” Lone Eagle Flies Again “
as reported by Rhonda McBride
Reprint from KTUU-TV, Anchorage, Alaska 12-99
There were no hardware stores, no stockpiles of lumber, no paint, no glues or woodstain to make it an easy task. Still, the woodcrafting ability of the Yup’ik enabled them to create kayak masterpieces for thousands of years. For them, the kayak was a transportation workhorse, built to haul seals and camping gear along with dogs and sleds between the pack ice. It was practical and beautiful, nothing short of a marvel. But in the span of only a few years, the kayak’s silent slicing of water was replaced by the buzz of a motorboat. The craft was lost. Now with help from his family, teacher Bill Wilkinson of Kwigillingok is working to bring back it back.
I first met Bill Wilkinson and his family two summers ago when I tried my hand at kayaking. He patiently taught me the watercraft and skills like how to turn by dragging my paddle to one side. Wilkinson lives just a few miles from the Bering Sea in the village of Kwigillingok, called Kwig by locals. It’s almost constantly windy there, but my lesson was on a rare dreamy evening where the wind relented, letting the water reflect the rich red sky.
“The evening was just like this, but a couple of hours earlier,” says Wilkinson in remembrance. Twenty years ago, in a village not far from here, he snapped a photo of two girls crossing a pond in their grandfather’s kayak. It was a defining moment in his life.
“You could hear the oars bumping the side of the kayaks,” Wilkinson says. Voices came across the water, laughing and giggling. A short while later the girls’ grandfather set out in the kayak. Wilkinson didn’t have a camera, but the snapshot stayed in his mind.
“I knew right there and then,” Wilkinson says. “I just thought, ‘I better stop and watch this, because I’ll never see another Yup’ik elder in a kayak,’ and I didn’t. And he got in his kayak without a wiggle, just as straight as an arrow.”
From that day on, Wilkinson dreamed of building his own kayak. First came his marriage to another teacher, Mary Ann Andrew; then came busy years raising three children. In the end, Wilkinson’s instincts were right. In the crossing of that elder he witnessed a magical moment, the sunset of an era never to be completely be reclaimed.
Less than a hundred years ago, all the materials for the Yup’ik kayak came from the land and sea. Craftsmen learned to select driftwood, which they carved and bound together without nails or modern tools. Those remarkable techniques, thousands of years old, died in less than two generations.
The change took place quickly as powerful motor boats swept the kayak aside. By the 1950s no Yup’ik made them anymore. The modern aluminum skiff was an easier way for hunters to honor a more important Native tradition, sharing food with others in the village. Today, only bleached kayak skeletons remain, rickety relics on classroom walls. The Wilkinsons know the story well: Mary Ann’s father Frank Andrew has his own kayak, mounted on a wall.
Andrew is one of the few elders left in Kwig who knows how to make kayaks the old way. He’s taught Wilkinson the forms of construction, such as how to correctly tie squid line to a kayak’s frame. After hanging onto a dream of a Yup’ik kayak for nearly 20 years, Wilkinson now has enough pieces of knowledge to begin accurately building his own traditional boat.
“As a child, I used to have this dream where just before I’d be waking up in the morning, I could just move my arms just right and I’d get the sensation that I was flying,” says Wilkinson. “I’d be looking down and seeing ripples on the water below me, and kind of sparkles coming off it.”
Frank Andrew pared Wilkinson’s Yup’ik name to help bring back those childhood dreams. Originally Wilkinson’s the name meant lonely eagle; Andrew changed it to the more dignified Metervik: simply, eagle. It helps the two family members share another connection. the eagle has been Andrew’s family crest for two generations. Now these two eagles fly together, trying to bring the traditional craft back to Kwigillignok.
“I think when I get in the kayak and when I paddle across the pond, it’s going to be identical to the sensations of the flying aspirations not found as a child,” Wilkinson says. “To become an eagle. I’ll have the same sensation of an eagle flying across the water. You know, it’s something deep inside of me.”
Bering Sea kayaks are built with a distinctive hole in the bow. While the circle is often a theme representing the universe in Yup’ik art, they also act as an eye into the genius of craftsmanship: one example is the ukinqucuak. In the tall grasses of the tundra surrounding Kwigillingok, Bill Wilkinson holds up an old weathered piece of wood with a hole in it.
“It comes out of a huge stump,” Wilkinson says of the bow piece. “It’s quite a task to get it out of there. The elders are masters at chopping these stumps apart. They take them apart like a diamond cutter.”
In the old days, Kayak makers only had crude tools at their disposal. There was an elegance, a refinement in the way they let nature do the work for them.
“That curvature of the grain creates great structural integrity,” Wilkinson points out on the ukinqucuak. “If you had all the grain going straight, this piece here would crack right off.”
The ukinqucuak had to be strong to be used as a handle to portage kayaks across sea ice and help lash them together like pontoons. Such pieces of knowledge were passed on in the traditional men’s house, humble dwellings of mud and driftwood focused on kayak construction.
For a Yup’ik kayak blueprint, Wilkinson used the photo he snapped 20 years ago of two girls crossing in their grandfather’s craft. He tried to copy it, taking hundreds of other pictures to try and figure out the proportions. It didn’t work.
“I meticulously had laid the ruler next to them, and I took all these little ruler measurements and measured them and made them into blueprints, then blew them up and made large size templates and cut out all the pieces,” Wilkinson says. It took many hours. He almost gave up, but was saved by his father-in-law, Frank Andrew. In five minutes, Andrew was teaching Wilkinson about the craft and its secret: Like a suit, each kayak is tailor-made to the kayaker.
“From a Western point of view, you have to go through all these blueprints and measurements and scales and proportions,” says Wilkinson. “He (Andrew) carried the blueprint with him.”
To determine how long a kayak should be, a measurement is taken from the index finger to the tip of the other index finger. That distance is doubled. Another measurement determines the final length of the gunnel, or apamak. Once again it uses the index finger, stretching across to the end of the elbow.
On the kayak Wilkinson toiled over, there are about 70 pieces with measurements corresponding to the body. Because of this, Wilkinson knows his boat will look and feel different from kayak’s plastic descendants. For him, it will be like traveling in time.
“I live out in the tundra,” says Wilkinson. “Some people say it’s the middle of nowhere, and Yup’ik people say it s the middle of everywhere. It’s always been fascinating to me to take a shot of trying to understand some of what these elders know. What they know is really genius in many ways.”
In the beginning it just seemed like a boat floating in the water. But now, as Bill Wilkinson paddles across the waters of Kwig, he tries to imagine what it was like to live a hundred years ago, to put himself in the same frame of mind as early kayakers. That’s why he tries to reproduce them as faithfully as he can. He can only go so far. Some things have been lost to the Yup’ik. For instance, it’s now impossible to find the necessary group of women who would know how to stretch and sew seal skins making up the kayak’s sides.
On a sunny day in Kwig, Wilkinson’s youngest son Ethan tries out the first Kayak his father ever made. It’s his first time in a traditional craft. The evening water is calm, but Ethan is nervous. He’s used to easily balanced modern kayaks.
“I’ll tip over,” the smiling youth groans. After some time in the craft he says, “My grandfather never tipped over in his whole life using these.”
As a young Yup’ik, grandfather Frank Andrew had to master more than balance. When Andrew was Ethan’s age, he learned how to fashion driftwood with a curved knife. Andrew remembers those days: he says Yup’iks gathered all their food and no one wore clothing bought at a store.
“He’s saying we’re not true Yup’iks in a sense, even though we are Yup’iks,” Mary Ann Wilkinson translates as the weathered man speaks. Mary Ann, Andrew’s daughter and Wilkinson’s wife, says her father is right. Even in a traditional village like Kwigillingok only a few know how to truly subsist. The Wilkinsons hope that a lost world of heritage can be reached with the kayak, a craft made almost from the will of the people.
In many sections of the Yup’ik kayak, pieces of wood need to come together. In at least one juncture, elders would do this buy using their own blood. They would cut their noses, taking out a few ounces. They then would allow it to coagulate and congeal, keeping the wood together.
For sewing the kayak’s sealskin cover, thin strands of sinew from the back of a beluga whale were collected and braided. Urine from small boys was especially prized for preparing the skins for sewing. After several days of soaking, the urine would generate ammonia.
“That would prevent the skins from being very slick and difficult to work with and sew,” Wilkinson says. “If there’s a lot of seal oil on them, they’d be very slippery.”
Moss from the tundra was dried and then crushed, mixed with seal oil for caulking the kayak’s seams. Then kayakers would search — hundreds of miles, if need be — for a red siltstone rock called witerak. Crushed into a powder and then rubbed on a kayak’s rib, one ball of the stone is enough to paint an entire kayak. That was a job for the men.
The Yup’ik knew the minutiae of kayak-making; they knew where the “tigigak” was, where sap concentrates in the wood and makes it easier to bend. Sometimes, bending the wood required more than arm strength; it required clamping a piece of wood in the teeth, tweaking it back and forth with both arms.
“You slowly work it down,” says Wilkinson, demonstrating. He holds between his teeth an arched piece of wood. “Your teeth crush the individual layers and hold them in place.”
It’s an apt metaphor, Wilkinson biting off more than he can chew. After years of lessons, he says he’s only learned a fraction of what his father-in-law knows.
“He’s like the Internet,” Wilkinson says of Andrew. “You go and start off and you ask a question, and that’s like a window. And every window leads you into other questions.”
Those windows take Wilkinson down a river less traveled. He’s found that the kayak is not only a vehicle to the past but also to the future: Wilkinson, a schoolteacher, uses the kayak to teach his students subjects like mathematics and water safety.
“So what’s for lunch?” That’s Bill Wilkinson’s question and he gets his answer. In his warm home, a pot of eider duck soup steams, waiting to be eaten. It’s a rich broth that goes well with stories about the days when kayaks were a necessity to put food on the table. At school Wilkinson’s the teacher; at home he’s often the student. Today he asks his wife Mary Ann about her earliest memories of traveling in her father’s Kayak.
“Were you going across a river?” Wilkinson asks.
“I don’t know,” Mary Ann says. “I was inside.”
Her mother Nellie sat in the middle of the Kayak with her father. Her brother laid down flat in the back, while Mary Ann was cocooned in front. She could hear water splashing against the kayak; she watched it ripple alongside her. She gazed at the light, shining through the golden translucence of the kayak’s seal skin cover. It’s history like this that Wilkinson loves to learn, words he loves to pass on.
Wilkinson teaches water safety in Kwig. Before a river outing, he speaks to expectant youths who stand decked out in helmets and life preservers, holding kayak paddles like rifles at attention.
“Be safe,” Wilkinson says. “Stay in our group areas. I want you to be cognizant of our rescue strategy if anyone has a problem.”
Kayaking is now part of Wilkinson’s school’s physical education program, and with good reason: Many kids in Kwig have lost someone to the water. Sometimes, it’s been two or three people. In nearly all these drownings no life preservers were worn.
“We ran into flocks of birds out there,” Wilkinson says. He teaches a Century 21 after school kayaking program. “We were basically kayaking right straight through and they were just buzzing all around us, like thousands of birds.” The day after the excursion the kids wrote essays describing how free and independent they felt on the water.
“The kayak was kind of the way the culture was defined,” says Martin Leonard, director of Century 21. “And really, if you look at the way western culture is defined, a lot of it revolves around the car. When you hear folks talk about a renaissance, I think that’s exactly what they’re talking about. Here is a vehicle that was once a centerpiece for the culture and it’s making a revival. It’s finding a place in village life right now. It’s fun to watch that.”
Many kids in Kwig care more about the basketball court and less about the water around them. That’s slowly changing. A group of youths listen to teacher’s aide Owen Lewis as he recounts boyhood memories of kayaking and seal hunting.
“All of the sudden I heard something breathing,” Lewis says. “I looked up and there was a seal floating between our kayak. A seal, mukluk.”
While the tales are enchanting, the main focus is safety. Lewis speaks a sentence in Yup’ik, translating so all the kids hear. “What it means is the ocean, you will never learn,” Owen says. “You know why? Because it’s constantly changing.” Kayaking is, in Owen’s words, “respect for nature, respect for others, respect for yourself.” That respect grows as students attempt to bridge present with past.
“There’s always only so many people in these small villages,” Wilkinson says. “The more people you have to pull the walrus out of the river, the more efficient things become. It’s true like that in education. The more people we have nurturing and supporting our education, the more efficient it becomes and the more valuable the whole experience can be.”
That’s why kayak education at Kwigillignok isn’t just for kids. There’s also an after school program for adults.
The name Kwigillingok means village of no river, yet it sits on the tundra amid rivers and sloughs. An old story explains the paradox. A woman dropped an ivory necklace in a pond; when the pond was drained to look for the necklace, a spring formed. Now waters twist their way around the village. Perhaps the legend speaks to us, in the power each person holds to shape their world. That’s what Bill Wilkinson is trying to do by reintroducing kayak building into Yup’ik life.
He believes he came one step closer this summer after he put the finishing touches on his traditional Yup’ik kayak. He named it Cathedral.
“When you look inside that craft and the light is shining through it’s really, you know, a mystical kind of experience,” Wilkinson says. “Really odd, because you can think for a moment, ‘this is a similar kind of color and light sensation that earlier people felt looking inside this boat.'”
Wilkinson is trying to live up to his native name Meterik, the Yup’ik word for eagle. He can fly over the water as he did in recurring childhood dreams. As a child, the eagle’s wings were a way of escape.
“Alcohol was really devastating to our family,” Wilkinson says. “It caused the break-up of our family and it ended up putting me into foster homes early on.” Perhaps that’s why Wilkinson loves it in Kwigillingok. There, the whole village is an extended family. It has traditions he embraces.
This summer at the village of no river, traditional ways were reborn. On a sunny day there was the launching of an angyaq, a traditional craft that looks like a cross between a big canoe and dinghy. Kwig hasn’t seen this craft in a half century or more, but the school’s summer cultural preservation program helped push it through. Frank Andrew guided the work, and applause breaks out as the aged man boards. He’s one of the few elders left who knows how the boats were made, and he never dreamed this knowledge would be passed on.
“Here it is, the 1990s, the year 2000 almost, and we have an elder in an old traditional boat,” says Art Lake, tribal administrator. “(He’s) steering the boat, leading us on to where we need to go, and that’s how we always wanted ourselves to be viewed: respecting our elders.”
Andrew has done even more than direct the boatbuilding; he’s also watched over his son-in-law’s efforts to craft a traditional kayak. It was finished just a few weeks before the Angyaq was launched.
“It’s a really wonderful process in working with the elder,” says Wilkinson. “It’s really quite magical. There’s a zen to it.”
Wilkinson’s tried to communicate that zen in his teaching. In math, he asks students to analyze the accuracy of the Yup’ik way of using fingers, hands and arms to measure the parts of the kayak. It’s not a traditional lesson. As students learn about the measurements they also learn about the ways of their people. They learn each kayak is a custom fit, making the boat a true extension of the body. With paddles outstretched, this man — Bill Wilkinson, Meterik, eagle — flies again.
“Taking off was a totally different experience,” Wilkinson says of his first trip in Cathedral. “It was exciting, it was exhilarating, unlike a plastic modern kayak. You know, the silhouette of the water going through it and the sound of the water rippling on the side, and the lightness of it.” Wilkinson has paddled into a rich, ancient world.
“That traditional boat is so rare,” he says. “To feel and sit in it, and have that connection with that traditional aspect of antiquity is really a fine feeling.”