The archive of outdoor enthusiast and inventor Leonard Karr features kayaks, decoys, and other technologies originally developed by Indigenous Peoples.
Kayaking began as a recreational activity in the United States in the 19th century, and it entered the mainstream in the 1970s. Today, recreational kayaking is one of the most popular paddle sports with more than 11 million participants, of which I am one. (Outdoor Foundation, 2019, page 17) But before kayaks became almost exclusively recreational, they were “working” boats used for fishing, hunting, and transportation. Kayaks originated with the Greenlandic and Alaskan Inuit. With a pointed bow and stern and no keel, it was covered except for a cockpit in which the paddler or paddlers sat facing forward and used a double-bladed paddle.
The kayak was commonly built for one occupant but could be designed for two or three. They were built by stretching seal or other animal skins over a driftwood or whalebone frame and rubbing them with animal fat to waterproof the covering. The paddler wore an overlapping shield, now known as a skirt, to permit the kayak to be righted without shipping (i.e., taking on water) after rolling over. The kayak was used by Inuit men for fishing and hunting. Its shallow draft, narrow width, and quiet operation allowed hunters to explore tightly constricted waterways with great stealth, which helped them harvest more game. (Britannica Academic).
John MacGregor (1825-1892), a Scottish patent lawyer, re-discovered and re-created an Inuit kayak solely for enjoyment and detailed this work and his travels in the 1866 book, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe. MacGregor introduced a clinker-planked boat, in which the edges of the hull planks overlap each other, driven by a small mast and sail and a double-bladed paddle. He called it a canoe, but in North America it would be known as a cruising kayak.
MacGregor wrote of the advantages of his canoe:
"For now, as he sits in his little bark, he looks forward, and not backward. He sees all his course, and the scenery besides. With one sweep of his paddle, he can turn aside when only a foot from destruction. He can steer within an inch in a narrow place, and can easily pass-through reeds and weeds, or branches and grass; can work his sail without changing his seat; can shove with his paddle when aground and can jump out in good time to prevent a bad smash. He can wade and haul his craft over shallows, or drag it on dry ground, through fields and hedges, over dykes, barriers, and walls; can carry it by hand up ladders and stairs, and can transport his canoe over high mountains and broad plains in a cart drawn by a man, a horse, or a cow.” (MacGregor, Chapter 1)"
MacGregor’s book generated tremendous interest in recreational kayaking.
Another European, German Alfred Heurich (1883-1967), also sought inspiration from the Inuit kayak. Heurich, who studied architecture and ultimately practiced as an architect, took an interest in wooden boats and inspiration from seeing a kayak at the Munich Museum of Ethnology. He patented a collapsible canvas boat with longitudinal struts consisting of several sections (German Patent DE212972) in 1907 and a flat boat (German Patent DE417850) in 1925. Fellow German Johann Klepper (1897-1944), a tailor by training, acquired a license and/or permission to use Heurich’s 1907 design and is largely credited with bringing to market the folding kayak, which he manufactured through the company Klepper Faltbootwerft GmbH. The flat boat became popular during a back to nature movement that began in the 1880s. Reacting against the effects of the Industrial Revolution, Europeans enjoyed kayaking as part of this resurgence in the outdoors. Klepper also patented a flatboat (German Patent DE358869) in 1922.
Leonard Karr (1913-1995), whose papers are now part of the National Museum of American History collections, was a native of Yakima, Washington. A sign painter and designer who painted airplane nose art while serving in the 216th Unit of the Army Air Force at Wendover Field, Utah, during World War II, Karr also applied his artistic and inventive talents to his hobbies. For example, he began paddling in the 1920s and ultimately designed and built his own kayak in 1933.
Karr’s kayak allowed him to paddle his local waterways for recreation. As an avid outdoorsman, he was a successful fisherman and hunter, especially of geese. Built using a paper pattern sketched in pencil, Karr’s single person kayak was made of spruce and had a “U” shaped removable back support and a long two-sided paddle. He carried the kayak atop his car on a wooden handmade portable roof rack set and affectionately referred to it as his “gun boat.”
Karr’s archive contains drawings and other documents that reflect his inventive thinking. For inspiration, he often drew on technologies originally developed by Indigenous Peoples, illustrating the iterative nature of inventive creativity. The collection also contains several photograph albums that document his outdoor life in the Northwest United States. Images depict fishing, hunting, kayaking, and small gatherings of family friends pursuing leisure “rambling” in the mountains and enjoying lakeside picnics. Karr was a subscriber to and reader of many of the popular outdoor magazines of his day that promoted and embraced recreation, such as: Forest and Stream: A Journal of Outdoor Life, Travel, Nature Study, Shooting, Fishing, Camping, Yachting; Field & Stream; Sports Afield; National Sportsman; and Outdoor. They were filled with stories of hunting, fishing, hiking, and instructions for making decoys and boats.
Karr designed several devices to assist in his hunting, including decoys, pit covers, and blinds. In 1956, he was issued a patent for two-dimensional water fowl decoys (US Patent 2,746,196), which were sold under the Real-Geese Silhouette Decoys brand and marketed to hunters in the American Northwest. According to Karr’s patent: “By constructing the decoy from one piece of sheet material and in providing a simple support and connecting means for the support and decoy, it will be readily apparent that the same may be easily knocked down for transport to the hunting field and may be quickly connected for service in the field. The construction is such that the decoy occupies a minimum of space.” Karr did not renew his patent after its initial term expired, but his original design lives on.
Duck decoys date to approximately 1,000 B.C. in North America. A figure resembling a duck made primarily from plant materials, the decoy was invented by Native Americans living in what is now northwest Utah. The decoys were used to attract migrating ducks, a source of food. (Keoke and Portfield, page 80) According to Keoke and Portfield, some archaeologists suggest that indigenous hunters wore the decoys on their heads while submerged in water and breathed through a hollow reed. They would grab ducks attracted to the decoys and pull them underwater. Karr, too, would experiment with a pit cover worn on his head.
Wood decoys made by machinery appeared after the Civil War. Produced until the 1920s, they became known as the “factory decoy.” Among the earliest manufacturers were George Petersen (Petersen Decoy Company), Jasper N. Dodge (Dodge Decoy Factory), and William J. Mason (Mason Decoy Factory), all of Detroit, Michigan. These companies began with hand- carved wood decoys, later transitioning to mass produced, lathe-turned decoys. Some of the earliest patented decoys include Jacob Foster’s (US Patent 92,293) in 1869 and Herman Strater and William Sohier’s (US Patent 156,239) in 1874. While many decoys are collected for their artistic value, Karr’s decoys offer insight into their actual use in hunting geese.
Karr also experimented with designs for hunting blinds, shelters which are often camouflaged to conceal hunters. His archive contains a sketch dated 1991 for a man-sized, goose-shaped hunting blind that he called "Super Goose," and an undated one for a two-person "cow" blind. One of Karr’s ideas documented in his collection is for a utility carrying case, drawn in 1945. It incorporates his many interests—fishing, hunting and nature details—and speaks to his practicality and need in the field to carry items.
To learn more about the Leonard Karr Collection, visit the Archives Center.
- Barber, Joel. Wildfowl Decoys. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1934.
- “Kayak.” Britannica Academic. Last accessed on March 28, 2023, https://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/kayak/44916.
- “Floating Sculptures from Behind the Redwood Curtain.” Clarke Historical Museum. Last accessed on March 25, 2023, https://www.clarkemuseum.org/floating-sculptures.html.
- Delph, John. Factory Decoys of Mason, Stevens, Dodge, and Peterson. Exton, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 1980.
- Keoke, Emory Dean and Kay Marie Porterfield. Encyclopedia of American Indian Inventions to the World: 15,000 Years of Inventions and Innovations. New York: Checkmark Books, 2009.
- "100-year Klepper history in facts." Klepper. Last accessed on April 18, 2023, https://klepper.de/en/klepper-geschichte.
- McGregor, John. A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company Limited, 1866.
- McLean, Daniel and Amy Hurd. Kraus' Recreation and Leisure in Modern Society. New York: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2014.
- Outdoor Foundation. 2019 Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety. Last accessed on April 4, 2023, https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.americancanoe.org/resource/resmgr/sei-educational_resources/2019_Special_Report_on_Paddl.pdf.
- Sharp, Ronald K. Detroit Decoy Dynasty: The Factory Decoys of Petersen, Dodge, and Mason. Lawsonville, North Carolina: Hunting and Fishing Collectibles Magazine, 2009.
- Stolberg-Wernigerode, Otto zu. New German Biography, Vol. 9. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1972.
- Weatherford, Jack. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.
- “Alfred Heurich.” Wikipedia. Last accessed on April 18, 2023, https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Heurich.
- German translations by Christine Windheuser, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.