Model Qamutiit – Pt. 1

In my limited arctic travels there has been one consistent feature and that is the presence of substantial DIY stuff movers.

In Inuvik, where the primary highway is the Mackenzie River, it was the plywood scow. We shall have to explore that subject at some point but, sticking to the topic of this video, in the eastern hamlet of Kugaaruk it was the qamutiik ᖃᒧᑏᒃ , or dog sled. 

The most abundant variety was on the larger side and often featured a plywood cowling behind which passengers or gear would be sheltered from the wind. Smaller qamutiit ᖃᒧᑏᑦ (plural) intended for dogs were also present and as I was told, doogs were still preferred for longer expeditions, far from town where a machine is more liability than asset. One or more dogs can break down without stopping you. In fact they remain an asset in the form of food for yourself and the other dogs. Have fun chewing on a skidoo track. 

What I find particularly interesting is that the qamutiit share a similar construction philosophy and lashing technique with kayaks but also I love the ingenuity that is applied to make them even in the absence of lumber resources. 


The cold itself becomes a tool with which soft materials are transformed into rigid structures. Animal skins are laid flat. Frozen fish were arranged in a row to give it more rigidity. The whole works were then rolled into a beam to become a runner or “qamuti” ᖃᒧᑎ. It was said that the skin qamuti didn’t need additional shoeing shoeingbut those made form timber required them. Think of the shoeing a little like the iron tires on wagon wheels.  For shoeing, whale bone was the preferred material because it was porous and held applied the applied icing required to reduce friction icingwell but caribou antler was also used and even baleen was found on some examples. Sometimes pond ice was cut into strips to shoe the runners but more often mud and moss was used for shoeing.  Everything glued together with water urine or even blood on occasion. Polar bear skin was used to burnish the surface smooth as it froze.


In a pinch a simplified toboggan like version called iniutit ᐃᓂᐅᑎᑦ were made by simply creating a mound of snow for a male form and then draping a wet skin overtop and letting it freeze. Lashing holes would be pre-cut into its edges and water or urine was poured overtop to create a slippery coating of ice.


If the sun threatens to comprise the tentative nature of these elements frozen together, shade cloths and snow blocks are used to minimize its affects. Sometimes caches were dug into the snow for overnight storage of these qamutiit. Once you arrive at your destination, they can be transformed back into materials for housing, clothing and food itself.  That is some pretty incredible ingenuity and economy. Can you imagine any other transportation means with a smaller environmental impact?


The Inuktitut language is complex and particularly hard for a non-native speaker to pick up in a conversational capacity. Add to that a variety of regional dialects. I have only learned a few words and simple phrases. Below are a couple of links that I found useful. One that is a very good educational website explaining, glossary, grammar and application. The other is a syllabics translator. The way Inuktitut syllabics work is pretty interesting unto itself. The first link offers a good alphabet chart that spells it all out for you.


On my third trip to Kugaaruk, my shop-mate, Robert Morris and I were joined by a film maker named Michael Mitchel who documented the trip and made a film about it called “Caribou Kayak” Below you can find a links to the trailer and to purchase a copy of the film. Note that there are consumer use copies available for about $35


Caribou Kayak dvd – Michael Mitchel – 


Lastly there were a number of films made in Kugaaruk during the late sixties in which aspects of traditional Inuit life was portrayed by locals. It was released under the name “Netsilik Series”. You can find the individual films free to watch in the link below. The material in them is authentic although re-inacted.

I have met a number of the people featured in the films and I believe the small boy shown in them was mayor of Kugaaruk when I visited. The elders I worked with gave me the nickname “Tiriaq” which means weasel and as it turns out they were giving me the namesake of one of the kayak builders shown in the films. Oddly, more that my demeanour reminded them of him than because we were both building kayaks.

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