An Arctic past – bone kayak
The kayak is no bigger than the palm of my hand. It belonged to a child who lived north of the Arctic Circle in Ilulissat, Greenland during the 1930s. This little boy grew up to be a traveller, eventually settling in Scotland, but throughout his adult life he kept this tiny boat to remind him of his childhood by the waters of Disko Bay.
This kayak isn’t ancient – it was probably made by an artist in the early twentieth century. Yet the artistic tradition it represents dates back hundreds of years to the thirteenth century. Similar toy carvings have been found at archaeological sites across the Arctic, some as early as 500 CE. They were made by the Thule people, whose maritime skills enabled them to migrate eastwards from Alaska following the slow path of the bowhead whale. They throve in the harsh Arctic environments where they settled thanks to their knowledge of the sea, their advanced designs for tools and ingenious modes of travel.
The subjects these artists chose to carve were significant. Survival depended on kayaking or sledging to find food. Children would be taught to paddle young, when barely walking, and even before that they would be given toys representing boats and sleds to encourage their thoughts towards the sea and the ice. Play is after all the best preparation for life.
People I met in Greenland were keen to tell me about the means their ancestors had used to survive in that harsh environment. The Thule, and later the Inuit, were dependent on sea mammals for food. Whales and seals would be hunted from the kayak. Nothing that was caught could be wasted. A whale carcass supplied meat for food, blubber for oil (used for both light and cooking), and bones to build structures and make tools. Seal skins would be stretched and dried, then used to cover new kayaks, or provide clothing for the kayaker. Seal intestines provided the sinews used to sew the skin onto the boat frames. (These ribbed, skin-covered vessels even emulated the shape of the mammals they would chase.) The hunter out on the sea was camouflaged, and even protected, by his own prey. His life was just as precarious as that of the animal he hunted.
Of course, the material from which this toy kayak is made also comes from an animal. In the century or so since it was carved, the power relationship between humans and other creatures on the planet has shifted dramatically, and our perception of the ethics of the use of animal materials in art – and even life – is likewise, rightly, changing. Now the majority of Greenlanders rely on imported house-building kits and clothing, rather than using animal products for their protection. You can walk into a supermarket in Ilulissat and buy expensive golden delicious apples and cans of baked beans, hot peppers in jars from South Africa and beers from Denmark. Participating in the global economy has given Greenlanders more choice, but not true autonomy; with the added disadvantage that a formerly sustainable lifestyle has been exchanged for one that is costly both to the individual and the environment.
In my travels in the Arctic I have met people who are determined to continue to hunt and live in traditional ways, and thus this object which I take to represent the ‘past’ elides with the present – but the environment which supports such activities is fast changing.
That young boy whose journey began in Ilulissat was the stepfather of the writer Nasim Marie Jafry, and when he passed away a few years ago, Nasim gave his kayak to me, knowing that I too loved Greenland. Each time I look at it I admire the frugal existence and respect for materials that it represents, and wonder at how objects can travel further through time and space than we makers might anticipate.
An England now – wooden paddle
After my first visit to Greenland I found it difficult to adapt to life back in England, so I sought something that would provide a sense of continuity – for me, this was forward motion on water. I began to kayak.
The kayak was introduced to the UK soon after its adoption by Arctic explorers in the early twentieth-century; kayaking has subsequently become a popular sport around the world. These days most kayaks you see on British waterways are cast in brightly coloured polyethylene. But my friend Paul made his own, following a traditional Greenlandic design. He constructed a wooden frame, and stretched a nylon sheet tightly over it to form the waterproof hull. It took a long time. How did people do this, he wondered, without drill-bits and spirit levels – and lipstick? (See the link below if you’re curious where the lipstick came in.)
I was keen to try the Greenlandic techniques for myself, and last summer with Paul’s help I made a paddle. Like the boat, the paddle is made to personal specifications – you measure your height and the span of your arms, and calculate the length of the loom and the angle of the tips. A six-by-four plank of wood is marked up in pencil. The excess wood is gradually planed away, and the remainder sandpapered and oiled until it is contoured as finely as any aircraft wing. Paul and I adapted as we went along: realising the cedar was quite soft, we replaced the tips with white oak to withstand knocks and scrapes.
Compared to conventional ‘Euro blades’ with their broad faces, the Greenland paddle is skinny as the pole used by a high-wire artist. With it I move differently through the water: rather than spearing and scooping, I stroke the river away from me. Until you get the knack of this, it can feel as if you are paddling with almost nothing. It’s like being on a bicycle with no peddles. You learn to appreciate the nuances of the water, its flows and eddies. I admire – even more – the skill of those kayakers who first designed the craft and who navigated much rougher waters than those I travel.
I am in thrall to the kayak’s possibilities as a sustainable form of transport, although I rarely make a journey for anything other than pleasure. (My routes to the library and market and so on remain over ground.) Yet I’m aware that our relationship to rivers is changing. I see with increasing frequency reports in the media showing people escaping flooded homes with the aid of rescue teams in kayaks. As the climate changes, I have no doubt that my paddle may be called upon for new, less leisurely adventures.
A global future – metal islands
The rivers are not the only stretches of water that are changing. NASA calculates average sea level rise at 3.41mm per year, caused by the expansion of water as it warms and the melting of polar ice caps. There’s a conceivable risk of a sea level rise of greater than one metre by the end of this century. This scenario would see the Netherlands, Bangladesh and the Philippines, among other countries, lose significant amounts of land.
Many island nations are already experiencing the destructive force of new weather systems. Prime Minister Gaston Browne of the Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda has chided the industrial world. “The sadness is that these disasters are not occurring in these islands through their own fault,” he said in a statement to the United Nations in 2015. “They are happening because of the excesses of larger and more powerful countries, who will not bend from their abuse of the world’s atmosphere, even at the risk of eliminating other societies, some older than their own.”
The populations of some island nations are becoming climate refugees. In recent years the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands (a Pacific island nation which includes Bikini Atoll), finding their coastal homes no longer inhabitable, began to resettle in the US state of Arkansas. As an alternative to such tragic displacement, some countries are adopting new technologies, and imagining future floating cities inspired by boats. The Dutch, for example, are addressing the question of what to do when the water defence systems that protect the Netherlands become obsolete. “In these times of rising sea levels, overpopulated cities and a rising number of activities on the seas, building up the dykes and pumping out the sands is perhaps not the most efficient solution,” says Olaf Waals, project manager at the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands.
The solution? “Floating ports and cities,” says Waals decisively. Within the next few decades, the question will be not how to prevent the sea overwhelming the land, but how to best enable life upon the water – initially as an extension of existing territory, but eventually as an alternative for it. Waals and his team of engineers have designed tessellating panels on which new cities could be built. These floating triangles are resistant to the force of storms; they can be anchored to the sea bed or moored to the shore. At present the panels are few enough to fill the Institute’s testing basin, but the huge, flexible island could expand to support a city-sized settlement of homes, farms, parks, recreational areas, and ports.
Waals believes such a structure would also be an ideal setting for sustainable energy projects that require access to the sea. Offshore wind farms, tidal energy, wave energy and floating solar panels would power the artificial island. In the future, will water not be our way of travelling from place to place, but a permanent home? What will we take with us onto these twenty-first century arks? And will humans adopt a more responsible attitude to the environment when we are no longer on our element?
Find out more
The writer Nasim Marie Jafry gave Nancy her stepfather’s bone kayak; you can discover her work at Velo-gubbed legs – including her short piece, Coxsackie, in Nancy’s A Book of Banished Words (from her Polar Tombola project), and the link between Coxsackie virus, the name of her website and her novel, The State of Me.
The Marin Institute (Maritime Research Institute Netherlands), where Olaf Waals is working on floating ports and cities, is holding a seminar ‘The Floating Future’ in Wageningen on 7th March 2018. And architectural firm Waterstudio and the Seasteading Institute – “a nonprofit think-tank working to provide a machinery of freedom to choose new societies on the blue frontier” – both also envisage a floating future.