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Impearls: HIC 4.04: Boats

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Boats   by A. L. Kroeber

The Yurok type of canoe, which was made also by the Tolowa and Wiyot and sold to the Hupa and Karok, is dug out of half a redwood log, and is a clumsy but symmetrical and carefully finished vessel.  It is used on the ocean, but is obviously a type devised for a rushing river full of rocks.  Its square prow must be awkward in the surf, and is badly designed for cutting through waves or shedding spray.  But the round belly of the boat and its gradually curving underside, without stem, allow a single stroke of the steersman's paddle to swing it as on a pivot, and in the rapids many a rock is approached head on and then shot by so close that the hand could reach it.  Upstream navigation is tedious.  Still reaches can sometimes be paddled through, but over many parts progress is by pushing along the shore or from rock to rock, which requires at least two occupants, while in the hardest places there is no recourse but towing.  In every case the stream runs under the bottom of the boat and lifts it, and the square end meets no resistance.  (Pl. 13.)

The paddle also is for river use.  It is a combination of pushing and sweeping implement, a stout pole 6 to 8 feet long, spreading below to a narrow, heavy blade, and used by standing men.  (Pl. 67, i.)  Only the seated helmsman holds a true canoeing paddle.  (Pl. 67, f.)  In quartering the river the front man always works on the current side, the steersman against him.  This affords the latter the chance, by merely reversing his stroke, to turn the prow instantly with the stream, when his vessel is under fullest control  The worst rapids, at Kenek, can be shot at most stages of the river, but goods and passengers are often disembarked, since the passage can rarely be made without shipping considerable water.  (Pl. 5.)  Other stretches contain dangerous spots for the boatman who is unacquainted or unskillful.

The redwood is the only canoe material, on account of its size, evenness of grain, and softness under tools.  It was rarely felled, fallen or drift logs being cut into sections and split.  (Pl. 3.)  The excavating was largely done by fire, the shaping with a stone-handled adze of mussel shell.  The prow and stern rise a foot above the sides in a concave triangle.  On them a wealthy man going on a visit sets a projecting cap, something like a huge yoke, which he calls the ears.  (Pl. 15.)  The upper part of prow and stern, being cross-grained, are the weakest parts, and, unless a boat is split lengthwise on a rock, are usually the first to break out.  Such damaged boats are kept for ferrying in comparatively still water.  At the top of the prow a sort of handle extends backward, but the Yurok are careful not to grip this in drawing the boat ashore, since half the front is likely to come out with it.  This hook is called the boat's nose.  The towing rope is fastened to a loop of stout grapevine or hazel, which, passing through holes in the sides, encircles the prow inside and out.  This is the necklace.  Gunwales extend the whole length, overhanging inward.  They turn no wash, and must serve for strength only.  At the stern a seat is left, and forward of this two foot braces, called by the same Yurok word as their house ladders.  Toward the prow is a rounded knob, known as the heart, and of no apparent use, except that in recent days it is sometimes made to contain a socket in which a little mast is stepped to sail upstream before the afternoon wind for a favorable stretch here and there.  Knot holes are plugged with pitch, cracks calked and pitched, or if threatening sometimes held together by lashings.  Boats not in frequent use are carefully drawn high and dry under a bush or filled with leafy boughs, that the hot summer sun may not split them.

The Yurok canoes vary considerably in breadth and beam, and the largest must have three times the capacity of the smallest, but the length is standard at 3 fathoms and a hand, about 18 feet.  A longer boat would be disadvantageous among the rocks.  Measurements of actual beams and inside depths are 51 by 19½, 47 by 19, 45 by 17½, 40 by 13, and 34½ by 10½ inches.  The draft is rather shallow, but attains about 6 inches and more in the middle if the boat is loaded. 



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