Stories from Alaska

An insider's journey through Alaska's best kept secrets

“Only In Alaska” Inventions: Kayaks, Ulus, Gut-Skin Clothing

The unique Alaskan lifestyle is embodied in the inspired inventions, tools and clothing created and used by them in their every day lives. For Alaskans, survival has often depended on being strong and smart, resilient and resourceful with little room for error and no space for waste.  Accordingly, everything in Alaska tends to serve multiple purposes and is used to its fullest potential.

Here are three excellent examples of ingenious Alaska inventions that are credited to, or partially attributed to, Alaska Natives and that continue to live on today in modern-day versions.

Kayaks: Alaska Natives Choice for Hunting Out on the Water

Small and light, fast and stealthy, durable and waterproof – the kayak is the perfect Alaska waterway’s hunting vessel.

There’s some debate on when and where the first kayaks were created and used, but there’s no question that thousands of years ago, Alaska’s Inuit, Aleut and Yup’ik people in the Arctic and subarctic regions were among the originators of constructing and utilizing these unique crafts.

Known as a “hunter’s boat,” kayaks were used for fishing and hunting, usually for sea otters and seals, but also for larger targets like walrus, caribou and even whales. The crafts were relatively simple – bent wood frames coated by stretched, dried and sewed sealskin or other naturally waterproof hides. In tundra-filled landscapes where trees were scarce, driftwood and animal bones (whale in particular) were used for framing.

The combination of wood and skin made the vessels light, fast and agile. Whether the pilot was using the double-bladed paddle to travel on calm lakes and ponds, rippling rivers, or the always unpredictable and unrelenting open waterways like the Arctic and North Pacific oceans and the Bering and Chukchi seas. The outer skin was tight yet flexible, and practically silent as it cut through waves.

The earliest kayaks were measured and customized for each individual user and their purpose (hunting, transportation, hauling items or family members). Most had a close-fitting, single hole set in the middle for the driver’s seating; any space around that opening was covered by the driver’s sealskin jacket, which kept the vessel waterproof and airtight. So airtight, in fact, that if the kayak were to capsize the pilot would remain in the opening so they could right the vessel in a move known in kayaking communities as the “Eskimo roll.”

Traditional kayaks evolved to include a second hole for a co-paddler like the larger, multi-passenger baidarka and the umiak, also large and long, built to transport materials and people.

Kayaks and their uses have certainly changed over the past thousand years, but they remain sleek and sturdy, just like the original version.

Ulus: A Cutting and Carving Tool Over the Alaska Ages

The ulu might look like a modest cutting tool – a sturdy handle atop a small, sharp blade. But the importance of this multipurpose instrument to Alaska Native people cannot be understated. For thousands of years, the ulu served countless uses and cut anything that, well, needed to be cut. It was a tool of survival, efficiency, strength and brilliance. It remains a symbol of resiliency and culture.

The ulu, or uluit, dates back nearly 5,000 years, was made in an array of sizes and traditionally consisted of just two pieces: a grooved and hearty handle made of antlers from moose, caribou or muskox, or ivory walrus tusk; bone or wood were sometimes used as well. Curved or sometimes straight blades were made of sharpened and honed slate. Some ulus were personalized with markings on the handles and blades.

Inuit, Yup’ik, and Aleut women used them to thoroughly skin and filet game, delicately clean and cut patterns from hides for clothing and other uses, chop large and small chunks of meat and food, carve ice, cut hair and even slice an enemy or threat. In experienced hands, the ulu cut with precision and power.

Ulus were as cherished as they were durable. It’s no surprise that many families passed their ulus down for generations.

Modern ulus evolved to using stainless steel for blades and even wood or plastic for handles, but traditional ulu use lives on in rural Alaska fish camps and it is now a popular purchase for Alaska visitors. Just be sure not to pack the new ulu in your carry-on luggage, or TSA will take it from you.

Gut-skin Clothing: Waterproof & Warm

Long before neoprene, GORE TEX were created to combat wet weather, Inuit, Yup’ik and Unangan hunters, fishers and families who lived and subsisted on Alaska’s coastal areas stayed dry from the water, wind, rain and snow by using outerwear made from sea mammal intestines or guts. Yes, animal insides were worn to keep humans dry outside.

The process of creating clothing from seal intestines is a delicate, creative one. Part of the traditional harvesting of a water mammal like a seal included cleaning the intestines and hanging them out to dry. Once dried, the guts, which were already waterproof, turned firmer and whiter while remaining stretchy. That skin would then be cut into patterns and sewn, using sinew from other animals as thread, into light but sturdy parkas and outerwear.

When crafted the result was a decorative hooded and waterproof parka durable enough that any outdoor adventurer would treasure and use often.

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