Nahcotta kayak builder brings pride and low-key approach to ancient craft

<I>TIMM COLLINS photo</I><BR>Bob Kelim of Nahcotta moves a kayak he built using wooden pegs and twine. Kelim has built eight kayaks in the past four years.

No, they're not for sale, but he just might help you build one yourself

NAHCOTTA - What was once a necessity for native seal hunters is now a flourishing hobby for one local man.

He started by challenging himself. He wanted to prove to himself that he could build a kayak using the same set of plans and, for the most part, the same tools used by the original builders - the natives tribes of the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.

Bob Kelim and his wife Jane live in Nahcotta, and over the past four years, Kelim has built a total of eight different kayaks. He uses wood from where he can find it; and instead of a seal-skin shell, he uses a nylon fabric he orders from a builder in Bellingham. Seal it up with a water-tight polyurethane varnish most commonly used on gym floors, and the kayak is ready for the water.

For Kelim, who works as a surveyor for Baldwin and Associates, this a labor of love. He makes no money from building kayaks, and when asked if he sells the boats, he will give a look like you may have just asked him to sell one of his children.

"Sell them? No, you lose something by just buying one of my kayaks," said Kelim. "I think you have to build it with your own hands in order to really appreciate what these boats can do."

Instead of selling a boat to a friend, Kelim said he would rather help build the boat with the new owner. He said that people have a better understanding and take pride in the craft if they can use their own hands to put it together.

And it doesn't take too many more tools than that. Kelim uses mostly traditional tools of kayak building with a couple of small exceptions. He uses a table saw to strip down the various types of wood, and he uses contemporary chemicals to seal the boat to make it impenetrable to water.

"I use pine, oak and yellow cedar mostly, but I'm not picky," said Kelim of his choice of materials. "I use what is available. It is not that I am not quality conscious, I just don't want to go crazy looking for some rare wood when most of the things you can find around here do just fine. They originally used drift wood."

"They" or the original builders, were Inuit and Aleut seal hunters. They used drift wood and other materials to form the frame of the kayak and used seal skin as the outer shell. Seal skin was great natural material. It kept the water out; it was tough enough to stand up to floating debris that might threaten to puncture the kayak, and it was readily available as a byproduct of the hunt.

Seal skin was also used to make "tuliqs," the water tight uniform worn by seal hunters to stay warm in the frigid northern seas. Today, tuliqs are made out of neoprene, and they secure to the kayak to keep the paddlers dry.

Kelim uses neoprene, nylon and varnish, but that is about all the modern technology used by the builder. Kayaks were originally made using no metal, only wooden pegs and twine, a method Kelim also uses.

"Pounding surf or white water is hell on the nylon boats, so fiberglass is a better material," said Kelim admitting a weakness. "The nylon is pretty tough. I've run aground on oyster beds, and this nylon skin does just fine. I've never had a problem with one of the boats coming apart in the water."

Kelim builds more than just kayaks which he said he can build start to finish in a week to 10 days. He built a canoe, which at three months takes considerably longer than the smaller, more agile, kayaks, and he is working on a surf kayak with a friend.

"The surf kayaks are smaller -shorter and wider," he said. "I use wood and fiberglass tape on those boats to keep them together in the surf. I also use a bigger paddle to really grab the water and steer."

Kelim, who stands nearly six feet tall and weighs close to 200 pounds, said the boats he builds are bigger than their historical counter parts. He said that the original builders were smaller than average-sized people today.

"I'm bigger than the seal-hunters. They were smaller people which meant they probably were a bit more nimble when it came to control," he said. "I built this boat a little bigger than the ones they used. It fits me. This one is over 16 feet."

He spends most of his time in the water on the Willapa Bay, but he said he has done extensive trips in the Puget Sound. He also said he will take the boats out on the ocean on occasion, but living only yards from the bay, he tends to stay close to home.

"I like being in the water, but kayaks demand you learn how to use them," he said. "I like the way it feels, and it is quite easy once you learn the skills."

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