Making Walrus-Skin Boats

Preparing the Hide

The captain and his extended family draped the walrus hides across makeshift sawhorses.  They’d fermented the hide until the hair fell.  Now, with sharpened ulus (a traditional moon-shaped knife with a broad steel blade), they scraped off any remaining bits of fat and muscle.  Their hard work paid off:  a couple hours later the skin appeared pink and smooth.

They put the heavy skin in a wheelbarrow and rolled it to a waiting frame.  They spread it out and pulled it until it filled the 10’ x 10’ square.  With sinew rope, they lashed it to the weathered beams and stretched it tight.  Satisfied it could go no further, they hoisted the frame and secured it so it stood upright.

About two weeks later, after the skin had dried, it was the captain’s wife’s turn. With her right hand, she picked up her ulu.  The wooden handle fit perfectly in her palm.  Years of use had made the blade almost an extension of her arm.  Her daughter sat next to her, watching so she could later mimic her mother’s actions.  Like other traditional ways, each generation passed on the skill of hide splitting to the next one.  Because of its difficulty and importance, the village entrusted only experienced women with the task.  Mistakes could create weak spots in the hide’s ultimate destination – a skinboat – a flaw hunters could ill-afford when out on the open seas.

With careful control, the woman sliced sideways into the one-inch thick hide.  She kept her motions small, knowing her accuracy would diminish if her strokes got too big.  She cut again.  With each slice, she lengthened the gash she’d just made.  Every fifteen minutes or so, she checked her blade so she could sharpen it if necessary.  A dull blade could not only hinder her precision but cause her to “force” a cut and inadvertently nick the skin.  As soon as she completed a portion, she separated it, “butterflying” it open by holding the two (now ½ inch thick) sides apart.

The painstaking custom of hide splitting not only made the skin more flexible and easier to sew bu t also doubled the coverage from a single hide.  As she worked her way bit by bit across the hide, the “second skin” got larger and larger, eventually folding over enough to reach the ground. Two and a half hours later, she finished.  She closed her eyes and stretched the muscles in her hand.  The newly split hide, now about 3 x 6 meters, lay on the ground beside her.