Umiak Stories

Ever since I began building these boats, people have been sharing stories and memories about them with me. Maybe I've gotten it confused with stuff I've read too.. I wish I had collected them in some sort of systematic manner, or at least gotten (or remembered ) their names. Please send any stories or material you think would fit in here.

Umiak Stories :


This was told to me by a woman who taught in a remote Alaskan village in the 1950's. She went off on a week-long berry picking- fishing trip with an umiak-full of eskimo women one fall. When one woman wanted to talk to another, she would get up, and walk along the gunwale until she reached her friend's place, where she would sit down for a visit. Each time this happened the boat would heel wildly to one side or another, although no one seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary. The teacher said it took a while before she actually believed they wouldn't capsize outright. She even tried the gunwale walking out for herself after a while.

One morning they woke up and there was a skim of ice on the river they had paddled up. In a great bustle camp was abandoned that day, for if winter was setting in, it would be fatal to be snowed or iced in at the remote lake. Two men that travelled with them had to hold something ( their arms or sticks) in the water just ahead of the bow to break up the skim ice, which would otherwise cut the skin. It was a long, painful day.

When they arrived back at their home village, a thaw set in, and the skim ice melted.The suffering and caution of the day before became a source of vast amusment - but no one doubted the imperative survival wisdom that lay behind it.

School Buses Afloat

I heard this story third or fourth-hand ( which virtually guarantees accuracy ) from some friends who were up on St. Paul island, in the Pribiloffs, working in the Aleut community there. Lack of a natural harbor made it necessary to lighter off all cargoes coming on the island, and all the skins and goods going off. For years the skin umiaks called Baidars were used. Some of these boats were 40 feet in length. One time, a mid-sized school bus was delivered. The People lashed a pair of baidars together as a catamaran, the load was winched down onto timbers layed across the gunwales, and the bus was safely brought ashore. Details about the actual disembarking procedure are lacking. In more recent times wooden dories did the lightering, and then a harbor was blasted into the rock. But Marc Daniels says that interest in restoring some old baidars, and in building new ones is in the air...

Point Barrow Whalers

There is this guy who has a habit that drives his wife crazy. He picks up clothes that he finds disgarded in the street.  You know, to wear. One time, in Santa Cruz he finds a tee shirt, on top of a garbage can.

It features a design of an umiak in the icefloes, with the words"Point Barrow Whalers", in a circle around it. This is among his most bizzare and valuable finds.

I was under my 13' mini umiak, like a turtle in a shell, threading skin lacings when he wandered down my driveway with a 12 foot wood and canvas canoe on his car top, in search of "they guy who builds boats". Almost before we exchange names, the little umi has drawn the shirt-find story out of him.

This story may suffer from a lack of drama, but there are webs of connection here that defy analysis. They deserve attention anyway... .

Oh yeah, he always washes these clothes before he wears them. His wife would prefer a much stronger form of exorcism, say fire or smudging. As it is, it's down to the corner laundromat for the first run-through...

The Discovery of St. Paul Island

In June of 1787, on an extremely clear day, a man on the high cliffs
on the north side of St George island was convinced he had seen land
at the horizon. A Nidiliq or large skin boat, was built by the Aleuts to
make the 40 mile trip. This is undoubtably the Aleut umiak, also
called Bidarrah from the Russian, of which Baidarka is a diminuitive.


Surf Work

"In the fall of 186,. a united states ship, the Lincoln appeared
off St. Paul Island with United States soldiers aboard to maintain the
order ...established. It was a stormy day, but the sailors watched the
Aleuts handle their bidars (large skin boats) with ease in the heavy surf.
Considering the sea safe enough to land, several soldiers attempted to
reach shore in the same way the Aleuts had done so easily. However,
they misjudged both their skill and the heavy Bering Sea surf because
the Aleuts made the sea look deceptively calm. Several soldiers were
drowned in their attempt to reach shore, and were buried on the west
slope of the black bluff overlooking the present village of St. Paul."

Both from Slaves of the Harvest
Published on St. Paul Island
In part by the Tanadgusix Corp and
Pribilof Islands School District



"Summer Gathering"

“The summer has gained control over the winter chill.
It is light night and day. The ice is broken and simply floats on the sea.
All wait for it to drift away.The dogs laze in the sun. Their season is over now that the people will travel in another way.The sledges are raised on the racks, and umiaks are taken down

...When the harp seal appeared at the end of May or beginning of June, it was time to head for Sydost Bay...

“People had gathered at Sydost Bay long before the Danish Colonization. Many came from wither settlerments along the southern part of Disko Bay and Kangaatsiaq areas...the harp seal and ammassat (capelin )drew them. The hunting area itself covered 40x35 km with Tussaaq Island at its center. In the high season it was teeming with people and umiaks.

Once, they say, when many people had gathered at the mouth of the fiord, someone got the idea of lining up the umiaks in a row, horn to horn, to see how far they would reach. The umiak chain stretched over the entire 3-km-long mouth of the fiord.

Summer travel

...At the end of August the family prepared for another hunting trip to Qallu.
The umiak ws loaded with the necessary items including a long, thin strap.
Angunnaguaq put the reins on his dogs, rolled up the traces and tied them
securely on the backs of the dogs so they would not be bothered by them.
As soon as the umiak pulled away from shore the dogs took off the the
northwest and soon disappeared in the mountains.

The umiak sailed along the coast, towing the kayak behind it.L When they approached the north coast of the headland Angunnaguaq took his binnoculars out."Yes, there they are, on the mountain looking down on us
. One, two, three... they are all there." They sailed on. At the next place,where
the dogs were expected to sit and wait, Angunnaguaq would tie the dogs to
the umiak if the weather was good and the sea calm

He left the steering oar to another and sat at the next to front thwart with a line
for the dog traces tied loosely around the thwart. He gave the signal and the
dogs pulled away along the the flat sand beach. He made sure the steersman
maintained the proper distance from the shore. He watched for rocks and checked
that the dogs did not run too far inland. When he met an obstacle he would immediatly
loosen the line and steer the boat around it. The dogs were happy, the boat shot
along at a good pace, and the water foamed at the bow. Everyone enjoyed the trip.

Both stories from Skin Boats of Greenland
by H.C. Petersen


Umiak travel in Greenland

In these boats there is room for all a families worldly goods- tents, household
implements, dogs, children, women & etc. They are rowed by as many as
half a score oarswomen, and when they are so well “manned” they attain
a good speed. A run of fifty english miles a day is not at all uncommon.
They are generally steered by the paterfamilias, while the other males follow in their kaiaks.

In their woman-boats, the Greenlanders used to move from one hunting
ground to another all through the summer. For one or two
months they always went far up the fiords in search of reindeer, and there
they lived on the fat of the land.

In those days they often undertook long journeys up and down the
west coast, as they do to this day on the east coast. To show how long these
journeys sometimes are, I may mention that on the east coast families often
travel from the Angmagsalik district, 65 1/2 deg N. latitude, the whole way to
the trading settlements west of Cape Farewell, and back again, a distance
of about 500 miles. They do not generally travel quickly; one of two woman-boats
which we met on the east coast at Cape Bille in 1888, on their way southwards,
did not reach Pamiagdluk, west of Cape Farewell, until two years later, in 1890 -
and this is only a distance of some 180 miles, which we with our boats could
no doubt have covered in a week or two. But as soon as the eskimos come to
a place where there are plenty of seals, they go ashore, pitch their camp, take
to hunting, and live at their ease. When autumn and winter approached, they
choose a good site and build a winter house, continuing their journey in the spring
or summer as soon as the ice permits. The woman-boat in question had in this
manner spent three years on the passage from Umivik, and, would no doubt take
pretty nearly as long to return...

Journeys along the west coast were of course easier and more rapid, as the drift ice did not there present impediments.

By means of this habit of wandering they escaped the evil effects of too
great seclusion in separate villages; they meet together and kept up intercourse
with other people, so that there was all through the summer a certain life and
traffic from which they reaped many benefits. Their minds were enlivened, interest
in hunting was stimulated,and skill was developed in many different ways, to
say nothing of the fact that the frequent changing of hunting grounds brought much
more game within their reach.

This summer life in the comparatively clean, airy tents, besides being
extremely pleasant, was...much healthier...than confinement cabins.
No wonder, then, that the Greenlanders fairest dreams of
happiness were associated with the woman-boat and the tent.
from Eskimo Life
by Fridjof Nansen
Longman’s, Green &Co.London, 1893

Gino Watkins on loading an umiak

Loading up an umiak requires some skill. The tent skins are first put right
along the bottom, then the big pile of bear,fox, and seal skins, boxes
of tools, cooking gear, bundles of clothes and so on: these are put well
towards the stern. All the meat goes up in the extreme bows, away from the
dogs, who are on the floor in the middle. Tent poles go on top, holding
everything down. Emmanuely, the invalid, lay on top of the load. Enock
was right in the stern with his steering oar, and the rest of the rowers
well up in the bows. The umiak hardly went down at all in spite of this load.

From Watkins last Expedition
by Spencer F. Chapman