Pick from the Past
Natural History, October 1992

Last of the Umiaks

For hunting walrus among the ice floes of the Bering Strait,
the Inuit’s spacious and resilient skin-covered boats have no equal.



THE UMIAK is nearly extinct. Fewer than 100 survive “in the wild,” and only about a dozen dull, dusty specimens can be found in the museums of the world. Once its range was immense: from eastern Siberia to East Greenland. The spacious, seaworthy skin boat of the Inuit and their arctic neighbors, the umiak was the perfect boat for whaling and walrus hunting in the ice-choked, storm-haunted seas of the north. The boat’s size permitted trade and migration, linking continents and cultures. “After the umiak was invented,” wrote anthropologist Dorothy Jean Ray, “the [Bering] Strait became an intercontinental highway, its coastal fringes occupied by peoples who had more or less the same way of life.” Today the umiak is used only in a few localities on the coasts of Alaska and Siberia.

Capt. Frederick W. Beechey of Britain’s Royal Navy saw umiaks in 1826 on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Strait and took a sailor’s delight in these craft, which were “both light and pliable and very safe and durable.” In 1879, the Swedish explorer Nils A. Nordenskjald admired the baidar (the Russian name for the umiak) used by Siberia’s Chukchi: “It is so light that four men can take it upon their shoulders and yet so roomy that thirty can be conveyed in it.” Above all, the umiak was superbly safe and seaworthy in waters where boats often become trapped in the ice. In the Arctic, “which is a graveyard of broken boats,” noted Dorothy Jean Ray, “the Eskimo umiak has proved its superiority over all other boats time and again.”

I quickly learned to admire the strength of umiaks and the skill of their crews when I lived for three months on Little Diomede Island in 1975. In late May, we were far out in the Bering Strait hunting walruses, which often rest on the ice as they migrate north. A storm surprised us, and suddenly we were caught in a maelstrom of churning floes in the windand current-driven pack. Leaping in and out of the boat, the men poled and hauled the umiak through cracks in the ice. Jagged floes rasped against the boat’s walrus-skin cover, causing the flexible frame to buckle but not break. When we reached a stretch of open water, the captain (umialik) of the boat gunned the 40 hp motor and raced toward the largest floe. Our bow hit the edge of the ice at full speed, and the crew and I jumped from the rearing thirty-foot boat and pulled it down and forward onto the safety of the floe. “Relax,” the umialik, Tom Menadelook, told me with a reassuring smile. “We have never lost a boat.” The boat was our home and shelter as we drifted northward toward the Chukchi Sea for two days until the ice opened up again.

When I returned to Little Diomede fifteen years later to spend another two months during the walrus-hunting season, many things had changed, but the umiaks and the spirit of their crews had not. The population of Ignaluk, the small village tacked to the base of the island’s soaring mountainside, had grown from 119 to 171, but the number of umiaks remained unchanged: three 18-foot craft used mainly in spring to hunt ringed seals and bearded seals near the island, and four 30-foot umiaks used primarily for the long and risky walrus hunts in May, June, and early July and again, briefly, in fall when some 200,000 migrating walruses funnel southward through Bering Strait. The umiak and the seal and walrus hunts were still the basis of Inuit life on Little Diomede, as they have been in much of the Arctic for at least 2,000 years.

No umiak remains that old have ever been found, but whaling and walrus-hunting implements of that age have been found at archeological sites on both sides of the Bering Strait. Because such hunts would have been impossible with the smaller kayaks, umiaks or similar boats were probably in use 2,500 years ago, and perhaps much earlier. From this core area they spread east as far as East Greenland. Although in historical times there were variations in the style and size of umiaks in different regions, the essential shape and design were similar along more than 7,000 miles of coast. The Chukchi “atkuat,” or baidar, “corresponds completely with the Greenlander’s umiak or woman’s boat,” Nordenskald noted in 1879. In 1949, the Danish archeologist Count Eigil Knuth found a remarkably well-preserved umiak on desert-dry Peary Land at the northern tip of Greenland, less than 500 miles from the North Pole. This umiak was thirty-one feet long, and its driftwood frame was lashed with baleen. It had been built in about a.d. 1440, and in size, design, and workmanship it was nearly identical to umiaks used 400 years later by Greenland’s people.

Skin boats were not unknown in Europe. Small round ones, called coracles, had been used since prehistoric times on British lakes and rivers, and a few still existed in remote regions of Wales when I lived there thirty-five years ago. The Irish used large, boat-shaped curraghs, their light wooden frame covered with oaktanned oxhide, the double-sewed seams coated with tallow. Similar canvas-covered curraghs were used by the basking shark hunters of Achill Island, Ireland, with whom I spent the summer of 1960.

The first umiak known in Europe drifted across the North Sea in about a.d. 1400 with, according to a contemporary writer, a “kind of pygmies in it”; this boat hung for years in the Nidaros (now Trondheim) Cathedral in Norway. In his Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the Nordic people), published in Rome in 1555, the Norwegian bishop Olaus Magnus knew that “the inhabitants of Greenland are extremely good at sea; they use skin boats which are very safe.” Dionyse Settle, the Elizabethan chronicler of explorer Martin Frobisher’s second expedition to Baffin Island, observed of the Inuit in 1577:

They have two sorts of boats made of leather, set out on the inner side with quarters of wood, artificially tyed with thong.... The greater sort are not much unlike our wherries, wherein sixteene or twenty men may sitte; they have for a sayle, drest the guttes of such beasts as they kill, very fine and thinne, which they sewe together.

Umiaks ranged in size from ten-foot craft used in Labrador for hunting in sheltered fiords to sixty-foot boats with a twelve-ton carrying capacity used in Greenland 250 years ago. The typical umiak was thirty feet long with a fiveto eight-foot beam and a depth of three to four feet. It was flat bottomed throughout its range, sharp ended in the western Arctic, and boxlike, with square stem and stern, in the eastern Arctic. While it lacked the grace and spirit of its sister craft the kayak, the umiak was a stout and buxom boat, roomy and safe.

The umiak frame was made of driftwood, a rare and precious commodity in large parts of the Arctic. Stem and stern were usually scarfed and treenailed with bone or ivory pegs. Chines, stringers, and ribs were lashed with seal thong or, where available, with bowhead baleen, the ideal material, for baleen neither expands nor shrinks when wet, maintains flexibility, has great tensile strength, and never rots.

The strongest, most durable covers were made, where available, of split walrus hide or of bearded-seal skins. The Aleuts used sea lion skins to cover their large baidars; the Mackenzie Inuit were beluga hunters and covered their umiaks with beluga hide; on the West Greenland coast harp-seal skins were used when bearded-seal skins were not available; and the Inuit of East Greenland often used the skins of hooded seals. The finished craft was light, buoyant (empty it had a threeto four-inch draft), strong, and flexible. It could carry thirty to forty people or about five tons of cargo. In emergencies, tears in the skins were temporarily plugged with pieces of blubber until the damaged boat could be pulled out of the water and properly patched. Such mishaps were rare, however--a close encounter with an enraged walrus is about the only thing that can rip through the umiak’s skin. (This danger to the craft is so great that during one of my trips, one of the crew chose to shoot at an attacking walrus through the bottom of the boat. The shot, which passed a foot or two from my legs, put a small hole in the bottom of the boat but may have saved it from more serious damage.)

According to the Little Diomeders, their umiaks are virtually unsinkable. They routinely go hunting in stormy weather (calm days are rare in the Bering Strait). A yard-broad waistcloth of canvas (formerly sealskin), normally furled against the gunwale, is raised on stout stanchions or on paddles during a storm to keep the spray out. In the past they also lashed inflated sealskin to the umiak’s side as sponsons. In the 1870s, Smithsonian ethnologist Edward W. Nelson noted that “with their boats fitted in this manner these people sail fearlessly along their stormy coasts.”

For sailing in open waters the umiaks were often equipped with a simple square sail with grommets and blocks carved of ivory. In the Aleutian Islands the sails were fashioned from densely woven grass mats. Elsewhere, scraped seal, caribou, or reindeer skins or, more frequently, fourinch-wide cleaned, translucent, sewn-together strips of bearded seal or walrus intestine were used. Capt. George F. Lyon of the HMS Griper bought such an “ingeniously constructed sail” in 1824 from Hudson Strait Inuit for a knife. The sail was nine feet broad, thirteen feet high, and weighed three and three-quarter pounds.

In 1881, Nelson met a flotilla of boats near Alaska’s Cape Prince of Wales and wrote: “The umiaks in full sail, crowded with fur-clad people, dogs, and their various possessions made a very picturesque sight.” Explorers were often astounded by the volume and variety of cargo carried by umiaks. While Captain Beechey watched in 1826, Alaskan Inuit unloaded from two umiaks “fourteen persons, eight tent poles, forty deer skins, numerous skins [bags] of oil, earthen jars for cooking, two living foxes, ten large dogs, bundles of lances, harpoons, bows and arrows, a quantity of whalebone, skin bags full of clothing, some immense nets made of hide for taking small whales and porpoises, eight broad planks, masts, sails, paddles, besides seahorse [walrus] hides and teeth” and many other articles.

In 1990, “my” Little Diomede umiak carried two outboard motors (55 hp and 30 hp), eight 5-gallon tanks of gas and one 50-gallon drum of gas, eight hunters and me, nineteen guns, harpoons, great red plastic floats, two axes, an ice chisel, patches of leather and thong to repair the boat, a large tool chest, paddles, poles, gaffs, two marine compasses, coils of rope and thong, food for many days, pressure stoves, and waterproof sacks with spare clothing, and if the hunt was successful, we returned to Ignaluk with two or three tons of walrus meat and ivory, piled onto large plastic sheets dubbed “white man’s sealskins,” for until recently sealskins were used for this purpose. When the hunters return to the village, the meat is dried or stored in holes dug in the permafrost, where it remains frozen. Once the hunts supplied the islanders with nearly all their food, but now only about half of their diet is walrus or seal meat.

Originally the umiak was probably both hunting boat, stealthily paddled or sailed by men, and traveling boat, noisily rowed by women. As whale hunting declined, umiaks in Canada’s eastern Arctic (in historical times no umiaks were used in Canada’s central Arctic) and in Greenland became increasingly women’s boats--so called, said the Greenland missionary Hans Egede in 1745, “because the women commonly row them. For they think it unbecoming a Man to row such a boat.” Consequently, wives as rowers were in demand. In East Greenland, the ethnologist Gustav F. Holm noted in the 1880s, “A second wife is sometimes taken in order that the husband may always count on having two rowers for his boat.”

Inuit women were strong, enduring rowers who often sang while they rowed. The explorer-writer Peter Freuchen, young, naiive, and chivalrous, offered to spell one of them at the oar and reported, “But a couple of hours of the pace set by the girls left me exhausted.” The women rowed on for thirteen hours, then attended a party in the evening “and danced for five hours.” Migrations by the umiak could be extensive. The Canadian Inuk Joe Talirunilik described in 1965 how in the 1890s his people from the Povungnituk region of eastern Hudson Bay had searched for a better life. Some forty men, women, and children and all their belongings crowded into one umiak and wandered for months until they came to the uninhabited Ottawa Islands. They lived there for several years and then returned with their faithful umiak to the mainland.

In the nineteenth century, other boats-dories, whaleboats, and large canoes-began to supplant the umiak. By 1820, the umiak was extinct in northern Hudson Bay. Between 1861 and 1876 the number of wooden boats in northern Labrador increased from 117 to 237, while the number of umiaks decreased from 14 to 4, and by 1916 the umiak had ceased to exist on the Labrador coast. It vanished from Baffin Island early in this century. There were 251 umiaks in West Greenland in 1880 and 339 in 1900, but after the turn of the century they rapidly declined. The last one, used for a final hunting trip in 1966, is now in a museum. The last East Greenland umiak was used in Angmagssalik until 1970. The umiak then became extinct in the eastern Arctic.

The whaleboat, often traded by whalers to Inuit for baleen, ivory, or services or sold to the natives, replaced all umiaks on Saint Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait early in this century. But then the whaleboat died out (the last fully equipped whaleboat was built in 1933 and sold to a museum), and the Saint Lawrence is landers reverted to the traditional but somewhat changed umiak. Little Diomede Island, with its boulder beach and pounding surf, was death to wooden boats, and the whaleboat was never adopted there. But the Diomeders and other native Alaskans did copy the round-bottomed design of the whaleboat, and oval umiak ribs are now made of steam-bent hardwood, instead of driftwood. These were the only major changes in umiak design in more than 2,000 years.

In coastal areas of Alaska and Siberia, where the umiak originated, the boat persists but its numbers are dwindling. One last umiak remained in Shishmaref, Alaska, in 1968, its driftwood-ivory-whalebone frame built by Diomeders at least forty years ago. Now it is gone. Wales, Alaska, had fifty-one umiaks in 1891, four when I visited it in 1975, and none when I returned in 1990. In addition to Little Diomede Island and Saint Lawrence Island, only the Inuit in Point Barrow and a few other Alaskan settlements still use umiaks to hunt whales and walruses among the ice floes.

On the Siberian side there are seven baidars in Sireniki, a walrus-hunting settlement, and a few in other villages, “but they are poorly made,” according to several Diomeders who have visited Siberian Inuit. One problem with the boats seems to be that in Siberia, the all-important splitting of the walrus hide, traditionally a woman’s job, is done by men, and the result, say the Little Diomede women with a certain superior glee, is deplorable.

The Little Diomeders are traditionalists; they tend to think highly of themselves and their umiaks. Skills and positions are passed on from generation to generation. In 1975, Tom Menadelook, Jr., then eleven, spent the first hunting season in his father’s umiak, shot his first seal, and then brought pieces of it to every household in the village, including my cabin, thus symbolically becoming the ideal Inuit man: one who shares and provides. In 1990, Tom, Jr., now twenty-six, was umialik of the Menadelook boat, and most of the crew were young men. All were excellent hunters, although perhaps less daring than their elders, who were famed as “Vikings of the Arctic Sea.”

Umiak skeletons, when well built, last a long time. The skeleton of John Iyapana’s boat on Little Diomede was thirty-seven years old in 1990; the one of the Ozenna clan (boat crews are made up, in general, of close relatives) was “at least” fifty years old. The other two skeletons, belonging to Albert Iyahuk and Tom Menadelook, had been built in 1974. They are made of steam-bent hardwood and took about three weeks to construct. While the frame is long lasting, the walrus-skin cover has to be replaced every two to three years. To prevent the porous skin cover from becoming waterlogged, umiaks are frequently and liberally smeared with seal oil. Despite that, covers slowly rot and weaken and are no longer strong enough to withstand the cutting new ice or the grinding floes.

To cover the eighteen-foot umiaks, three walrus skins are needed, and five split skins are required for the thirty-foot umiaks. Only the smooth skins of females or young bulls are used; the skins of adult bulls are too heavy, scarred, and warty. First the blubber is removed from the skin, and then begins the exacting task of splitting the two-inch-thick walrus hide into halves of equal thickness. The women sit on the ground or on a low bench or stool, drape the skin over a well-anchored oval board, and slice it in half with smooth, even strokes of the razor-sharp ulu, the crescent-shaped woman’s knife.

When all the skins required for a cover are split, they are soaked for several days in seawater, depilated and thoroughly cleaned, and carried into Ignaluk’s community hall to be sewed together. Most women in the village help, including two nuns of the order of the Little Sisters of Jesus--Sister Nobu, originally from Japan, and Sister Damiene, originally from Alsace, France. Both have lived on the island for many years and are highly respected walrus-skin splitters and sewers. The skins are sewed together with the “lost-stitch” technique, a double seam in which the needle does not pierce the skin from one side to the other. Braided reindeer sinew was used as thread in former days; now, waxed and soaked in seal oil, heavy cotton twine is used. Only the leader is still made of sinew, so that needle and thread can slip more easily through the exceedingly tough walrus skin. Skin-cover sewing is a social affair. The umialik provides meals and endless tea and coffee for all the people, and in about ten hours of sewing the umiak cover is finished. Men stretch the still moist and supple cover over the umiak frame and lash it to the skeleton, now usually with heavy nylon rope, in the past with walrus thong, which anthropologist Froelich Rainey has called “the strongest line known before the invention of the steel cable.” Already taut when wet, the cover becomes drum-tight as it dries upon the frame.

The Diomeders are proud of their umiaks and say they will never abandon them. But in 1978 the first aluminum boat came to the island, and now several are used. So far, they are mainly “fun boats,” good for quick hunts in open water, but because they tip easily and the metal is readily torn on rocks or ice, aluminum boats are dangerous in storms and among floes. In really dangerous conditions, the umiak has no equal, but despite its long tradition and excellence, fewer and fewer are being used in Alaska and Siberia, and its epitaph may well be the little Inuit song the ethnologist William Thalbitzer collected in West Greenland at the beginning of this century:

My darling umiak
Now always on land, how deplorable!
About to fall in pieces.

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