The Art of the Kayak

The Art of the Kayak

February 09, 2015

Quiet and unassuming, Sarah McNair-Landry is not your typical 27 year old. At the age of 8, when many urban dwelling parents are still wondering if it is safe to let their kids walk to school on their own, Sarah set off on her first unsupported camping trip with her brother Eric, two years her elder, into the wild expanse of the Canadian Arctic. Something which Sarah shrugs off as “only going camping in the backyard.” Less than a decade later she would be guiding trips to the poles when most kids her age were still dealing with the issues of being a teenager.

Hand stitching the skin of the kayak
Photo Sarah McNair-Landry

I first met Sarah and her brother Eric over ten years ago on a dog sledding trip on Canada’s Baffin Island and have remained friends with them since. Her Facebook page a constant photo stream of journey after journey to far flung corners of the globe via all modes of transport from skis to dog sled and kites to kayaks.

Recently the siblings have returned from a 3 month and 1,000 km journey across Baffin Island, the world’s fifth largest island, in Inuit kayaks. Each kayak was meticulously handcrafted following traditional designs and according to each paddler's morphology by the siblings and travelling companions Erik Boomer and Katherine Breen.

Paddling the Arctic waters
Photo Eric McNair-Landry

The trip was Eric’s idea but had come off the back of another trip across Greenland that both siblings had just completed by kite. The trip had ended in a small Inuit community where a festival was taking place to celebrate a long-tradition of local kayak building. They were awed to see how the traditional craft was still being actively celebrated and still formed such an integral part of day to day life for the Greenlanders. Yet at the same time they felt a sadness that the tradition had not been kept alive in Baffin Island where they grew up and the kayak had shared a similar place in the cultural history of the indigenous population.

We thought it would be a cool project to research these traditional Baffin kayaks, build them, and then paddle them across the island of their birth.

I was fortunate to recently catch-up with Sarah on one of her rare ventures into the urban jungle where she was promoting the trip through a series of talks. We spent the night eating, drinking and talking about the long lost Inuit craft of kayaking building.

  1. The idea to build traditional Baffin Island inspired kayaks and take them on a 1000km journey across Baffin Island was your brother Eric’s was it not? When he proposed it did you jump at the opportunity or did you need any convincing?

    Eric came up with the idea to build traditional Inuit kayaks, and it was really his skills in woodworking and knowledge from building two prototypes that made the project successful. The rest of us were all excited about the idea, and it was never a question we really discussed much.

  2. Was it difficult to research these traditional designs considering it was a dying craft? Who did the research and in what way did they differ from traditional kayaks and why? Did you have any help from any Inuit who may have built their own?

    There is a lot of information surrounding the Greenlandic Inuit kayak, and therefore the first two kayaks that Eric built were a Greenlandic style boat. But for this expedition it was important to build a boat that was used in Baffin. We found a picture of an old South Baffin kayak in a museum, with several measurements, and based our design off of that.

Eric creating models of the kayak with local Inuit school children
Photo Katherine Breen

  1. How long did it take to make them? Was there a lot of trial and error, or did parts need to be made over and over?

    We spent about two months building our kayaks at the high school workshop in my hometown of Iqaluit, on Baffin Island. Because we had limited wood supplies, we didn't have much option for trial and error.

    Steam bending the ribs was the most challenging part of the construction, and we broke several ribs while attempting to bend them in place. Luckily we had foreseen this challenge, and had extra wood to build and bend new ribs.

    “We were lucky - we could use modern tools to carve and steam the wood into shape. The Inuit would of had to chew it.”

Sarah in the workshop with the gunwales laid out
Photo Erik Boomer

  1. Due to time constraints, you virtually took them on a fairly major and gruelling expedition with very little time to test them. Were you nervous? How did they perform? Were there any problems and how reliable were they?

    The boats didn't actually fit on the plane that took them to the start point, so we had to finish building them there, in the small town of Pangnirtung. This meant that we finished the construction of our boats just days before actually heading out on our expedition.

    The boats were great; sleek and fast, yet still big enough to accommodate a month worth of food and gear both below and above the deck. The wood frames were solid; however we did puncture small holes into the ballistic nylon shell causing leeks, which we did our best to repair in the field.

    “It was a good day if you didn't get a wet bum"

Katherine fitting the ribs to the gunwales
Photo Erik Boomer

  1. You mentioned that you did the project to try and inspire the Inuit of Baffin Island to revisit a dying craft before it disappears forever. Have you noticed any increased uptake in the craft? You mentioned kids making scale models but any full scale ones being built by others?

    One of the main goals during this expedition was to get people interested and excited about the traditional kayak. During the construction of our boats, which took place at the local high school, we held several workshops were students were able to build their own model kayaks. This winter Eric will be teaching a kayak building course in Iqaluit, and we hope this will be the first of many.

    There are also several other great projects across Nunavut were people are learning to build traditional kayaks, and teaching others.

  2. Finally. Any plans for any future expeditions where you get to build and design the mode of transport? And does the fact that Eric proposed the last mean you get to propose the next project? If so what might it be?

    There are always future expeditions being planned! Eric might head to Greenland for a long kite skiing expedition, while I am planning a 4 month dog sledding expedition around Baffin Island where we will build our own sleds!

We wish Sarah and her brother Eric good luck on her next journey and look forward to following their progress. You can follow the exploits of Sarah and her brother Eric on their Pittarak Expeditions page on Facebook.


Onset of the winter snow
Photo Erik Boomer

Navigating the iceflows
Photo Sarah McNair-Landry

1 Response

Frank Bame
Frank Bame

June 25, 2015

Keep up the fantastic piece of work, I read few content on this site and I believe that your blog is very interesting and has sets of superb info.

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