I was the walrus – goo goo g'joob.
I'll describe that marine metamorphosis later. For now, suffice it to say that it made for a profitable, if humbling, end to a rewarding encounter with slats of pine and white oak, ballistic nylon, and a polyurethane mixture. Over eight days, five of us – one teacher, four students – would meld these materials into working replicas of a 1935 skin-on-frame hunting kayak from Greenland.
The original sits in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Ours now have homes in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Oregon. The man who bridged this time warp and taught us the ways of the chisel, Japanese saw, and block plane, is Brian Schulz. The founder and lead instructor at Cape Falcon Kayak, in Manzanita, Ore., Brian is one of several people around the country who are taking advantage of at least a thousand years of indigenous R&D to help the skilled and unskilled alike turn humble materials into seaworthy craft in a relatively short, but intense, burst of activity. This is one of the aspects of kayak-building that he finds so appealing.
Building skin-on-frame kayaks is "an incredibly gratifying thing that you can do in a week," he says, "and it's not beyond the skill level of the average person."
Each of us has come to the class by a slightly different path. I met Brian at a wooden-boat show I attended during a business trip to Oregon last August. (Note to boss: slide time.) Classmates Pam and Stuart Selkin signed up on the advice of a friend who had taken Brian's class. Both already had custom-made skin-on-frame kayaks.
But, Pam says, she and Stu got tired of saying "no" when asked if they'd built their own craft. Pam, an attorney, and Stu, a physician, drove up from Melville, N.Y. Alan Podesta, an electrician from Annandale, N.J., also met Brian during a trip to Oregon and rounds out the class.
We lug our tool boxes into the Apprenticeshop in Rockland, where people come to learn the craft of wooden-boat building. It hugs a small slope that falls away to the waterfront below. Unfinished wooden walls, bare-plank floors, and wooden work benches carry the stains and smells of varnish, sawdust, and wood shavings – the shades of boats long since built. Two wooden canoes span a pair of rafters above us. Two additional floors with more workspace and industrial-grade power tools lie below us. The lowest of these floors opens to the waterfront. Our task over the next days (and nights) will be to create 17-foot kayaks that weigh around 30 to 40 pounds each.
We each bring a rudimentary collection of hand tools Brian has recommended. And we bring different skill levels. Alan is the most able of the four students at virtually all of the tasks we perform. He often finishes a particular step first, then quietly lends a hand to others who are a bit slower. Brian also taps him to help with some of the more exacting prep work for subsequent steps in the building process.
Pam and Stu claim initial expertise only at cordless drills. Both say that on the drive up, they vowed to avoid band saws – which don't have blade guards – especially since Stu relies on deft fingers to perform surgical procedures. But before the class ended, Pam would become queen of the band saw, and Stu find a satisfactory substitute in a portable jig saw.
Brian approves and observes, "With a jig saw and an electric hand planer, you can build anything."
I fall somewhere in between Alan and the Selkins.
In the end, the tasks we have to perform are broadly familiar to anyone who's ever gone to summer camp. If you've ever stitched uppers to soles on a pair of moccasins, then sewing the skin on the kayak's wooden frame or rigging the deck is for you. Woodworking? It's a lumberjack's yard in here. Brian notes that with all of the high-horsepower cutting and shaping tools in the shop, the lowly chisel will be the most dangerous tool we'll use. It's small and silent, so people take it for granted. But it's sharp; "don't dis it," he cautions. There's knot-tying (several half hitches) and lashing. And if you love to paint, you'll have a great time slathering oil on the wood frame, then stain and "goop" on the fabric covering the frame.
During the class, Brian is nothing if not inventive as problems arise. Take the case of the wrinkled skin. No Oil of Olay will work here. This year, Brian's using a heavier-weight ballistic nylon than he has in the past. It's more durable. But as we stitch it tight to the hull, it's bunchin' something awful at the bow and stern.
The problem not only offends Brian's sense of the kayaks' aesthetics; it could also undermine the crafts' performance a bit. After experimenting on the kayak he's building along with us, he heads back to a nearby Mart and buys five steam irons. So we iron kayaks – no starch, pick-up Saturday night. A little water, a little heat, and voilà! Wrinkles vanish.
On most days we work from 8 a.m. to between 6 and 7 p.m. But skinning day runs from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. the next morning, with breaks for lunch and dinner. We skin the craft, stain the skin, then stitch on the wooden ring – or coaming – that forms the entrance to the cockpit. Finally, after a very late dinner, we apply three coats of "goop" to the bottom of the hull – one right after the other. Overnight, the "goop" will dry, allowing us to turn over the hulls and "goop" the decks after sun-up. As we stumble out of the shop at a time when even nightclubbers are in bed, Brian takes pity on us and calls for a 9 a.m. start the next morning.
As the last coats of "goop" dry on the seventh day, and we rough out our paddles, Brian gives us an early quit. Tomorrow we will add the thick rawhide-thong rigging to the decks and put the kayaks in the water for the first time.
Oh yes, the water. I single-handedly demonstrated to the rest of the class two important points.
One: In a Greenland kayak, a spray skirt (think neoprene tutu with an elastic edge) or better yet, a tuilik (think neoprene night shirt with long, tight-cuffed sleeves, a hood, and a drawstring at the bottom) are not optional pieces of gear.
How do I know? I left mine in the car after we packed up our tools at the end of class. After about 10 to 15 minutes on the water, doing reasonably well for a newbie, I tipped, and the half-capsized hull filled with water. The skirt would have sealed the opening and prevented the kayak from flooding and pulling me under. (Note to Brian and Pam, who were only a few feet away keeping an eye on my kayaking baby steps: For fishing me out of the drink, I thank you, my wife and kids thank you. I'm not sure about my editors...)
Two (and here comes my walrus moment): In the hands of an experienced paddler, the hunting kayak can tow a day's heavy catch with ease. Pam emptied and righted my kayak and towed it back to the boat ramp we used. Brian towed me as I hung onto his aft deck rigging. Floating on my back like the tusked marine mammal, the trip to shore gave new meaning to the phrase: Drink my wake! The experience put formal lessons high on my summer agenda. Goo goo g'joob.