Kayaking originated among the Inuit, the natives of Greenland, probably a thousand or more years ago. Qajaq is the Inuit word that we know as kayak. For the Inuit, the kayak was an essential tool for hunting seals, a critical source of food. These sturdy, lightweight craft consisted of a skeletal wooden frame (made from driftwood, as there are no trees native to Greenland) assembled for the most part without metal fasteners, which was covered with sealskin. This type of construction is called skin-on-frame, often abbreviated as S-O-F or SOF.
|Fred Randall's KOG 77
from the qajaq in the frigid Arctic waters
surrounding Greenland would mean certain death for the
hunter. By necessity, methods of self-rescue in the event of
a capsize were developed as a means of
permitting the paddler to stay in the kayak.
Best known among these techniques is the righting of the
kayak by what is often called an “Eskimo roll”. There are
many variations of rolling
maneuvers, 35 of which are included in the repertoire of the Greenland
National Championships each year.
The encroachment of European influence brought modern sea craft, rifles, and engines to Greenland, causing the Inuit to give up the use of their traditional craft for more than a generation. During this period, most of the existing kayaks in Greenland, left to the elements, simply disintegrated. This iconic part of Inuit culture was nearly lost. Interestingly, the very Europeans who had caused this profound change in Inuit culture had also preserved it in numerous museum collections throughout the world. A number of scholars of Arctic history, including John Heath, E. Arima, and Harvey Golden, have taken careful measurements of many of the kayaks and other artifacts in these collections. A recent book by Harvey Golden, Kayaks of Greenland (KOG), contains by far the most comprehensive collection of Greenland kayak measurements, probably representing a majority of the world’s surviving Greenland kayaks. Harvey’s detailed drawings enable those who are interested to create faithful skin-on-frame reproductions of these native kayaks. Modern Greenland kayakers often refer to their kayaks by the corresponding plate number in KOG. The availability of such scholarly works has enabled a renaissance of kayaking in its own home, Greenland.
By building, paddling, and rolling reproduction kayaks, individuals around the world have helped "keep the faith" for the Greenlanders. Typically, reproduction kayaks are made quite like the originals, with the primary exception being the skin, or covering of the kayak. Traditionally made from sealskin, today’s modern reproductions, even in Greenland, take advantage of modern materials such as ballistic nylon or cotton canvas, saturated with a waterproof covering of paint or polyurethane. Many Greenland-style kayakers paddle replica skin-on-frame kayaks, or kayaks custom made to fit them. Organizations such as Qajaq USA, Northern Lights Qajaq Society, and Walden Qajaq Society, provide opportunities for paddlers to connect with one another and for new paddlers to learn about the kayaks and develop skills.
Modern Greenland-style kayaking is, for the most part, the use of a traditional SOF kayak, or at least a kayak having features characteristic of Greenland kayaks (hard chines, low volume, and a low back deck). These kayaks lend themselves to a myriad of Greenland paddling and rolling techniques due to their design and snug fit, along with the use of the Greenland paddle. The Greenland paddle has long, narrow, unfeathered blades, and a short loom or shaft, a combination with many practical advantages for long distance, rough weather, and quiet paddling, as well as for side-sculling and kayak rolling.
Many Greenland-style kayakers also carry a norsaq, a small, blade-shaped piece of wood. Originally, the Inuit used the norsaq as a harpoon throwing stick, increasing the range and lethality of the harpoon. When an Inuit would lose his paddle in a capsize, he might grab his norsaq as a means of rolling up. Nowadays, norsaqs are used almost exclusively in rolling.
Greenland-style kayakers often use modern versions of Inuit paddling coats, called tuiliks (or tuiliqs), which provide warmth, a sealed cockpit, and flotation. Originally made of sealskin, modern tuiliks are usually made of neoprene wetsuit material.
Maligiaq in his seal-skin tuilik
Dan in a neoprene tuilik
For the cost of a fairly inexpensive plastic kayak, one can, instead, build a beautiful, traditional kayak that will be a joy to paddle and carry on an ancient tradition. There are many resources available for people who want to build or buy a kayak, paddle, or tuilik (see the links page for more info). Paddling a traditional kayak with a traditional paddle offers the paddler a remarkable experience echoing those who first developed this means of transportation in the frigid arctic waters many years ago. May the history and tradition of Inuit kayaks live on through the scholars, builders and paddlers of these beautiful kayaks.
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