kayak ribs cutting


Four junior high students, their instructor and their principal pose near the wooden frame of a kayak that is being assembled.
Grade 8 student Denzel Dicker (from left), kayak building instructor Noah Nochasak, principal Kent Chaulk, student Peyton Dicker and student Michael Earle at work on a kayak. The students work in five groups of three. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Near the back of the Jens Haven Memorial School in Nain, on Labrador’s northern coast, there’s a wood shop filled with a variety of power tools and projects in progress. practice rooms being framed. 

No electric tools are buzzing as a group of Grade 8 students, their principal and their kayak building instructor crowd around a large kayak frame.

Instead, there’s only the sound of planers and hand saws as the students quietly work on placing the kayak ribs in their slots. 

“It’s a little bit complicated for me, but I like doing it. It’s fun,” student Michael Earle said. “[Noah]’s a good teacher. He’s very good with the stuff.”

Two boys focus on their work of building a kayak, which is attached to a frame.
Students work to cut the tippet or ribs of the kayak to size in the Jens Haven Memorial School’s wood shop. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Earle is referring to Noah Nochasak, the kayak revival lead with the Nunatsiavut government’s Department of Language, Culture and Tourism. 

His project — in which 15 teenagers in the Inuit community are teaming up to make a kayak similar to craft their ancestors used for centuries — has been a dream of his for some time. 

This past year, school principal Kent Chaulk approached him to lead a program to teach those skills. 

“I saw the kayak as an equalizer,” said Nochasak, who travels to Inuit community to speak about kayak history. 

Inuit students learn how to make a kayak

Heidi Atter takes you to Jens Haven Memorial School in Nain, where Grade 8 students are learning the craft of making a kayak

“It’s not about what engine you can afford … it puts everyone on the same path. It’s equal. And the way you travel using the kayak is about will. It’s a direct measurement of will.”

Nochasak’s father was born in Hebron, a former Inuit community north of Nain. His grandfather was from the same area, he said, adding that travelling was important to his family and knowing this history sparked his current interest in kayaks.

Knowledge surrounding the kayak was once passed down throughout families and communities as it was a fundamental part of life, Nochasak said. That began to change in the 1940s and 1950s. With new technologies and motors being introduced, the knowledge wasn’t being passed down, he said. 

A model shows five miniature figures at a traditional kayak, which is balanced on its side.
A diorama of traditional life at the Illusuak Cultural Centre, near the Jens Haven Memorial School in Nain, shows a traditional kayak in the process of being built with women pulling the skins over the frame. Noah Nochasak said traditionally a group of woman who worked to cover the kayak. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

When Nochasak began building his first kayak around 2009, there were still many knowledge holders around. That, however, is changing as elders pass on, he said.

While he is still interviewing surviving elders, he is also focusing on young people, who are learning skills in their own school.

“It’s a very, very real connection to their past,” Nochasak said. “By having the kayak as a cultural connection it gives them a firm root into their Inuit past and hopefully that firm root helps them with the social issues of life.” 

Project started in winter

The class started building the kayak in February. The students have spent about 10 hours a week working on it.

Nochasask said it is complicated teaching five different groups how to make a single kayak, but added kayaks are complex to build in the first place. 

A tight shot of the wooden pieces that compose the frame of a kayak.
While building the kayak, the students are learning the Inuktitut names for each part. Tippik is the Inuktitut word for the ribs. Each part is marked with a number so it can be placed at the right spot in the kayak. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“I like that it’s good fun … I find it cool being able to learn some stuff about kayaks,” Grade 8 student Peyton Dicker said.

“This helps keep our culture alive and just in case you might need it for something later in life.” 

It can take a professional 80 to 100 hours to build a kayak. Given that, the students are doing very well, Nochasak said.

He hopes the experience will help build mental resilience and confidence, and that they will use kayaks in the future. 

“You’re going out into the ocean with it and it’s only taller than the length of your feet. So it’s taking a very small tool out onto the ocean …where it’s windy and rough at times. And you know that that builds confidence and self-esteem,” Nochasak said.

“If you don’t have it going in, you’re going to have it coming out.”

The learning doesn’t end with the construction. The groups also take notes about what they did that day and the Inuktitut names of different aspects of the kayak.

They then are using the notes in a future podcast to help students in other communities.

“It’s going to be nice to be able to show what we’re doing to other people around the coast,” Earle said.

“It teaches the younger generation about kayak building and it’ll give them knowledge about it … so the tradition of kayak building doesn’t die out.”

A workshop table in a school holds the frame of a kayak. Behind it are students who have been working on the construction project.
The Grade 8 class at the Jens Haven Memorial School in Nain are learning how to build a kayak. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador



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