Throughout human history, paddle-powered vessels have been very important to cultures that have dwelled close to oceans, rivers, and lakes. One of those vessels is the umiak, which differs even from the best wooden kayaks of the modern era.
When examining the differences between an umiak and a kayak, we must start with their popularity. Kayaks today are mass-produced and have gained much more widespread popularity than umiaks.
The umiak, on the other hand, is a more traditional vessel that was used for much more than recreational purposes. Today, umiaks are still used for these original purposes, but they are also a more common undertaking for DIY kayak builders.
There are, of course, other important differences that we will examine in this guide. We will also share some of the fascinating histories of umiaks versus kayaks and dive into where, why, and how these vessels are still used by indigenous cultures today.
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- What is a Kayak?
- What is the Umiak?
- Umiak vs Kayak – What’s the Difference?
- Final Thoughts
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A kayak is defined as a relatively small and narrow paddle craft that is also usually very lightweight. It is designed to be paddled by one or two paddlers that are equipped with double-sided paddles.
The original kayaks made by the Inuit peoples and other coastal tribes featured a closed deck design with one or more cockpits for the paddlers. Today, we have many different styles of kayaks with closed deck and open, sit-on-top designs.
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Let’s go through the umiak definition first. The umiak is a human-powered paddle craft that mainly features a wooden frame covered with a fabric-like material stretched over it to give it buoyancy and water-repellent qualities.
If the kayak can be likened to the modern equivalent of the two-seater sports car, then the umiak’s best comparison would be the 10-12 passenger cargo van. The kayak was built for speed and agility while the umiak was built for hauling people and cargo.
Traditionally, some sort of animal skin was used to stretch around the umiak’s wooden frame to finish the umiak. A umiak that measured roughly 30 feet in length would require about seven or eight to be sewn together before being stretched around the frame.
The Inuit aboriginal peoples that live in the Arctic reaches of Canada were known to have built some of the original umiak vessels using driftwood or whale bones for the frame. Seal skins stretched over the frame was usually done because of their natural waterproof characteristics.
In addition to being used extensively by the Inuit people, the use of umiak craft has also been traced back to indigenous cultures throughout Greenland, in parts of coastal Alaska, and all the way over to parts of Siberia.
Other cultures that have utilized the umiak extensively throughout history include the Yupik, Inupiat, and Chukchi peoples.
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Having explored the umiak meaning now, let’s go back and look into its history.
Many anthropologists trace the arrival of man on the Northern American continent to the existence of a land bridge in the area that is now covered by the Bering Strait. Once the ice melted and the seas rose, however, this passage became treacherous.
With the invention of the umiak, many historians believe that the Bering Strait became a sort of “intercontinental highway.” These vessels were particularly adept at navigating the rough waters of the strait and, as a result, they enabled trade and migration between villages along the Alaskan and Siberian coastlines.
Their large carrying capacity also made it possible to relocate entire families or even tribes if the hunting was no longer feasible in their homelands. Some historians believe that the invention of the umiak may account for human migration from the Asian continent to the North American continent (as an alternative to the traditional land bridge theory).
Historical records date the Umiak back to the Thule era, which began in roughly 1000 CE. Early European wayfarers marveled at the large loads that the umiak could handle when they first encountered them.
In fact, the use of umiaks was forbidden for a short period of time when Russian sailors were dominating the Aleutian sealskin trade. They outlawed them out of fear that their ships would be overtaken by large, armed boarding parties carried by umiak craft.
Today, many modern motorized vessels can still attribute their seaworthiness back to design elements that were established by the creators of the first umiaks.
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There are many aspects of what we once called “primitive” lifestyles that hold advantages over our modern ways of living. The umiak, for one, is much quieter in the water than your typical aluminum or fiberglass boat.
That actually makes it more effective at hunting certain marine species that are especially sensitive to vibrations in the water. This is one of the reasons why some indigenous cultures still use umiaks today.
Bowhead whales, for example, are keenly adept at picking up the metallic noises that are produced by aluminum boats. When they hear these noises, they tend to move under the ice and out of harm’s way.
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The invention of motors and the proliferation of lightweight metals have led to a major decrease in the umiak’s use throughout the Arctic regions. Estimates project that there are less than 100 umiaks still in use in ‘the wild’ today.
There are additional models preserved in their dusty rooms in museums around the world as well. However, the Alaskan whaling villages of the Yupik and Inupiat tribes still use umiaks are part of their way of life, as do some of the natives of similar villages along the Siberian coast.
Umiaks are used primarily for hunting whales, seals, and sea lions today, although they are also occasionally used as a means of transportation for larger parties as well.
While they have continued to use their traditional watercraft for the primary purpose of hunting, villagers now usually use snowmobiles to drag umiaks over snow and ice ridges so that they can put them into open leads in the ice pack to begin their hunts.
In many northern indigenous cultures, both the umiak and the kayak were important vessels that supported their way of life. They had key differences that the people of these cultures used for various purposes.
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The umiak was a much larger and more open boat than the kayak and it was also much more of a rounded shape. In many ways, the umiak bore a closer resemblance to the original birchbark canoe than it did to the smaller and skinnier kayak.
On average, the umiak was anywhere from 20 to 33 feet in length and roughly five to seven feet across. Some historical accounts attest to the existence of umiaks that were built up to 60 feet in length.
The original kayaks that were built by these peoples, on the other hand, more closely resembled today’s best sit-in kayaks. They were built for speed and maneuverability and usually only had a small cockpit that could fit one or two paddlers.
Aside from the differences in size and shape, both umiaks and kayaks featured internal frames built with driftwood or whalebone. The frames were held together with pegs made of antlers, ivory, or wood.
Around those frames, they stretched skins that were sewn together from bearded seals, sea lions, or walruses. These skins were then lashed together with caribous sinew before they applied a healthy coat of whale fat for additional waterproofing.
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In the Inuit culture, the umiak was known as the ‘women’s boat’ and was mainly used for transporting people and supplies. The kayak, on the other hand, was used for hunting and fishing by the men of the tribe.
A more accurate translation of umiak simply means ‘open skin boat’.
Because many aboriginal peoples that built umiaks were forced to migrate seasonally, the umiak became very important for this migration process. Women, children, and supplies were loaded into these larger crafts for longer, slower journeys.
Despite its larger size, most umiaks were still relatively lightweight (roughly 150 pounds for a 25-foot vessel). This, in combination with the lack of a defined keel, made it easier to carry these boats over land or shore ice back to open water.
For example, many indigenous peoples in Canada and Alaska used the umiak to travel inland at the end of August because September and October were the best times to hunt caribou. Because of their added ability to hold more supplies and heavier weights, the umiak was used extensively during this hunting migration.
During the summers, however, these peoples lived coastally and their hunting parties relied on the kayak. The kayak was much faster and easier to maneuver quickly, which made it a more practical choice for hunting and fishing.
Umiaks were also sometimes used by the men of the tribe on expeditions to hunt larger ocean mammals, such as whales and walruses. On hunting expeditions that encountered foul weather, the umiak could also be hauled ashore and flipped over to provide temporary shelter for the hunting party.
Because of their ability to support more weight and handle rougher waters, some umiaks were eventually equipped with gas-powered outboard motors in the 20th century (which was and is still not done with kayaks).
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Long before the invention of the outboard motor, there were still differences in how seasonally migratory peoples propelled the umiak versus the kayak. One of the secrets to the speed and efficiency of the kayak is the use of the double-sided kayak paddle.
Umiaks, on the other hand, were typically propelled using a single-bladed oar that more closely resembled what you would use in today’s most stable canoes. In some cases, these canoe oars were elongated so that they could be used in a standing position (sort of like the paddles we now use with the best inflatable paddleboards for beginners).
Mostly, however, the umiak was outfitted with a pair of oars (or several sets) that extended off either side of the vessel. These oars were then employed in a similar fashion as you would see in modern rowboats.
Unlike kayaks, which could be easily handled by a single paddler or a tandem of hunters, the umiak required a larger crew to propel it along its way.
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The main bit of maintenance that was required for both umiaks and traditional kayaks was the replacement of the skin stretched around the frame. Generally, this needed to be done every two or three years, depending on usage rate (but these traditional umiaks didn’t just sit around for months at a time like some modern kayaks in outdoor storage racks).
Aside from needing maintenance as a result of an accident, the umiak skin was actually quite durable. Replacing it, however, was a lengthy process that would typically start sometime in July when the ice shelf begins to melt.
Hunting parties went out in search of whales, seals, and/or sea lions so that they could gather the skins necessary to repair their umiaks. After being harvested, skins were fermented in seal oil for months to attain their waterproof characteristics.
Then, they would scrape away all of the hair on the skins and sew them together to the size they needed for their umiaks. The skins were tied back in place using sinew that was harvested from hunting caribou.
Once the skins were in place, the umiaks were left out in the cold and wind so that they would dry completely. While you can tell this is an extensive process that required year-round maintenance, it is still less difficult than repairing the hull of an aluminum boat.
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There are a small handful of companies that specialize in training people in the nuances of umiak construction. In many cases, the process of replacing the skin on a umiak is actually easier than replacing the hull of an aluminum boat or making DIY repairs to a kayak.
If you are interested in buying or learning how to build your own umiak, we recommend checking out The Skinboat School based in Anacortes, Washington, or the Yestermorrow Design and Build School based in Waitsfield, Vermont.
We hope you have found this brief history of the umiak versus the kayak helpful and insightful. Whether you’re paddling one of the best sea kayaks or embarking on a journey to build your own umiak, we wish you the best of water-based adventures to come!