Intrepid Waters

Words Rachel Taylor
PhotographyElias Carlson

Kiliii Yu is a multifaceted guy with a unique story; he’s a kayaker, a boat-designer, a climber, a professional adventure photographer, a guide for wilderness survival, a trained classical violinist, and amidst all this he runs his own kayak building business.

“When I'm kayaking off the Washington coast, and especially up in Canada off Vancouver Island, I see a lot of sea otters – it is one of my favourite things. In the places where there are a lot of them, they do this amazing thing called a sea otter raft where they float on their backs and hold hands. Sometimes there are gigantic rafts of hundreds of sea otters all holding hands and floating on their backs together. It's fantastic to see!

It is always a really special treat to see something like a sea otter raft, or even the orcas (killer whales). Every summer I go to the west of San Juan Island in Washington State and the resident orcas are always there because the salmon are migrating. It never gets old, there's something really special about it. The native peoples revered 'the black fish' – the orca – and they lived there and saw them all summer long, every year. There is something really special about our relationship to killer whales. They are just such beautiful, amazing creatures; it's really cool to watch them.

In the summer time, when the new orca calves are born, the calves are really curious, especially when you are paddling a kayak. The calves will swim up to you and play; they'll nudge the boat as you paddle to feel it and say hello, and it's really cool; it's really really cool! You feel them swim underneath you too because the skin on the boat flexes, so as they move past you feel a pressure wave from them moving around.

I also see grey whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals, depending on where I go. There are some things that are still really special to see but are a little easier to take for granted, like seeing beautiful sea stars, or porpoises, or seals - you see them a lot. It now feels like I'm interacting with them, I give them a wave and sometimes even talk to them.

When on my trip along the outside of Vancouver Island, I remember waking up one morning and, as I unzipped the tent, there were wolves running around outside – they were startled and darted off into the bushes. They are really secretive and they don't like to be seen; they don't really hang out around humans. There's also a ton of black bears.

It is so beautiful; I can't imagine ever living anywhere else in the United States. It's so epic here! All the right kind of people; there's a great community of people that like being outside. It's a really great place."

– Kiliii Yu.


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Kayaks were the invention of the native hunter-gatherer cultures of the Arctic and sub-arctic regions. They were a response to the environment that they lived in and a way to navigate the waters to survive. In the cold coastal regions they called home there was little life on the land, so they reached to the oceans, not only for nourishment but also for all manner of livelihood. Marine mammals were the staples of their lives: the hides were used for clothing and textiles; bone was used for tools, weapons and construction materials; seal blood would be drank to cure maladies, and even blubber was used as fuel for the lack of trees. In most parts, it would have been too cold to cultivate plants and it was only below the Tundra and icy barren lands that trees (or any vegetation that wasn't low-lying hardy shrubs) could be found. Living above the tree-line, wood was scarce, only brought to them by the waterways and tides. Driftwood floated up from the Taiga regions – the characteristically woody biome below the Tundra, latitudinally slicing through the subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere – and would be used as a primary building material for their boats. The driftwood frames would be lined with the hides of sea mammals, constructed to seal around the torso with a covered deck to prevent the deadly cold waters from reaching the body. They were specialised in their design for survival in these extremely cold environments, enabling the peoples of the northern regions to brave the harsh sea conditions.

Over a vast coverage of land, continents, countries, many tribes and subcultures, the indigenous peoples of the North may be broadly split into the Inuits (of Greenland, Canada and Northern Alaska), the Yupiks (of Central Alaska and Siberia) and the Aleuts from the Aleutian Islands. Kayaks differed depending on where they were made; there were the same fundamentals (and motivations) but small variations in size, shape and build occurred from region to region, tribe to tribe.

American born to Chinese parents and a direct descendent of the Nanai people, Kiliii Yu's cultural roots thread right through his lifestyle. The Nanai people, Siberian natives of the Far East, share similar sensibilities with the Yupik peoples of the Siberian Arctic tribes. Kiliii fondly recalls his grandmother, a Nanai person, telling him stories of her native people – stories that ignited his deep interest in primitive skills and that attuned him to the natural world.

The Nanai people (even today) reside across a stretched area of Eastern Siberia, along the River Amur basin and up the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. It was from Siberia that the precursor to the kayak, the umiak skin-on-frame boat, originated. The Nanai paddled wooden canoes with covered decks, which may also have been the basis for kayaks. The waters and their contents played a major role in Nanai culture, as documented in early accounts by French Jesuits geographers around the sixteenth century describing them as Yupi Tartars, meaning fish-skin tartars. Their description wasn't wrong; the natives used to make clothes out of dried and beaten fish skins. The water and its produce sat centrically within their culture and at the heart of their livelihood.

“I saw my first wild salmon in the river whilst visiting the Pacific Northwest," tells Kiliii, “it was a really big deal for me because for the Nanai people, salmon are very important. I couldn't believe how big it was, literally 6ft long and 50, maybe 60lbs! Here was this amazing fish gently swimming right next to the bank and I thought to myself 'this is what I've been missing.' This experience was really great for me, it made me realise that the Northwest actually has wild food; here's a way I can live off the land and actually live well. And so I moved up here.

I grew up all over the United States and some other places outside as well, but I lived mostly near the ocean, and so the ocean has been the one constant in my life. I've always had the ocean near me; it's deep in my blood. On top of that, the Chinese side of my family is really into eating seafood; we are always eating weird things from the ocean. I feel tied to it in that way too."

“There’s just so many wonderful things to do and try in this world, and holding on to anything too hard just stops you from living your life fully.”

Kiliii's warm and charismatic energy is evident in the upbeat tempo of his voice, and he is someone who uses his whole body to talk, grasping at props to animate his stories. His props come in useful to explain the construction techniques of his kayaks: Kiliii is a kayak builder. However, he has many other facets and interests, as well as a habit for collecting new skills. He is an avid climber, boat-builder, wilderness expeditionist, and adventure photographer (to list a few) – interests that all require a hearty mix of passion, intellect, adrenaline and a deep founded exploratory nature. It would appear that the tackling of new challenges is just part of his character.

As he talks of his adventures, images of beautiful scenery and wildlife captivate the imagination; he describes landscapes and seascapes that really should belong on the cover of a National Geographic. And it's not just the imagery that feels fitting, but the accompanying stories as well: kayaking expeditions around the coast of Greenland, up into the intrepid waters of Canada and around the Islands of Alaska. He tells of his recent 500 mile kayaking trip along the pacific coast of Vancouver Island; an adventure filled with epic and jaw-dropping stories.

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It was his experiences with the wild nature of the Pacific Northwest that first motivated Kiliii to pick up his life and his business – a primitive skills and wilderness survival school – and move to Washington State, where he still lives today in Seattle. When he settled on the Pacific coast, just like the native peoples of the Arctic, he soon realised that to best practice survival skills he should turn to the ocean.

"For a while I was interested and curious about boat building because getting fish and food from the ocean is a lot easier if you can actually leave the land. Trying to get things from the coast is definitely doable but really, even in a place as relatively wild as the Northwest, there's not much left, especially near the shorelines."

Boat building is not an easy feat. It requires a sound knowledge and understanding of construction methods, materials, application, geometry and boat engineering. Kiliii was taught by a highly experienced kayak builder (and an ex-student of Corey Freeman – a renowned skin-on-frame kayak builder). Together they built boats for Kiliii to learn and understand the methods of construction; following this, he continued to build and design, furthering his competency. Kiliii's past studies in industrial design (at university level) informed his new skill and gave him good grounding and sound understanding of 3D forms, as well as an eye for visualising construction and prototype methods. Alongside industrial design he studied psychology and philosophy, which he believes are "just good skills for life really." When talking about his triple major he jokes, "I basically spent too much time at school." Hard work doesn't seem to be something that Kiliii shies away from.

"I love building boats, and designing boats, and paddling boats, and fishing out of boats, and doing all sorts of stuff; boats are amazing. And once you've built your own boat, especially a skin-on-frame kayak, it completely changes your world. I grew up hunting and fishing, but I think for me the kayak was really something that felt close to home.

There is a lot of demand for new designs and I also have quite a few designs on the shelf that are waiting to be prototyped. My interests sort of flow, so right now I am working on a Micronesian sailing canoe and I've got a commission for a Japanese fishing boat. So that is all new stuff that I'll have to build that isn't necessarily kayak related, even though I love kayaks – they are my first and foremost love."

Although traditionally made from driftwood, hides of marine mammals and coated in blubber to waterproof the boat, kayaks today are made quite differently. They are usually made from synthetic materials, but, as Kiliii says, "the funny thing is that in the modern world a skin-on-frame kayak makes so much more sense; it just does. They are lighter, take fewer materials to build, they cost less, they are easier to construct, they take less time to build, you don't require huge chunks of wood, and they are durable in the long run. There are all sorts of benefits to skin-on-frame kayaks."

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As Kiliii's skill-set and enthusiasm for kayaks grew, his wilderness and survival school morphed into a skin-on-frame kayak building workshop, Seawolf Kayak. Nowadays, Kiliii's interests have shifted once again and he works mostly as a photographer, focussing on adventure and environmental photography. He says, "I think initially I loved photographing so I could share all the cool stuff we were doing with the survival school and kayaks. At some point I decided I loved being able to create something that really fired people's imaginations. For me, it's all about the romance of the natural world and getting people wrapped in that."

He still teaches kayak building courses a handful of times a year, and occasionally dips back into guiding wilderness survival expeditions. "The important part of it, especially forSeawolf Kayak, will always be the importance of spreading the technology and getting people out on the water and enjoying being part of the natural world."

"Kayak building is just a part of my life and who I am, and if I was to ever leave it behind then I'd also be leaving behind a big piece of myself – I just wouldn't do that. Although, I think the thing that you start to realise when you get older is that even if you stop doing something it will always be a part of you, you can always come back to it. There's just so many wonderful things to do and try in this world, and holding on to anything too hard just stops you from living your life fully."

Kiliii is a very confident and positive person who rather effortlessly straddles two seemingly disparate worlds. On the one hand, he's steeped in the ancient cultures and traditions of his ancestry, extremely in tune with the natural world, and is comfortable and capable of working with his hands. Yet he also lives in the heart of a major city, Seattle, where he has a photography studio using all the modern technology available to him.

When asked how he reconciles those two worlds – assuming that there may be an inherent tension between the promotion and preservation of a subsistence way of life while also engaging in mainstream modern culture – he answered, "Well, I'm a very positive person so I choose to look at the positive elements of each lifestyle, and don't spend much time thinking about the negatives. My ancestry and culture is so deeply entwined with who I am that I never worry about losing it in the context of modern culture." •