Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

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About This Artifact

The umiak is a large (usually 25-40 feet), walrus-skin covered boat that can either have a round of flat bottom, and is generally undecked (as opposed to the kayak).  It is a versatile watercraft that has served arctic peoples in a variety of ways - hunting, transporting passangers and carrying cargo. Though it was traditionally rowed with oars, it was sometimes outfitted with a sail, and in more recent times, an outboard motor.  On the ice, when overturned, it can be used for shelter from harsh arctic elements.

The umiak has a long history with its roots in the distant past.  Some authorities suggest that linguistic clues indicate a Siberian origin.  Variations on its construction over time reflect the fact that it has incorporated many influences, from different arctic peoples to American whaleboats.  But it was during a period from the 1860s to about 1940 that the most rapid design changes occurred.  Two types of skin-covered boats and wooden whaleboats evolved together.  Traditional flat bottom skin boats, like kayaks, were gradually replaced in the late nineteenth century by wooden whaleboats, which were in turn replaced by the bent-rib, round bottom umiaks beginning in the 1920s. Round bottom umiaks became the preferred type from the early 1930s for several reasons:  strength, seaworthiness, adaptability for outboard motors, sailing qualities, and an exterior false keel with a runner for ease of movement over ice and speed.  While they are much lighter than wooden whaleboats, they also have tremendous cargo capacity and can carry up to 3 tons of walrus meat.

This Umiak, built by John Bockstoce, has a very unique, contemporary story.  For more information about the umiak pictured above, see the supplemental information in the sidebar.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. In what ways does the environment we live in shape innovation and invention? What are other examples of this that you can think of?
  2. Think about what benefit a vessel as traditional as the umiak might have over a more "modern" boat.
  3. Read the supplemental information about John Bockstoce, found in the sidebar. What drives the spirit of adventure in people?