Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Greenland Umiak

Greenland umiak, 1767. (Click any image to enlarge.)
"In the Greenland legends the umiak appears almost as often as the kayak," writes H.C. Petersen, in Skinboats of Greenland. "It was part of the daily life."

The umiak was used throughout and beyond the North American Arctic, from eastern Siberia and Alaska to Greenland. (I wrote about the angyapik, the umiak of St. Lawrence Island, in the Bering Strait, here.) It was the vehicle used by the Inuits to colonize the Thule region of northwestern Greenland (and from thence, the rest of the island), and there is good reason to believe that an early version was used by the island's first inhabitants, the Dorset culture.

Petersen writes, "I enjoy following the trail of the Inuit ancestors along the long coast of Greenland, on the mainland as on the islands. It is just as difficult to manage without a sea-going vessel in Greenland today (i.e., 1986) as it was 4500 years ago. The land is scarred by deep fiords (sic) and off the mainland there are extensive archipelagos. To survive, a family vessel is needed, especially as the greatest part of one's subsistence must be taken from the sea."

Often referred to as the "woman's boat" to distinguish it from kayaks, which were used exclusively by men, the umiak was really the Greenland family's boat, for its capacity (or "burthen" -- what a fine word!) was essential to the Inuits' nomadic lifestyle. True, when moving from place to place, the men might paddle their kayaks in convoy with the umiaks, as shown in the top illustration. But without the umiak, there would have been no transportation for the young, the aged, or cargo of any sort -- to say nothing of the women who rowed and steered them. And umiaks were used by men, for hunting whales.

Greenland umiaks ranged from five meters to more than ten meters in length. Until the island was colonized by Europeans, who made sawn lumber available, the umiak frame was built entirely of driftwood, since no trees grew on the island. Working without metal tools or fasteners, the Inuit developed a strong, flexible, lightweight structure characterized by impressive woodworking and thoughtful design. The illustration below shows the complex joinery between the stem or sternpost and the keel and chine stringers. (Sophisticated hook scarfs were also common, and were often used instead of the mortise joint between the stem and keel as shown.) Fastening at the stem/sternpost was done with pegs of bone, tusk, or antler, and/or by lashing with strips of sealskin or baleen.
Complex joinery between stem (or sternpost), keel, and chine stringers.

Almost all other joints were lashed with sealskin strips. As shown below, the lashings were fed through holes bored in the members, in order to prevent the lashings from creating bulges beneath the skin cover. Boring these dozens of holes, using only a bow drill with a bone point, required an immense expenditure of labor, and would only have been done for a compelling reason. While it would have made the boat quieter and marginally faster through the water, the main reason was to protect the skin from abrasion.
Reconstruction of an old Greenland umiak. Note how the bottom ends of the side ribs are hollowed to fit around the chine stringer, and how all joint lashings pass through bored holes.
The umiak's cover was made of sealskin -- anywhere from seven to more than 30 skins were required, depending upon the size and species of seal, and the length of the boat. The cover was quite fragile, especially when wet, and the boat had to be removed from the water every day to prevent the cover from becoming totally waterlogged and disintegrating. Although great care was taken to lift the boat and avoid dragging it, some abrasion was inevitable, so the elimination of "hard spots" in the skin was essential to preventing the premature formation of leaks.

I'll continue this discussion of Greenland umiaks in the near future.

All images are from Petersen, Skinboats of Greenland (Ships and Boats of the North)

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