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Sunday, August 8, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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There's Something About Building A Kayak -- A Two-Carton Kit Can Be Much More Than Wire, Epoxy And Precision-Cut Mahogany Plywood

THE KAYAK was gorgeous, a swirl of caramel wood dancing on dark water, a lively, lovely boat in which to flirt with Northwest shore.

Slender, at 39 pounds, it'd be easy enough for even me to carry from car to water's edge. It was 20 pounds lighter and a thousand dollars cheaper than factory-made fiberglass and polyethylene models whose price tags and poundage, I'd decided, were out of my range.

To build it, the catalog promised, all you needed was sandpaper, a drill, wire snippers, masking tape, a hot-glue gun, foam brushes, clamps, pliers and, oh, about 50 to 75 spare hours. What sold me, though, was what you didn't need: woodworking experience. Aside from a birdhouse in seventh grade, I didn't have any.

The kit, purchased for $715 from Pygmy Boats in Port Townsend, included 36 pre-cut mahogany plywood panels, startlingly thin, about the thickness of this magazine; jugs of epoxy; coils of wire; latex gloves; fiberglass cloth and ribbons; wood flour; a Therm-a-Rest seat pad, foot braces and a 20-page construction manual photocopied on plain paper.

Everything came in two cardboard boxes. They were the most thrilling cardboard boxes I've ever unpacked. Partly it was handling the snippets of wood and imagining how I'd stitch them into my own private eggshell to explore marshes and islands unknown.

Then, there was the marvel of what went into the cardboard boxes that you couldn't see: A high-tech alchemy of software and epoxy that would transform flat panels into curved hull. A design based on native boats crafted, centuries ago, from driftwood, whalebone and sea-lion skins. Most of all, there was the soul of John Lockwood, a nomad-anthropologist-computer programmer-boat designer determined not to be cut off from the wilderness by a shattered hip and crutches.

"Kayaking," Lockwood says, "was the only method I had of getting away from the road."

Lockwood wanted a boat that would be light enough and tough enough to drag across rocky beaches while hopping on his good leg. He designed and built his first stitch-and-glue wood kayak in 1971, during a live-off-the-land stint on British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Island. Much later, Lockwood founded Pygmy Boats in Port Townsend, the oldest stitch-and-glue kayak-kit company in North America.

Pygmy's catalog reflects Lockwood's reverence for the wilderness. Instead of hawking accessories in the catalog's centerfold, Lockwood offers a two-page meditative essay, "I Need the Wilderness," complete with pictures of his beaming young daughter wading on smooth stones in dappled water, hoisting a huge trout caught from her kayak.

Let me be taken care of in the simple ways a wild place offers: a few fish, or crabs, snails, clams, limpets, rabbits, berries and greens. Give me the moods of the wind, the rain. Let me sleep in the sun. Let me use my body and I am ecstatic . . .. I returned to using crutches two winters ago. The hip I broke in 1967 was causing me trouble and the surgeon wanted to replace it. I packed my truck instead. I took my crutches, loaded our new Coho kayak and a GoldenEye-13 for our daughter. . .. I drove 1,590 miles . . . to Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories . . . headed up onto the vast continental shield of the subarctic.

This is exactly the type of getaway people fantasize about when they buy and build kayaks, says Neil Wiesner-Hanks, executive director of Trade Association of Paddle Sports. "People picture themselves on some romantic adventure trip to the Arctic or Baja. Whether they actually do that is another matter. But they like the aura, the mystique. So there's been a boom, exponential, skyrocket, through the ceiling."

Theories abound as to why. Baby boomers with aging knees. Strong economy. Loose change. Excess leisure. Suburban search for solitude. Heck, there's even a kayak featured in a television commercial for investment banking.

Nationally, there are an estimated four to five million kayakers, though numbers are squishy since not all states require boat licenses for kayaks. Sea Kayaker magazine, a national publication, has seen circulation rise to 25,000, a 150 percent increase during the past decade. Attendance at the annual Pacific Northwest Sea Kayak Symposium in Port Townsend has doubled to 1,500 in the same period, making it one of the largest hands-on kayaking events in the world.

For sea kayakers, time, topography and craft seem to flow together in the Pacific Northwest. The inlets of Puget Sound offer protected paddling; if you tried to paddle a kayak along the California coast, you could easily get swept out to sea. Kayaks, with their covered decks, can cut through saltwater swells; if you tried to paddle a canoe in Northwest coastal waters, waves could swamp you.

Pygmy Boats rode this rising tide of sea-kayaking popularity, selling three kits in 1986, 45 in 1987 and 1,100 in 1998.

Yet the significance of building your own kayak is not in the statistics, Wiesner-Hanks says, but in the symbolism. "It captures people's imagination."

Somehow, an ancient survival craft, designed for hunting sea otters and seals, had evolved into a vehicle of yuppie yearning.

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Hours 1-3: Shovel years of clutter out of our single-car garage to create enough working space for a 17-foot-6-inch kayak.

Hour 4-6: Read the epoxy manual. Realize I need someplace warmer than our unheated garage. Clean out the basement. Wonder whether the finished kayak will be able to escape through a basement window. Construct a life-size model from an extension ladder and cardboard boxes to find out. Yes!

Hours 8-12: Crank up Aretha. Get into a rhythm measuring, taping, dipping foam brush into a yogurt container of epoxy. After a week of after-dinner sessions, a dozen mahogany panels stretch like long strokes of calligraphy across the basement floor. Graceful, but it doesn't resemble anything close to a boat.

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EVERYONE COMES from someplace before embarking on a major trip.

For Lockwood, it was the map library at Harvard University. He was searching for an escape from academia after four years studying anthropology and computer science. He pored over population graphs, rain-flow charts, forestry overlays and topographic maps, searching for places with no people.

"In 1971, it turned out the whole planet is densely populated unless it's ocean, rock, ice, desert or rain forest. And them's your choices. It's either above 10,000 feet and frozen or totally arid or always wet. Temperate rain forest is not a preferred habitat, but as it turns out, it's easy to live off of."

He picked Queen Charlotte Island, a relatively dry patch in the rain shadow of a soggy swath pelted with 240 inches a year.

The return to wilderness would be a homecoming, of sorts. Before getting drafted during the Vietnam War era, Lockwood had wandered the continent's vast wilderness tracts - Washington, Oregon and Idaho in the summer; the Southeast in the winter; a six-month motorcycle jaunt through Mexico. He waited tables, sold sports suits, clerked cash registers, bucked hay, worked wheat, drilled oil, picked beans - 22 different jobs in nine states in 4 1/2 years. On the weekends, he hiked in the hinterlands. Then, two years of military service in Germany.

Three weeks after returning to America, Lockwood fell 10 feet onto concrete, jamming his thighbone through his pelvis. The accident ended his travels. He took anthropology and computer classes at Harvard and acquired his lifelong admiration for pygmies, for whom his kayak company is named. He was especially passionate about nonsedentary hunter-gatherers because they are a peaceful society with no political power structure, wanderers who survive droughts by eating native adaptive plants and animals. Trouble was, Lockwood's dependence on crutches prevented him from doing proper field work. Enough of that, he said. "I was ready for a trip."

He rode a bus to Montreal, a train to Prince Rupert, B.C., and hitched a lift across Hecate Strait on a fishing boat with his then-girlfriend, Evelyn Pinkerton. They brought along a two-person Klepper collapsible kayak, 150 photocopied pages of native Kwakiutl recipes and a book of traditional Eskimo kayak designs. They lived in a teepee. They ate whelks, clams, limpets, rockfish, glasswort, nettles, seaweed, plankton, goose-tongue leaves. They cooked low-tide stews of crunchy moon snails. They steamed open barnacles with seaweed and hot rocks. They rendered dogfish for lamp oil. They speared a swimming deer from the kayak, jerked the meat and tried to tan the hide.

After five months, they realized three things. 1) The protected inlets of this part of the Pacific coast, temperate yet wild, were the perfect place for Lockwood's kind of kayaking. 2) They shared a love of anthropology but their relationship was too stormy. 3) Lockwood needed a light, strong single kayak he could drag over barnacles by himself.

The next winter, Lockwood lived alone in a 9-by-10-by-8-foot packing crate that had come off a cargo ship. He built his first stitch-and-glue kayak in a friend's shed. Then he returned to civilization.

Fourteen years later, after a decade as computer programmer for IBM, Boeing and an actuarial firm in Seattle's Rainier Tower, Lockwood quit his button-down career. He spent a year programming pioneering software that would allow him to design precision-cut hulls on his personal computer. Then he created his first computer-designed sea kayak, the Queen Charlotte.

It was a modified version of the traditional skin-on-frame boats designed by Greenland natives. Lockwood scaled his plywood models slightly larger than the aboriginal water craft because "white people have big feet and too much camping gear to fit in a traditional Greenland boat."

By this time, Lockwood had zoomed off the charts of personal change. In the space of two years, he fell in love with the song and spirit of a Freida Fenn, a woman he met during a Quaker meeting; married; moved to Port Townsend; became a father; and, in 1987, launched Pygmy Boats in a white-washed clapboard building with pewter-blue trim.

(Footnote: Lockwood's ex-girlfriend Pinkerton became an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Her husband bought and built a Pygmy kayak, the Queen Charlotte, in which they pack their dulcimer and guitar for musical camping trips. "He loves that boat!" Pinkerton says. "Won't let anyone else touch it!")

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Hours 14-16. Beveling? What's beveling? The answer to this question involves an excursion to the woodworkers' store in Wallingford and a $39 splurge on a French hand planer. It's the first time I've ever used a tool that's not dull, bent, chipped, rusted or otherwise compromised. It balances perfectly and glides smooth as lotion along the wood edges, peeling off whimsical corkscrew shavings that give a party atmosphere to the basement. Well, almost. Still doesn't look like a boat.

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There was a time, in the '50s and '60s, when the mark of a successful man was a garage filled with power tools and a subscription to Popular Mechanics. "When I grew up," says 57-year-old Lockwood, "men had shops."

It's hard to know whether the surge in kayak building is rooted in Apollo-era nostalgia or millennium self-sufficiency.

"There's something about building your own kayak," says Wiesner-Hanks of the Trade Association of Paddle Sports. "It gives you certain bragging rights."

One thing for sure: Precision-cut panels and improved epoxies make it much easier to build a wooden boat than ever before. It used to be you had to start with a clumsy door-size hunk of lumber, a saw and a strongback. It was tedious. You needed advanced carpentry skills. You practically needed to apprentice as a shipwright.

Now, like flying on airplanes, it's within reach of the masses.

"I dunno, I just got the feeling it was time to build one," says Dan Lumsden, one of Lockwood's former co-workers at the Seattle actuarial firm. He's since built another for his wife. Each project took about a month, working about a half-hour every night.

Most people take a month, says Lockwood's wife, Freida Fenn, who answers technical questions from callers stumped in their basements. The next largest group takes three to six months. Some people, slowed by life complications, take a year.

Then there was the lifer.

He called from his Manhattan apartment seven years after purchasing the kit.

"I've got the whole thing done except for the hip braces in. I can't find the bolts!" he said.

Fenn was incredulous. "Don't move! I'm sending them Express Mail right now and I want you to FINISH THAT BOAT and GET IT IN THE WATER!"

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In case you are wondering, a 1/16th-inch drill bit is about the diameter and fragility of a pencil lead, which is to say, by the time I'd snapped three drill bits, I'd quit keeping track of hours. It had become months. I was afraid of turning into a lifer.

Close friends had politely stopped inquiring, "How's the kayak?" not wanting to embarrass me. The problem, I rationalized, was a lack of time and an assignment in Southeast Asia that would take me out of my basement for at least three weeks.

Take the construction manual to Cambodia and study it every night in your hotel room so you won't lose momentum, suggested Kelly, one of Pygmy's helpful support staff. It seemed odd bedtime reading for Phnom Penh, so I didn't. I should have.

Another month passed.

Finally, last week, I again picked up the pieces. I began sewing the hull panels together with twists of burnished wire. The strips of cut wood matched perfectly at each end, forming a neat V at bow and stern. The sides rose gracefully off the floor like cupped hands scooping water from a lake. The calm of working on a kayak in the basement is not unlike the peace of paddling along the shore. There are many kinds of happiness.

It was beginning to look like a boat.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for the magazine.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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