Oregon man builds his own baidarka before embarking on his trip along southern coast of Alaska.
By MATTHEW DENIS, The Register-Guard
Paddling amid the gentle swells lapping between the Ketchikan Peninsula and various islands on Alaska’s southern coast, native Aleuts hunted from long, bone- and driftwood-constructed kayaks. The boats cut through the water like a sleek barracuda, sliding on the stretched seal skin covering of its structure. They called the craft a baidarka. It was so important, the Aleut considered the canoe to be a living thing.
Peter Marquardt of Eugene has been dreaming of sailing the Alaskan coast — in his own baidarka — since high school more than 30 years ago.
As a teenager, water provided an escape from the harrowing memory of childhood sexual abuse. After a physical altercation with his male guardian when Marquardt was 15, he and his mother fled to her native Germany in order to avoid further violence. Two years later, Marquardt washed ashore in the refuge of the wet Northwest.
In Seattle in 1986, the steel blue Puget Sound called. Marquardt took to sea as many a foolhardy teenager does, launching from Des Moines, paddling north along the coast with no plan and only the vague hope of making it as far as he could. Before he could even make it around the Olympic Peninsula, Marquardt was called back to his job driving a bus on the Trailways Rocky Mountain Line out of Denver. Three months later, he’d try the journey again, this time going south instead of north.
On that second audacious attempt at kayaking the Pacific Coast, the young Marquardt pitch-poled his boat, flipping it from bow to stern instead of sideways. Thwarted, he returned to shore, saddled not only with a broken boat but bloody feet from the barnacle-ridden shallows.
“I was in the Coast Guard and I have paranoia about getting my feet caught in the boat, so I always kayak barefoot,” Marquardt said.
Undefeated, the young man was still called to the water. Upon his return to Seattle, Marquardt spotted a WWII freighter tied to the dock and checked around as to its provenance.
“It turned out to be a humanitarian aid ship,” Marquardt said. “A week later, I was working on the ship.”
After four or five months, Marquardt signed on as a permanent crewman but had to remain on dry land, fixing up the old freighter for years before she’d be declared seaworthy. Marquardt ended up at sea for seven years, meeting his future wife, who was part of the crew.
When the couple finally returned to shore, Marquardt and his new family — his twin sons were on the way — settled in the Willamette Valley. The dream of sailing the coast in a baidarka would have to wait until children were raised.
The name baidarka means “small boat” in Russian. According to Guillemot Kayaks, which design baidarkas. Russians used to force natives to hunt sea otters from baidarkas traveling along the entire North and South American coast to sell in China. Because the boat is so efficient in rough ocean waters, baidarka are still in use today.
Two years ago, Marquardt was able to obtain work plans from the Laughing Loon in Maine, created by a man who built his own baidarka to navigate the north Atlantic coast. Though the plans were easy enough to acquire, construction has been an interesting mix of serendipity and trial and error.
As the recreation director at Eugene’s Cascade Manor retirement community, Marquardt was able to salvage a large amount of wood from demolished buildings.
“I started stripping the wood from there,” Marquardt said. “I’m kind of anal about what I’m doing; I ended up making 22 stern pieces and couldn’t get them right.”
Riding his bicycle home from work one day, he stopped to comment on the beauty of a man’s homemade play structure. After they got to talking, Marquardt found out the man’s neighbor was also building a baidarka. The man ended up providing solid direction for Marquardt.
Ninety-eight percent of the boat is cedar strips, much of it purchased from Lost Creek Industries. A small part of the boat’s wood, however, carries a large significance.
“A friend of mine who died had all this mahogany in his home,” Marquardt said. “Now I like to say ‘George will lead the way’ because the bow is built from that wood.”
The oldest wood on the baidarka is more than 500 years old, pulled from a Springfield swamp 80 years ago when, according to the rings, it was 460 years old.
On May 10, more than three decades after first fantasizing about piloting a baidarka along the Alaskan coast, and after two years of construction, Marquardt set off to finally achieve his dream: kayaking in an 18-foot baidarka made from his own two hands.
Marquardt the father is be accompanied by two 17-foot Pygmy-brand kayaks piloted by his twin sons, Mackenzie and Nicolai. They’re winding their way down Alaska’s Ketchikan Peninsula — traveling about 700 to 800 miles in all — to either Bellingham or Seattle 100 miles south, depending on their speed over the two-month journey.
Even though the project is almost complete, it hasn’t been cheap. To finance materials for an 18-foot homemade baidarka and two additional kayaks for his sons, Marquardt started a Go Fund Me page under his name and the name of his venture, “The Dancing Otter Project.”
This will be the realization of a lifelong dream and the culmination of years spent healing deep wounds. In addition, Marquardt created “The Dancing Otter Project” on Facebook “to create an environment where those with PTSD can go on a shared journey as part of a team of sea kayakers. The exposure to wind and sea, team experiences and the facing of high adrenaline situations will help all of us.”
Marquardt sees a need to help veterans who are struggling. According to the Department of Defense’s Suicide Event Report, the suicide rate for the Army, the branch most affected, peaked in 2012 at 29.9 suicides per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average of 12.6 suicides per 100,000 people. The service saw 165 suicides that year, about one death every 2.2 days.
Marquardt said his inaugural journey will prove that his boat is seaworthy and that he knows what he’s doing. Veterans organizations he contacted before the trip weren’t willing to join the project without that reassurance. So, Marquardt will make the initial trip with his sons.
“The route is pretty standard,” Marquardt said. “A number of books have been written about this route going back to the 1990s and natives have been doing this for millennia.