With workers gathered around a baidarka with their hands on the keel

With workers gathered around a baidarka with their hands on the keel


IN MARCH 2010, Jared Fennell’s high school senior project was launched at Point Hudson: a cedar-frame angyak (Inuit-style canoe) like his great-great-grandfather used to build.

The angyak was built under the guidance of Mitch Poling, a Port Townsend resident, with the help of Jared’s grandmother and aunt, who’d started a group called BRIDGE to encourage interaction between native elders and youths.

With his canoe family, including Poling as honorary uncle, Jared pulled the craft in the 2010 Paddle Journey.

This spring, BRIDGE builders are again at Poling’s house to build a second craft to carry them over the water: a baidarka, or cedar-frame kayak.

The difference: BRIDGE has expanded outside the family circle.

“We’ve had 25 elders and youth here,” said Darcie Pacholl, Jared’s aunt.

She watched as a group of builders got ready to work on the craft the weekend before last.

Each crew of builders has left its mark in terms of progress on the craft, which was started in March in Poling’s garage.

BRIDGE builders come from Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Gig Harbor to work on weekends.

The first weekend in May, the project moved outside to the Polings’ driveway to take advantage of the warm weather.

“We’re on the final stretch, putting the ribs on today,” Poling said.

In addition to Jared and his family, the crew included Brandin Hill and Mariah Swodeck, both 15, and young adults Nathanyel Jorgensen and Brooke Zundel.

All plan to take part in the canoe journey. The angyak (also known as an umiak) can carry eight people or more. The baidarka (or paitiluq) has three cockpits but is faster. Both vessels were used to transport people who lived on islands in southeast Alaska.

“We liken it to a Corvette,” Poling said of the baidarka. “The umiak is the van.”

Poling spent his early childhood in the village of Chenega, Alaska, where his father was the local schoolteacher.

Researched craft

After he retired from his teaching career, Poling decided to research traditional craft of his former home, which had been swept away in the 1964 earthquake, and started building them.

Poling returns regularly to Alaska to pass along knowledge and skills. The first three months of 2012, he was in Chenega, which was relocated, where schoolchildren built three baidarkas under his supervision with donated kits. The village hopes to start a baidarka camp, he said.

“It’s a stunning area for kayaking,” Poling said. “The scenery is beautiful. It’s a maritime Switzerland.”

Maggie Fennell, Jared’s grandmother, carved the bow for the new baidarka in the Chenega tradition: Each village had its signature design.

One of her earliest memories is looking up at the sky through the oval cockpit of a cedar baidarka, she said, that her grandfather built. Each baidarka took eight to 10 sealskins to cover — she remembers watching her grandmother gumming the skins to make them pliable enough to stretch over the cedar frame, which was lashed together with spruce root or porpoise intestine.

She also remembers her grandmother cutting sealskin patches for repairs, mixing sawdust and tree sap to make glue.

“It held forever,” Maggie said. “It was like cement.”

Shavings saved

The shavings from carving the BRIDGE baidarka bow were saved and used by the young members to create pendants, a glass vial filled with cedar shavings on a beaded string.

The youths, led by Jorgensen, will present the pendants to elders at the 2012 Paddle Journey, which this year will be to Squaxin Island in south Puget Sound.

BRIDGE youths also are preparing questions and will interview elders about their lives, Pacholl said.

At a work session two weeks ago, Poling showed the baidarka builders how to lash the bent ribs to the frame using artificial sinew made of waxed polyester. He demonstrated how he uses the width of his fingers as a guide to spacing and a chant to remember how the sinew crosses under and over the rib.

“You know you’re doing it correctly when you see this pattern,” he said, showing them the result.

As well as teaching in Alaska, Poling taught a community class on baidarka-building at the Northwest Maritime Center last spring.

When that craft sells, the money will be used to buy materials for a second class, he said. Poling also exhibits his baidarkas at Gallery Nine in Port Townsend — they are artistic as well as practical.

“They’re very stable,” he said. “I use them to do photography.”

Makah blessing

When Jared’s angyak was launched in 2010, the McQuillen family, members of the Makah tribe who live in Port Townsend, added their blessing to that of Father Nicholas of St. Herman’s Orthodox Christian Church. Poling said the BRIDGE baidarka should be ready to launch the first week in June.

They won’t be visible, but on the frame near the bow, under the nylon skin, will be the names of every person who worked on the baidarka during the past three months, now part of the BRIDGE family on and off the water.

“We are going on a new journey,” Maggie Fennell said.

For more information about BRIDGE, visit www.nativebridge.org.


Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or email jjackson@olypen.com.

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