Kayaking through Time with the Inuit

Trek Essentials

Where:Invented by the Arctic Inuits, popular throughout the west in various extreme sport forms.
History: A mean of transport & hunting, representing ingenuity and freedom of the seas
Remember to bring: Kayak, waterproofs, layers of warm clothing
Watch out for: Dangerous seas. Training is vital, as is travelling with a guide and learning the safety moves.

Short History of the Kayak

The Kayak has been used for both transport and sport since ancient times across the world. TheInuits were the first people in the world to invent the kayak. The Inuit and Aleut tribes built kayaks from a driftwood or whalebone framework and stretched across it sea lion skins, made waterproof with whale fat. Larger kayaks known as umiaq carried whole families and their possession, the eskimo equivalent of a van or 12 x 10. The hunter rowing the kayak would wear a sealskin “annuraaq”, from which the western name for a waterproof or “anorak” comes from.

The kayak represents hardy ingenuity in the face of a difficult climate, and has an image of freedom and brotherhood with the seas. Each kayak is crafted using unique designs specific to the region. They demonstrate ingenious technology and craftsmanship in their designs. The kayaks from the Bering Strait area were stable with massive amounts of storage space for all their booty, and the Baffin Island models were long, broad and flared for a stable and dry ride. The sea kayak is part of a rich culture heritage for the people of Iceland and Greenland, as well as the most popular sport of the nation.

Kayaking in Nuuk, Greenland

The kayak is perfect for hunting on the water as it doesn’t make any sound so it’s easy to sneak up from behind your prey, and if you put a white cloth in front, the animals or seals (who are easily fooled) think that you are a piece of ice. Each kayak is different and “made to measure” depending on a person’s size and height. That is why the Inuit say when a person has fallen or died from kayak hunting that he has been borrowing someone else’s kayak, because he doesn’t have the same sense of balance.

At the local kayak club in Nuuk you can rent a kayak and get lessons as well, but be prepared to carry your own kayak!

The only people left who hunt whale by sea kayak are in the far north of Greenland, but in Nuuk every Sunday afternoon the locals practice their ancient kayak skills like the Eskimo Roll. Perfecting the roll manoeuvre is vital in the event of capsizing, especially as most Greenlanders have never learnt to swim. The sea is dangerously cold, three minutes in the water and the body begins to shut down.

Kayaking and the West

Kayaking as a leisure sport was brought to the west in 1845 when English lawyer, John MacGregor designed his own kayak and travelled around Europe in it. His books and subsequent interest spawned the foundation of the Royal Canoe Club in 1866, later followed by a New York club in 1871.

Lochsa in Idaho, USA, is the birthplace of Kayaking as a mainstream sport during the early 1970’s. 100 years later the rules of the game have changed, now kayaking has merged with white water rafting to become its own extreme sport – whitewater kayaking, where trekkers tackle torrential river, falls and rapids. Rodeo kayaking is the most recent addition to the sport, boaters perform tricks like cartwheels, free-style grabs (similar to ocean surfing) and high braces. It has been introduced at the Olympics.

More Information

A short history of the Kayak
Olympic Kayak history

By Susi O’Neill

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