In September of 1928, the schooner Boxer, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs vessel, dropped anchor off the Inupiat Eskimo village of King Island, Alaska. On board were explorer and filmmaker Amos Burg and his friend Fred Hill. They had just completed a canoe voyage of over 2,000 miles, a voyage that began at tidewater at Juneau. They paddle up Lynn Fjord to Skagway, portaged over the Chilkoot Pass and descended the Yukon River from its headwaters in Lake Bennett to its mouth at St. Michael on the Bering Sea. They had survived a perilous journey from St. Michael to Nome on the Eskimo schooner Good Hope. In Nome, the two adventurers boarded the Bureau of Indian Affairs schooner Boxer, which was in the course of completing its annual round of ports-of-call at the native villages of Alaska’s coast and islands. Amos’ canoe, Song o’the Winds, severely damaged in a storm at Russian Mission, lay stowed in the Boxer’s hold.*
Every person in King Island Village, all 150 Inupiaq Eskimos, stood on the narrow beach and on the cliffs waving, and all of those that were not waving were preparing to set out, or had already set out, in kayaks, to paddle to the ship. Out they came, happily, bobbing like a flock of sea ducks over the gray rollers that passed under the Boxer to crash and surge against the foot of King Island. In moments the Boxer wallowed among them, ringed about by the jostling flotilla of seemingly fragile skin boats whose smiling owners shouted greetings and waved walrus tusks toward the crew, eager to barter. Amos, behind the leather bellows of his cumbersome Graflex camera, worked to record the event. As he focused, and as the inverted images of the agile kayaks danced upside down across the camera’s ground glass, an idea began to develop: He would own one of these kayaks, He would own a part of Alaska, take it home with him and with it he would travel and lecture about Alaska. He would take it back with him to the states and he would travel and lecture. It would be an investment! With this link to Alaska and with his pictures, he would, perhaps, earn enough money to return, or to sail to the South Seas.
Two dollars and sixty-four cents would not tempt a Kind Islander to part with his kayak, lovingly lashed together with great effort out of scarce driftwood and oogruk skin, sewn by his woman and tailored to fit himself, his access to the world and survival, an extension of his being. However, Amos had a .30-30 Winchester carbine that he showed to the beaming, eagerly nodding hunter. But Amos loved his .30-30 more than one kayak’s worth. As it happened, this King Islander had two kayaks! Maybe there was a deal. But two kayaks were too much to give for the rifle since, if he gave them, he would have to build a new boat in order to go hunting with the gun. Amos produced two boxes of cartridges, one full and one almost full, to go with the rifle. The rifle had a sweet scent of gun oil, and the shiny brass cartridges felt cold and clinked satisfyingly in the hunter’s hand. But no deal. Amos signaled a time out n the bargaining and stepped aside to confer with a Catholic priest, Father O’Riley, a fellow passenger on the schooner. The good father agreed to lend Amos $12.00. And so, for $14.64, 37 bullets, and the .30-30 rifle, Amos and the Eskimo, whose name, sadly, has been forgotten, concluded the trade for the two skin boats, complete with gut parkas, harpoons, walrus skin seats and pouches, and various other items of hunting gear.
The kayaks joined the Song o’ the Winds in the hold of the schooner, traveled south, and eventually made their way to Amos’ home town of Portland, Oregon, where they spent the next many years of their existence. In the early days after he had acquired them, Amos took the boats several times down the length of the Columbia River and over the Columbia River bar. He told me that Pathe’ News had once filmed him going over the bar in one of them. They traveled with him on lecture circuits in the Pacific Northwest for a number of years and during these trips, most of the accessory gear was stolen or lost. Then the kayaks were stored in the basement of the Burg family home in Portland, and Amos went on to other adventrures, traveling and exploring all parts of the world, running all the major rivers of North America, becoming a member of the Explorers Club of New York, producing 31 films of Children of the World for Encyclopedia Britannica and five articles for the National Geographic magazine and five lectures in Constitution Hall. He rounded Cape Horn in a 26-foot Bristol Bay sail boat. He survived 21 bombings of Chung King by the Japanese while filming Children of China in that city. He became a secret agent for the U.S. in Patagonia during WWII, on the lookout for activity related to German submarines. For decades the kayaks did not see the light of day. When finally they did emerge from the Burgs’ basement, it was to return to Alaska. It happened in this way:
Amos, in the late 1950s, after a lifetime of adventure and exploration for its own sake, found himself at the threshold of phase two of a life-plan that he had formulated at age 14 upon embarking on a sailing ship to Australia. Phase one: Retire immediately! Live a life of adventure and exploration. Phase two: Come out of retirement in late middle age and take a steady job. The job turned out to be establishing an Information and Education section for the newly formed Alaska Department of Fish and Game, following Alaska statehood in 1959. I met Amos at the Department Headquarters in Juneau after returning from a season of biological work on walruses on Little Diomede Island, and we became friends, often sharing lunch of sardines and pilot bread in his little windowless office. I was brimming with enthusiasm from my Arctic experiences with the Inupiaq people and one day mentioned to Amos that I was thinking of trying to build a traditional style kayak. This was back in the mid 1960s and even then, the traditional skin boats—kayaks, oomiaks and bidarkas—had become, with a few exceptions, things of the past in Arctic Alaska. Amos, on hearing my plans, told me that he had a pair King Island kayaks, long-forgotten, in a basement in Portland. He thought they were still there, but did not know what condition they were in. Get them to Alaska, he proposed, and one of them would be mine. A few weeks later, through the commercial fishing connections of my Aunt and Uncle in Petersburg, Alaska, the two kayaks were aboard the seiner Middleton, making its way up the Inside Passage.
But the two kayaks are here, elegantly fashioned from driftwood and animal skin, the tooth impressions of the builder still discernable in the curves of the slender bent ribs, reminders of bygone days,. And Amos is here, to check my story, and make certain that I’ve got it right.
R T Wallen, Juneau, Alaska, February 1986
© RTW 1986
Amos Burg died in Juneau, Alaska on June 11, 1986 at age 84. His ashes were scattered on the Columbia River and other western rivers. He was still traveling in his mind in the last days before his death. He said he was visiting the places he loved, among them the MacKenzie Basin, and he was making a sailing voyage down the coast of Japan.
There also was the second of the two kayaks. At that time it still had its original covering of walrus skin but in Juneau’s rainy climate the covering had begun to rot. I helped Amos prop the kayak up on saw horses and roof it with visqueen but it continued to deteriorate. Amos cut away much of the rotten covering and urged me to take the frame of the second kayak as well. Eventually it rejoined its companion in my studio, a hundred yards down the beach from Amos’ place and there the two kayaks remain to this date. One of them was featured in Qajaq, a major exhibit by the Alaska State Museum in 1986. It has been meticulously surveyed professionally on two occasions, and drawings and dimensions of it from the most recent survey will be published soon in an upcoming book.
Update to the update,
February, 2019. The two kayaks are approaching 100 years of their recorded life. One has been donated to the Alaska State Museum. The second has been donated to the University of Wisconsin with the help of my major professor, Dr. William G. Reeder. It will soon be on display in Birge Hall, on the UW campus.
*Amos told me that Song o the Winds was stowed aboard the Boxer and Amos checked my notes. However, elsewhere he mentioned that he’d left the canoe at Russian Mission.