Nov 22, 2011

Alaskan eskimo bows

As I have been busy with work and research I have been unable to update my blog for a while. I have been involved in the intensive study of a small collection of native artifacts from Alaska. This collection is previously unknown and the catalog as well as the result of the study will appear in print at some time, hopefully as early as in 2012.

This collection also includes a number of bows and arrows. I have been able to carefully study these artefacts in great detail and as such learned some new and interesting facts about native Alaskan bowyery. This study also includes making a few working replicas of the bows and arrows as it is also very important to learn how exactly these bows were made and used.

There have been a number of studies made on Eskimo bowyery, some scholars have even made actual replicas of eskimo-bows. Very few, if any of these have used the same inferior softwoods as the original eskimo bowyers, often substituting Black Spruce, Douglas Fir and Tamarack with less tempered woods such as Ash and Yew. Although Yew has been used for bow-manufacture in southwestern Alaska, many bows have also been made using more inferior species of wood.

Original and replica of a Southwest-Alaskan bow.
The challenge is to make working replicas of these Alaskan bows using the same inferior bow woods as the original bowyers used and in the process perhaps rediscover the craft and skills of the Alaskan bowyers.

Mar 28, 2011

AMNH Object: TRAP, MOUSE [ 1 / 4889]

I just made an interesting discovery while browing throught the online collections of the American Museum of Natural History. I was looking for an interesting Tlingit-mousetrap I found a sketch of in Emmons & De Laguna; The Tlingit Indians. The trap illustrated in the book was identical to the Finnish mousetrap in my blog. I happened to stumble across the exact same trap among the Ojibwa? As the trap is from the Midwest, chanses are some Finnish immigrants introduced the model to local Native Americans.
This is a very interesting discovery since it suggests that Finns and Native Americans exchange traditional knowledge among each other in two different locations on the North American continent.  I will research this issue further as soon as possible. Compare this to the one I posted earlier; Northern Wilderness Skills and Traditions: Old Finnish Mouse Traps:

AMNH Object: TRAP, MOUSE [ 1 / 4889]

Mar 6, 2011

Siberian Hanti skis part 2

As the skis were done the next step was to proceed with the bindings. The bindings on the model skis were interesting, In most Siberian skis the binding is made out of leather thong, but in this case a loop made out of a twig or a brach is jammed in to the two holes on the opposite sides at the "päläs".

Image 1. Two different types of bindings for a flat "päläs".
The ski has to be balanced correctly, which in this case means that the rear has to be slightly heavier that the front of the ski. I drilled the holes at the mid-section of the ski, balance has to be adjusted by removing wood until both skis are identically balanced. 

Image 2. A fresh juniper branch is driven through the holes in the ski-board


In order for the stick/twig loop to hold two things have to be taken in to account: 1. The holes have to be drilled in an angle away from each other so that the loop will hinge correctly. 2. The stick/twig has to be inserted when it is fresh or when it has been heated and left to dry for a day or two before it is jammed in and trimmed.

Image 3. The finished skis.
As the loops had dried and been fitted I added the bindings, two strips of brain-tanned moose hide. I also rubbed the skis with seal oil. The finished skis weighted 1,5kg a piece. Their measurements; max. thickness 1.8 cm., lenght 160 cm and max. width 16.3cm.

Image 4. The Hanti skis to the left.
Photo / Image Credits
Image 1 Istoriko-etnograficeski atlas Sibiri 1966.  
Image 2-4 Marcus Lepola

Mar 2, 2011

Siberian Hanti skis part 1

This winter has been extreme, cold Siberian and Arctic winds have been blowing across Finland and partly because of this I have been inspired to explore the ways of our language-relatives in Russia.

I have been planning to make a pair of snowshoes but I realized that I could instead replicate the next best thing;  - a simple pair of Siberian skis. The Siberian skis represent a very archaic form of skis. The Siberian ski-type is spread across a wide territory from the Western slopes of the Ural mountains to the Kamtchatkan Peninsula in the East. The ski-type and is very distinct as it it shorter and broader than skies used in the Nordic countries. Skis of this type have a very flat, boardlike appearance.

These type of skis are made to enable winter-travel in the thick powdery snow of the Siberian taiga. These skies are more for walking than for gliding. They are in fact more like snowshoes than skis. 

Even if the Siberian skies appear very similar at first glance there are many differences in construction among the Siberian peoples. There are variations in the shape of the ski and the width-lengt proportions. There are also differences in how the footing surface on the skis are constructed, in Finnish this part of the ski is called päläs and there are three different type of päläs. The footing or päläs can be flat, raised or it can be formed as an channel for the foot. 

Image 1. From the left; a Hanti ski with a raised päläs, a Komi ski with a channel päläs and a Hanti ski with a flat päläs.

The Siberian skis are often fitted with fur on the bottom of the ski. The skin is attached on the running surface of the ski so that the hair points backwards. The most typically used skin was the legskin of reindeer as the skin is though and the short hairs provide traction when climbing hills but glide effortlessly forward. Sealskin was also used by coastal dwellers. 

It is interesting to note that the same type of short broad skis were used in Finland and Scandinavia during the neolithic and the bronze-age. There are several finds of skis in bogs and these resemble the Siberian types. 

Image 2. The Kalvträsk skis and ski-staff.

There is also some drama in connection to the prehistoric skis found in the Nordic bogs as there is some debate conserning which country can claim to own the oldest ski in the world. Three men digging a ditch in a bog near Kalvträsk in Västerbotten, Sweden in 1924 discovered two 15cm wide and 204 cm long skis along with a skipole. Later C-14 dating of this find confirmed the age to 5200 BP (before 1950). In Northern Finland, some 10 km from Saija, Jaska Repo, a farmer diggin a ditch in a bog called Särkiaapa in 1938 unearthed a broken ski. The ski is estimated to have been 15cm wide and max. 180 cm long. The ski from Särkiaapa was also C-14 dated to 5200 BP. So both findings date back to 3200 B.C. Sadly for the Finns a second c-14 dating of the Särkiaapa ski resulted in 4470 +/- 110 BP, so it appears that the Swedes won this time!
Image 3. The Särkiaapa ski from Salla, Finland.

Although inspired by all this I was in a hurry to finish a serviceable pair of skis in matter of only a week so I decided against making a copy of some archeological find and to go for a fairly simple model with a flat päläs-design to reduce carving-time. 
Image 4. A pair of hanti skis design for use on crusted snow.

I found a photo of a Hanti ski that seemed easy enough to make. I pretty much had to guess the lenght of the ski since the book in which the ski was sketched did not provide any exact measurements. This type of ski should perform best in spring when the sun melts the surface of the snow and it freezes to a crust during cold nights. This would suit me perfectly as it is already March and winter will only last for a few more weeks in southern Finland. 
Image 5. One ski is cut out from the spruce board.

I picked up some wide spruce boards at the local lumberyard (thanks Edgar!). The wood was not perfect as there were several knots in the boards. I managed to carve the skis so that there is a knot in the middle of the tip on both skis. This should prevent the tip from cracking as spruce is prone to crack easily.
Image 6. Bending the steamed tip.
The bottom, or the running side of the ski was carved flat and the top convex. I slightly stream-bent the tips after first soaking them in water for a couple of days. The skis are now almost finished, I still have to fit them with some bindings and also apply some animal fat on the wood before I can try them out.

Image 7. The small crack in the tips have not advanced beyond the knothole.

Photo / Image Credits
Image 1. Suksen tarina, Eino Nikkilä 1966.
Image 2. The Museum of Västerbotten
Image 3. National Board of Antiquities, Finland.
Image 5-7 Marcus Lepola.

Further readings

Feb 5, 2011

Lessons learned during the “Tour de Ski” at Kurjenrahka

Image 1. "New" skis versus old skis. Would the old skis manage to hold their own against more modern equipment?

Decided to take my "new" ski poles and my old 3 meter skis on a small tour. I headed out with Patrik Berghäll, a wilderness-instructor for the Folkhälsan Association in Finland. 
Image 2. "Traditional" ski pole roof rack.

We drove to Kurjerahka, a beautiful wilderness area just North of Turku. Kurjenrahaka. This area looks like most of Finland used to look like before the moors where drained for fields and forestry. We still have a lot of moors left, but approx. ½ of all the moors in Finland have been destroyed over the last 100 years. 

Image 3. The first time these skis have been worn for god knows how many decades.

What also makes this area interesting is that wolves have returned to the scene. Finding wolf tracks in here is fairly common these days. We saw no wolves this time but got to enjoy some beautiful scenery and sunny skies. Clouds rolled in after midday and we found ourselves in the midst of a thick snowfall as we returned to our car. 

Image 4. The ski trail across the beautiful Kurjenrahka high-moor. 

We started of skiing on a frozen crust of snow and it was easy travelling as the skis kept us from piercing through the crust. I however managed to break both staves as I tried to negotiate a sharp turn on a wooden bridge that led to the ski trail. The breaks where not catastrophic as bot of the poles broke at the ends and it was the antler tips that broke of. Only one of the poles needed some additional mending during our stop at the fireplace.

Image 5. Easy going.
The old skis were surprisingly smooth and easy to use, even if I couldn't use my other ski stave to it´s full potential until I had a chance to mend it. I also tied a hemp cord around my heals and the skin thong bindings to prevent my foot from slipping loose. However the it was warm enough for the snow to melt on the cord and I had to re-tie the cord a couple of times during the trek.

Image 6. A old "kammi" with a partially collapsed roof.

We came across some surprises during our trek to the camp-site such as an old "kammi", a small semi-subterranean cottage used by hunters and wood cutters. We also came across an old "kota" frame in the woods.
Image 7. Old kota frame.

We made a stop for coffee, sausages and  tasty pea-soup at the camp-site which happened to be fairly close to the "kammi". It started to snow as we were making our way back to the car. I had only applied tar to my skis and the sudden rise in temperature made the wet snow stick to the running surface. Luckily we only had about 1 km left to the parking when the ski tour began to feel as a real struggle.

Image 8. Wet snow.

Wet snow conditions are traditionally considered as the worst possible conditions for traditional wood skis. In Finnish this particular circumstance is called "takkala".

Image 9. Heavy going, 3 cm thick snow stuck to the running surface of the skis. Feels like wearing very heavy shoes with high heals. 

I suddenly found myself thinking about my mother. She was born in 1948 in Ostrobothnia and during winter she, along with her sisters and the boys of the village, had to ski for some 3 km across a moor, fields and two forested hills to reach the elementary school in another village. She had told me about how tired and cold she used to be as she struggled to get to school during  the dark hours of the morning. She had to use old worn down wooden skis. She also told me of how hard it was when it was warm and the snow clung to the bottom of the skis and travelling was almost impossible. I really felt for her as I found myself in the same situation, I however am an adult male, she was only a seven-year old girl. Life was hard. I am grateful that my seven year old daughter does not have to experience what my mother had to endure on a daily basis, I however feel that it's good for my children to learn of how life was used to be so they get a bit of perspective on their own lives.

Image 10. One of my ski poles after the trip.
In summary the traditional ski-equipment did perform surprisingly well. The wooden surface of the skis are however an issue when wet snow is concerned. Modern silicon-waxes might help battle these problems but using synthetic rubbings on traditional skis might also ruin them. So my advice is that owners of old skis should only use traditional rubbings such as tar, candle wax and animal fat on their skis. They should also refrain from using their skis in exceedingly warm conditions to avoid the problem of snow sticking to the bottom of the ski,

Photo Credits

Image 1-10: Marcus Lepola


Old skis and new poles

As the winter season is at it´s best in Finland right now I felt it would be good idea to try out a pair of old skies I have stored away in the basement. This particular pair is a beautiful set. They are long and slender with a nice tapering ridge carved along the top of the ski. 

Image 1. Newly tared and ready to go.

These skis are 290cm long and around a 100 years old. There are some little sign of wear on the bottom of the skies, but very little considering the age of this pair. This pair is made out of knotfree birch. These skis still have the old leather thong bindings. On some old wooden skis the leather thong binding has been substituted with the more modern "rat-trap" metal bindings but in this case the skis had been left unaltered.
Image 2. Very little wear of tear on the running surface. It's hard to believe this ski is almost 100 years old.

Finns have been skiing for a long time. The oldest ski in the world was unearthed in Salla, Northern Finland in 1938. Later carbon dating of the ski established that it was made 3298 B.C. Skis back then where wide and short and made of coniferous trees such as pine.

In historic times people used of different lengths. For 1800 years in Scandinavia, it was common to use a short ski on the left foot and a longer one on the right. Often at least in part covered in skin leg skins of wild reindeer or elk (moose), the shorter ski (or "kick ski") was used for pushing. Equally sized skis did not become common until the mid-1800s.
Image 3. Archaic ski design. The Lyly (long gliding ski) and the Kahlu (short kicking ski).

This old skiing tradition in Finland involved only one ski pole. These poles where often fitted with spearheads so that they could also be used in hunting. Elk were often chased with skis when there was a lot of snow with a strong crust. The exhausted animals where dispatched with the ski pole-spear.
Ski manufacture gradually became a small scale home industry with a specialized craftsman in every village. 
Image 4. Skier from Pargas, Southwestern Finland 1919.

As competitional skiing became more popular in the late 19th century it also had an impact on ski design which experienced a rapid change. Some 200 small scale factories or carpentries supplied skis to Finns in the early 20th century. Although the length of the long ski varied by region from 2.5 to over 3 meters, the long ski was always approximately 5 cm thick and 12-13 cm wide. In competitional skiing the ski tended to become shorter as the skier was using them in ski-tracks and the ski was not used for travel in deep snow. Birch was in later times the most used wood for skis in Finland. An old picture taken of a Pargas skier in 1919 gives a good look at the ski gear that was used almost 100 years ago. Notice the ski-boots with curled ends.

As I did not have a matching pair of ski-poles to go along with my skis I had to make them myself. The old poles did not have a wrist-loop at the top and they are fairly tall, almost as long as the skier. I decided to make things easy for myself so I picked up a straight grained pair of milled staves, or broom sticks at the hardware store. These should be fairly thick as they are subjected to a lot of rough handling when skiing in the forest.

I decided to go “primitive” on the ends of the poles. I had seen some ski-poles that had tips of antler and I wanted to replicate that design. I cut out two pieces of antler with simple straight joinery. These where attached to the poles using copper nails with I hammered flat in both ends (old school riveting).

The basket frame was traditionally made out of juniper and cut a few fresh branches of even thickness. Juniper is really flexible and one can bend a branch in to a nice circular shape if one is careful not to over strain the wood at knotholes.

Image 5. The basket frame loops made out of juniper.
When scraping of the bark one also has to be careful not to damage the outer surface of the frame as the wood will crack at the cut. Wood can be removed on the inner surface of the frame if the branch is of uneven thickness. The joinery of both end was simple. Just two diagonal cuts that are matched together. The joinery is attached by wrapping strong and thin cord around the splice. Small groves have to be cut on both sides of the splice so that the wrapping won´t slip of. I used sinew which I also wrapped with birch bark to cover the joint an make it water-proof. 

Image 6. Almost ready, the basket has to tied on the shaft and the pole tared. 

Image 7. Ready for action.
The finished ski-poles are 27mm thick and 170 cm tall. The poles used to be fairly tall, almost as tall as the skier.

Photo Credits

Image 1, 2, 5-7: Marcus Lepola
Image 3. National Board of Antiquities,
Image 4. The Aboland photoarchive. NAU0016.

"Själen" – Seal Hunting in the Northern Baltic Sea

Foreword The following post is intended as a more academic source of information on traditional sealing in Finland and the Northern Baltic...