The first time I heard the expression “Eskimo roll,” I was standing on the deck of the M/V Sea Spirit, a small, polar-adapted, expedition ship that was my home for two weeks as I traveled around the southern coastline of Greenland, from Tasilaq on the west to Illuissat on the east.
My fellow shipmates and I were about to be treated to a special exhibition by a champion Greenlandic kayaker, who, we were told via the ship’s intercom, would be demonstrating the maneuver. An Eskimo roll is the act of righting a capsized kayak by use of body motion and/or a paddle. It’s the best and safest technique to recover yourself if you ever happen to turn over, especially in the chilly waters around Greenland.
The kayaker paddled up to the Sea Spirit’s starboard; and from the moment I saw him, I was mesmerized by the way he seemed to be not so much “in” his boat as he was a part of it. Never before had I seen such an amalgamation of watercraft and person. And by the way he rolled all the way over again and again in the choppy waves with a big smile on his face, I could see that joy and comfortableness were also part and parcel of being in a kayak. I knew that someday I would have to try my hand at kayaking.
But much like the position the canoe holds in New Zealand, the kayak is so much more to Greenlanders than a casual pastime or sport. In Greenland, the kayak represents the link between Inuit legacy and modern culture.
Anyone who kayaks today owes a debt of gratitude to the ancient Greenlandic Inuit who invented the seaworthy, water-skimming vessel—known as a qajaq—for fishing, hunting, sealing and whaling.
Thousands of years ago, Inuit people constructed kayaks from light driftwood, which was carried by the currents from Siberia’s rivers to the east and west coasts of Greenland, or from whalebone frameworks. Sea lion skins, made waterproof with whale fat, were then stretched across the shells. Seal bladders provided the boats with the necessary amount of buoyancy.
The kayak was perfect for hunting on the water as it didn’t make any sound, so sneaking up on prey from behind was easier. The Inuit also discovered that if you put a white cloth or skin on the front of the kayak, animals regarded you as if you were a piece of ice.
The earliest kayaks were made-to-measure, shaped precisely to a hunter’s own figure, height and size. That’s why, some believe, that the Inuit say when a person has fallen or died from a kayak while hunting that he was borrowing someone else’s kayak, because he doesn’t have the same sense of balance.
Not only were kayaks made for one person, they were adapted to the waters in which they were used. Kayaks from the Bering Strait area, for example, were stable with massive amounts of storage space; and Baffin Island models were broad, flared and long.
The Inuit hunter rowing the kayak would wear a sealskin tuilik, a loose-fitting, watertight jacket that sealed around the face, jawbones, wrists and the opening of the kayak to prevent water from seeping in. The tuilik provided warmth and tremendous freedom of movement. Air trapped in a tuilik made rolling easier. And if a paddler should fall out of the kayak, a tuilik offered considerable initial buoyancy, and legs could be drawn up into the air pocket.
Larger kayaks, known as umiaqs, carried whole families and their possessions when relocation was necessary. These bigger vessels were sometimes as large as 60 feet.
Eskimo escape plan
Cold Arctic seas and Arctic weather can be lethal. Three minutes in dangerously chilly waters, and the body begins to shut down. Every Inuit who got into a kayak knew that a single miscalculation could lead to death because typically there was no one else around who could save him from the freezing water. It was therefore essential that the hunter was properly prepared by always being able to execute the Eskimo roll.
From early childhood, Greenlandic boys practiced balance and countless turns and rolls in the sea with their small oars in the event that they should suddenly capsize. In this way, they learned how to get out of almost all critical situations.
Symbol of the seas
Today in Greenland, the kayak is a symbol of national identity in a modern nation seeking to preserve its heritage. It represents hardy ingenuity in the face of a difficult climate and has an image of brotherhood with the seas. For recreational kayaking, of course, more robust, fiberglass sea kayaks have gradually taken the place of the traditional versions. But in Greenland’s hunting districts, such as in Qaanaaq in the far north, however, there is still a requirement that hunting for narwhals must take place in the traditional manner—from an old-time qajaq with hand-thrown lances and spears.
Every Sunday afternoon in Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk, locals still practice their ancient kayaking skills, such as the Eskimo roll. In 1984, a group of young Greenlanders formed Qaannat Kattuffiat, a national kayaking association with chapters in towns and villages throughout the country. The association organizes a national championship competition each year that draws kayakers from around the island and abroad. Enthusiasts take to the seas in vessels made the traditional way. America even has its own Greenland Kayak Association, Qajaq USA.
The national symbol status of the kayak in Greenland not only allows modern residents to acknowledge the area’s past, but it also serves as a way to attract the attention of tourists, like me, standing on the deck of the M/V Sea Spirit.
Four years after that Eskimo roll and kayaking demonstration, I did return to Greenland. This time, though, I wasn’t standing on the deck of a ship and just watching. I got in a kayak and paddled for myself through iceberg-filled fjords.
Fortunately for me, instead of being a death-defying way to feed an entire tribe, my Greenland kayaking experience was an exciting adventure that made it possible for me to quietly travel through stunningly gorgeous scenery.
And while I didn’t engage in an Eskimo roll, I did—what I like to think of as—Eskimo explore.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,