The English word Kayak originates from the Greenlandic word qujaq originally meaning a “man’s boat” or “hunter’s boat”. Greenland is often praised as the origin of modern kayaking. The Inuit used the qujaq as a means of transportation and hunting sea animals. The first qujaqs were incredibly buoyant and made from stitched seal skin that stretched over wood or whalebone frame, they used what was around them to make something that could withstand the often inhospitable climate of the Arctic.
Inuit craftsmen designed and built qujaq based on their own experience and that of the generations before them passed on through oral tradition. Traditionally there is a special skin jacket, Tuilik, which was laced to the kayak, creating a waterproof seal. This enabled the “Inuit roll” to sit up after capsizing.
The kayak has been used in connection with sealing, whaling and fishing, and it was common for Greenlandic boys to spend their childhood learning to keep their balance and manoeuvre the kayak.
I have, for as long as I can remember, been fascinated by bodies of water. Growing up around big lakes, canoe trips and summer swims were a part of my childhood. Moving to the west coast of Canada, my love for water grew as I was only steps away from the ocean.
There is something even more special, it feels, about Arctic waters that heighten your senses. There is a real danger to the near freezing temperatures in the summer, this imminent threat demands presence of your environment. The temperature of the surface of the Arctic Ocean is fairly constant, near the freezing point of seawater. Currently, the average sea temperatures around Ilulissat are 2.7°C or 36.9°F.
After exploring the waters by boat several times (from larger, slower boats to smaller, speedier boats), I was ready to slow the pace down and feel as close to the surface as possible with kayaking. I’ve been grateful to get to know some of the guides and owner of PGI Greenland, an outdoor company in Ilulissat, that focuses on sea kayaking in the summer months.
In my eyes, there is no more beautiful kayak than a Greenland qajaq. From the rising curve of the sheer line, to the concave forward gunwale, the classic lines simply appeal to me more than the lines of modern kayaks… Unquestionably modern advances in hydrodynamics have produced higher performance specialized kayaks. But for its original purpose, none beats the Greenland qajaq.
I arrive at their office, located in the centre of the town, and we are dressed in appropriate gear from head to toe. We walk over to the shoreline, close to the Qajaq Club of Ilulissat. Here we are given a short introduction to the traditional use of the qajaq and shown the basics of paddling.
Immediately after we paddled away from the shore we touch, brush, bump with small icebergs floating around us. We felt the the sun setting around us as the orange glow in the skies lingers just over the horizon. I like the sound of the small icebergs that gently hit the side of the kayak. I like the quiet and ability to focus on the sound of water gliding against my paddle. I enjoyed the perspective I’ve gained – having experienced such a unique place in a way that feels natural.