TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Kayak Destinations


Time Traveling ~
Five Books for Winter Reading

by D. Avery
(Amazon links to purchase benefit TopKayaker.net).

On Nantucket where winters are usually relatively mild, I have for years now made it a point to get out in a kayak at least once a month, every month. With very few days remaining this February, and temperatures falling again, that tradition may get broken. Fortunately my other past-time visiting the Take-It-Or-Leave-It section of the local landfill, provided me with a couple of consolation prizes - books about paddling that I enjoyed indoors.

These probably arrived at the Dump as they left, together, as a pair. The first was Thoreau’s Maine Woods. It actually recounts three trips in the mid 1800’s later arranged by Dudley C. Lunt (1950) as a single account.

The second book was by John McPhee, entitled The Survival of the Bark Canoe, (1975), and is his account of traveling some of the same route as Thoreau with Henri Vaillancourt, a builder of traditional birch bark canoes. It was interesting reading as a pair; the later one referenced the first. Both gave me a greater appreciation for canoes and got me thinking about kayak camping once summer rolls back around.

Survival Bark CanoeBut these two books, free at the Dump, only whet my appetite leading to more.

McPhee, at the back of his book, made reference to another based largely on the lifelong research and interest of Edwin Tappan Adney. Adney was rediscovered, through a collection of models and papers at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA, by Howard Chapelle, then Curator of Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. Editing and adding his own research, Chapelle published The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America(1964). This book was Vaillancourt’s primer and its forward was written by McPhee.

Bark Canoe & Skin BoatsI couldn’t resist the story as well as the drawings and photographs of the traditional canoes, so added it and two others to my winter reading collection.

The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, as well as Thoreau’s and McPhee’s books, were of interest to me for the historical references. Thoreau’s revealed some of the current events and attitudes of his day as well as the state of the State of Maine at that time.

The others show that documentation of the development of the canoe and its immediate adoption and adaptation by arrived Europeans is in fact a history of North America. Similarly, Russian fur traders on the Alaskan coast, among other impacts, influenced the design and building of kayaks in that area. Canoes and kayaks have always been an extremely useful and practical vehicle, and Europeans simply expanded the range and purposes of these craft.

The other two books that I reeled in from the chummed waters of amazon.com are Qayaq; Kayaks of Alaska and Siberia, (2000) by David W. Zimmerly, and Eastern Arctic Kayaks; History, Design,Technique, (2004) edited by John D. Heath and E. Arima. Any of these five books may be of interest to paddlers but these last two more so to kayakers. Careful reading will reveal that references and acknowledgments weave these two books together, as well as the topic. They are a representation of thoughtful research by the "who’s who" of kayakers, with a deep reverence and respect for the crafts’ origins. The names may be familiar to subscribers of kayaking magazines, but for me these books were a happy discovery in very appealing packages.


Zimmerly’s book, Qayaq; Kayaks of Alaska and Siberia, started out as a museum catalog for an exhibit in 1986 and 1987 by the Alaska State Museum, providing information on the few remaining traditional kayaks of Alaska and Siberia while highlighting their importance to traditional Arctic culture.

This book is readable from cover to cover for its analysis and history of the kayak and its cultural permutations but is also deserving of a long life on the coffee table with its many photographs, prints, and line drawings. Zimmerly notes in his preface to the 1986 edition that he has "both an academic and personal involvement with the study of kayaks. My interest combines an intense intellectual fascination for the history and technology of the craft with a strong emotional attachment."

If there is a common theme for these five books and their authors it is that emotional attachment to the craft and the profound appreciation for the craftsmanship and skills of their builders and users. Unlike the hardcore birch canoe enthusiasts, Zimmerly concludes that kayakers "can combine innovative features and designs from the past with new materials from the present to create a superior craft" and that just as kayak design across the northern seas and rivers was adapted to its builders’ particular needs, so today’s paddlers can also specialize and paddle the craft that best suits them.

You might enjoy this book to help you realize your connection to a culture and a past as you "silently (paddle) a craft that was designed to perfection over 4,000 years ago."

Eastern Arctic Kayaks

Eastern Arctic Kayaks

While Qayaq had sections on paddle design and technique as well as recovery strategies, Eastern Arctic Kayaks: History, Design,Technique shows a continuing heritage, not just history. Greenlanders are still kayakers who have retained and adapted their traditional styles and techniques. While the craft are not used so much for hunting as in days past, Greenland is home to the Greenland Kayaking Association and the Greenland Kayak Championships and is a Mecca for those wanting to study and increase their skill level.

Eastern Arctic Kayaks is much about the design specifics of the actual kayaks but is more thorough in regards to techniques for paddling and capsize-maneuvers so might be of greater interest to readers interested in the Greenland paddle and its application.

Even so, the articles were written with an even hand, not promoting one style of paddle while putting down the modern ones that most of us are familiar with. Indeed, despite the depth of knowledge and expertise by the authors, there seems to be the underlying message that with kayaking ‘it’s all good’ and there’s ‘different strokes for different folks’. But it does make you think, as you read about kayaking in cold climates during the cold winter.

So be careful! Just as one book leads to another, one might get up from the reading chair and think that maybe one kayak could lead to another or maybe it’s time to try another paddle.

At the very least, or at least, least expensively, you will be inspired to think about your paddling strokes, and how you connect with the boat you have. You will be more anxious to get on the water and hone your paddling skills or even your camping skills. No matter, you can’t help but connect to the heritage and history of paddling. As E. Arima says in the introduction to Eastern Arctic Kayaks, "When out paddling in the wind or calm, on water salt or fresh, we might remember to thank the Arctic hunters who developed and refined the exquisite craft we call "kayak.""

DAveryAbout the author:

Chicken Shift ~
Four Dozen Poems of Crossings & Roadkill. Short witty, multi-layered poems. Thought and laugh provoking.

D. Avery enjoys extreme recreational kayaking on all forms of fresh and salt water. Resolving the time management conflict of biking vs. kayaking by towing her kayak to the launch site, she reveres the simplicity and versatility of both bikes and kayaks. Surrounded at times by yachts and power boats, she notes that her kayak has always started first pull and has never broken down, nor has it ever incurred dockage fees. An eclectic and synchronistic reader, Avery has also written for the Hardwick Gazette, A.N.E.’s Growing Teachers, and has a book of poetry, Chicken Shift, available at some fine bookstores as well as at amazon.com.

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