Monday, September 19, 2016

Harvey Golden's Magnificent Kayak Surveys


My usual approach to using reading material for this blog is to take some interesting (to me) facts that I read concerning some kind of boat, or some culture's use of boats, and condense, paraphrase, or synthesize the source into an article, hopefully for the benefit or entertainment of my readers. Sometimes I rely entirely on a single source; at others, I'll do a little more digging into the subject and put together what amounts to an essay on the subject.

This time, the books themselves are the subject, because Harvey Golden's Kayaks of Alaska (2015) and Kayaks of Greenland: The History and Development of the Greenlandic Hunting Kayak, 1600-2000 (2006) are huge, valuable, awesomely impressive, and worthy of an article about themselves. When I opened the mailing package that contained them, I was, without exaggeration, awestruck by the enormous quantity of sheer fact they contain and the clarity of its presentation. Having lived with them for a few months now, my opinion has not diminished a bit.

Golden is an independent researcher in the field of museum studies. He has examined and surveyed almost every historically significant kayak held in museum collections and many private collections in Europe and North America, taking off lines, photographing and sketching the most minute and intricate details, and delving into the collections' documentation and the historical, popular, and academic writings of others. When personally surveying an artifact, no detail seems to escape his notice. If a deck line had once been present on a kayak but was later removed, perhaps 200 years ago, Golden is certain to have detected it by the presence of a tiny nub of a thong cut off close to the deck. 

Kayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland divide the boats surveyed by geographic and cultural ranges, each associated with different boat types. In the Greenland book, Golden creates a typology of eight types, although the distinctions between the types are sometimes difficult to see. Certainly, the kayaks of Greenland are more similar to one another than the kayaks of Alaska, where the differences between nine regional types Golden describes are in some cases really dramatic. Hereafter, we'll focus on the more recent Kayaks of Alaska. Kayaks of Greenland is similar in most respects.

A kayak from Point Barrow, from Kayaks of Alaska
A kayak from Point Barrow, from Kayaks of Alaska (Click any image to enlarge.)
Kayaks of Alaska begins with a short chapter of history. This is followed by nine chapters on the kayaks of different regions -- said regions defined by cultural borders and the distinct types of kayaks used within them (e.g., Unangan, Central Yup'ik, Southern Inupiaq, etc.). These nine sections, therefore, constitute a typology of Alaskan kayaks, one which Golden has developed as an expansion on the thinking of kayak scholars before him.

Lines of a North Alaska kayak in the Burke Museum, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Lines of a North Alaska kayak in the Burke Museum, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Each chapter on a kayak type begins with a more detailed history of the kayaks themselves and of the history and scholarship concerning those kayaks, illustrated with drawings and photographs from historical and academic sources as well as Golden's own illustrations. The type is clearly and exhaustively defined and variations are discussed. This is followed by a series of plates of lines and construction drawings of several artefactual kayaks of the type, the plates being followed by a section containing detailed descriptions of each one. These descriptions discuss the artifact's provenance, its condition, and construction and decorative details; compare and contrast it to others of the same type; and in some cases discuss the construction of recent replicas and their performance. (Golden has built several, which he maintains in his own museum, the Lincoln Street Kayak & Canoe Museum in Portland, OR.)

Construction plan of a North Alaska Kayak at the Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Construction plan of a North Alaska Kayak at the Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle, from Kayaks of Alaska
Golden produces his lines drawings by hand, and they are admirably clean and detailed. In several instances where the kayak has been damaged by accident or deformed by inadequate support over the years, he reproduces the lines "as surveyed," and beside them shows lines for a likely "as-built" reconstruction based on the scantlings of the boat and on the form of other kayaks of the same type. In cases where good lines drawings were already made by others, he reproduces these instead. 
Interior construction details of an Alaskan kayak, from Kayaks of Alaska
Interior construction details of an Alaskan kayak, from Kayaks of Alaska
In addition to standard waterline, sheer plan, and section lines, several of the kayaks are presented in a three-quarters view that gives one an excellent feel for the shape that standard views sometimes fail to impart. He also includes sketches of numerous construction and decorative details, deck fittings, and deck equipment associated with the boat in question.

Kayak builders, from Kayaks of Alaska
Kayak builders, from Kayaks of Alaska
Chapters on kayak construction, equipment, and paddles follow the chapters on kayak types. The chapter on construction is not a "how-to," however: it will tell you little or nothing about how to select lumber, cut a mortise, or steam-bend a rib. Rather, it addresses the construction details that are common to many or all of the boats, right down to details such as knots and lashing patterns for the joints between longitudinal and transverse structural members. (Deviations from common construction methods are covered in minute detail in the descriptions of the individual artifacts that follow the plates in each "type" chapter.) If you want to build one of the boats in this book and lack knowledge of skin-on-frame construction methods, I recommend The Aleutian Kayak by Wolfgang Brinck and Building the Greenland Kayak by Christopher Cunningham (neither of which, I believe, are in print). For would-be builders who do possess building skills, Kayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland contain the necessary lines and construction details, but not tables of offsets, from which accurate reproductions can be built. (Golden provides instructions for lifting offsets from the plans on his website.)

A charming bonus in Kayaks of Alaska is a section of color plates containing reproductions of Golden's hand-drawn depictions of colored decorative details on many of the kayaks and paddles. Aside from this, all illustrations in both books are in black and white.

These are big, heavy books, each 8.5" x 11" and over 500 pages. As self-published projects, they are extraordinary for the quality of their production, but this is almost trivial compared to the quality and value of their contents. They are not books that many will sit down and read cover-to-cover, for the descriptions of thousands of details on dozens of kayaks do not make for an engaging narrative. But one can dip into them at any point and learn something about kayak history or about a particular design, and as reference sources, they are incomparable in their clear and comprehensive coverage of their subjects.

In the immense contribution they make to the study of indigenous watercraft, Golden's books stand as equals to Adney and Chapelle's The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America and Haddon and Hornell's Canoes of OceaniaKayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland are magnificent achievements. 

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Visit Harvey Golden's website to purchase Kayaks of Alaska and Kayaks of Greenland. has no business affiliation with Harvey Golden, and we make no commissions on sales of his books. 

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