John Heath (1923-2003)
Biography by David Heath, his only child.
John Heath spent most of his life studying the Arctic Peoples’ traditional boats and boating technique. Over the years he went from being only a student to writing, lecturing and video producer on the subject. He was clearly not the first or the last, but in my opinion, he was a powerful force with an important message that still needs spreading.
His interest began in childhood. He built 2 kayaks in the 1930’s, but I believe that it was primarily as a clever way to have an affordable boat on a very small creek in a rural, and very flat part of Texas.
When our family moved to the Seattle area in the early 1950s some friends that we first met in the Sierra Club showed him that many people were using modern design, generally folding, kayaks. But, as he got more interested, he spent the rest of his life learning about the largely and previously forgotten inventors of the kayak.
Today it does not surprise at least some of us that the original inventors, whose lives depended on kayaks over thousands of years, knew more about kayaks than the ‘modern companies’, especially the kayak companies of the 1950s. But, for much of his life it was an uphill fight. It is not over. Ask 50 people about the traditional Greenland paddle and see how it goes. Thankfully, there are now many able voices of this technology spreading the word.
Beginning in the mid 1950s on, he read very old books by Arctic explorers, often the earliest scientists to meet the natives. My dad built several kayak replicas and began his travels to Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada, Europe and Greenland in order to learn technique from few remaining natives with the knowledge and visited numerous museums.
In the 1960s John became aware that Alaskan Airlines had a group of King Islanders that did demonstrations of traditional King Island dancing. They often came through Seattle because it was the “Gateway to Alaska”. They were among the first Eskimos that my dad had met and he asked them thousands of questions over many years. They were among the last to live in the older ways. Among the last who’s lives depended on kayaks, how and why they were built the way they were, and so on. Canneries, diesel powered fishing boats, etc were taking over.
But, in those days there were still a few natives who had used kayaks for their daily survival and he interviewed every one he could find. Alaskan and Greenlanders. They used to tease him, “John, you asked me pretty much those same questions when you saw me last year. Is your memory bad?”
“Perhaps, but each time you answer me a little bit differently and I learn more. I write it down. I think about it all year. As I learn more, I hear and understand more, even in the same sentence. I think of new questions. When you answer those, I learn more, and so on. And, I learn to ask better questions”
In early April, 2011, while we were putting books, from my dad’s library, on eBay, we ran across an inscription in a book about King Island given to my dad by a friend of his, the anthropologist Sergei Bogojavlensky.
The Frank Ellanna mentioned in it was one of many Eskimos that became good friends of John’s from King Island, AK. Because Mr. Ellanna had grown up, depending on the kayak, my dad had asked Mr. Ellanna a million questions.
The inscription reads like this:
For John Heath with admiration.
(According to Frank Ellanna, the only “naluaRmiu” (white man) who knows anything about kayaks.)
This is my favorite recent ‘discovery’ as we go through these Time Capsules. It makes me very happy to find this quote. Thanks Sergei.
In the 50’s and 60’s, Mr. Ellanna was not wrong. My dad was one of very few, non Eskimos that knew so much. They liked very much that he worked so hard to preserve their knowledge and culture.
John wrote many articles and contributed to several books, sometimes in collaboration with others, since at least 1961. The big milestone for him was the 1964, THE BARK CANOES AND SKIN BOATS OF NORTH AMERICA. Bulletin 230. by Tappan & Chapelle. This is a major work on canoes & kayaks including a discussion & scale drawings of many types. John provided one of the kayak scale drawings and a novel appendix on the kayak roll.
See the complete list of his writings here:
He lectured at various sea kayaking symposia, from Kodiak, Alaska to Canada, the USA & Europe, beginning in 1986, including the British Canoe Union Jubilee in London that year.
Some unusual lectures include special lectures at the U.S. Army Special Forces Base at Ft. Devens, MA and the U.S. Navy Seals deployed at Macrihanish Air Base in Scotland. Other overseas lectures include the Scottish Sea Kayak Symposium, CK/MER (France) and the Jersey Sea Kayak Symposium in Jersey, Channel Islands.
He also produced, and sold online, several videos about traditional kayaking technique.
Lastly, he wrote a large section of the excellent book, Eastern Arctic Kayaks: History, Design, Technique By John D. Heath and Eugene Y. Arima with other contributors, ISBN 9781889963259 hardback, ISBN 9781889963266 paperback
Please inquire at http://www.qajaqusa.org/ for purchasing videos & books.
I am selling some of his personal belongings on eBay at the following link. Please check twice a week as I add items slowly.
John is the one in the white Tilley Hat. Here is a link to a page with photos: