Recently I landed some sweet warehouse space in Frogtown, with the intent of putting together a kayak-building class for a few people who want to explore the roots of modern paddling. The roots of paddling, really, are about crouching on a beach amidst the black flies, building a kayak out of a few sticks and sinew. The idea here is to eliminate the black flies and build a kayak out of a few sticks.
Raising the question, why? When you can buy a fiberglass or plastic kayak that will take you hither and yon, why would you want to build your own from a few sticks, some string and cloth?
For me, the answer to that question is this: too much of our lives are fed to us. Our relationship with the objects we possess typically starts with vague desire and proceeds to commerce. We put some money on the counter. We haul the thing away. Mostly we don’t understand much about its innards. We’re happy when our things work and flummoxed when they don’t, since who would know how to fix them when they’re broken? In those unhappy moments we grumble for a bit and then add another item to the trash heap. We buy a replacement if we must, or move on to the next glimmering object.
The traditional kayak offers an opportunity to change that relationship. It’s a step into a world where people defined their needs and answered them with the materials they had at hand. Sticks. Sinew. Simple tools. Having built the thing they needed, they knew how to fix it when it broke.
The kayak that we make ourselves opens a small window into the world as it was. We confront the limits to our craftsmanship and are occasionally embarrassed. We surprise ourselves with the beauty of the things we can make. We offer to ourselves the evidence of our weaknesses and our strengths.
The process leaves an artifact. Because of and despite yourself, you end up with a kayak that is light on the water, graceful, nimble and elegant. It is not perfect, except for what it might perfectly reveal. Surprise at the abilities that are hidden within us. Awe at the resourcefulness of people who came before. Humility as we confront the limits of our abilities. And joy in using the things we have made.
To learn more about building a kayak of your own, go to this description of the Frogtown Kayak building class that begins January 25.