North

Copper Inuit kayak that spent 50 years in Edmonton basement heads home

A historian, a carpenter and a conservation expert will descend on an Edmonton home today in an effort to free a traditional Copper Inuit kayak that's been stored in the basement for almost 50 years.

5-metre kayak made of caribou skin and, likely, driftwood is in near-perfect condition

This Copper Inuit kayak was stored in the basement of the Baydala home in Edmonton since the 1960s. (Lola Baydala)
A historian, a carpenter and a conservation expert will descend on an Edmonton home today in an effort to free a traditional Copper Inuit kayak that's been stored in the basement for almost 50 years.

It's the resolution of a mystery that began when Walter and Stella Baydala first bought the home in 1967.

"Apparently this family had been living with the kayak in their basement," says Brendan Griebel of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society in Cambridge Bay. "It's kind of the family room down there, and when they moved into the house… there was this kayak in the middle of the room. And no obvious way that it got in there or out of there."

The five-metre kayak is made of caribou skin and, likely, driftwood. After five decades in a humidified basement, Griebel says it's in near-perfect condition.

Griebel expects to have to remove part of a basement wall, and possibly some window frames, to get it out today. Then he'll build a shipping crate to carry it back to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, where he believes it was first built in the 1950s.

Where did it come from?

Griebel applied some skepticism when he first got the call from the family last year — "We get a fair number of emails from people who want to give stuff back to the North," he said — but the photos were compelling. 

Elders in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, measure a sealskin cover onto a kayak frame during a 2009 Kitikmeot Heritage Society project to revive and document the art of Copper Inuit style kayak making. (Submitted by Brendan Griebel)
"I was fairly certain that it was a local style of kayak," says Griebel, whose group had done some work with kayaks in recent years.

To get closer to its origin, Griebel wanted to track down the man who put the kayak in the house. All he had was the name of the former owner, Bryce Weir.

Searching for Arctic connections with that name, Griebel says he was drawing blanks, until his father walked into the room one day and asked what he was doing. "'Oh Bryce,' he says. 'I know him really well. He was one of my mentors at the hospital when I was doing my residency.'"

Weir, an Edmonton neurosurgeon, first saw the kayak hanging over a display of Inuit carvings at the old Hudson Bay Company store on Jasper Avenue. On a whim, he convinced the store manager to sell it to him, then later took out part of his basement wall to get the kayak inside.

When Griebel contacted him, Weir still had two copper-pointed lances, which were originally with the boat, and which allowed Griebel to verify the boat's origin.

Griebel has since spoken with elders in Kugluktuk who believe they could name the individual builder, though he has since died, if they were to see the boat in the flesh.

A kayak exhibit constructed by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society at Cambridge Bay's May Hakongak Cultural Centre. A similar exhibit will be built to house the historic kayak in Kugluktuk's Ulu Centre. (Brendan Griebel)

'Does seem kinda odd'

By pure coincidence, the community of Kugluktuk, formerly Coppermine, opened its first heritage and visitors' centre last year.

"They've got this just perfect span through the centre of the museum where it will slot right in," Griebel says, describing this as "hugely rare" in Nunavut. The territory is so short of museum space that it still stores about 140,000 artifacts in Yellowknife, at a cost of about $1 million a year.

Stella Baydala, for one, is very pleased the kayak is returning home.

"You know, you think about it now and it does seem odd that we would have a kayak sitting in the basement," says Baydala.

But Baydala admits they were uncurious about the kayak. The northern theme was simply something that came from the previous homeowner. "It kinda looked good because it's the same colour as the rumpus room walls."

She credits her daughter Lola with working to find a home for it, after growing up with the artifact.

And, she says, this isn't quite goodbye.

"As soon as it's placed nicely in a nice museum, we'll come and see it."

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