Above, a scene from the 1921 film Nanook of the North. Watch an annotated clip from the film at the bottom of this post.
In the opening scene of Robert Flaherty’s pioneering, problematic 1921 film Nanook of the North, we meet the title character paddling his kayak toward the camera across a calm expanse of water, the tundra of Hudson Bay rising as hills in the distance. Nanook brings the fragile skin boat about in a graceful arc, steering parallel to the shore, and we notice a child lying on the deck of the kayak in front of him. Landing, Nanook climbs out, puts the child ashore, and turns back to the boat. A head pops up from the cockpit, and a woman climbs out—Nyla, the intertitle tells us, one of Nanook’s wives (in fact, Nanook was not the man’s name, and the women in the film were not his wives but Flaherty’s own common-law partners). Nanook pulls a baby out of the boat and hands it to Nyla, who tucks it into the hood of her parka. Another hooded figure—the second wife, Cunayou—pops forth, grins at the camera, and leaps ashore. Nanook stoops once more, and pulls a puppy from the cockpit, who gingerly pads up the damp rocks. It’s a delightful little set-piece, little diminished by the fact that it’s a fiction: Flaherty put his cast into the kayak one by one, cutting the footage together using the intertitles. In setting the scene for Nanook’s story, however, the import of the sequence is clear: even amidst the harsh Arctic environment, this tiny family is utterly at home. To twenty-first-century eyes, they tumble out of their kayak like a suburban family arriving for a weekend soccer game.
In form the kayak is singular, expressive, ideal—a shape that seems to bloom from the matrix of dark water and ice from which it springs. Nanook’s domestic habits notwithstanding, the kayak was in the first instance no mere boat but a weapon, an implement as important to the hunt as harpoon or bow. The shape it takes is closest to the shadow of the seal, perhaps, the very creature it was designed to pursue: hauled out on land or ice, the seal is an extrusion of marine-mammalian ungainliness, a wish out of water; immersed, however, its bauplan sharpens into trim. In profile, the swimming seal prefigures the kayak’s gracile, elongate architecture in its sharpness in bow and stern. And yet there is no mistaking it: the Inuit kayak is a made thing, an object entangled with our imaginative hands, an artifact and an intersection of calculation, material constraints, and human aspiration.
The earliest kayaks preserved in museums date from the early eighteenth century. It was an era of climate change, the thick of the so-called “Little Ice Age” that turned Brueghel’s paintings wintry and drove the Vinlanders out of Greenland. Throughout this time, wood was an exotic material in the Arctic, a bit like Royalex or Kevlar today (of course, the supply chains were entirely different, as were the impacts). The Thule culture, which preceded the Inuit in the Arctic, had enjoyed a comparatively warm era, and they throve in larger, higher-density patterns of settlement and habitation than their successors down to Nanook’s time. Empowering the individual hunter to challenge walrus, seal, and even whale, the kayak helped make it possible for the Inuit to disperse into the smaller, sustainable groups the first modern Europeans encountered when they began to frequent the Arctic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the kayak, the Inuit knit together a world of freezing floes and open water.
Today’s recreational kayak, by contrast, helps to enforce a divide between the natural and the artificial, between wildness and the built environment. Whether paddling across a quiet pond, challenging wind and tide on the open sea, or surfing a standing wave in Class IV rapids, we latter-day paddlers arrive on the scene as escapees, shifted out of our workaday modes and relations into the betwixt-and-between of recreational wildness. Spending time in fragile estuaries or wild rivers can kindle concern for their preservation, of course—but it also relegates them to the other, to the fenced-off, the put-away and preserved. Thinking of watery nature as a remote destination, we miss the wild textures interlacing our everyday worlds—including the waterways and shorelines, often poisoned and neglected, that interlace the built environment.
I found all the mingled gifts and secrets of the kayak in play during a recent day of paddling on Plum Island Sound. On the rising tide, my wife and I left the Parker River boat launch and turned toward Newburyport and the Merrimack River. Behind the crenellations of the marsh grass, plovers and sandpipers started nervously, guarding our passage. Paddling into the Merrimack’s tidal basin, we caught sight of a row of proud Newburyport homes across the wind-raked channel and the dry, ragged nap of the marsh; astern, the windmills of Ipswich turned over the soft hills. Ahead, a low island rose—a subtle, estuarine insularity with an indistinct marsh-grass shoreline. As we paddled along its perimeter, the stridulation of crickets amidst the grass rendered an acoustic map of the island nearly firm enough to land our boats upon. My paddle brushed the sparse vegetal fringe as we hugged the leeward shore to take advantage of what shelter the rising, rustling grass could spare. Our two kayaks stitched their way across the harbor’s corduroy of wind and current, the thread-holes made by our paddle blades dissolving astern.
The kind of boat we paddled that day extrudes all the paradoxes of modern materials science: lightweight strength, unmakeable mass-producibility, long-lasting irreparability. It’s a consumer product conveniently placed at the end of a supply chain commanding dizzying energies and material displacements. To look at a modern recreational kayak honestly, one needs to see not only the retractable skeg and sealed bulkhead compartments, but also the automobile, the gas station, the refining plant, the gas flares, the surfaces of tundra and tar sands—lands like those trod upon by Nanook and his family—blistered and churned to mud.
By contrast, a recent kayak design seems like a reprise of the Inuit boat. The Oru Kayak, a folding boat developed by a Bay Area startup, is inspired by origami, made of polyethylene, the rigidity of which allows less material to be used (the Oru weighs twenty-five pounds, ten pounds lighter than a standard consumer-grade kayak). But that’s not what reminds me of Nanook. Crucially, the kayak folds down to a parcel the size of an artist’s portfolio. It’s a boat than can be taken on the subway, snapped together on the dock, and paddled into an urban waterway. In a city like Boston, you could even use the Oru kayak—or something like it—for commuting. I don’t think I can fit my entire family inside, but it does suggest the possibility of a gentler kind of paddling—a pastime knit into twenty-first century nature, one that could sustain our attention to the fragile worlds in which we paddle.
Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History and The Sovereignties of Invention, a collection of short stories. He’s a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBattles.