The weeks went by and the weather grew warmer, moving up to zero degrees, while the nights grew shorter and Okfagit finished the frame of his new boat.
The walrus skin covering his wife had split and hung out to dry was also ready and one morning he told his sons and daughters that they would cover the boat the next day.
The assembling of this boat took only one day, but the preparations for this act had gone on for months. First shooting and skinning the female walrus (the skin of a male is too thick and heavy to use) and scraping the hide clean of fat. Then the hide was soaked in water for a long time until it was soft. At the right time they took it out, folded it up and put it in the relatively warm tent in their house. There it remained for many days while the hair on the hide rotted away. Only then was it ready for splitting and finally for sewing onto the boat frame.
Then there was the long, arduous task of constructing the frame. First, they had to search the shoreline for suitable driftwood, pieces large enough and long enough to cut into long, supple ribs. And, of course one especially long piece to make the keel. After months of sawing by hand, the boat builder would assemble the frame, lashing all together with hide thongs.
Such an undertaking was not only a significant engineering feat, but also a work of art. These patient people were willing to go to all this trouble because such a boat was the only means by which they could hunt walrus and whales. Without a boat, stranded on the land, they could only hunt seals that came near, which was not that common in the summer when the seals could surface to breathe anywhere they wanted, uninhibited by ice flows; and they seldom surfaced near the shore.
After breakfast, Okfagit and the boys took the heavy skin off the drying rack and dragged it to the boat frame. Nisana and the girls prepared the whale sinew for stitching the hide in place on the boat. This sewing was a difficult task as the skin was thick and hard. They would use a curved needle carved from ivory.
Okfagit and his sons took the split hide and draped it over the frame of the boat. Then Okfagit cut it to fit the boat’s shape, and Nisana stitched the front and rear seams to give it the proper fit. Then the boat was turned over and after cutting slits all around the edge, the skin was lashed to the boat’s ribs. It was an all-day job of heavy labor, but they were a strong people and did it well.
When all was completed, they lifted the boat up and put it on a rack. They didn’t want the dogs chewing on that tasty walrus skin while it dried in place!
Okfagit’s boat was 18 feet long, and 8 feet wide in the center. From gunwale to keel it was 3 feet high.
It could hold an amazing amount of weight for its size, and maneuver in very rough water. Even though it had no keel, it was still used as a sailboat when the wind was right.
Each boat had a captain and a crew—often from more than one family—who worked together in the contest of life and death, survival and loss. The boat captain was a man of very high standing in the village, as he was responsible for providing food and protection, not only for his immediate family, but for his extended family and the families of those in his boat crew.
In order to ensure a successful walrus hunt, Okfagit spent ten days performing certain ceremonies designed to call the female walrus towards the shore. It was important for him to use all the powers available to provide the food they needed.
Picture: finished boat being launched for a hunt