The History of the Greenland Style Sea Kayaking Movement


In 2008, filmmakers Tom Sharp and Dubside released a documentary about the origins of the Greenland style sea kayaking movement in the United States. The film was titled Modern Greenland Kayaking and was only available on DVDs purchased through their website, Dubside cut a short version which screened at a few sea kayaking events and paddling symposia. At the time, the fringe Greenland style sea kayaking movement benefited from having an ally in the editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine, Chris Cunningham, a builder of wooden boats and Greenland style enthusiast who had written a book on how to build skin-on-frame kayaks, titled, “Building the Greenland Kayak”. Tom and Dubside were hoping to get some publicity for the film in Sea Kayaker but unfortunately, the film was released just before the magazine's demise and it never had wide distribution.

In addition to Chris Cunningham, the film features George Gronseth of Kayak Academy, former Qajaq USA president Greg Stamer, Greenland kayaking historian John Heath, Greenland National Kayaking Champion Maligiaq Padilla, kayaking championship head judge Kamp Absalonsen, and founder of the Delmarva Paddler’s Retreat, Cindy Cole. Sea kayaking legend Freya Hoffmeister even makes an appearance!

The origin of the Greenland style kayaking movement in the United States can be traced to a gathering of about 30 sea kayakers at Camp Arrowhead on Rehoboth Bay, Delaware during the late 1980s, an event which would later become known as the Delmarva Paddler’s Retreat, now the premier Greenland kayaking event in the country. Interestingly, “Delmarva” was not originally an all-Greenland style event, and during the first gathering only a couple people even knew how to roll. When kayak historian John Heath first attended, he showed people how the Greenlanders taught kayak rolling. Eventually he brought 16 year-old Greenland National Kayaking Champion Maligiaq Padilla to Delmarva, and a strengthening connection between this group of paddlers and the Greenlanders resulted in the formation of Qajaq USA, the American chapter of the Greenland Kayaking Association, Qaannat Kattuffiat. Qajaq USA went on to host a number of annual events which brought Greenland style experts, kayak builders, and sea kayakers together for rolling instruction, paddle carving, and kayak building workshops all across the country.

Rolling compRopes

During the second half of his film, Dubside gives us a look inside the 2006 Greenland National Kayaking Championships in Sisimuit, including footage of the rolling competition where Greenlanders compete in sleek, low volume skin-on-frame qajaqs and wear traditional sealskin paddling jackets called tuiliks. Unfortunately Maligiaq Padilla was unable to compete, since he had been badly injured in a boating accident the day before.

The film spends a lot of time covering the Greenlandic ropes gymnastics competition, an event which Dubside says actually requires a lot more strength and skill and involves a great deal more maneuvers than the kayak rolling competition. This emphasis on ropes gymnastics is not surprising given Tom and Dubside’s earlier effort to popularize ropes gymnastics in their first film, Qajaasaarneq, an instructional film of "1000-year-old exercises for strength, flexibilty, balance, and coordination". Although seemingly unrelated to the modern sport of sea kayaking, ropes gymnastics is an important part of the Greenlandic kayaking tradition, and a competitor's performance in this sport makes up a large part of their overall score in the National Championships.

Modern Greenland Kayaking is an important document on how traditional Greenlandic kayaking techniques were enthusiastically adopted by paddling communities in the United States and spread all over the world. Over the years since I began sea kayaking, I have noticed how the general skill level in kayak rolling has increased, and I attribute that to the popularity of Greenland style, the availability of instructors who could teach these techniques, and of course to the availability of a great deal of information on the internet. The sport of sea kayaking owes a lot to the enthusiastic pioneers who forged a relationship with the Greenlanders at Qaannat Kattuffiat in order to spread this knowledge. Without the contributions of the Greenland style movement, sea kayaking would be a far less interesting sport indeed!

I am happy to be able to share the entire film here with the permission of Dubside.

Modern Greenland Kayaking, a film by Dubside (2008) from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Excerpt from "Amphibious Man"

Excerpt from "Amphibious Man" from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

I thought I would share this clip of Greenland kayaking champion John Petersen from "Amphibious Man" (1996), A film by Ivars Silis.

From the back cover of the VHS tape:

The kayak in Greenland, a 1000 year old history!

A thrilling documentary about the kayak, Greenland's contribution to world culture. Ivars Silis, photographer and writer, follows the young Greenlander, John Petersen, who expertly guides his frail craft through howling storms and the crystal world of icebergs. Impressive in his mastery of the vessel, he is carrying on the 1000 year-old kayak tradition of his ancestors.

Finally, John does battle with other kayak champions from all over Greenland at the Greenlandic traditional kayak paddling championships. This unparalleled display of skill in several hotly contested disciplines leads to the crowning of the overall champion--the "kayak virtuoso."

"Amphibious Man" presents adventurous nature pictures and a thrilling portrait of both traditional and present Greenland.



James Manke: This one weird trick will improve your Greenland rolls!

James Manke: This one weird trick will improve your Greenland rolls! from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Greenland-style paddling instructor James Manke is the founder of the website All Things Qajaq. He teaches at sea kayaking symposiums and events throughout the world, and along with paddler James Roberts, represented Canada to compete in the 2014 National Greenland Kayaking Championships. James Manke won gold in the Greenland rolling competition and 5 silver medals in other traditional kayaking disciplines. He is an active member of West Coast Canadian ocean kayaking group, The Hurricane Riders. We interviewed James at the 2015 Pacific Paddling Symposium.

Paddling out of Pedder Bay, Vancouver Island. Photo © Katya Palladina
Paddling out of Pedder Bay, Vancouver Island. Photo © Katya Palladina

Andrew: What was going on today at PPS?

James: Today was Coaches Day. It was all about getting out there, sharing with and inspiring fellow instructors, which I found very rewarding. One of the things I found very interesting was all the different games that some of these coaches are utilizing and playing. They’re quite clever, actually. Some of the other things that I picked up, and one of the things I do often in rolling, is that I talk a lot about a “load-drive concept”. When we implemented that into strokes and all the different techniques that are out there, it was amazing to find out that the load-drive concept is actually used though all the skill sets in kayaking, along with other sports. It’s very valuable to have a Coaches Day like this at the beginning of a symposium, simply because you can bounce ideas off other instructors. It’s just really rewarding as an instructor to have that as an experience.

Andrew: What will you be teaching this weekend?

James: I’ll be focusing on teaching Greenland rolling, primarily in the pool, and a lot of beginner rolling, some intermediate, and a little bit of advanced. Then on Sunday I’ll be teaching out in the actual currents, out in Race Rocks. We’re going to be doing a Greenland rolling clinic out in the currents, which is the next step after learning your roll. It’s kind of exciting because it’s the first time that’s happened here at PPS, so I’m pretty excited about that on Sunday.

Andrew: So how did you first get into Greenland rolling?

James: Interestingly enough, I got into Greenland rolling from a fear of the water. I was afraid of the water, and it all started when I was a young child. I actually got attacked by a loon when I was 11 years old. I was in a belly boat, and I was kicking backwards, coming around this pier and fly fishing. I kicked into a loon’s nest, and that was a big mistake. It was either the mother or the father, and it swarmed me, and came at me, then it decided to go under the water and it attacked me that way. It became quite an experience! I got out of the water, and never went in to the water until my late 20s, and when I did it was pools primarily. I wouldn’t step foot in a lake, because there are loons in a lake. And the ocean? Heck, no! I mean, if there are loons in a lake, what’s in the ocean, right? There was no chance of me even going in the ocean. I was quite terrified of the water.

When I picked up kayaking and discovered rolling I thought, Hey, this could be a great way for me to overcome that fear of the water. So I picked up on that, and it did help. It started to help me overcome that fear. I discovered that the more that I understood it and that the more rolls I learned, the more confident I became. I went from being completely afraid of the water to, all of a sudden, now I’m playing in the biggest water — paddling Skookumchuck rapids, and that sort of thing. I’ve been down the Grand Canyon. It just sort of all exploded from, started from, a fear of the water. Learning to roll really added a whole lot of confidence to my paddling. So that’s basically my story and how I started — a little bizarre, but that’s where I was.

Andrew: Can you comment about the difference between standard kayak paddles and Greenland paddles?

James: I personally use both paddles. I like “Euroblades” as much as I do like Greenland blades, and I’ll try to be as diverse as I can with both paddles. In the future I’d like to grab a wing paddle and start to blend that into the mix. I’m not so much a purist when it comes to Greenland paddling. I’m more about the blending of the skills. I think that there’s a lot of value from traditional kayaking that modern day kayakers can pick up, so that’s more what I promote rather than being the purist of Greenland, or being one-sided about a Greenland paddle. I think there’s value in all blades, all kayaks. The more kayaks and the more paddles you know how to use, the better paddler you are. That’s the bottom line.

Traditional paddles, modern gear. Photo © Katya Palladina
Traditional wooden paddles, modern gear. Photo © Katya Palladina

Andrew: About your trip to Greenland with James Roberts to compete in the National Kayaking Championships and to film the movie Greenland Bound — A Paddler’s Pilgrimage: How much do you think that experience changed you?

James: It definitely changed me. It changed me in a big way. Going into a competition, you really expect a competitive sort of feel. And when we got there it became very obvious that this was more of a celebration. It was more about a culture, and about inspiring young kids so that that cycle continues. It was really an inspirational event. It’s not so much about winning so much as it is about being there, and inspiring, and being a part of it. I think more of an American attitude toward something like that is that we are quite competitive. We do a lot of sports and we are competitive by nature. So going to an event like that, I walked in feeling that way, but had to give my head a shake, like, “Oh man, I’m here for the wrong reasons!” I really learned that the reason for being there was about kids, and about inspiring the next generation of paddlers. So there was a big message to learn when I was there.

There were some language barriers, for sure. In Greenland they speak Greenlandic. Their second language is Danish. There are a number of people who are Danish who live there, so you can use a Danish person as sort of a translator. But still, it’s pretty broken language. Someone from Denmark doesn’t really understand Greenlandic that well, but can kind of pick apart what it is.

James Roberts and I went to the judge’s booth, and we had a Danish guy with us to translate. We said, “When is our long distance race?” And from the translation that we got, he said, “Oh, you’ve got lots of time. You can go out for lunch.” So we thought, “Oh great! Thats awesome!” We take off our drysuits and put on all our camera gear, and start hiking up this mountain to go to have lunch. Well, we make it up to the top of the mountain, and it’s a good 15-20 minute haul to get to the top, and there’s nobody there! And we’re like, “No, you gotta be kidding! There’s nobody here!” So we sit around and wait. Nobody shows up for lunch. Ok, this is a little bit odd. So we walk all the way back down to the bottom of the mountain. And we’re like, “Yeah we went all the way up there for lunch but there’s nobody there.” And they’re like, “Oh, you missed your race!” So we ended up missing a race because of the translation that got lost!

It was a little frustrating, but we learned that you can’t really rely on the translations. If you want to be a part of this, you just have to stay in that area and just listen for your name. Because I know when they say, “JAMES MANKE, CANADA!”, I know that’s me. But all the other language is very hard to understand.

The interesting thing about culture and about different languages is that even if you don’t understand what they are saying, you can feel the energy. It’s very powerful. We felt that “welcomeness”. We could tell we were very accepted and welcome. And it took a couple days to warm into that.


Greenland Bound - A Paddler's Pilgrimage from Ontario Sea Kayak Centre on Vimeo.


Katya: What’s in your super-duper coach kit, as far as gear? Do you have some secret stuff in your PFD, something that you always bring?

James: I do like to hold on to a memento when I go paddling. For a long time it’s been a necklace of some sort. At one point I had a ring from my grandmother that I used to wear, but recently the memento that I’ve been wearing comes from a young guy that I mentored who lives on Salt Spring Island, and he made me a necklace. That’s now what I wear when I travel and teach. I make sure that I always have this necklace on me. He hand made that for me, so it’s just something that’s very special to me. So yeah, I do carry around a little something. I don’t have like a toolbox full of things that I might take out, because I am quite a minimalist when I go out paddling. But I do like to have something that I can sort of hang on to.

Andrew: How did you end up becoming a member of the Hurricane Riders?

James: Basically, how I became a Hurricane Rider is that a number of the Hurricane Riders are local to Victoria or Vancouver Island, and they became my peer paddlers. Since I started paddling I’ve always looked up to the best paddlers out there. I tried to tag along with them so I can learn from the best. I believe that if you want to become really good at something, you’ve got to surround yourself with people that are better than you, so that’s what I did. I hung around those guys, and eventually I just got brought on as a member. I think part of that was they saw some value in me for the skills and abilities that I have in rolling. And in reverse, they have skills and abilities in rough water that are absolutely incredible that that I can gain from. It was just a good partnership to join the team. I’m very happy to be a member and they are absolutely a blast to paddle with. A lot of times when I get out into some of those rougher conditions with other paddlers, they’re very timid and very afraid of the conditions. But when I’m out with those guys, it’s just nothing but fun — pure enjoyment and fun. And inspirational. I mean, we don’t just go out there and surf. It’s all about, OK, today we are going to do THIS! It’s always the next challenge, the next challenge. So that’s what I enjoy about the Hurricane Riders in particular. It’s a great group of paddlers to paddle with.

Andrew: What are your choice of kayaks?

James: I gotta be really careful what I say here because I’m a sponsored paddler, but I like a number of different kayaks. I am sponsored by Tahe Outdoors. One of the kayaks that they made in the past was the Tahe Greenland, and that is probably by far my favorite kayak that’s out there now. It is now made by a different manufacturer, but Zegul still has some Greenlands.

Some of the other kayaks that I really like — and if I was going to say some of the better kayaks that are on the market — are the Sterling Kayaks. Absolutely hands down. The Sterling Reflection is an excellent kayak. It’s very good in rough water, and actually rolls really well too. You can get in it a half-inch cut, and a one-inch cut. And they recently came out with the Progression which is meant for smaller paddlers. It’s cutting edge. It’s very cutting edge. The designer of the kayaks [Sterling Donalson] listens to paddlers, and that’s how the kayaks are made. So he takes all the input that he can from the paddlers and puts that into the build, and as a result makes the best products out there. So thats a little plug for Sterling!

A white Sterling Kayaks "Grand Illusion" at PPS. Photo © Katya Palladina
A white Sterling Kayaks "Grand Illusion" at PPS. Photo © Katya Palladina

Andrew: How is the Progression for rolling?

James: Actually, the Progression is awesome of rolling. It’s really, really good — surprisingly good! When I rolled the Reflection, I was impressed with how it’s secondary kinda pops and finishes. With the Progression, when you do forward-finish rolls, all you gotta do is get your head up to the surface and the kayak just lifts. It’s amazing! It’s almost as if it does the roll for you. It’s a very odd feeling, actually, where it just has this incredible secondary stability and it pops. I think that has a lot to do with the rocker profile and its volume. As soon as you turn it over it just wants to lift right back up. Yeah, it rolls excellent. It’s a really good rolling kayak.

Andrew: I was wondering about that, because the conventional wisdom is that you need a really low volume kayak to do those Greenland rolls.

James: Well, you need a really low volume kayak to do some of the harder layback rolls, for example. Because you are looking to get back onto that back deck. Like a straight jacket roll, for example — good luck doing that in a touring kayak! That is something you gotta do in a very, very low volume kayak. So it really depends on the rolls and what your goals are. When we’re doing a lot of sea kayaking, the focus really isn’t on straight jacket rolls. I don’t think anyone is going to go out into the rough, get knocked over and think, “Oh, I don’t need a paddle”, and roll a kayak. We don’t really rely on the back deck that much when it comes to that.

I try to teach more forward finish rolling when it comes to the larger volume kayaks because with some tour kayaks you just can’t lie on the back deck all the way. And they become very difficult to do layback rolls in, so I find that, when that’s the case, I’ll teach the storm roll or some variation of a forward finish roll.

Andrew: Is teaching sea kayaking a full time job for you?

James: Yeah, I’m a professional kayaker. I do travel around the world, and I teach, and it's what I do full time. In the winter I supplement myself a little bit with some programming work, being an ex-programmer, just to bring in a little bit of extra income. But other than that, for about 10 months out of the year I’m a full-on sea kayak instructor. It’s my profession. This will be my third year as a professional instructor. It’s extremely rewarding. It definitely doesn’t feel like a job. And I would say probably, if it was a job, it would be the best job in the world! Hands down!

I’ve been blessed to be able to travel to lots of different spots. Japan I think was probably one of the greatest places I’ve been. Just the way they treat you there — like royalty! It’s so great! They are so kind and so accepting, and they learn incredibly well, even though there was a language barrier there, and I couldn’t speak to a lot of them. It was just a matter of getting in there, and twisting the shoulders, and doing this, and I’m almost like twisting Gumby, and they’re rolling! It was like, “Wow! These guys are really good!” Like they just picked it up really, really quick!

I think one of the reasons I am good as an instructor is because a lot of the rolls that I learned were all self-taught. I learned how to do it wrong just as well as I learned how to do it right. So if I watch someone do it wrong, I know exactly what’s going wrong. And I know exactly how you can fix that problem. It’s just a matter of being visual. I can see how someone is rolling and be able to detect incorrect things. I think a lot of that comes from being self-taught. If you are taught how to do it one way, then how do you know how to do it wrong? You don’t.

Andrew: At some point you must have gotten instruction from other coaches, the gurus of Greenland kayaking?

James: I did. Actually, at one point I hired Cheri [Perry] and Turner [Wilson] when I was learning to do forward finish hand rolls, because I was struggling with that a little bit. I didn’t really get very far with the session, but there were little nuggets of information in there that stuck with me.

Still, a lot of what I teach now with the hardest rolls, I’ve never even seen online. I’ve never been taught it, but when you watch some of the Inuit paddlers do the hardest rolls, it’s pretty obvious — some of the disconnection between the energy in the legs and the upper body, and the load-drive concept. A lot to people are just doing a “hip snap” to roll a kayak, or they are talking about lifting their leg. But they’re not really talking about what is happening to the other leg.

Andrew: What exactly is the load-drive concept?

James: So the load-drive concept is relevant to a lot of sports. It’s relevant to baseball. It’s relevant to golf — a lot of sports. Kayaking is another one. We use our legs often, and the load-drive concept is about the legs. If you are “loading” a kayak, you’re going to lift one leg and drop one leg down, and you’re putting pressure upward and downward on the kayak. So if this is the load position, than this would be the drive position — it would be the opposite.... When I roll the kayak, I’m loading the kayak up. Some of the benefits to loading the kayak is that I can get more power when I drive the kayak.

One way that I like to explain that to students is that it’s like throwing a baseball. If I threw a baseball from my shoulder and I throw it forward, I might get about 10 feet. But if I take that baseball to my shoulder and I load it up, and then I throw it, I’ll probably get about 50 feet. So I gain a tremendous amount of power by adding the load-drive concept to it.

But it can work against you, just like throwing a baseball. When you first learn to throw a baseball and your dad said, “Get it back there and throw it.” And you did this, and it just kind of fell to the ground, or went to the left or the right. It’s very much the same. The timing and the technique has still gotta be there in order to get that accurate throw. So it’s very much the same as in a kayak.

Some of the benefits again to loading the kayak up: when you are loading the kayak you can get your face closer to the surface, therefore you can reach further for leverage. It makes it easier to roll the kayak.

The load-drive concept is something that I never really learned from anybody else. I was always told about a “hip snap", or “lift the leg”, but nobody ever talked about that other leg. What is that other leg doing?

When it comes to the some of the hardest rolls, forward finish brick rolls, for example, you gotta load and drive the kayak. If you don’t, it’s gonna be almost impossible to do that roll. The load drive concept is the trick to the hardest rolls.

So I like to teach that to beginners. If you can teach a beginner the hardest technique, or the theory behind the hardest technique, and they can learn that from the beginning, then their success rate is huge. They’ll continue to roll. It’s not just take a rolling session and never roll a kayak again. They actually continue to roll because they’ve got so much power in their legs once they sort that out. So that’s the load-drive concept.

Katya: What is kayaking for you? Two sentences.

James: Kayaking for me is therapy. That’s one sentence. But it’s powerful!

Freya Fennwood prepares to compete in the 2015 Greenland National Kayaking Championships

Freya is going to Greenland from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

We caught up with outdoor action photographer Freya Fennwood at the South Sound Traditional Inuit Kayak Symposium (SSTIKS) this past weekend while she was training for her upcoming trip to participate in the Greenland National Kayaking Championships. She brought along a sporty new kayak, custom-designed by her father, John Lockwood, owner and designer of Pygmy Boats, the Port Townsend manufacturer of wooden stitch-and-glue kayak kits.

After the rolling demo we sat sat down to talk with her about her preparations for Greenland. Here is the full transcript of our interview:

Andrew: What inspired you to take the trip to Greenland?

Freya: My father designed a boat specifically for me and specifically to do Greenland rolling. We came to SSTIKS actually, and Dubside was like, “You guys should go to Greenland with this boat! Freya is really good! I think she could compete and do well!”

It’s really not about doing well. It’s just a really good excuse to go take this boat there and go participate in the paddling culture, which is something that I’ve been born into and been in my whole life. To go to the birthplace of kayaking sounds like a really awesome experience, so I’m really excited to see what it’s like there, to meet the people, and participate in what they do.

Andrew: Can you tell us about what you mean about being born into the kayaking culture?

Freya: I’ve been paddling boats — in boats— since I was 18 months old. My dad designed the first kayak for me when I was 5. It was built by the time I was 6, and I paddled that. Then he designed me another boat, maybe when I was around 10, the Osprey 13. And that was my next boat, and then he didn’t really design me another boat until he designed the Freya. He decided to call this boat the Freya after me, which is pretty sweet! Can’t complain. Gotta boat named after me!

Andrew: How did your father get interested in Greenland style?

Freya: Really it’s not something he’s been into for super long. He probably picked up a Greenland paddle about 5 years ago. I remember as a little kid at kayak symposiums, seeing people with Greenland sticks and just thinking it was the silliest thing I’d ever seen. And then my dad comes up to me — he is just raving about this paddle and how it doesn’t hurt his shoulders, and how he can paddle twice as far as he could with the Euroblade. And I was like, OK, I’ll try it out. And I tried the Greenland paddle and I was like, Oh, I’m pretty young but this does actually NOT hurt my shoulders as much. I can paddle just as fast or faster, and longer with the Greenland paddle. So that kind of interest in Greenland paddling started from using the paddle first and then getting more interested in the boats.

The Pygmy boats my dad designs are definitely based off of traditional Greenland kayaks — he’d have to tell you —some big book of classic Inuit designs. His designs definitely take from that, but we’re only starting to come out with lower volume boats that are really made to do Greenland rolls really well in the past couple years.

Andrew: Tell us about your kayak. Was it designed specifically for rolling?

Freya: The Freya is really optimized to be a rolling and a kind of rock gardening play boat. We optimized it specifically for rolling, to do forward finishing rolls really well, and to do layback rolls really well. So the boat has more rocker than any other boat my dad has ever designed. It has more volume in it than a traditional, typical rolling skin-on-frame kayak, which actually helps it pop and roll up more. But it has a really low rear deck. My dad has designed this recess that is actually something that he came up with, that Pygmy has got a patent on, that really allows the back deck to be super low and then pop up to have nice volume, to have the boat flip back up. So really people are surprised when they see the boat. They think it looks really too-high volume, like, “Oh, thats probably not going to be that easy to roll.” And I’m like, “No, I’m decent at rolling but my boat is really good at rolling.”

Andrew: So you are taking the Freya to Greenland? What does it take to get a kayak over there?

Freya: We took the boat, and the shop cut it into 3 pieces. So it’s actually a three-piece take-apart kayak. We got the specs from the airlines — exactly how long the segments are allowed on the flights — and we cut the boat to those specifications. It’s bolted together at the hatches essentially.

Andrew: What kind of training have you been doing to prepare for the kayaking competition?

Freya: We’ve been thinking about potentially going for couple years and so I’ve been slowly learning. I learned how to roll about 4-5 years ago. I didn’t actually know how to roll, like as a little kid. Most of our kayaking is flat water stuff that is really close to shore. You would needn’t to use a roll.

So I learned how to roll, and then I ended up being kinda decent at it. And it was fun just to learn all these other ones. And then the possibility of going to Greenland really motivated me to learn a lot more rolls. I probably wouldn’t have learned this many rolls if there wasn’t a purpose to it. A roll generally for me is for a purpose. I learn to roll so I can go into rougher, wilder conditions. To roll in 30-some ways, the purpose for me is to go experience Greenland.

Andrew: Have you been consulting and asking for advice from some of the other people who have participated?

Freya:  I’ve talked to Dubside, and he’s taught me rolls here at SSTIKS, and has really informed us about Greenland. I was just up in Victoria with James Manke. He went and competed last year in Greenland, and he gave me a ton of information. I learned that I was supposed to preregister, and the registration was due last week! Hopefully it worked out. He contacted a person who is the head of registration, and was like, “We have this girl, Freya. She’s coming to Greenland! She really wants to participate! She had no idea there was registration that needed to be done!” So he’s been a huge help with his knowledge. But there’s a lot of information that’s hard to find.

I’ve talked to Helen Wilson, and she’s been super helpful. But there’s just a lot you don’t really know until you get there. They all say you just have to go with the flow, and go with the intention of just participating and having fun. The schedule may be two days late, so I’m just going and hoping to hang out in a beautiful place and meet other people who like to kayak.

Andrew: Do you know if there are any other international competitors going?

Freya: I have no idea if there are other international competitors. I don’t believe if there are any Canadians. I don’t know if there are any Americans. I don’t think so, so I'll find out!


Greenland Rolling at Pautik Camp, Quadra Island

Pautik Camp, Quadra Island from Baby Seal Films on Vimeo.

Gerhardt Raven of Ravenwoods Paddles and Qajaqs hosted a small gathering of traditional kayaking enthusiasts at Rebecca Spit on Quadra Island last weekend. It was loosely structured and there was no schedule. People showed up Friday and Saturday and there some rolling instruction and practice going on as well as trips out around Heriot Bay or the Breton Islands. We all shared a campsite that Gerhardt had reserved. It was right on the beach and had an awesome view of the sunset.

Alan Dunham and Michael Jackson were out rolling the first thing Saturday morning, fully geared up in tuiliks and very low volume Tahe Greenlander kayaks. Alan brought his special rolling brick that he had prepared by wrapping it in tape and coating it with bright red Plasti Dip. He was sharing a lot of tips and tricks and rolling esoterica. These guys are serious!

I put on a drysuit and waded out to shoot this video. The cove at Rebecca Spit is very shallow for quite a way out from the beach. At low tide it can be a long hike across gravel and clams and oysters to the water. At high tide the water is is a perfect rolling location: calm and protected, unusually warm and crystal clear. I shot this entirely on my iPhone 6 plus. It not only shoots HD at 240 fps, but also has optical image stabilization -- an amazing camera!

Inuit Elders And Youth Work Together To Build A Sealskin Kayak

View on YouTube

You get a good sense of what it must be like working with sealskin in this wonderful video. I was impressed by how elastic fresh seal skin is, and also how meat-centric the Inuit diet is. I have to question the nutritional value of seal meat. Although they point out that seal meat has 34x the iron of beef and a lot of calcium, excess iron potentiates free-radical oxidative damage and really should be avoided, especially in men, who have no way to excrete of excess iron. And despite the calcium, the Inuit population had and still has the highest hip-fracture rate in the world. This may be because sulfur-containing amino acids in animal protein leach out the calcium from bones, contributing to osteoporosis. Look here for a more detailed discussion of low-carbohydrate, meat-based ("primal", or "paleolithic") diets.

Wade Davis: The Story of the Inuit Shit Knife

In the early 1950s, the government of Canada adopted programs to assimilate the nomadic Inuit into southern Canadian culture. Although most of the Inuit were living self−sufficiently off the land, whalers and fur traders had affected Inuit survival and economic practices since the late 19th century, shifting the focus from subsistence hunting to commercial trapping. The stated goal of the forced resettlement was to provide employment alternatives to the fur trade, which had largely collapsed, and ensure that the Inuit had a reliable food supply and access to education and health care. The Canadian government also wanted to establish its sovereignty in the arctic during the Cold War, as well as expand programs for exploiting the mineral resources of the north, which required educated employees with sedentary housing.

Noted anthropologist Wade Davis recounts the story of one Inuit elder who refused to go to the settlements. Fearing for his life, his friends and family took away all his tools and weapons but he managed to escape into the wilderness using nothing but a knife fashioned from his own excrement.

I find this story incredibly fascinating. Although superficially it is yet more evidence of the remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Inuit, which has enabled them to survive in a harsh and barren arctic environment, I think it has a much broader meaning, which may explain why it resonates so deeply. It has to do with the concept of “anality” eloquently explained by anthropologist Ernest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death.

The tragedy of the human condition is that we are both physical creatures and symbolic ones. Humans live largely in an infinite and enduring world of symbols and ideas, yet we are each trapped in a finite, fallible animal body that has ascendancy over us by its demands and needs. As children, we learn that our main task in life is the denial of everything the anus represents. In fact, ALL culture and man’s creative life is a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget what a pathetic creature man is.

What psychoanalists call “anality” or “anal” character traits are really forms of the universal protest against death. To say that a person is “anal” means that he is trying hard to use the symbols of culture as a means to protect himself from the accidents of life and danger of death, to triumph over Nature. Becker states that “The anus and its incomprehensible repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.”

The Inuit elder accomplishes a complete reversal of this condition. He uses the locus of animal fallibility, the anus, as the source of transcendence. This is the quintessential meaning of anality, to prove that of all animals man alone leads a charmed life because of the splendor of all that he can imagine and fashion, what he can literally spin out of his anus.

I highly recommend watching Wade Davis’s complete presentation, titled “Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World”, here.

The Savage Innocents

Screen shot 2011-07-13 at 4.33.18 PM

The Savage Innocents is a film adapted from the novel Top of the World by Swiss writer Hans Rüesch. The movie was released in 1960 and stars Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo hunter, simply named "Inuk". I’m not sure exactly when the story takes place, but it involves indigenous arctic peoples who have not had contact with the "white man" or guns. A scene shot in a trading post suggests it is the late 1950s, because there is a jukebox playing rock and roll. Everyone speaks English so I’m guessing it is Canada.

If you’ve ever wondered what the inspiration for the song “The Mighty Quinn” was, it was this movie. By the way, the song was written and first recorded by Bob Dylan in 1967 after he saw The Savage Innocents, but was popularized by Manfred Mann.

Screen shot 2011-07-14 at 6.03.46 PM


Inuk the Eskimo is lonely. He spends his days hunting and doesn’t have a woman to “laugh” with. According to the movie, “to laugh with” is the Eskimo way of saying “make love to”. Inuk’s hunter friend Anarvik offers him his own wife to “laugh with”. “You may laugh with my wife for awhile", he says. "You have permission. A little change does her good. Makes her eyes shine.”

Inuk replies, “This man is tired of asking for favors. He wishes to laugh with a woman of his own”.

Inuk’s friend Anarvik is greatly insulted because Inuk refused his offer, calling him rude and ungrateful, and they get into a fight which ends with Inuk bashing Anarvik’s head into the wall of his igloo, knocking him out cold. Inuk is a proud hunter and a very big man who doesn’t know his own strength.

The first part of the movie concerns Inuk’s quest for a wife. Later it follows his quest to obtain a gun from the trading post by killing 100 foxes in order to trade in their skins.

Screen shot 2011-07-14 at 6.06.25 PM


After dancing to the jukebox and getting drunk on whiskey at the trading post, the night after seeing white men for the very first time, Inuk’s wife, Asiak, concludes that the white man is crazy. “Something is wrong with the white man”, she says. “If his gun is any good, why does he eat those evil smelling things out of a tin can? And why doesn’t he smile? And why doesn’t he laugh with the women of the men? And why doesn’t he know that the small igloo is quicker to build, and easier to keep warm than a house like this?” She convinces Inuk to leave the trading post that night so they can sleep more comfortably in an igloo outside. They don't even bother taking the new gun Inuk bought with them.

Screen shot 2011-07-13 at 5.36.20 PM


The next morning, a priest comes to Inuk and Asiak’s igloo to introduce them to The Lord: “If you will listen to my words and believe in Him, the Lord will come with you and stay with you, in all your travels”.

“We don't not want another with us,'” Asiak whispers to Inuk.

“Maybe he good hunter,'” Inuk replies. Then the says to the priest, “We would be pleased if he came with us.”

Asiak adds, “He must bring own sled.”

When Inuk politely offers to have the priest laugh with his wife, the priest vehemently refuses: “No. No. NO! It’s a SIN! It’s EVIL! BAD!

Echoing the movie’s first scene with his friend Anarvik, Inuk gets extremely offended and tells the priest he is rude and has no manners. He pushes the priest against the ice wall, smashing the back of his skull in and accidentally killing him.

The custom of wife lending among the pre-Christian Inuit comes up repeatedly in the movie and is discussed in this article at The Straight Dope, which argues that it was not as common as previously perceived, and a limited practice primarily confined to religious rituals.

The rest of the movie follows Inuk and Asiak's flight from the trading post into the arctic wilderness, and Inuk's eventual arrest by the police for murder.

Screen shot 2011-07-13 at 5.00.06 PM

The first time I attempted to watch The Savage Innocents I couldn’t get past the first few minutes. Anthony Quinn sometimes plays Inuk like a stupid goofball and I found that a little offensive. In the movie the term "Eskimo" is said to mean "eater of raw flesh". It is considered pejorative in Canada and Greenland. That interpretation of "Eskimo" has been disproved and the real meaning of the term is thought to be "snowshow netter". Real footage of the arctic wilderness and icebergs is cut with scenes shot in the studio with fake snow and stryofoam ice, and seals which look like they are right out of a Ringling Brother’s and Barnum and Bailey Circus act. Someone who grew up with today's slick and glossy cinematography and high budget production values might not have the patience for this movie. The other Inuit characters are played by Asian (Chinese and Japanese) actors. Occasionally Yoko Tami’s Japanese accent slips through. After a while though, I got used to the cheesy sets and got caught up in the story. Overall, I think the movie does a good job of portraying the clash between cultures: one open, simple, unsophisticated, violent and superstitious, and the other complex, rigid, controlling, and equally violent and superstitious.

Screen shot 2011-07-13 at 4.28.02 PM


Despite its inaccuracies, at least the movie tried to be authentic with the character Inuk. I don't think it was intentionally making fun of racial stereotypes. I would view it in the context of Hollywood's generally racist track record. Take my two favorite most racially−offensive characters of all time, Mr. Yunioshi, played by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Long Duk Dong played by Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles (1984) as examples. Mr. Yunioshi is an example of Japanese bashing plain and simple. After all, racism was literally an institution in the 60s! In contrast to Mr. Yunioshi, who is clearly Japanese, Long Duk Dong is some undefined oriental, referred to as a “Chinaman” in the movie, but has a Japanese accent and is introduced with the opening riff from The Vapor’s song “Turning Japanese”! You would think people would have known the difference in the 1980s. Whatever -- Hollywood knows that white people can't tell those slanty-eyed orientals apart anyway and don't really care to!

Then there is the enduring problem of non-white characters being played by white actors. Did you know that martial artist Bruce Lee was passed up for the lead role in the TV series Kung Fu, which was instead given to David Carradine? Bruce Lee apparently just looked too Chinese to play a Shaolin priest! Recently, in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender (2010), all of the key roles of Inuit and Asian characters were filled by white actors. Anthony Quinn by the way, was Mexican−American.

If you are up for watching a more recent and incredibly offensive depiction of indigenous arctic people, watch this clip from the Australian show, The Pitch -- Selling Ice to Eskimos. Wow, I didn’t realize people down under were just as racist as Americans are, but I guess it shouldn't surprise me!

Screen shot 2011-07-13 at 4.36.29 PM


The part of The Savage Innocents relevant to this blog is, of course, the kayak scene. The kayaks look like authentic Greenland skin−on−frame qajaqs complete with the harpoon line stand (asaloq) and bladder float (avataq). Look how the kayakers paddle, occasionally crunching forward. I think these might be real hunters. The funny part is when Inuk and his friend come across a huge colony of walruses. Inuk harpoons one and just holds onto his line as the walrus struggles to get away! Damn, I was hoping to see footage of a real walrus pull!