Skip to main content
tom hawthorn

The floor of George Dyson's workshop is crowded with the shells of kayaks in various states of completion.

This is home to Dyson Baidarka & Company, where a renowned boat builder creates crafts of an ancient lineage from modern materials. The one-story building in the Old Town section of Bellingham, Wash., once housed Dick's Tavern. Where patrons nursed grandiose dreams from atop barstools, Mr. Dyson prefers to do his thinking in an old and battered, but prized, chair once owned by a friend.

He bought the tavern at the mouth of Whatcom Creek in 1989, after spending nearly two decades living along the British Columbia coast, spending years as a squatter in Belcarra, outside Vancouver. For some of those winters, his shelter could be found atop a Douglas fir about 30 metres above terra firma.

Mr. Dyson, 59, a high-school dropout, is a historian of technology – the topic of his four books, the latest of which, Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, was released earlier this year. The book tells the story of the Electronic Computer Project, an early, post-war effort to build a machine capable of complex calculations. (The U.S. government sought forecasts of the consequence of thermonuclear explosions.) Mr. Dyson, the son of Freeman Dyson, a famous theoretical physicist and mathematician, grew up among the children of the project's scientists at Princeton, N.J. Young George was babysat by Albert Einstein's secretary.

The family later moved to California, where his father joined a top-secret program to design a propulsion system using nuclear bombs to propel interplanetary spacecraft. (Among the visitors to George's three-room schoolhouse was Theodore Geisel, better known as the children's author and illustrator Dr. Seuss.) The failed Mars program is the subject of Mr. Dyson's Project Orion, while he examined the development of artificial intelligence in Darwin Among the Machines.

In 1970, at age 16, George Dyson came to Vancouver to attend his sister's wedding one dawn on Kitsilano Beach. He crashed with the newlyweds and found the vibe of the city to his liking.

He remembers buying at a bookshop on Pender Street a $3 copy of Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America. "A catalogue of native American boat designs," he said. "In there, I saw this big two-hatch kayak, a Russian version of a Kodiak Island design. The book mentioned the Russians had built three-hatch versions, but the authors did not regard that as a native American version. It was impure. It was Russian. But that fascinated me. So, I built one."

First, he built a one-person kayak on the front porch of his sister's rented house in Kitsilano. He became determined to build larger kayaks, based on the native Aleut design, known by the Russians as baidarka (pronounced by-DARK-ah), which he used as the title of his first book, published in 1986. He sought the solitude and privacy of a sheltered spot along the waterfront on Belcarra Bay, overlooking Indian Arm and Burrard Inlet beyond. The nearby village, not yet incorporated, still had blacksmith shops and other businesses for the marine trade.

As winter came, he knew he needed a better shelter than a tent.

"It was dark and wet in the woods. I looked up in this tree and thought, 'Oh, treehouse.' There was a perfect tree with an incredible view. I didn't intend to build a house that far off the ground, but the higher I went the better it got."

He hoisted building materials aloft with a rope and pulley. The structure, attached to 14 different branches, was lashed together in the same fashion as his boats. The exterior was covered in cedar shakes and driftwood logs. Two windows were salvaged from an old house, while others were the safety-glass fronts of old colour television sets.

The only cash expense was two rolls of nylon seine twine for which he spent less than $12. (To compare, Henry David Thoreau spent $28.12 1/2 on his cabin at Walden Pond. In 1845.)

Even now, Mr. Dyson thinks treehouse is too grand a description for his home. "More like a tree cabin," he said.

On the shore, he built ever larger kayaks culminating in 1975 with the 48-foot Mount Fairweather, which had stations for six kayakers.

Over the years, during which he became a Canadian citizen, he explored the coast from Belcarra to Alaska by kayak. He lived in the woods until the birth of his daughter.

He is forever grateful to the people who helped an obsessive teenager with a crazy dream. "It's a huge credit to British Columbia that a kid like me was allowed to do this," he said.

Among those who encouraged him was Robert Hunter, the legendary Vancouver Sun columnist and Greenpeace co-founder who wrote the first story about Mr. Dyson's quest, describing him as a prophet from the wilderness. They became fast friends and when the chair on which Mr. Hunter wrote his 1968 novel, Erebus, was to be tossed, Mr. Dyson claimed it, using it in his shop to this day.

"I do my best thinking in it," he said. "It's the ugliest, most comfortable chair I ever saw."

Later this year, Mr. Dyson will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Victoria, a celebration of a science historian and master boat builder who never completed high school but went into the woods and found himself.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Interact with The Globe