Greenland's culture of the kayak

Kayaks and icebergs, in Ilulissat, Greenland.
Picture: Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

The kayak has played a vital role in the history of the frozen north, with resonances that spread around the globe. 

Hanging against the timber rafters of an old shop in a remote fjord in Greenland is the delicate prow of a sea kayak. It is a familiar shape — it could be the one hanging on my own kayak rack.

But the frame of this kayak is wood, where others might have been whalebone, and it is covered with seal skins, sewn together so that the stitches don’t fully pierce the hide. This is an original, authentic Greenland kayak; in Greenlandic, qajaq.

This is the home of this style of kayak, and this room in the remote community of Upernavik is a place I have longed to see.

I have been paddling an equivalent sea kayak since my first, a Nordkapp, bought soon after it was designed for the British Norway expedition in 1975 and a rounding of Cape Horn by kayak in 1977. I still paddle my much-used and ancient Nordkapp, alongside my new sea kayaks, as it feels authentic. Indeed, there is a Nordkapp in the National Maritime Museum in the UK.

In my Nordkapp, I feel at one with the water. It feels almost Inuit.

“Inuit are the true masters of sea kayaking,” says Adventure Canada expedition team member and Arctic filmmaker Julia Szucs, a keen kayaker. On Adventure Canada’s Out of the Northwest Passage expedition on the Ocean Endeavour, she offers guests an insightful presentation on kayaks and their history — and there is no better place to do it.

For, perhaps as far back as 4000 years ago, men hunted sea animals from such a slender single-seat boat. If it flipped over, it was easily righted, which was vital in these cold waters. 

“Traditionally kayaks were used for short distances and for hunting,” Julia says. Like the Dorset and Thule people who were the ancestors of Inuit, kayaks migrated from Siberia, through Alaska.

In the Aleutian Islands, they were deep and beamy for rough seas. In the Canadian Arctic, kayaks developed with a long, upturned prow. Here in Greenland, their lower profile reflected these calmer waters. 

“They hunted among the ice — their kayaks had to be easy to roll,” says Julia.

The bigger, open umiak, which might be from 5.1m to 18.2m long, was used to transport goods and as a family boat. They are thought to have reached Greenland around 1200AD. The climate was warmer and there was less ice.

For both umiaks and kayaks, men made the frames, women prepared the skins, and they worked together to cover the boats. They needed constant oiling, as saltwater dries out hide.

A good relationship with the boat was important. You took care of it; it took care of you.

The decks were full of gear. Harpoons were attached to an inflated seal skin, which floated behind a speared animal and prevented them diving, tiring them; a round frame to spool the line; a kayak knife. Hunters mounted a white rectangular screen on the foredeck to disguise themselves and used a throwing board to propel harpoons, like an Aboriginal woomera. Great skills were needed to hunt — I try to imagine hunting a walrus from kayaks.

Paddlers wore a tuilik — a soft sealskin anorak which tied around the hoop that formed the cockpit coaming, sealing the paddler in the boat. Paddles were thin and short.

Inuit kayak builders had specific plans for their kayaks, and each kayak was built specifically for a paddler. The cockpit was as wide as the paddler’s hips, plus two fists. Its length was three times that of his outstretched arms. It was as deep as his fist with its thumb outstretched. And this ended up, on average 5.18m long and 50cm wide.

There were different styles — the rounded lines and many chines of the baidarkas of Alaska, the more angular shape and rising bow and stern of the west Greenland kayaks and the east Greenland kayaks, which were lower volume and a tighter fit.

They were for hunting — mainly seals, and of those, mostly ringed seals, a staple food of the Inuit, but also for narwhals, walrus and even belugas and polar bears.

There is an effort to reconnect young Inuit in Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic, to their kayaking roots through the “Q is for Qajaq” program. “Q is for Qajaq” was the idea of Eric McNair-Landry, a young adventurer who took part in a 1000km Baffin Island expedition using traditional kayaks built with students in Nunavut. “Q is for Qajaq” is a collaboration between the Canadian Canoe Museum and the Students on Ice Foundation, which takes youngsters on educational expeditions. Eric led the building of three more traditional Baffin design kayaks at the museum, which were paddled by youngsters during the Students on Ice Arctic expedition last year.

And it was another young adventurer who took sea kayaks to the wider world. There had been a long connection between the traditional craft of Greenland and early sea kayakers in Scotland. Then in 1959, a student at the University of Glasgow called Kenneth Taylor undertook a solo expedition to the Uummannaq Fjord area of West Greenland to study kayaks, kayaking techniques and to learn about seal hunting by kayak. There, kayak builder Emanuele Kornielsen made him a sealskin kayak. Kenneth took it home, showed it and the techniques he had learned, and soon a plywood version was being made. That Anas Acuta kayak opened the way for the Nordkapp. In the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium in Monaco last year, I saw a Greenland kayak with a small sail mounted on the front.

History continues to be written. The migration of the kayak from Siberia to the Aleutian Islands, Nunavut in Arctic Canada and Greenland has continued east to Scotland, Norway and beyond.

Further south-east along the Greenland coast, in Ilulissat, I will see traditional wooden kayak frames, tied at the joints and covered with modern fabrics. One paddler shows me the frame in his boat — his grandfather’s, covered now not in seal skin, but in “painted linen”.

There is a big rack of unlocked boats on the foreshore, overlooking a bay full of the icebergs that spew from the Ilulissat Icefjord. They vary from glass fibre to canvas-skinned, chined boats very like the Anas Acuta, to kayaks almost identical to the Nordkapp. But they still have round hoop coamings.

In the Inuit Cafe there, a new frame hangs from the timber ceiling. In the Ilulissat museum I see old carved toys — tiny wooden kayaks and one with the simple shape of a person inside.

Further still down the coast, in Sisimiut, there’s a healthy kayak club on the banks of its fjord, and one of its Inuit paddlers demonstrates some of the 90 kayak rolls that were developed to right boats quickly, under any circumstance, in these dangerously cold waters.

Kayaks are both alive today and embedded in Greenlandic history and culture.

After nearly 40 years of sea kayaking, it feels quite surreal to be in this upstairs room of kayaks at Upernavik Museum.

There are three hanging over rafters, two at the end of the room, a tuilik, paddles and the hunting tools they used. Along one side, on a stand, fully kitted out, is a kayak complete with all its accessories used by a hunter called Pavia Grim, from Aappilattoq, until the mid 1960s.

And above me, the delicate prow of a sea kayak that could be my own.

Duration: 03m 23s

Fact File


Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Adventure Canada and Canada Tourism.


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