami destroyed their village, I recommend the TV documentary "Chenega is Gone". After having lost nearly all of their possessions, not to mention many friends and family, the villagers felt that they could not return to rebuild at the old village site. A few members briefly visited to the site to collect what they could from the ruins, including the church tapestries. Eventually the community decided to establish a village elsewhere, living in tents until their new homes could be built. The Red Cross helped the men replace the tools they needed to make a living: rifles, and skiffs with outboard motors. It is understandable that people struggling under such dire conditions would not have the time, resources, or interest in preserving high maintenance traditions such as skin-on-frame kayak building.
Photo copyright Katya Palladina
INTERVIEW WITH MITCH POLING
June 15, 2013
MITCH: So from 1944 to 48, I lived in Chenega village which is on the western side of Prince William Sound. My father was a school teacher there and at that time it was the only village that was building the baidarkas.
The outboard motors and the plywood boats had pretty much displaced them even then, but this one village was still building them, and because of their master craftsman who was Steve Britzkaloff, And they built these. These are three man, and they are the traditional baidarka.
RICHARD: Describe for me a transaction when a baidarka would be built. Who would come in and ask for it? And how would it be designed and how would it be used?
MITCH: The transaction is basically if a man in the village wanted to have a baidarka and the master builder was Steve Britzkaloff, and he would build it, and he would usually have an assistant with him, and the assistant was often the man who wanted the baidarka. And at the time I was living there there was about seven baidarkas, seven men owned them. And as I have mentioned, my father owned one. And I paddled it.
I also watched them repairing baidarkas. Steve Britzkaloff passed away in 1944, just about a couple months before we came to the village. And so, the master building kind of came to a hFalt, but the maintenance was still going on.
And so, I don’t know what the monetary transaction was. I know my father paid $75 for his baidarka.
RICHARD: Did your father want it just for recreational use?
MITCH: He did, but the men in the village were using it for hunting. And by the way, these are paddled kneeling and not sitting, and that meant that you had a lot of room that otherwise you wouldn’t have. Because you can imagine people kneeling here, so all of this space in between was available for carrying things. And these were big load haulers. These baidarkas were 21 feet long or more. And you would have an entire family in the baidarka. And they would use them for traveling and hunting. And they would go to the summer to their fish camps, which were over on the mainland, the Kenai Peninsula. And the kids would lie down in the middle down here [referring to the baidarka model]. So you would have three adults in here and you would have two or three kids inside lying down. Which was actually kind of uncomfortable. My friends who did this, they were little kids. They said they were so cold and stiff and tired by the time they got to the fish camp −− a ten hour paddle you know −− they had to get pulled out and carried up to the camp. They could hardly move!
Also the matter of holding it until you got there. Oh boy!
RICHARD: A little claustrophobic down there too I bet!
MITCH: Oh they loved it down there because the sealskin covering was translucent. You could see through it. And the water going by was very soothing, and as a matter of fact, my friends −− we were little kids then −− usually just slept. It was really quite comfortable. It was kinda neat.
RICHARD: Now if they’ll take an entire load like that, how about when the men were out hunting? Was it always three people in the three person baidarka? Or was it occasionally one, and if so, do they have to ballast it?
Normally it was one or two. If it was one, the man sat in the center. If there was two, there was one in back and one in front. So that’s when they’re hunting. And normally they hunted seal. And their weapon of choice was a .22, center fire, long range cartridge. So high velocity. And that was quite enough to kill a seal.
Now that’s where kneeling comes into play. You can’t hunt sitting down. You have to kneel to hunt. Now that’s one of the reasons why they kneeled. The other is because they had room in here. The other was when you’re kneeling, you had more height above, and you can maneuver the kayak just by shifting your weight. So there are a lot of reasons for kneeling. And they could kneel a long time. I mentioned this ten hour trip. They would kneel for ten hours at a time.
RICHARD: Single paddle or double?
MITCH: Single. I never saw a double paddle in the village. Historically, I know they must have had some double paddles. The early explorers that came in, Captain Cook, John Weber, his artist, did record double paddles, but it was mostly single.
The single paddles by the way were very special. They were very pointed and very energy efficient. Again, long paddling. You want a paddle that is easy to use, easy to pull, and doesn’t leave you with a sore back and sore shoulders. So these were ergonometric paddles. Really neat.
RICHARD: When they were hunting with two people, was the forward paddler the rifleman?
MITCH: Yeah he was. I mean you don’t want someone shooting past you. That’s not very comfortable! I’ve had it happen to me and I wasn’t very happy either.
RICHARD: Was the shot always taken fore and aft? Or would they ever shoot athwart ship?
MITCH: I think mostly it was fore and aft. But athwartship was possible. The recoil from a .22 isn’t very heavy. Now you get up to a .30-06 you better think seriously about shooting athwart.
By the way they did most of their hunting not on the mainland, but on the islands around Chenega. Chenega was an island as well. It was separated from the mainland by about a three mile passage. And they would go hunt around Chenega glacier or Icy Bay, or Montegue Island, or Knight Island.
RICHARD: And so, when somebody ordered a baidarka, like your dad, at that point were they transitioning between skin and canvas?
MITCH: No, that transition had been done years before. That transition was done probably in the 1920s. My dad didn’t commission it actually. It was already built. And he bought it from Sam Ridloff, my godfather. So it was already there. And then when we left, he sold it back. It didn’t leave the village.
RICHARD: And how much custom measuring was there in terms of anthropometric measuring? I know from the Greenland kayaks of course, you have to build a boat around the person. Was this true of baidarkas?
MITCH: It was all anthropometric, yeah. You used a three and a half arm span length for the length of your baidarka. Now if you are building a one man it was two and a half. But for three men it was three and a half arm spans.
And so I built a baidarka for my daughter who who is only about 5’1”. And her baidarka is only 17 feet. But my baidarka is 21. And my father’s baidarka was 21.
RICHARD: How about the depth of it? How about the draft and the freeboard?
MITCH: There is generally about 11 inches between the bottom of this beam and the top of your keel inside. And that pretty much determines everything. And that depth is true for the back of this cockpit, through here, and the front of this cockpit. And the rest as you see has a curve [referring to the baidarka model].
By the way, I’m going to talk about Steve Vlasoff a moment. Steve was the spiritual leader. He was the Russian Orthodox lay leader. And he was really an amazing man. He spoke Russian, he spoke Yupik, and he spoke English. Actually he spoke another language, Ukranian, which is a dialect. So he was really the most important man in the village in many ways. And his baidarka is the one I am building. Because a tsunami-earthquake struck Chenega in 1964, and it wiped out the village.
Now the schoolhouse is built upon a hill, behind the village. And that’s where we lived, was up in the schoolhouse. But the survivors of this were the ones who got up on the hill and stayed in the schoolhouse.
Steve had a beautiful baidarka, skin covered. And he made a long paddle when he was 70 years old from Chenega over to Cordova. Took him several weeks. But that was the last time he paddled. And after that he gave his baidarka to a young man who lived in Cordova. And this is very unusual. You don’t give away your baidarka, but he did. And that was about 1953 or so. And so this fellow took it to Cordova and paddled it there, and kept it there. And eventually, as time went on, it was put in the museum there, about 1967 or so. Sixty-nine. somewhere in there. Steve passed away in '67.
So that baidarka is the one that I documented to build my own. And so my baidarkas are replicas of Steve's.
RICHARD: And it’s pretty much lashed together is it? No metal fastenings?
MITCH: That’s right. You can see on this model all the lashings [referring to the baidarka model]. And originally it was porpoise sinew. But now we are using waxed nylon sinew.
RICHARD: Running lashing or do you have individual lashings?
MITCH: There are both. The individual lashings for most of the points in the kayak. But there is a running lashing that goes this way [referring to the baidarka model]. By the way, in some of the old baidarkas there is a running lashing that goes this way too. But not in the ones in Chenega. The running lashing is transverse, going from side to side.
And by the way that is quite an interesting lashing. The way it is knotted is really quite beautiful. All of them are.
RICHARD: And how about the wood for it. Now when somebody came and ordered a boat from the master craftsman, in the village, would he have wood that was already seasoned or would he start looking or logs on the beach, or how was that done?
MITCH: Both. And you could either cut your tree and go from there, or you could go to the beach and search for wood or you could buy it commercially. And all of that was done.
However, the bow is pretty unique. And if you look at this bow, you will see that actually, if you hold it this way, you see, here is the trunk of the tree going down and this is the root curving. And that was very much done. You could either salvage the stump on the beach. It’s a crook, but it’s not a crook so much as the actual root. And so they would salvage it on the beach or they would go cut a tree. And you cut your tree about this high above. And you go down through and get the root. And then when you carve, you have that root going out here, and that makes a really nice carving because you’ve got your grain running in the curve, instead of trying to hack across the grain.
It also lends some of the spirit to the kayak. And I do feel there is a spirit in these kayaks.
RICHARD: Is there a "spirit line" inside?
MITCH: Well, there is and there isn’t. On the open canoes that I was talking about, the skin canoes, there is an actual spirit line that is carved in here. And I think on some of the kayaks there is a spirit line that is carved along the gunwale. But the ones in Chenega didn’t have that. But what they did have is this raised line. Which goes here [referring to the baidarka model]. And then it came to here, and then on this model it’s not as clear because when it was glued it didn’t have the stringer going in but then the stringer will then fit into this notch and run the rest of the way. And that is I believe the spirit line.
RICHARD: Were there any joints or lashed things with ivory balls in them or bone?
MITCH: OK, good question. Yes, but there was some simplification that occurred in history. So the usual joint was right here in the keel, right here behind the back cockpit. And it was a scarf joint. Really quiet nicely done. And you’ll see it in the kayak up in Cordova. Steve Vlasoff's. It’s not clear whether there is actually bone plate in there or not. You can’t see it because…
RICHARD: A hook scarf, or what kind of a scarf was it?
MITCH: It was a hooked scarf, yeah. Otherwise you can see if it slid, you can actually possibly have it come apart. So you want to have the hook to keep it from coming apart. But the purpose was to have the backs flex.
By the way, you could do it in the gunwale as well. And I have seen some that didn’t have the scarf down here but had it on the two gunwales instead. And then I’ve seen some that had a scarf here and a scarf here.
RICHARD: Now if you put the scarf down in the keelson, did it have a certain amount of play in it so that it could slide back and forth and not completely come apart?
MITCH: I think there was some play. I looked at the one in Cordova and there is. I’ve done it, but you know I’ve found that mine don’t have much play. You can pick up that keelson by the short end and go like this and it’s as though there were no scarf at all. It’s just solid. I’ve got one down in the basement I can show you. So it’s kind of interesting. There is flex, but in a certain way, so it’s not quiet as flexible as you would expect.
ANDREW: What was the purpose for the bone joints?
MITCH: It’s a sliding area. To increase the flex.
These kayaks flexed a lot and so, this had a lot to do with the energy management in a baidarka, because the baidarka is all about using the energy that is there in your environment. And you are not fighting your waves. You are letting the waves do your work for you. That’s a very important thing. And this took, I think 10,000 years to evolve this. But the original builders were very, very smart and they were very technical. This is high tech. I mean this is not just an accident. This was made to keep you alive. This boat was actually felt to be alive, and it also felt that you had to have a relationship to it, a good relationship it, and it would take care of you.
But it’s all about this flex, about using the energy. And so, when you hit a wave, there’s two things that happen. You have this slot here. You also have this high point here. And you have these bow plates here, which are deflector plates [referring to the baidarka model]. So the wave does not go like this and along. It goes like this. And it’s lifting your kayak. And you go up the wave like this, and your speed does not drop. In a regular kayak you punch the wave and you stop. And you may even slide backwards, and then you go sideways. But this one you go up the wave naturally and at the top of the wave you ride down the back. So you are using the energy in that wave to push you. Using this deflector, using this slot, and using the wave as it rides along here, and the way the baidarka flexes as you go. It’s pushing itself along. It’s a beautiful concept, and really technical and there are very few kayaks made that do this. This is really unique.
RICHARD: What’s the thought about the back fin?
MITCH: Back here? OK, You’ll notice that it’s plumb, straight up. And that’s on purpose. Because you want this baidarka to track. That is, you want it to go in a straight line. Now you also want it to turn too. But you really want that straight line.
They had tough conditions up there. Heavy, heavy weather. So this plumb stern, as long as it’s got this much down in the water, you can track all day. You can go crosswise to the wind. You can go anywhere you want. And you can turn as well. As long as that is down in the water. And you don’t need a rudder.
You know the commercial kayaks, they curve up like this, they don’t get it! And they wonder why they can’t stay straight in the wind!
RICHARD: They tend to weathercock a lot.
MITCH: They sure do! Or if they’re sidewise they just want to… yeah weathercock.
So again, they knew what they were doing, when they made this plumb stern. The truncated stern also does the same thing.
RICHARD: Talk about the two baidarkas. We just think baidarka, but you said there are two quite different ones.
MITCH: That’s right. First of all, baidarka is the Russian term. It’s not the Alutiiq term. The Alutiiq term in general is qayaq. But the Aleutian one has the truncated stern, which comes in like this. This does not. And then the Aleutian one’s difference up in here is they do have this slot, but they don’t have this deflector plates, and they don’t have this high prow. It goes straight ahead.
RICHARD: Built for different conditions, or...?
MITCH: I imagine for different conditions. Yeah. But I’m not really sure why they diverged. And to tell you the truth I haven’t paddled the Aleutian one, so I really don’t know a lot about that.
RICHARD: When they maintained these, you said the master builder would build a few, but that was transitioning out by the time that you were around. But he would be doing considerable maintenance. What sort of maintenance would you do? Would you oil the skin?
MITCH: Yup. OK, first of all there can be breakage. The ribs can break. The skin is a high maintenance item, the seal skin. It’s actually sea lion skin. Female sea lion skin by the way, for a couple of reasons. More flexible and no holes. The male sea lions tend to bite each other and leave holes. But the skin is leather basically, and leather as it gets older shrinks and dries out. And there’s two bad things that happen. One is it cracks, which is going to sink you. And the other is that it contracts, and it can crush this frame. And I have seen some museum ones where the ribs are crushed upward right at the keelson. Just like this. So you don’t want it to stay on for more than a year.
RICHARD: What’s the scantling of those ribs? What size are we talking about?
MITCH: Oh the scantling of the ribs is about 3/4 inches wide and a little less than 1/4 inch thick.
RICHARD: Of Alaskan yellow cedar?
MITCH: It can be various things. I use Alaskan yellow cedar. I understand that traditionally it was Hemlock. By the way, originally much of this was Alaskan spruce, or cedar.
So, anyway, you want to take the skin off every year. And the way they put the skin on was they sew it at the front, and they sew it at the back. And then they have lashings, lacings, actually, going back and forth here to pull the top together. And then they put a temporary seem on top. But then when they take it off they undo the lacings on the temporary seam. And they pull it off like a sock just this way. Then they soak it. And they re−oil it. And they oil it with seal oil. So it’s a lot of maintenance.
RICHARD: What was the detail around the cockpit cover?
MITCH: The detail around the cockpit cover? What they did is they put a band around each… so what happened is that the skin came up and around over the cockpit, and then down as flaps going down inside. And you pulled those flaps in and you laced those down inside the parts of the kayak. And then you did have this band of sinew. It’s a braided band. Which wrapped around here to hold it tight around the cockpit. That’s a good question by the way. Most people don’t ask that. Because there’s another way of doing it. You can run the covering underneath here and come up through, but they never did that.
RICHARD: Did they use tuiliks?
MITCH: The gut parka? Yes, Steve Vlasoff had his own gut parka. Yeah those are a work of art. And a few women knew how to do that. Steve’s wife knew how to sew them. And I think it was bear gut. You can also have seal gut. And beautifully made -- waterproof, and with decorations in the seams and everything.
RICHARD: And they would have to be oiled as well wouldn’t they?
MITCH: I think so. Steve I think was the only one using a gut parka when I was there. The other guys didn’t use them they just, open cockpit.
RICHARD: Did they roll these things?
MITCH: Oh that’s a good story! Yes they did roll them. For the life of me, I don’t know how. I imagined they rolled them when they were single. But I understand you can roll them when they’re are two people in them. And there’s an interesting story about this because you know you are launching in surf a lot of the times. And that’s tough, You point out straight and you hit the surf, and it’s hard to get through surf. It’s really hard to punch through. But they would roll through the surf. You would come through and waves come and you would roll like this and they corkscrew through like that.
RICHARD: What was that for? To punch through waves?
MITCH: Yeah right. So you’re using it as though it were a screw going though. Yeah! So cool!
RICHARD: Yeah, so you don’t want it to lift over a breaking sea.
MITCH: Yeah because it will knock you backward and then it will knock you over. Really quite amazing.
RICHARD: Do you know very much about the rolling? In other words, in comparison to Greenland style which has a whole sort of mystery about rolling and different kinds of rolls. Mystery and mastery. These things, were they rolled routinely? Did they get into rolls, and if so, how were those rolls different from the ones that developed in Greenland?
MITCH I’m sure they were very different. For one, they were rolling kneeling, not sitting. And they were rolling using a single paddle, not a double.
So, I did not ever see anyone roll. So I’m telling you stories about what I was told. So I’m quite sure that rolling was different from Greenland.
Actually, I have not mastered a roll. I would think that rolling with a single paddle would be a lot easier. Because when you are doing the double paddle you’ve got that long length you’ve got to pull and it’s really tough on you, to reach out there with that double paddle and go like this.
RICHARD: Are those ribs steamed?
MITCH: Ah, that’s a good question. Yes, sort of. I don’t steam them. I boil them. Actually, I don’t boil. I get them about up to 190 degrees, and then I bend them.
RICHARD: How long do you let them sit at 190?
MITCH: Well you know three hours is a good time to get them soft enough to do this.
RICHARD: And you can’t stick them in the oven. It’s always in water?
MITCH: Yeah, the oven would make them brittle. That would bake them. Yeah, so you can steam them as well, and some of the guys I know do steam them. I’ve had bad luck with steaming. I’ve broken more ribs steaming than I’d like to think about.
RICHARD: What do you like to use as wood? For the ribs?
MITCH: I like yellow cedar. By the way, the other thing that they did was they chewed them. And you can see the tooth marks on the ribs on some of the old kayaks I’ve seen in museums. And they chewed them basically at the bend points. And I don’t do that. I can’t afford to. My dental bill would be terrible!
RICHARD: Are they mortised into the gunwales?
MITCH: Yes they are. So you have slots that are cut into the gunwales, and they go in. And they’re going in about between a quarter to 3/8th of an inch.
RICHARD: And are pegged?
MITCH: No they are not pegged. They are sitting there loose. That’s quite a trick when you are bending it because when you are later putting everything together they tend to pop out so you have to cut these ribs just right.
RICHARD: And it’s the tension of the skin…
MITCH: That really holds them in, yeah. So here you are building and trying to keep the ribs in the pockets, and you are saying, come on stay in there until I get the cover on!
RICHARD: But it’s actually lashed. I mean, athwartships along the ribs?
MITCH: Yes. And so, there is part of the lashing that does help hold these in. But your athwartships lashing actually starts right here [referring to the baidarka model]. It doesn’t start up here. It starts here and goes around, so you still haven’t solved your problem of these wanting to pop out of the pocket. So what you do, you do another lashing that’s independent, that goes down here, that pulls up on the stringer.
RICHARD: In between the ribs…
MITCH: In between, yeah. Actually, generally you put those one in front of each cockpit. So there is only a few.
RICHARD: Now in Greenland boats you build your deck first. Is that the way a baidarka goes together?
MITCH: Oh yeah, you build a deck first. And then, you build a deck and then you roll it over and then you start putting in your ribs with it upside down.
RICHARD: And it’s pretty much a straight sheer?
MITCH: Yes, actually is it. It’s a pretty straight sheer. There is some rocker, not a lot actually but the sheer is pretty straight.
RICHARD: And is there a bit of a ridge from the gunwale to the center line of the deck?
MITCH: Yeah. Actually, you do two things when you cut the gunwale. You cut it so that it is not a square shape. It’s kind of tapered on the outside, so that there is this ridge sticking out like you were saying. And the other thing is that when you put it in you tip the gunwale so it’s again pointing out. So the skin will not touch anything except this ridge until it hits the next stringer.
RICHARD: I see. So how about the center line of the deck. Is the central line of the deck above the height of the gunwale?
MITCH: Yes, it is. So you get a deck that’s about like that. There is an angle because you want the water to come off when it hits it. You don’t want it too steep because in the old days they had all of their hunting implements on there, their harpoons and everything on deck. So you want to be able to keep them there.
By the way, when they got to rifles, they didn’t carry them on the deck. They put them in the cockpit with them.
RICHARD: How wide was the boat? What was the beam typically on a three man boat?
MITCH: They were pretty beamy. They were 30 inches commonly. Between 27 and 30. That’s pretty wide for a kayak. The Aleutian kayaks, you know, they can get down to 14 inches.
So these guys were workhorses, called the minivan of the kayak. But you know I like them beamy. They are comfy. You know you sit in there and you can do anything. I take pictures from them. They take care of you. You don’t get this feeling you are going to roll over any minute. Yeah, I like em!
ANDREW: Can we talk about how you first got back into building these? When was it? In the year 2000?
MITCH: Yeah, OK. I’ll talk about that. How did I get back into it because, like you say. Those childhood years were 1944−'48.
RICHARD: Let’s lead you through your life, concentrating on when you were in Alaska, and doing a sort of quick segue over your rather interesting educational background. Let’s go back to when you were growing up. You were born in Alaska?
MITCH: Yeah I was born in Ketchikan, Alaska. My mother was born in Ketchikan, and she grew up there. As I said I grew up in other parts of Alaska. She was a very educated woman, and she was very familiar with the Tlingit culture. The northwest coast. And she taught me quite a lot about that.
But anyway, so back to '44−'48 The big influence in all of this was Steve Vlasoff. As I said he was a spiritual leader. He baptized me in the Russian orthodox church in 1947. And I got a Russian name, Micha, Michael. And my godfather was Sam Rivalov, and his wife Anla was my godmother. And in sort of an indirect way I was adopted into the group. Into the tribe.
RICHARD: Now these were Aleut people?
MITCH: Well, they were Alutiiq people really.
RICHARD: They were Alutiiq people but they had been converted so they were congregated around a Russian Orthodox church.
MITCH: Yes there is a beautiful old church there. Steve Vlasoff was Alutiiq, native. And he was the priest there, basically. So anyway, he baptized me. And also my brother. And I became part of the village. And as I said. We had one so I paddled it. OK so, we’ll segue back to more later years.
My college years I learned molecular structure. I got a doctorate in chemistry. And so I spent my time working out the structure of molecules. And believe me, there is a relationship between that and this. Because look at this structure. It’s a beautiful structure. It evolved for a purpose.
RICHARD: How long do you think it took to evolve like that?
MITCH: I think it was a 10,000 year period, frankly. And again, I saw this same sort of beauty in the work I was doing, and seeing in molecular structures. But anyway, I went to a long teaching career, about 30 years teaching in the community colleges in Seattle. I retired in 1998. And so then I had some time on my hands. I remembered these baidarkas and thought you know I’d like to build these. And Corey Freedman up in Anacortes was building baidarkas, but not this kind. He was building the Aleutian style.
RICHARD: With the truncated stern?
MITCH: With the truncated stern, yeah.
So I went to see him. And said I want to build the Prince William Sound. He said, well I don’t build those. And I said, I'd like to build it. And if I can use your workshop and if you can supply me with the materials, I’d like to do it with you. And he said, well OK. And he got interested when I started building. And here’s the wonderful thing. Steve Vlasoff's baidarka was the only survivor of the 1964 earthquake-tsunami that destroyed Chenega. And his baidarka survived because it was in Cordova at the time. And it was in a museum. So I knew this, and I felt that to do a really good job of building these, that I had to go to Cordova and look at that. Which I did, and I studied it in detail. So I built one at Corey’s workshop.
RICHARD: Did you take the lines off it? Did you get tables of offsets?
MITCH: Yeah. I did.
RICHARD: And are those public?
MITCH: No. Other than all the baidarka’s I’ve built, look like Steve’s, so those are very public.
RICHARD: Which is to say they are all 3−person kayaks?
MITCH: Actually, I build one- and two-man also.
But all the three-man ones are replicas of Steve’s. Anyway I felt Steve’s spiritual influence. And when I was building that one, up at Corey workshop, I felt that somehow as though I didn’t even need to know how to build. It happened. It was the strangest feeling. My hands were doing the work without even having to think about it. And I credited that to a couple things. One is that I feel that Steve’s spirit was guiding me. Steve passed away in 1969. And the other was that watching the men work on these baidarkas when I was 6 years old was an experience that stayed in my brain. I was imprinted. So I actually knew how to do it. I learned how when I was six years old. But I wasn’t trying to learn I was just watching.
And you know that’s how kids learn anyway. You learn language that way. And so it was a marvelous, magical, spiritual experience to build these.
RICHARD: What sort of tools did you use?
MITCH: Oh, I did use a few power tools. For one, cutting all these really long pieces, you really want a saw. A table saw. In the old days they used hand tools, but I used a table saw to rip these long pieces, and for cutting ribs. I use hand tools for carving. And I used crooked knives for doing a lot of shaping. Chisels, to make the pockets, to make the mortis and tenon joints. These are mortis and tenon joints for the beams.
RICHARD: Do the beams have a special name on baidarkas?
MITCH: They do. And I could give you all those names but I’m going to have to look it up, because, the Sugpiaq is not an easy language and I can’t remember all of it. I do remember all of the native names.
RICHARD: Is there anything unlike isserfik or masik the way they use in Greenland?
MITCH: You know actually, those words aren’t used much, partly because the Greenland language is mostly Inupiat. And the language for these is Yupik. They are both Eskimo, but the Inupiat is the northern Eskimo and Yupik is southern. No, there is not a lot of crossover other than the kayak word.
By the way, that is the generic name. They have a specific name for these baidarkas in Sugpiaq, or Yupik as well. And I would have to go find my reference and read them to you.
RICHARD: Would you use different woods throughout the boat. In other words, you used Alaskan yellow cedar or spruce for ribs, would you use different things for gunwales or for deck beams?
MITCH: I have. I have used spruce, Alaska sitka spruce for the gunwales, and for the keel. I’ve used yellow cedar for the ribs. And I’ve used red cedar for the deck beams. And you know you can vary that combination. And also traditionally they use hemlock as well. IT all comes down to whats the bending wood. The straight wood it really doesn’t matter you can use just about anything. You can use pine for these long pieces. But the bending wood, that’s another matter.
RICHARD: Pine wasn’t nearly so rot resistant as the other stuff.
MITCH: No it's not.
But anyway, so, for the bending as I recall, they used hemlock or they used yellow cedar. And for the cockpits as well, for the bending.
RICHARD: Tell me about making the cockpit rims. How was that done? Was that a steam bending process?
MITCH: I think it was. Believe me, I don’t know how they bent the cockpit rims. They are this wide, and they go wrapping in an 18 inch circle. And I can’t do it.
RICHARD: So it’s not laminated?
MITCH: Not laminated, yeah right.
RICHARD: It’s just one circle of pretty heavy stuff.
MITCH: Yeah, and I looked at that and said how did they do that? No, I didn’t see them do it. And so, I have not been able to duplicate that. What I do, is I use yellow cedar, and it’s 1/4 inch thick. And I do my boiling and wrap it around a form. I don’t know how they did it. I have my suspicions. For one, the steam bath was very popular. Boy they would sit there and cook themselves! They still do. My Aluttiq friends, now invite me to sit with them. I dead, I’m done for in about five minutes. They sit in there for an hour, talking. I swear the temperature must be about 160 or so!
I almost wonder if they didn’t bring the wood into the banya with them and bend it there. It may well have been.
RICHARD: Yup. They things they don’t teach you in school.
MITCH: Yeah right!
RICHARD: How close did the kayak building tradition come to becoming completely lost in Prince William Sound?
MITCH: Boy it came close. Really close. If it hadn’t been for Steve’s kayak in Cordova I don’t know if I had been able to bring it back.
Well, there were some other museums that had kayaks too, so it would have been possible. But as far as I know, nobody was currently building them. OK, there were some exceptions. There was a couple guys in Cordova that built some one man. And there was a two−man built by Bobby Stamp in Tatitlek which is a sister village to Chenega. OK, so, but still it was darn close. Very few.
The problem was the bulilders that remained couldn’t find people that would pick it up and carry it on. So Bobby Stamp passed away and he was from Chenega by the way, and no body picked up on what he was trying to do. He only built a couple of them. So anyway it was pretty close. I’ve built about 20 and Andrew Abyo is now building them. He’s up in Anchorage. And he’s built about three now. And we are going to work together this summer up at the Heritage Center.
RICHARD: With a lot of young apprentices?
MITCH: Yeah. Actually, we had a wonderful experience last year. I went to Chenega Bay, which is the new village. It’s not on Chenega Island. It’s on a neighboring island. They rebuilt. But anyway, so I went up in the winter of 2012 and worked with high school kids and the village people in Chenega Bay and we built three of these in about eight weeks. There is something of a miracle in that by the way. It was wonderful and the kids picked up on it quite a bit. And I have a suspicion that a couple of them will go on an build more.
RICHARD: What did you use for skin?
MITCH: We used nylon. Ballistic nylon.
RICHARD: What weight?
MITCH: I’m using nine ounce. You can use twelve ounce, but it is kind of heavy. But I do use the twelve ounce for the big guys, the open canoes. Further north they are called umiaks. But where I live they were called aniak.
RICHARD: And what are you using to waterproof that?
MITCH: I’m using two-part urethane. By the way, I give all the credit for that to Corey Freedman. Also George Dyson does some of that too. But Corey developed that technique. It is the finest technique I’ve ever seen. It is the best substitute for sea lion skin I’ve ever seen. It has the same flex, the same feel, the same look. It just works like seal skin. It’s beautiful stuff.
RICHARD: And tough?
MITCH: And strong.
RICHARD: As a chemist, now what do you think about the polyurethane? About the structure of that.
MITCH: You know it’s pretty similar to the structure of skin. So is nylon. That’s a neat thing. Chemically actually it is pretty similar to skin. So no wonder it acts like seal skin because it is really cousin to it.
My hats off to Corey. Corey deserves so much credit. Actually he really is kind of the one who revived baidarka building. Yes, he is building Aleutian ones, but, he has so much to do with this coming back. I feel he is my mentor in a way.
RICHARD: And so, do you think that pretty soon there will be such a critical mass of people building these up in Alaska where they originated, that that will become the new mecca for baidarkas?
MITCH: Well, I would like to see that happen. I hope it happens. One consequence of the building project that we did up in Chenega Bay is that they took them up to the old village up in June and did a baidarka blessing ceremony and I think that may be the seeds for a new revival. By the way, talking about Steve Vlasoff, one of the things he did was bless the baidarkas when they were built. And I always have a blessing.
RICHARD: What did that involve?
MITCH: It involved sprinkling holy water on the baidarka and singing and also doing procession around the baidarka. I don’t know if Steve gave names to the baidarkas. I do. I give a two part name. I give a spirit name, and I give a paddle name. And the spirit name usually is of someone who was an elder and has passed away. And the paddle name is usually the one of the place, where it was. For example there is one that I have that I built up there that’s up there now at Nuchek, "The Spirit of Steve Vlasoff". A paddle name would be something like "Chenega". Or "Chenega Bay". Or it might be "Sea Otter". You know, something like that.
RICHARD: You talked about structure and how a good structure transfers energy.
MITCH: Oh yes, right. Structure and energy are closely related. The structure channels the energy, makes it work, and makes it work the best possible way, so that, whatever you are doing, you are using your energy to the max. It’s the most efficient way. That’s true of your structure whether it is your bone structure, or whether it’s the kayak structure, or when I was doing research molecular structure. Molecular structure is all about using energy. That molecule is there to use the energy around it and pass it so that it will do something and do it the most efficient way. And that is what this is doing. Yes, Structure is everything.
RICHARD: There were I guess pretty good accounts from sea captains when they first encountered baidarkas that they were going very fast.
MITCH: They are very fast.
RICHARD: Well, they were talking about 8−10 knots.
MITCH: Yeah, sure.
RICHARD: And so can you speak a little bit to that. I mean that has always been the mystery surrounding baidarkas. That these people were supposed to be able to maintain that speed for half an hour.
MITCH: Well if you saw the way that the Alutiiq men are built, you would understand how they could do it. They have shoulders like this, waists like this, and chests, just massive, I mean they were really strong in the upper body. And they could paddle hard.
And there were stories about paddling baidarkas from Chenega to Cordova in a day and a half. I mean, incredible speed. Because they were so strong. Again, the kayak was very efficient, and so it took the least possible effort to go, so between the way that these men were physically built and the way that they kayak was built, yes.
RICHARD: And taking advantage of wind and sea.
MITCH: Exactly, yeah. Taking advantage of the wind and the sea using the waves to push you instead of beating you back.
RICHARD: They had a fair amount of windage in comparison let’s say to a Greenland boat.
MITCH: They do. When you speak of windage, that it, there is a lot of vertical area.
MITCH: A lot of freeboard. And you would think that that might be a problem, but you know I never found it has been. You might say as long as the keel is doing good work, that you could use the windage as a sail. And I have done that by the way. I like to do that out in front of Port Townsend. I can paddle this way, paddle south or paddle north. Just start it paddling, and then let the wind carry it. And it will go. And I can turn it around and go back the other way. Just like sailing on a broad reach.
RICHARD: And there is enough of an underwater presence to…
MITCH: Oh yes, this keel is very effective. It’s effective and it’s amazing because there is very little drag. This keel action is occurring without having that large area going down.
RICHARD: So there is not much wetted surface?
MITCH: Not much wetted surface, which is something isn’t it? I’m a sail guy. I have a sailboat and it has that big whomping keel there. And it’s got a lot of resistance. So again, this technology is really superior!
DICK: Did they ever use sails on them at all? Downwind sails?
MITCH: Downwind sails, I've never seen one. I've never heard of one actually. I do know that it can be done.
DICK: When you were growing up, did they swim in Alaska, or was it far too cold?
MITCH: A lot of the older men didn't swim. The younger guys did. And I have pictures of them swimming. That was a new fad. My dad swam, and my mom. They ordered swim suits. And they were swimming out there and the young ladies and men saw that and thought that was pretty cool. So they ordered swim suits, and we all swam. You couldn't swim very many days of the year. Most days of they year there are icebergs in the bay. But yes you could swim in July.
DICK: So did you ever do any such thing as a self rescue? Or was the idea, just stay in the boat, and keep the water out of the boat?
MITCH: The latter. Now as I said. They didn't know how to roll. I didn't see anyone roll.
DICK: Or wet exit?
MITCH: Or wet exit. I've done wet exits. Believe me, it's really hard to get back in the kayak if you do that.
DICK: I would think with all that top hamper it would be.
MITCH: It is! It's really tough! I wouldn't want to do it.
DICK: How would you do it?
MITCH: Well I come in from the back and crawl up here and get in. Believe me it's not easy because the baidarka wants to come up like this. It wants to roll. No, it's not something I really want to do.
DICK: In general when you look at baidarkas you seem to see there tends to be more weight aft, than there is in a Greenland boat. In a single, the cockpit tends to be further aft. Why is that?
MITCH: Well I think that's to keep this keel down about half and inch or so, or an inch down deep. But you are right, it is farther aft. And when you look at the single-man, it's pretty far back there.
DICK: Does it have more volume in the run, underwater, in the after portion? In other words, is it built such that if you sit aft it will still maintain pretty good trim for and aft?
MITCH: There seems to be a maximum of volume about two-thirds back from the bow. And then it tapers again. So this back cockpit actually doesn't have a lot of volume. So if you're sitting in there without anybody forward it's pretty far tipped up. And you want to ballast it. Because if you get this bow coming out of the water then you really get this yawing going on in wind. It's a balance. You've got to have this in, and you have to have this fairly well. In the pictures you will see that you have about this much out of the water from here to the bow, but you don't want much more than that.
DICK: How were they in a following sea? Pretty good?
MITCH: I like them in a following sea. Sweet. Just seems to like it.
DICK: How were they in a quartering sea?
MITCH: Quartering sea is fine too. But broad sea, it's a little uncomfortable, partly because you are going like this. What you've gotta do is lean into it. Keep yourself vertical to the plane of the earth.
DICK: Did you brace with a paddle quite a lot?
MITCH: You know I do very little bracing. Mostly just leaning.
DICK: Which you can control more readily when you are kneeling when you are sitting.
MITCH: That's true. Though I have to admit, I do sit mostly. I've done a lot of kneeling but I'm kind of at the point where my knees can't take it anymore. If I kneel very long I can't straighten my leg. So I'm afraid I'm an old man now.
ANDREW: Could you talk about your upcoming trip to Alaska? And how was the baidarka building up there been received by the young people and people who are interested in picking it up?
MITCH: I'm going up to Alaska in just a week from now. And I'm going to be working at the Alaskan Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. I'm going to be working at this Nuchek Spirit Camp in Prince William Sound. The Native Heritage Center is run by all the native tribes in Alaska, so everything from Eskimo to Tlingit. And so, I'll be building one of these. And my primary partner who will be Andrew Abyo who is a fine Alutiiq artist. Check his website out. It is really worth seeing. And Andrew is a fine independent kayak builder. He's built some of the Aleutian ones and now he's starting to build the Alutiiq. I think he will carry it on. When I'm long gone he will be building.
DICK: How old is he right now?
MITCH: I think he's in his forties. And he is teaching his son as well, who is a little kid. Six years old, like when I was a kid! So I think those two are really gonna go. Joe Tabbios also. Joe Tabbios is my work partner at the Nuchek Spirit Camp. And Joe's in his forties also. And he's also teaching his son to build. They have received this very well, and I think that those men will carry this tradition on.
Now, the high school kids I was talking about in Chenega Bay, they take it for granted. Oh it's nice we where able to do this, oh yeah. Maybe not! Maybe not. I've been tracking them on Facebook. Maybe not. But they tend to pretend that... it's just nothing, you know? They're taking pictures of it with their i-tablets, their iPads, you know. I think some of them will start it also. Demitri Komcov I think will.
I just want to say one quick thing here. The Nuchek Spirit Camp is a spirit cultural camp run by Chugach Alaska Corporation, which is the corporation for the Prince William Sound people. The Alutiiq people there, they've run this camp for many years. I've been at that camp since 2003. This will be my 10th camp. And again, I teach the kids there. But the adults will be Andrew Abyo and Joe Tabbios as I had just mentioned. And they will be building independently and will be building an aniak which is the big open canoe. And yes, it had been received very well.
DICK: Do you build paddles at the same time?
MITCH: Oh yes we do. And we use the traditional paddles. There is a very distinctive style to these paddles. They are very tapered. When you are doing your paddle, you enter, and it's a light pull because it is a taper. And as you go along it becomes stronger as you get down to here, and as you go out again, it's a light pull again. One problem that kayakers have with a double paddle is it's a hard pull all the way through. And so, a lot of them have bad shoulders now, from doing this.
So the owner of Pygmy Kayak, John Lockwood, has found this to be a problem. So I showed him my tapered paddle. And so he went to a tapered paddle. And he said, you know you've given me twenty more years of kayaking.
DICK: So is he using a single paddle now?
MITCH: No, he is actually using a double paddle but it's tapered rather than the blunt tip. John's pretty much into the Greenland kind of paddle.
DICK: Who made that model? [referring to the baidarka model] Did you?
MITCH: No actually my wife made this.
DICK: It's lovely!
MITCH: Oh thank you. This is the one we'd build at Nuchek. The kids would build these. Every year they build these and they cover them with nylon. We don't use the nylon canvas. We use good old nylon hose.
DICK: How do you check the form of it? Do you have a table of offsets? Do you measure it out? Do you eyeball it?
MITCH: Eyeball. You know. I just can't get so technical.
DICK: When you are putting in the ribs, do you cut them to length to begin with to say this is rib number 19?
MITCH: No. OK, it's upside down. So here's the pocket over here, and it's upside down, and I do start my first rib by pushing up against the keelson until it has the right shape. The right shape by the way is not round like this. And it's not square like this. It's something in between. So you go down and get a fair amount of flat on the top. So I get, and I'm doing it by eyeball and I bring it around here, and then when I have it down to here, I cut it with a knife, or clip it actually, and taper it a little bit then pop it into this hole. And if all is well, then I have the rib. If all is not well, then I have a problem. There's two things that can happen. One is that, it's either too round, or that I didn't get it symmetrical, so that I got a different shape here than over here so that I got to get in there with my hands and bend it around see. To get it so that it's the same shape on both sides of the keelson.
DICK: Now when they were building them traditionally, they used to bite the rib as so to preserve the symmetry.
MITCH: Yeah, right actually that was a good way of doing it.
DICK: Can you incise them at all? Do you taper them at all?
MITCH: Actually they would. They would, especially at the bend points. They would thin them out with a knife.
DICK: Do you do that yourself when you are building?
MITCH: No, I don't. I really haven't felt I needed to.
Mitch Poling. Photo copyright Katya Palladina