Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kirk Wipper is Gone

Sad news: Kirk Wipper, founder of the Canadian Canoe Museum, died on Friday. He was 88 years old. A nice obituary and capsule biography is here.

Kirk with a school group at the Canadian Canoe Museum, Nov. 2009
Kirk played an immeasurably important role it the preservation of the history of the canoe, Canadian and otherwise, and he was considered a heritage hero in Canada. Just yesterday, before I learned of his death, he came up in a conversation at the Pine Tree State Sportsman's Show in Winslow, Maine. Bob Bassett, owner of Kimball Pond Boat Barn was there displaying his wares, and he generously devotes part of his booth to promoting the Northeast (i.e., Maine) Chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, of which chapter he serves as president. I was there helping Bob on the WCHA end of things, as so was Benson Gray, a direct descendant of the Grays who owned and ran Old Town Canoes for generations. Benson is an authority on the history of Old Town and immensely knowledgeable about cedar-canvas canoe history in general.

Kayaks and other skin-on-frame boats at the Canadian Canoe Museum. One of these may have been the subject of Benson Gray's story.
  According to Benson, the Canadian Canoe Museum (CCM) had acquired a historically significant Inuit kayak whose cover was in poor condition and in need of conservation. After some searching, Kirk and others of the CCM found some of the very last Inuit women with experience at sewing kayak covers from sea-mammal skins, and transported them at great expense from their home in the Far North to the museum in Peterborough to have them make repairs to the kayak's cover. These women examined the canoe and said that the cover could not be repaired: it must be replaced. Museum personnel tried to explain the conservation objective of the project, and the women tried to explain that the existing cover was no good. Neither convinced the other, but the women won, because they refused to do a job that they considered useless, and the museum had to return them to their homes with the job undone.

I met Kirk at the Maine Canoe Symposium, and found him to be easy-going and somewhat of a kidder. It took me a while to learn that he was a dedicated humanitarian and a historian, capable of great humility, sensitivity, dedication and kindness. In November, 2009, I visited the CCM with my wife and son, and we had the honor of being shown around the museum (including its spectacular storage areas) by Kirk. With all his accomplishment and esteem, he was extraordinarily open, approachable, and generous, and it's an experience I'll long remember.   

Cate, Max and Kirk at the CCM, Nov. 2009


  1. Bob, thanks for sharing your memories of Kirk. Great to hear that our American friends will remember him too.

    I've posted a bio and more info here:

  2. I want to add my two cents worth on the dispute between the museum and the Inuit women the museum hired to repair the skin of their kayak. Not knowing what the extent of the damage was nor knowing how old the kayak was or who originally built it or what area the women hired to repair it were from, it is hard to take sides in the dispute.
    What I see is two different viewpoints of what a kayak is. To the museum it is a historical artifact, a specimen on which future archaeologists can do research. Supposedly they could do dna studies on the skin, get a sense of how it was sewn, etc, etc.
    To the women, a kayak is a utilitarian implement, a means to an end and with a damaged skin, useless for that purpose. I am sure they understood that nobody was going to go hunting with it any more, but they at least wanted to go through the motions of restoring it to a state where it would have been good for that purpose. I think that their pride in their craft would not allow them to do any less.
    And so the two sides had to walk away from each other.
    I would be curious to know what the museum eventually did to address their problem. Conservation of kayaks is difficult. The skins invariably shrink and destroy the frame. Ideally, kayaks would have been stored without the skin on them, and the skin perhaps saved separately, but that only happens if the kayak was without a skin when it was collected.
    Kayaks crumble quietly in museum collection because museums generally do not have the staff nor the resources to maintain them.

  3. Wolfgang - You did a fine job explaining what I believe were probably the active motivations, and the nature of the disagreement, from both sides. Thanks also for your insight on conservation of skin-covered kayaks.