Cape Wrath

Our journey to Cape Wrath


Ken Taylor/Cameron                                                                                                                            1 December 2018

updated 28 March 2019 with more photos from our trips, kindly provided by Campbell’s daughter Sally Semple


Loch Lomond and beyond

photo: Michael Macgregor

“Loch Lomond from the Dumpling”

We left from the Scottish Hostelers’ Canoe Club boathouse at Auchendennan Youth Hostel on the west shore of the Loch, near its south end. [In those days (and sometimes still) kayaks were known as canoes in Britain.] That was where we’d done our first kayaking in the Percy Blandford PBK 18 that we had built in Campbell’s family’s garden in the west end of Glasgow, on weekend trips with the Club when we all camped on one or other of the several islands in the Loch. At least once I remember Jack Henderson being with us. He was quite the hero, of course, as not only was he an Olympic kayak racing competitor but he and Eric Simpson were the first two people to ever kayak around Cape Wrath — the northwest tip of Scotland, renowned and feared for its notorious tide rip. Two other members of the Club had by that time (the early 1950s) also been around the Cape — Hamish Gow and Alasdair (if I’ve got his name right). I don’t remember now when it was that Campbell and I first began to think of rounding the Cape ourselves.

photo: Colin Wheatley

Our first real trip was, just the two of us, using our PBK 18, up the Loch to Tarbet and a one and a half mile portage using our “bogies” (folding metal frames with pram wheels, small enough to go inside the kayaks, which we learned about from the SHCC members) to Arrochar, down Loch Long to Loch Goil and the Holy Loch, and back the same way.

photo: J. Campbell Semple

One to show how we used the “bogies” — and the kind of rudders that we had back then.

It went well enough, and since it was later in the year than we ever went again on that trip we were able to catch more mackerel than we could eat, which was nice, but we immediately found that using a double simply didn’t work for us. We were young and argumentative and we spent every mile of every day of the trip arguing about the course chosen by whichever one of us was in the rear and controlling the rudder. When we got home to Glasgow, without even one word of discussion (at least that’s how I remember it), we immediately began building two singles! For these we simply scaled down the PBK design to about 15 feet, sharpened the bow cross section somewhat, and ended up with extremely serviceable single kayaks that did us proud for many years. Mine was the “Scottish kayak” I took with me to Greenland in 1959. Later, after I’d left for the US, I sold it for a few pounds to a new member of the Club, and forgot about it. It was a wonderful surprise for me, many years later, when I recognized it as the second kayak seen at the beginning of the film of Hamish and Anne Gow’s amazing 1965 trip to St Kilda — the one that never did make that trip as, sadly, it’s owner turned back after a few miles.

Here it is, in 1958, at Kinlochbervie —

photo: Harald I. Drever

So it was in these two kayaks that we did all our trips from then on including, of course, the eventual rounding of Cape Wrath. We built them with marine quality plywood for the frames and mahogany (believe it or not) that we got at a very cheap price from a lumber yard owned by the father of a boy in the Boy Scout troop we belonged to (the First Glasgow “B” Troop), using only brass screws. Regular canvas stretched over the hulls with the help of Campbell’s father who was an artist, two or more coats of oil paint. And they always seemed able to do even more than we ever asked them to.

Our second trip began by paddling down to the bottom of the Loch and, by way of the quite small River Leven to the estuary of the River Clyde, at Dumbarton. That, of course, was a new and a very different thing altogether — with ocean liners and freighters making their way up river to the docks at Glasgow. At one point the nerve-wracking experience of having to choose between heading across in front of a gigantic seeming passenger liner or waiting for it to go by us first (I seem to remember that we crossed in front of it, safely) as our plan was to more or less immediately head across the estuary, aiming for the area of Greenock and Gourock and spend our first night somewhere over there. Which we did, uneventfully, a few miles east of Greenock and then went on the next day, past Gourock and around the headland and into the increasingly open expanse of the Firth itself. The plan was first to head west and paddle through the Kyles of Bute, which would be quite sheltered water. We stuck to the coastline as far as Wemyss Bay and made the two and a half mile crossing to the west side of the Firth and around Toward Point into the Kyles of Bute. This was a gentle, scenic beginning to the trip.

photo: Elliott Simpson

We camped somewhere on Bute and then came down to Ardlamont Point between the Kyles and the bottom of Long Fyne. This was where we had to decide on whether or not to head south the seven and a half miles to the Isle of Arran, somewhere we had both been before on family vacations. But there was a strong wind that day from the south and we immediately knew that we could forget about Arran. It was also raining off and on and we took shelter in an open boathouse, cooked a meal and waited for hours to see what the weather would do. In the end we spent the night there and finally, just at dawn, we decided the wind had slackened enough that we could safely go around the Point and into Loch Fyne. A few miles up the shoreline we landed in front of Ardlamont House and camped under a group of pine trees with the pleasant sound of the wind in their branches something I remember to this day. We’d hardly slept, it had been hard going, and we were exhausted, so we thoroughly enjoyed catching up on our sleep and doing nothing at all all day.

Next we made our way up the east shore of Loch Fyne, past Portavadie, eventually crossing to the west shore as we were heading for Ardrishaig and Lochgilphead and the Crinan Canal. We planned to go through the canal thus avoiding the 80 mile trip around the Kintyre peninsula, and the possibility of wild weather (and “notoriously strong currents”) at the exposed Mull of Kintyre. Of course we’d never gone through a canal in our kayaks before this so it was going to be a bit of an adventure in itself. Built between 1794 and 1801 and gone through by Queen Victoria in 1847 it had long been, and still was, a very popular short cut to the Inner Hebrides area of the west coast for both commercial and pleasure boats of all kinds. It has 15 locks and is about nine miles long.

photo: J. Campbell Semple

Campbell’s kayak on its bogie when we reached the first lock of the canal

What I remember of it is the experience of sitting in our kayaks along with a few full size boats in a low water level “basin” while the water level rose in a strange and slightly scary way … until the lock ahead of us could be opened and we could all move ahead a mile or a few miles to the next lock. A unique experience but fun in its own way and it all went well without any particular problems for us in our “tiny” boats!


photo: Clyde Cruising Club

Back to the sea at Crinan in a stretch of water well sheltered by the island of Jura, with Scarba, our next destination just a few miles to the north. Between the two is the famous Corryvreckan whirlpool that we’d heard about and read about all our lives. We’d been told by Hamish and Alasdair that it was passable at slack tide and we were there to check that out. It turned out to be safe enough — just weird and nerve-wracking with the water surging up from below and shifting our kayaks to one side or the other, quite out of our own control. But fascinating, well worth a visit, we were glad we did it.

photo: Bizarre Beauty

We continued north, inland of a succession of small islands, camping on Shuna. Next day we passed Loch Melfort to the east and Luing on the west, heading for the famous old “Atlantic Bridge,” also known as the Clachan Bridge. This fine old structure has connected the island of Seil to the mainland since 1792. Slate (as roofing material) was quarried there and on neighbouring islands until the 1960s. We paddled under the bridge and on to Oban in quiet water on a beautiful day.


It was just another 10 miles or so to Oban where we caught a train home to Glasgow. In those days the “luggage vans” on Scottish trains were much larger than nowadays. In fact, we were always able to wheel our kayaks on their bogies into the vans, with room to spare.

That was our first “real” trip on our way to Cape Wrath (Loch Long, etc., the previous summer had felt more like a training run). Uneventful really, though going through the Crinan Canal and paddling over the waters of the Corryvreckan had certainly been new and different experiences for us. It definitely felt like a good start.

–  x  –  x  –

The following year was our first major trip — Oban to Mallaig rounding Ardnamurchan Point on the way. It was 1955, a year when the weather in June couldn’t have been better. By that time we’d learned that the earlier in the summer the better, before the rains began in earnest. Also, being out on the coast and going around most of the peninsulas we came to we were “out in the Atlantic” as we used to put it. I vividly remember the many days when we would look in to the mainland and see the rains pouring down on the mountains while we were enjoying blue skies and brilliant sunshine.

First the train ride to Oban which, with Mallaig, was one of the two railheads on the west coast in those days. It was a day trip of several hours so when we got to Oban and got our kayaks down to the harbour and loaded up and ready all we had time and energy for was to paddle out to and around the far side of the island of Kerrera — which completely encloses and shelters the bay and harbour of Oban. And there we had our first night’s camp. We used an Army surplus “pup tent” just big enough for two to sleep in tho’ we did also have a smaller, lighter weight tent which we used at times as our “kitchen,” pantry. etc. In fact, that year, as often as not we were able to light outdoor fires to cook on. In those days the appropriate maps were the old “inch to the mile” Ordnance Survey ones which gave enough detail that we used to could, quite successfully, pick out our campsites ahead of time.

The next day was up the Sound of Mull the 30 miles to Tobermory where we stopped in for fresh milk and a bar each of fruit and nut milk chocolate — the granola bars of those days. Then across the mouth of Loch Sunart to camp on the near side of Ardnamurchan. In the process we paddled at a distance of maybe three miles past “Drumbuidhe,” on the mainland where, many years later, Campbell and family had a wonderful vacation home in what had once been a “tacksman’s” house, with its barns, sheds, etc., where Campbell installed a Darrieus windmill, a mini-hydro power unit , and a solar panel array. The pride and joy of his later years and a place that I thoroughly enjoyed visiting two or three times more or less recently.


photo: J. Campbell Semple

Next was along the shores of Ardnamurchan to the lighthouse on the point where we camped for a few days. The weather was calm, no problem at all, but that was special since (as many people don’t realize) Ardnamurchan Point is actually the westernmost point of mainland Britain — farther west than Land’s End. Of course we visited the lighthouse and enjoyed meeting the “keeper’s” family and being shown the marvels of the light. They told us that there was a large sheep farm just a few miles inland where we could probably get some fresh milk, and where the farmer was about to begin the annual shearing of his sheep.

I remember that we took a swim in the sea to mark the occasion — never again, that water was cold like I at least had never imagined.

So the next day we walked in to the sheep farm, got our milk, and “signed on” so to speak to help out the next day when the shearing would begin. The farmer’s family were from Ayrshire and were running an unusually large number of sheep for that part of the country. Other farmers and crofters from miles around would be there to help with the work involved. Early the next day we enthusiastically joined the crowd of helpers. We got the job of dragging individual sheep one by one over to the shearers. It was 1955, so did they do the job with hand clippers or electrical? I wish I could remember. We all worked for a while and were then called into the farm kitchen (in shifts, there were so many people) for an enormous breakfast which I remember really surprised us it was so generous. And we all worked all day. The lighthouse keeper, who had been a professional carpenter, was there too with the very specific job of sawing off part of one of the horns of a ram which had begun to grow “inward” and become a problem. He got a lot of leg pulling about that but, hey, he was the right man for the job. It was a two day job and, as far as we were concerned, it was just a lot of fun. So we were quite surprised as we were leaving after it was all over when the farmer walked a way with us, thanking us for our help, and then pulled out the biggest roll of bank notes that I had ever seen and wanted to pay us for our work. Well, of course, we thanked him and refused to accept any money for the fun we had had (later we calculated that the amount he had been offering us would have more than paid for the entire cost of our trip).

A young man who was working for the summer for the Fish and Game government agency, and also romancing one of the farmer’s daughters, walked us back to our camp at the lighthouse as he was interested in finding where a certain fox was living. Apparently it was part of his job to find it and kill it if he could. We enjoyed his company, had a pleasant walk back to our camp and, as we got there —  the most amazing sight. It was just at sunset and a haar (sea fog) had covered the entire area of sea visible from where we were. In the light of the setting sun it was vividly pink in colour. And sticking up out of it were several islands — Muck, Eigg, Rhum, and some others. It was beautiful. Mind-blowing.

Here’s very much the same view in different weather conditions.

photo: Michael Macgregor

“Eigg, Rum and Skye from Roshven”

So then and there, we decided — something we had not really planned to do — we had to go out to those islands. The next morning we left, in beautiful weather, for the closest island, Muck (OK, OK, old joke: the islands used to be called “the cocktail islands”), planning to have a “drum-up” (do people still use that expression for a tea break?) there, and then cross to Eigg where we would camp.

On the way to Muck something very special. In those days many people still used to argue about whether or not a basking shark had strong enough tail muscles to breach. We were about half way across the seven and a half mile stretch to the island when we heard this tremendous noise off to our right. Looked over and there was a basking shark in mid-air. Did you just see that? we asked each other and … it did it again. [I’ve since read in Gavin Maxwell’s “Harpoon at a Venture” that indeed they can.]

Three miles farther to Eigg where we landed at the southern end, asked for where to buy some milk and were directed to the store — at the top of the track in the centre of the island. As we walked in two small girls were chatting and ordering things from the woman store keeper. They turned and saw us, two total strangers, and in a flash dropped their English and switched to Gaelic! We bought the usual, enjoyed the wonderful view all around, returned to our kayaks, and paddled around to the north side of the island to make camp. And from there we had a fine view of Rhum, some six miles across the Sound.

Eigg, when we were there, will still have been in the ownership of the Runciman family, before the disastrous succession of short-term owners did their damage. A great account of how the islanders finally gained ownership and control of their island and its affairs can be found at: “” Among much else, the islanders are rightly proud of having created “the worlds first fully renewably powered electricity grid.”

Rhum, which was purchased by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1957, was still a privately owned sporting estate when we visited. Someone had advised us to check in with the staff at Kinloch, which we did and were told that we were welcome to camp anywhere in the bay. Apparently (as I was told when I visited there, by mail boat, in the 1980s) the island is notorious for its insect population. Unfortunately, we hadn’t known this in 1955 and we spent an absolutely miserable night in our old-fashioned tent being eaten alive by clegs and midges. Our breakfast the next morning we simply had to interrupt in order to flee out to sea in our kayaks, leaving the insects and the island behind.

Our next stop was the small island of Soay, ten miles away, close in under the famous Cuillin mountains of Skye. Campbell, who somehow or other knew that Tex Geddes who had been the principal harpoon operator of Gavin Maxwell’s ill-fated shark fishing operation of just a few years before was now living there with his family, was keen for us to drop in on them to visit and meet this remarkable person. Myself, I honestly don’t have any clear memories of our visit but Campbell speaks of it in his podcast recorded by Simon Willis.

photo: J. Campbell Semple

Tex Geddes at Soay. In 1960 he published his own account of those days, “Hebridean Sharker.”  

After a few days on Soay with the Geddes family we headed due west to Elgol on the Strathaird peninsula of Skye itself for the usual milk and chocolate and lunch on the shore. And from there, via the much larger peninsula of Sleat, on to Mallaig where we could catch a train home to Glasgow.

A fine trip. We both agreed that it had been “the real thing” and unforgettable also for the sunburn which had been our only real problem!

–  x  –  x  –

The next two summers we took jobs on a construction site so it wasn’t until 1958 that we were back on the coast. We began, of course, at Mallaig, heading north up the Sound of Sleat, past the mouths of Loch Nevis and then Loch Hourn. Just north of the latter we camped on a promontory at Sandaig, looking inland a mile or two to the small house that later became known as Camusfearna. So, just three years after having visited Tex Geddes on Soay, now we were camped for a night within sight of the house where Gavin Maxwell, exactly then, was writing his wonderful “Ring of Bright Water.” We didn’t know that at the time, of course, and we saw no sign of him. I’ve often wondered if he was there when we were and maybe noticed our tent where we camped on that tiny spit of land with our kayaks many feet below us at the water’s edge.

The view from our campsite at Sandaig, a part of the “ring of bright water” of Kathleen Raine’s poem The Ring. Campbell making breakfast outside our second tent.

On then through the narrows of Kyle Rhea, after a stop at Glenelg, through Loch Alsh and out to the open sea, through where the dreadful Skye Bridge had yet to be built, to the Crowlin Islands where we camped on Eilean Mor. This was one of the several uninhabited islands we camped on which certainly helped keep us out of trouble but in fact we never once were bothered by any landowners. In those days “access” had not yet become an issue. Another unique feature of our trips in those years was that never once did we ever come across any other kayakers, anywhere, not even once. Not that we expected to as back then our SHCC and a club on the River Tay, so far as any of us knew, were the only two groups of sea kayakers in the whole of Scotland.

Then north, staying to the east of Raasay, and in to camp in the outer part of beautiful Loch Torridon.

I think it must have been on that stretch of coast that we had the fascinating experience of paddling among enormous swells coming in from the west. They were of the size that, if we’d been paddling across them and not parallel to them we would have had to paddle uphill to their crests and then downhill to the next trough. Since we were going parallel to them it meant that most of the time we were out of sight of each other and only now and again did we see the other kayak when we both happened to be up on a crest at the same time. It was kind of fun.

The next day up the coast to Gairloch where, I think it had been recommended to us by someone, we put the kayaks on their bogies and portaged most of the the six miles to Poolewe.

But here we took a detour and turned inland to spend two or three days on Loch Maree. Campbell was very keen that we do so maybe because it is, apparently, often referred to as the most beautiful loch in the Highlands. Whatever the reasons we were both delighted that we did. Not quite as long as our familiar Loch Lomond it also has a good many islands. And, of course, it was on one of these that we camped for two days. The weather was fine and we enjoyed a relaxing time there in much calmer conditions than on the coast.

photo: Pinterest

photo: J. Campbell Semple

At one of the islands on Loch Maree. Our “bogies” on the after decks as we would be using them again as soon as we left the loch.

Then back to the road for the short distance to Poolewe and soon we were paddling past the palm trees of the extraordinary Inverewe Garden already by that time in the care of the National Trust. Through Loch Ewe and, if I remember rightly, we went around Greenstone Point so never in fact close to the notorious Gruinard Island, off limits until 1990 because of World War Two anthrax experiments conducted there.

That brought us to the Summer Isles and in a persistent drizzle we passed Priest Island and on to Tanera Mor where we planned to camp. This is the island where Frank Fraser Darling and his wife Bobbie spent three and a half years back in the 1940s working to establish a functioning farm. We had read his “Island Farm” about that project and others of his books and greatly admired his work as a naturalist. It was kind of in honour of him that we went there and camped for a night. But in dreary, wet weather so there was no great pleasure in it, just something we had wanted to do and did. Next day to little Achiltibuie where we took another break from the actual kayaking and went for the day to Stac Pollaidh (it was still called Stac Polly in those days) a quite remarkable little mountain. At only just over 2,000 feet it’s “not even” a Munro, but it has its own quite distinctive shape and being so close to the coast the views from its summit are superb.


Stac Pollaidh from the south so those are the waters of an inland loch, not of the sea.

Near the foot of the mountain an attractive little sandy-haired Cairn Terrier attached itself to us and seemed to want to go wherever we did. We guessed that its people must be somewhere up the trail so let it come with us. Which it did, all the way to the summit. It was a beautiful day with good visibility and the views were amazing. Especially we were impressed to be able to see, looking up the coast to the north, the next few days of our kayaking laid out like a map, but real. Maybe the only place on the entire west coast where that’s possible.

photo: anon

Admiring the view from the summit. Looking back at Tanera Mor perhaps?

Eventually the dog went off with someone else and we headed back down and back to wherever it was we’d left the kayaks and camped on the shore of Enard Bay, crossing the next day to Lochinver, the biggest place we’d seen for a long time.

Perhaps because it was a well-known name and place we made sure to go round the Point of Stoer.

That’s Campbell on our way up the side of the peninsula, with the Old Man of Stoer visible in the distance.

photo: J. Campbell Semple

And a shot of me as we passed close to the “Old Man.”

So — around the Point and on to a campsite on the south side of Eddrachillis Bay. Here the weather turned foul and we spent the day in our tent reading books and playing chess until in the evening it went calm and we decided to cross the Bay even though it was the “almost dark” of night time that far north in the month of June. I think it was here that we had an absolutely comical scramble to get our kayaks over the seaweed covered rocks, chasing the receding water, as the tide went out as fast as we’d ever seen. But was it ever worth that struggle! Almost as soon as we got going across the Bay the water became phosphorescent and every paddle stroke, every movement of the kayaks, was lit up by this beautiful, extraordinary flickering of light. The only time we ever saw that. It was wonderful, unforgettable.

We stopped in at Scourie and then hiked along the shore, actually the cliff-top, until we were opposite Handa Island where we lay on the grass for a long, long time watching the hundreds and thousands of birds that nest on the cliffs. Each summer, supposedly, nearly 100,000 seabirds breed here, including internationally important numbers of guillemots, razorbills and great skuas. Not to mention the puffins! What a sight!   


Speaking of puffins, from time to time we would come upon an large group of puffins out in the water. Always a pleasure to see them, because of their extraordinary beaks. As we came up on them (silently, of course, so totally surprising them) they would try to fly to get away from us. But they were full of fish and too heavy to take off so after a few vain attempts they would give up and simply dive and easily get away from us that way. There were often cormorants (“shags” really) and occasionally a place with lots of gannets. They were my favourites as their way of diving from a great height to catch their fish was so impressive. For some reason I always saw that maneuver as if they turned on their backs just before entering the water but I’ve since seen videos of them doing it and no, they just fold their wings tight at the last moment. And then it would be several moments before they re-surfaced in “sitting on the water” posture, shake themselves to dry off a bit and — eat their fish.

By now we were just seven and a half miles from Kinlochbervie which was to be our last port of call before rounding Cape Wrath. We went first to the village itself for the usual supplies. That was where we met Dr. Harald I. Drever.

He came down to offer any help we might need and to admire our kayaks. And, when asked politely about his interest in our kayaks, told us of his time in Greenland, as a geologist, staying at Illorsuit an Inuit village where the men still hunted seal by kayak. Well, needless to say, that was very special indeed from our point of view.

We went up the coast a mile or two to camp, as we already had in many places, on the machair. In those days this was, legally, of free access to the public. And we arranged for Drever to come visit us there the next day to try out one of our kayaks. Which he did with no problems though protesting that it had been many years since he’d ever been in a kayak. He invited us up to the hotel for drinks after dinner when we enjoyed talking in more detail about his times with the Inuit.

The next day was the big day.

On the way to the Cape we took a look at Sandwood Bay but the surf seemed a bit too much for us so we just kept going. A bit farther north we met up with a group of four or five local men out tending their lobster pots in what looked to me like the biggest rowing boat I’d ever seen. We chatted for a while and they warned us that there was the remains of a northeast storm still running on the coastline around the Cape. They advised us to wait for the tide to turn as it was actually against us at that point. We were able to go ashore in Keisgaig Cove to rest for a while, make tea on a driftwood fire.

When we continued and finally reached the Cape, now being being carried on by the tide, it was worse than anything we’d ever imagined. The wildest water we’d ever seen, broken up into short waves and heaving, vertically thrusting, sinking volumes of water without rhyme or reason, there’s no other word for it — it was terrifying. But we had to go through it, the tide was carrying us through it, there was no turning back. Campbell stayed fairly close in to shore while I went quite a bit farther out hoping (vainly) that it might be less wild out there. We lost sight of each other … later Campbell told me that he had actually turned back at one point to look for me, surely the bravest thing that anyone I knew had ever done! He describes the insanity of it all in his article published in the Glasgow Herald of October 25, 1958.

Eventually we were past the Cape itself and took shelter behind a small islet while we looked out with dismay at the huge waves bearing down on us from the northeast, just as those fishermen had warned. We actually wondered and discussed if we and our kayaks could handle waves that huge. They seemed to be well over six feet high and the tide was still sweeping us irresistibly along and into their clutches. The wind itself was not too bad, but the waves … well, that was when we learned that the kayaks could handle more than we had ever asked them to before.

There is a possible landing just around the Cape but neither there nor at Kearvaig, four plus miles along the coast, would the surf have let us land. There was nothing for it but to continue the 13 miles or so to the shelter of Faraid Head, with Durness just across the base of that peninsula. Which we did and finally were able to land on a beautiful and beautifully sheltered beach — thoroughly exhausted and (no exaggeration) lucky to be alive.

photo: Travel Scotland

We had some more tea to help ourselves warm up and calm down, got the kayaks on their bogies and headed for the local Youth Hostel. Hot baths and a good meal and we felt a lot better and … following Jack, Eric, Hamish and Alasdair, we had done it, we had gone around Cape Wrath.

The next day came the “price you have to pay” part. To get back home to Glasgow we needed to return to Kinlochbervie and hitch a ride on a fish lorry to the south. And Kinlochbervie was 18 miles from Durness! But it was, obviously, just part of the plan. So, with the kayaks already up on their bogies, a quick breakfast, and we set out. It happened to be a Sunday. Still in the streets of Durness the Englishman, a fisherman, with the motor bike and sidecar who we had met when we camped on the machair outside Kinlochbervie showed up. “What are you fellows doing?” “What are you doing?” “Well, I can’t fish, in this heathen country, ‘cos it’s a Sunday!”

A few minutes later and we had accepted his offer of a tow to where we were going and with one of us facing backwards in his side car and the two kayaks on their invaluable bogies attached behind him we were off! Surely the last thing we had ever expected! But it worked. I don’t remember what was the slow speed he needed to drive at, but it worked.

photo: J. Campbell Semple

As the photo shows he brought his baby child along — something that I had completely forgotten.

When we reached the head of little Loch Inchard, some four miles shy of Kinlochbervie, we said we could do it by kayak from there and he dropped us off. Let me say it again: “we don’t know how to thank you enough!”

photo: J. Campbell Semple

Somewhere off the northwest coast. Just a photo that evokes it all for me. 

And so we were back at Kinlochbervie, ready to try to persuade some lorry driver to give us the ride we needed. BUT the weather had turned foul and the fishing boats were all riding it out, out at sea! And the lorries were sitting idle in the village waiting for the boats to come in and unload their fish. That meant three, it may even have been four, days stuck in Kinlochbervie. But, of course, it also meant that many times of Dr. Drever having us up to the hotel again for “drinks after dinner.” And plenty of opportunity to ask him all we wanted to about the kayak hunting lives of those Inuit he had met in northwest Greenland.

In due course, with our kayaks securely lashed down on top of a huge load of fish boxes we got our ride south — but to Edinburgh. No problem, a short train ride through to Glasgow and we were home.

And then, a few months later, the unforgettable letter from Drever inviting me to go spend the summer of 1959 in Illorsuit.

–  x  –  x  –




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East Greenland Kayak Hunting Equipment



Ken Taylor/Cameron                                                                              September 6, 2018                                                                                                                                                                       

When I was in the Uummannaq district of northwest Greenland in 1959, all the kayaks I saw had the same kind of shooting screen. I saw these kayaks both in use and up (out of the reach of the dogs) on the kayak racks, in Illorsuit village where I was staying, when we met up with 12 of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters at the Umiamako hunting camp, in Uummannaq town itself and in the other three villages I visited. As in the photo above of Enoch Nielsen of Illorsuit entering his kayak during the hunting trip to Umiamako (photo taken at Karrats Island campsite), they were small rectangles of white cloth clipped in place near the bow of the kayak.

Many years later, it came as a big surprise to me when I finally saw some of Chris Hare’s photos from Illorsuit in 1966.  By that year some at least of the hunters had begun to use a larger screen attached immediately in front of their harpoon line trays, as in this photo, by Chris, of Otto Ottosen.

photo: Chris Hare

I was familiar with the well known photo of Gino Watkins in his East Greenland kayak in the 1930s  — 

Scott Polar Research Institute/Cozens, Henry

This showed a shooting screen quite a bit larger than the Uummannaq district ones of 1959 and farther back from the bow, just in front of the line tray. But I had always thought, well, that was East Greenland. I hadn’t expected to ever see something similar in Illorsuit.

[You can also see in this photo that Watkins had a sled support (see below) on his kayak.]

Then, in 2016, QajaqUSA’s journal QAJAQ, volume 6 (editor Vernon Doucette), came out with Paul-Émile Victor’s information/data/ sketches/etc. from East Greenland in the 1930s. This included a reproduction of 34 pages of “La Civilisation du Phoque” by Victor and Joëlle Robert-Lamblin, of 1989, with the text and all the captions to the many sketches and diagrams translated into English. In Victor’s sketch of a fully equipped hunting kayak I saw what looked to be a shooting screen similar to the ones I had seen so many of in the Uummannaq district in 1959.


QAJAQ vol 6, page 8

Copyright 2016, Estate of Paul-Émile Victor and Dr. Joëlle Robert-Lamblin. All rights reserved

A look at another of his sketches and I saw that Victor was talking of two screens being used, possibly at the same time.

QAJAQ, vol 6, upper half of page 14

Copyright 2016, Estate of Paul-Émile Victor and Dr. Joëlle Robert-Lamblin. All rights reserved

Items 10 and 11 on this sketch of a fully equipped kayak are: “bracket for the camouflage screen” and “another screen, smaller.”

On page 36 there is a photo “The hunter and his kayak,” taken by Victor in 1935 and reproduced in QAJAQ volume 6 by courtesy of the Fonds Paul-Émile Victor, Bibliotèque Centrale du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris. In this photo you can see the uprights of the frames for both a fore deck and a bow screen. Also a “sled support” (see below).

Once I had seen Victor’s information in QAJAQ, I finally decided to take a thorough look through the Danish Arctic Institute’s amazing collection of photos from all parts of Greenland, from away back in the late 1880s right up to 1985 [].

More than 2,200 photos showing kayaks! And at least 300 of these showing details of the various items of hunting equipment.

Some background on the Inuit population of East Greenland 

It was Gustav Holm’s Danish Expedition of 1883-1885 that first reached the Ammassalik [for some years known as Angmagssalik] area in August of 1884.  They were able to do this, in large part, because they traveled, starting at Nanortalik on the Southwest Coast, with a crew of some thirty West Greenland men and women, in four umiaq (rowed by the  women), accompanied by four kayaks. This made it possible for them to advance up the coast inside the barrier of the pack ice. When they reached a place called Tingmiarmiut, which turned out to be about half way to Ammassalik, most of the expedition was sent back to make a more detailed survey of the coast so far traveled and to make preparations for 1885. The others continued north now in two umiaq, accompanied by one kayaker. Also, they “managed to get to accompany us on our way north a boat from Sermilik, the head-man of which was called Ilinguaki … without his guidance the Expedition would scarcely have succeeded in getting to Angmagssalik. He had been for several years on a voyage south and was now returning to his home” (Holm 1914, pages 5 and 6).

Their arrival was the first contact between the local Inuit and outsiders of any kind. On the way there, the expedition had met Inuit living farther south on the East Coast. “We repeatedly came upon inhabited places”  —  presumably the seasonally dispersed population of the four winter settlements (with 7 communal houses), a total population of 135 (Holm 1914, page 6; Hanserak 1914, pages 189-192). Some of these people had been making regular visits to  Southwest Greenland for purposes of trade. 

In 1884 there were 413 Inuit living in thirteen winter settlements in the overall Ammassalik area (174 people on the Sermilik Fjord , 225 people on the Ammassalik Fjord , and 14 people on the Sermiligaak Fjord) (Hanserak 1914, pages 192-202).

Robert Petersen in his discussion of population distribution prior to 1950, in the Arctic volume of the Handbook of North American Indians, speaks of East Greenlanders also living, at times, in the Ikertuaq (or Ikertivaq) fjord complex immediately to the west of Sermilik Fjord (1984, pages 624, 638). He mentions four locations inhabited over the years, one of which is present day Isertoq, shown on the map below. He includes the Ikertuaq fjord in what he calls the “permanently inhabited … core area …” (2003, page 22).

Soon after Holm met the Southeastern people they moved permanently to the West Coast. Petersen says “the [Ammassalik core group people] took over the almost depopulated area” (2003, page 35-36). He reckons this explains the reduced population reported for the years following. For example, in 1892, Ryder reported a population of only 294 people. By 1900 the population had returned to a figure of 411 (Petersen 1984, page 638).

In due course the Danish authorities decided to establish a permanent Danish settlement and trading station in the area. This was founded by Holm on his second and final visit to the area in 1894. It will have been from that date on that the East Greenlanders were able to acquire firearms.

[A note on place names and how they have been spelled over the years. Angmagssalik itself was called this by the people of the South East coast (Holm, page 5). The spelling was later changed to Ammassalik and this was used for both the general area and for the settlement. Since 1997 the town itself is known as Tasiilaq which is what the local people themselves call it. Other changes have been about giving up the West Greenland dialect version and adopting what the local people themselves use, in their own dialect. Thus: Isortoq is now Isertoq; Ikateq became Ikkatteq (abandoned in 2005); Tiniteqilaaq is now Tiilerilaaq.]


Map showing recent settlements in the area [some are shown with the old spellings, some with the new]. The Sermilik Fjord is the large one in the center of the map with Tiniteqilaaq and Ikkatteq on it, the Angmagssalik Fjord is the smaller one just to the east with Tasiilaq, Kuummiut and Kulusuk on it and the Sermiligaaq Fjord is the also smaller one to the northeast with Sermiligaaq on it. The Ikertivaq Fjord system is to the west with Isertoq at its eastern end.

East Greenland Shooting Screens

The Danish Arctic Institute collection has over 100 photos showing kayaks in East Greenland from between 1892 and 1961. Eighty two of these show shooting screens.

Here is the first one I came across confirming Victor’s mention of the two separate screens being used at the same time. Taken at Tasiilaq, in 1961 —

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI #142619)

Bow screens just like the Uummannaq district ones of 1959, together with fore deck screens, immediately in front of the harpoon line tray, very much the same as the one in the photo of Gino Watkins.

Thia is the earliest photo I’ve found showing both fore deck and bow screens, taken at Scoresby Sund in 1925  —

Danish Arctic Institute/Ejnar Mikkelsen (AI # 24569)

Of this group of nine kayakers, seven have fore deck screens only (one folded up and one the frame without the actual screen), and one has a bow screen only.

The earliest example of the arrangement of two screens on the same kayak is in this photo, taken in 1931, somewhere in East Greenland  —

Danish Arctic Institute/ Helge Larsen (AI # 121871)

One of these kayaks, in the center of the picture, has a bow screen (turned sideways) and also the frame for a fore deck screen.  The three other kayaks with screens have the fore deck type only.

I’ve found only three statements about the hunters possibly using both screens at the same time. One is by Spencer Chapman in “Watkins’ Last Expedition.” This was a follow-up to the British Arctic Air-Route Expedition to East Greenland of 1930-31, both led by Gino Watkins. Chapman was a member of both expeditions.

Tragically, it was on this second expedition in 1932 that Watkins, while out alone seal hunting by kayak (something that he loved to do), had an accident of some sort and was drowned. The others found his kayak but they never did find his body.

What Chapman says is: “this is what I carry nowadays: on the extreme front a wide screen … with a flap of cloth on each side of the bows … The other form of screen … immediately in front of the kayak-stand …” (1934, page 289). 

The Scott Polar Research Institute has recently made available on-line a number of photos from 1930, taken by members of the Expedition []. Most of the photos showing kayaks were taken by Chapman. There are some 33 photos that show a total of 58 kayaks equipped with fore deck screens. But there is only one that shows a bow screen (on a kayak without a fore deck screen).

Scott Polar Research Institute/Frederick Spencer Chapman (# N99/13/39)

The closer of the two kayaks has the bow screen (a large one), the other kayak has a fore deck screen only.

In their report on their 1962 visit to two East Greenland settlements, Isertoq and Tiilerilaaq, the Cambridge Greenland Kayak Expedition note on their drawing of a typical kayak on pages 7 and 8: “Sometimes there is an additional bow shield that hangs down on either side of the gunwale.” And in their photo on page 6 of the report they show a kayak with the two screens.

Scott Polar Research Institute/photographer unknown

Nooter, whose research was also carried out at Tiilerilaaq, in the years 1967 to 1968, plus three months in 1970 and five months in 1973, says: “[of the 19 who used kayaks in 1967-1968] three of the hunters used two screens, the customary rather large one and a smaller one placed far forward on the bow” (1976, pages 14 and 19).

In the Arctic Institute collection there are photos showing 12 kayaks with both fore deck and bow screens at Kulusuk in 1961. For example — 

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 144602)

There are also photos showing 14 kayaks with both fore deck and bow screens at Sermiligaaq in 1961. For example —

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 143477)

This next photo, taken at Kulusuk in 1961, shows the design of the frame for the fore deck screen  —

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 142559)

This shows how the frame is clipped on to the gunwales of the kayak, that it has a horizontal cross piece just above deck level that can support one gun bag (as in the photo) and a higher horizontal that could support a second gun bag. It also, of course, has the two verticals that hold up the fore deck screen.

Asymmetry of the fore deck screens

As you can see already in the 1961 photo I show above of kayaks with both kinds of screen, the fore deck screens were quite a bit larger on the left hand side. This is very clear in the photo below, taken in 1961 at Sermiligaaq.

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 142587)

Nooter says: “right-handed hunters … have this [fore deck] screen extending farther over the left side of the kayak than the right, to leave room for casting the harpoon” (1976, page 50).

I think. however, that there may be more to it than just that and I’ve found four statements on harpooning technique which I think may be relevant. “When the hunter has discovered a seal, he … cautiously paddles as close to it as he can, … When he has come sufficiently close, he turns the kayak slightly to the left, throws [the harpoon], catches … the throwing board between his teeth, and flings the float far out to the right” (Birket-Smith 1924, pages 319-310). Paul-Émile Victor says “When finally the seal is in a good position to be harpooned, the hunter takes a last sculling stroke on the right, … [this] final stroke of the paddle slowly moves the kayak to the left, putting him in a good position to throw the harpoon, and to throw the float into the water with his right hand” (2016, page 22). Spencer Chapman, in a similar statement, says: “When harpooning a seal one tries to maneuver the kayak so that the seal is ten or fifteen feet from the hunter and well to the right of the kayak”  (1934, page 53). Scavenius Jensen says: “When he is within reach of the seal, he positions the kayak pointing slightly to the left of his target. He then takes the paddle in his left hand, grasps the harpoon with his right hand and throws it by means of the throwing board …” (1975/1982, page 14). What I have in mind here is that, until that last paddle stroke on the right, the seal will have been to the left of straight ahead and the larger portion of the [East Greenland fore deck] screen on that left side will have maximized the concealment provided.

A note on left-handed kayakers

In his Kayaks of Greenland, whenever the condition of the kayak examined allowed, Golden shows on his scale drawings and/or tells in his text what was the position of the harpoon support. Of 90 (hunting) kayaks, there is no information for twelve. Of the 78 only two (both from West Greenland) have the support on the left hand side. Virtually all (76 of 78) hunters used their harpoons with their right hands.

In the “The Hunting Equipment” chapter in my “Kayak Hunting in Illorsuit, 1959” blog I tell how, during that visit, I found only one kayak (and show a photo of it) that was rigged for a left-hander. That was in Uummannaq town. In the many photos of kayaks in the Arctic Institute collection I have again found only one such kayak, by coincidence also in Uummannaq town, shown in this photo, probably from 1902. 

Danish Arctic Institute/Alfred Bertelsen (AI # 164371)

Gun bag supports

Nooter gives us this information on supports for gun bag/s  —  “to keep [the gun bag] dry, a support was made of wood to raise the [gun bag] …” (1991, page 325).  His Figure 3 (page 324) shows this  —

photo: Gert Nooter

This is essentially the same as used on the West Coast.

Note that he shows this being used together with the upper of the two horizontals of the screen frame (and that since there is no gun in the gun bag it’s not fully horizontal).

Victor has sketches of the harpoon line tray which show a low, horizontal piece which he says explicitly is a “support for the butt of the rifle” and a “rifle rest.”

QAJAQ volume 6, part of page 16

Copyright 2016, Estate of Paul-Émile Victor and Dr. Joëlle Robert-Lamblin. All rights reserved

And this was an East Coast adaptation not found on the West Coast.

Nooter also mentions this, saying: “The shape of the [line tray] was also adapted: a small cross-piece was added to the underside to support the [gun] on the fore deck of the kayak …” (1991, page 325).

Because all the photos in the Arctic Institute’s collection that show kayaks with line trays in place are of kayaks equipped with gun bag(s), this cross piece is virtually never visible. In one photo, however, taken at Sermiligaq in 1961 —

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI #143034)

one end of the cross piece is visible, supporting the upper of the hunter’s two gun bags, which is also supported by the upper of the screen frame horizontals. The lower gun bag looks to be unsupported at its open end and by the lower of the screen frame horizontals farther forward.

One photo does fully show the cross piece — the one of Gino Watkins which I have already used above. Since Watkins did not have a gun bag on his kayak in this photo, the cross piece under the line tray is clearly visible.

Scott Polar Research Institute/Henry Cozens

This photo, taken at Amituarssuk, near Tasiilaq, in 1937, shows a single gun bag on a support of some kind under the line tray and the upper of the two cross pieces on the frame of the fore deck screen. In this way the gun in its gun bag is held in a clearly horizontal position, some inches above the fore deck.  

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 138148)

It is not clear what kind of support the gun bag has under the line tray. From what I can make out of the photo, it looks like it was the kind sketched by Victor.

This horizontal/above deck level arrangement of the gun bag is also clearly visible in Robert-Lamblin’s photo taken at Tiilerilaaq in 1972, reproduced on the cover of volume 6 (2016) of QAJAQ. But again it’s not possible to see in the photo which kind of gun bag support it has below the line tray.

Copyright Joëlle Robert-Lamblin, Paris, France, 1972

This next photo, taken at Kulusuk in 1961, shows a kayak equipped with two gun bags, both horizontal, one above the other  —

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 144628)

In this photo, none of the supports for the gun bags are in fact visible.

Recently the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation has made available some old films from East Greenland. One of these is a film by Jette Bang’s of this same incident. In a scene from this film we can see that the upper of his two gun bags is supported on the horizontal piece of the line tray and the upper horizontal of the fore deck screen frame.

From Nunatta oqaluttuarssartaa “Somer i Sermilaaq” film by Jette Bang/KNRTV Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation.

On a different point, as well as his two guns, this hunter’s kayak is equipped with harpoon, line tray and hunting float (with a just caught seal under it on the after deck),

Recently, Dr. Joëlle Robert-Lamblin very kindly sent me two more photos of Haralti Boasson with his fully equipped kayak. In these photos we can see that he has his two gun bags both supported on the same upper horizontal of the frame of his fore deck screen. This is the only example I know of a hunter using this option.

both photos: Copyright Joëlle Robert-Lamblin, Paris, France, 1972

Hunting without harpoon, hunting float and line tray

And here is something quite different  —  a hunter with his two guns, with both kinds of shooting screen (tho’ only one visible in this photo), but with no harpoon, line tray or hunting float. Photo taken at Sermiligaaq in 1961.

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 143529)

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 156466)

Another photo of recognizably the same kayak (now with mittens drying on the verticals of the fore deck screen frame – something seen in many of the photos), showing that he was using both bow and fore deck screens at the same time. Also, that he was using both rifle and shotgun.

And, we can see in both these photos that the gun bags are supported, one above the other, by the two horizontals of the screen frame that are shown above in photo AI # 142559. I can’t make out how they are supported at their open ends.

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 156251)

Also at Sermiligaaq in 1961, this photo shows another hunter with no harpoon or line tray. He has one gun in its gun bag, horizontal above the deck, presumably with a support at its open end of the kind that Nooter shows in the photo above and apparently supported by the upper horizontal of the fore deck screen frame. 

The smaller boy is carrying a fairly large white bird, possibly an Ivory Gull, while the older boy is helping the hunter do something with a long, presumably sealskin line. 

[Note that he has a clearly visible “sled support” (see below) on his after deck.]

Three photos later we can see that he had a decent sized seal on that line  —  caught without using the harpoon, etc., items of equipment.

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 156254)

There are altogether 47 photos of East Greenland kayaks which show both the shooting screens and the presence or absence of the harpoon/line tray/ hunting float “set.” 14 of these kayaks are equipped for hunting without the harpoon, etc., four at Kulusuk and ten at Sermiligaaq — all in 1961. Of these, only three are kayaks with the fore deck screen only; the others all have both fore deck and bow screens. That three of the photos showing these kayaks also show other kayaks equipped with one or other item of the set of harpoon, line tray, and hunting float tells us that we are not talking about a seasonal variation.

I have found only three sources that talk about hunting without use of the full harpoon plus line tray plus hunting float “set.” One is Chapman who, in his Watkins’ Last Expedition, has the brief remark: “There are a few men here [at Sermiligaaq] who … never carry harpoon-line or float” (page 297).

A second is the report of the Cambridge Kayak Expedition 1962. On page 4, they speak of “the disappearance of the harpoon in Isortoq,” explaining that, at that settlement, “a shotgun or carefully aimed rifle was used to wound, and the still-swimming prey was quickly caught and killed with a small lance. If a seal did sink, it would often be dredged up with a weighted hook, which was becoming standard equipment on the kayaks …”  They reckoned that this seemed practical as they were given to understand that “the Isortoq seal-hunters [were] the most prolific in the whole Angmagssalik area,” later adding “seals are not so common [at Tiilerilaaq] as at Isortoq. And [there] the more highly skilled harpoon technique was essential to minimize the chances of the quarry’s sinking” (pages 4 and 5).

This is not confirmed, however, by the data published in Bogen om Grønland (1962). According to these data, for the 12 month period 1959-60: the Isertoq hunters caught a total of 59 seal per hunter; the Tiilerilaaq hunters caught 44 seal per hunter; while the hunters of the Umigtuarssuit settlement (across the Sermilik Fjord from Tiilerilaaq, abandoned in 1967) caught 67 seal per hunter. In all seven of the other settlements of that period, the catch was significantly lower.  So, by all means the Isertoq hunters were among the most successful in the district but the Tiilerilaaq hunters were not all that much less successful.        

And the third source also gives different information about Tiilerilaaq. Nooter, in photo 6 on page 47 of his study “Leadership and Headship” (1976), shows one of the best hunters, Billiam Jonathansen, “returning with a seal on his kayak, which is equipped with two … camouflage screens but not with a float.”

The photo, unfortunately, is a bit unclear but, as best I can tell, he also does not have a line tray. In one other photo (number 5B on page 36, taken from quite a distance) he shows “Kristian Jonathasen … starting out on a seal hunt” with no sign of a hunting float on his kayak.

In Nooter (1976), then, these two photos seem to indicate that the “harpoon-less hunting” spoken of in the Cambridge 1962 report as occurring at Isertoq (but not at Tiilerilaaq), did in fact also occur at Tiilerilaaq. And this is, of course, the same thing shown in those fourteen photos in the Arctic Institute’s collection as also occurring at Sermiligaaq and Kulusuk.

In Scavenius Jensen’s 1975 study “Den Gronlandske Kajak og dens Redskaber” [The Greenland Kayak and its Equipment] he says in his discussion of the harpoon line tray: “When hunting with firearms replaces hunting with harpoons, the line rack becomes obsolete and is therefore often not even brought along” (1982 translation, page 19) and on page 57: “As the original hunting technique disappears and the mammals are hunted with rifles or with harpoons without a float …” Unfortunately, he doesn’t say if he is referring to the West Coast, the East Coast, or both.

Hunting floats

For many years the East Greenland hunters used shaped hunting floats which were very similar to those used in central and south West Greenland. But at one time they also had the unique kind of float which you can see in this early photo taken probably at Tasiilaq, in 1898.

Danish Arctic Institute/Johan Christian August (Ujuât) Petersen (AI # 122873)

On the kayak closest to the camera you can see that the hunter is using a double float which “has the following advantages  …  1, if a hole is made in the one, the other is still useful; 2, it can be rested on in the water without slipping to the side …” (Holm, page 455). In the center of the group another hunter has the typical “shaped” float I just referred to.

These “shaped” floats, East Greenland style, are described in great detail by Paul-Émile Victor, see pages 14 and 15 in Volume 6 of QAJAQ.

QAJAQ volume 6, part of page 15

Copyright 2016, Estate of Paul-Émile Victor and Dr. Joëlle Robert-Lamblin. All rights reserved

This photo, taken somewhere in East Greenland in 1961, shows exactly this kind of hunting float —

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 145426)

In later years,  some at least of the hunters began to use unshaped floats, very much the same as in the Upernavik and Uummannaq districts of northwest Greenland. We have already seen one of these men (who appears in no less than eleven of Jette Bang’s 1961 photos) in the photo above of a kayak with two gun bags. Here he is again in this photo where we can clearly see his unshaped hunting float.

Danish Arctic Institute/Jette Bang (AI # 144608)

In Gert Nooter’s material from Tiilerilaaq, there are 5 photos which show kayaks equipped for hunting with hunting floats. These are all unshaped floats. The photos are from 1967, 1970 and 1973.

Joëlle Robert-Lamblin’s 1972 photos (see above) of Haralti Boasson of Tiilerilaaq also show that he used an unshaped hunting float.

Sled support for a rifle

There is one other item of kayak hunting equipment which is unique to East Greenland. This is what Victor calls the “sled-support for the rifle when hunting on floes.” He describes it as “an adaptation of the small sled used to support a harpoon (or lance) while hunting sleeping seals on ice floes …” It is also equipped with a small white camouflage screen. He shows it as carried on the after deck near the stern.

QAJAQ volume 6, top of page 18

Copyright 2016, Estate of Paul-Émile Victor and Dr. Joëlle Robert-Lamblin. All rights reserved

QAJAQ volume 6, top of page 14

Copyright 2016, Estate of Paul-Émile Victor and Dr. Joëlle Robert-Lamblin. All rights reserved

This shows the position of the sled support on the after deck.

Chapman also mentions that “at certain times of the year they go out beyond the fjords and find some suitable ice-floe, on to which several of them climb from their kayaks to wait, with their rifles on stands, till a seal appears. Then from the stability of the floe they shoot it and, leaping into their kayaks, recover it before it sinks. The seals are often attracted nearer out of curiosity when they see the strange objects out on the ice” (Northern Lights, 1932, page 211).

Here a photo of Watkins and six Inuit on an ice floe showing two rifles on sled-supports, in 1930.

Scott Polar Research Institute/Spencer Chapman (SPRI # P2001-84-95)

In 52 of the photos in the Arctic Institute’s collection you can see whether or not the kayaks are equipped with this sled-support. In 40 of these photos none of the kayaks have sled supports. There are 12 photos showing 20 kayaks with sled supports. Looking again at the 1925 photo from Scoresby Sund, for example, we can see that four (possibly five) of the eight kayaks with their after decks visible have sled-supports .

Danish Arctic Institute/Ejnar Mikkelsen (AI # 24569)

The Scott Polar Research Institute photos from 1930 show 15 of 60 kayaks with sled supports. 

And, as you can see above in Robert-Lamblin’s 1972 photos from Tiilerilaaq, Haralti Boasson, at that time, had a sled-support on his kayak.

Nooter (1976) photo 2, on page 12, shows the same “Harald Boasson” on a different occasion, in 1967, hunting without this item on his kayak.

One of the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation films them shows a sled support in use at Sermiligaaq in 1961.

From Nunatta oqaluttuarssartaa “Vinterrejse i Østgrønland” film by Jette Bang/KNRTV Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation

Drain plugs

There is one other item found on kayaks in East Greenland and not on the kayaks of West Greenland, the drain plug. Harvey Golden described this in his Kayaks of Greenland (2006, page 76) saying of it: “In East Greenland a phenomenally practical accessory is often seen on kayaks … ” Drain plugs are shown in five of his seven scale drawings of completed “modern” (post 1894) East Greenland kayaks [kayak # 91 is an uncovered frame] and evidenced in one other [# 84].

I was fascinated to find that at the 3rd minute of the “Somer i Sermiligaaq” film we see the hunter open his drain plug to release the water accumulated in his kayak. So, even though a drain plug is not exactly “hunting equipment,” I decided to include this section and this screen grab here.

From Nunatta oqaluttuarssartaa “Somer i Sermilaaq” film by Jette Bang/KNRTV Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation.

Final Comments

So there it is, everything I’ve been able to find out about several distinctive features of East Greenland kayak hunting equipment from Paul-Émile Victor’s material in QAJAQ, volume 6, 1916; the photos in the Arctic Institute’s invaluable collection; the Scott Polar Research Institute photos from 1930; and the (unfortunately very few) relevant sources.

First, that some of the East Greenland Inuit used two different camouflage hunting screens on their kayaks, one at the bow and one in front of the line tray. Most of the hunters used just the fore deck one; a few of them used both; there are just two examples I have come across of a hunter using a bow screen only. I have not found any source that gives a convincing explanation for why or when they did which.

Second, that some East Greenland Inuit began to hunt using both rifle and shotgun but without the harpoon, line tray, and hunting float. This is on record for four of the settlements, Sermiligaaq (in 1961), Kulusuk (in 1961), Isertoq (in 1962), and Tiilerilaaq (in 1967 and 1968).  

Third, that these Inuit had a unique way of supporting their guns which was unknown in West Greenland. By this technique they had their guns in a fully horizontal position (one above the other, if two) well clear of the fore decks of their kayaks.

Fourth, that these Inuit used shaped hunting floats similar if not identical to those used in central and south West Greenland, and that in the early years, back in the late 1800s, they had a variant of this shaped hunting float which was, so to speak, “double,” which “can be rested on in the water without slipping to the side” (Holm page 455 n).

Fifth, that beginning in the 1960s some at least of the hunters switched to using unshaped hunting floats very much like those of the Upernavik and Uummannaq districts of northwest Greenland.

Sixth, that a few kayakers, as long ago as 1906 and as recently as 1972, had what Victor called a “sled-support for the rifle when hunting on floes” carried on their after decks, near the stern.

Seventh, not known in West Greenland, drain plugs are found in many East Greenland kayaks.

I want to thank Vernon Doucette not only for agreeing to my using portions of the graphics and other material by Paul-Émile Victor which he recently re-published in QAJAQ, volume 6, 2016, but also for helping me acquire the gracious permission of both Joëlle Robert-Lamblin and Daphné Victor to make use of this material — for which I thank them both most sincerely. The Danish Arctic Institute’s amazing collection of photographs from Greenland was, of course, my main source and inspiration in writing this essay. The photographs recently made public by the Scott Polar Research Institute, taken by members of the 1930-1931 British Arctic Air-Route Expedition,were also of great value. 

References cited

Cambridge Greenland Kayak Expedition Report
Scott Polar Research Institute

Chapman, F. Spencer
Northern Lights, Chatto and Windus, London

Chapman, F. Spencer
Watkins’ Last Expedition, Chatto and Windus, London

Golden, Harvey
Kayaks of Greenland, White House Grocery Press,
Potland, Oregon

Hanserak (Hansen, Johannes)
List of the Inhabitants of the East Coast of Greenland
In: The Ammassalik Eskimo, edited by William Thalbitzer
Meddelelser om Grønland, volume 39, Copenhagen

Holm, Gustav
Ethnological Sketch of the Angmagsalik Eskimo
In: The Ammassalik Eskimo, edited by William Thalbitzer
Meddelelser om Grønland, volume 39, Copenhagen

Jensen, P. Scavenius
Den Grønlandske Kajak og dens Redskaber
Arnold Busck, Copenhagen
translated as:

Jensen, P. Scavenius
The Greenlandic Kayak and Its Implements
National Museums of Canada, Ottawa

Nooter, Gert
Leadership and Headship, E. J. Brill, Leiden

Nooter, Gert
The East Greenland Kayaks
In: Contributions to Kayak Studies, edited by Eugene Y. Arima
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Quebec

Petersen, Robert
East Greenland before 1950
In: Handbook of North American Indians, volume 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas
Smithsonian Institution, Washington

Petersen, Robert
Settlements, kinship and hunting grounds in traditional Greenland
Meddelelser om Grønland, Man and Society, Copenhagen

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Kayak Angst



Ken Taylor                                                                               November 4, 2017, revised July 3, 2018


“A tupilaq frightening a man to death in his kayak”

(Rasmussen/Worster 1921, opp page 96)

When I was in Greenland in 1959 I met three men who could not kayak. They were young enough, they were strong enough, but they had “kayak angst.” Also known as “kayak dizziness,” “kayak fear,” “kayak phobia,” an attack can be a truly life-threatening experience. The kayaker believes that he is about to capsize, or sink, can become paralyzed with fear and may have one or another of several terrifying hallucinations.

One of these three men lived at Uummannatsiaq, the village Bent Jensen and I visited while I was staying with him at Ikerasak. It was Bent, speaking of this man, who first told me about kayak angst. At Illorsuit, one of the two men there who also had kayak angst offered to sell me his kayak since he had, quite recently, had to stop using it.

My visit to Illorsuit had been arranged by Dr. Harald I. Drever of St. Andrews University. As a geologist, he had himself already been there four times and was a great admirer of the skills of the village kayakers. He sent me there to carry out a general study of the villagers’ seal hunting by kayak.  Unfortunately my stay was for only three months and I did not learn anything more about kayak angst. 

In 1970 Dr. Zachary Gussow made the suggestion that, for some kayak hunters, sensory deprivation was the cause of kayak angst. And this idea, both in a few published works and on the internet, has for many years been the prevailing interpretation. My purpose in this article is to show, using the information given in the 60 cases histories published by Dr. Alfred Bertelsen in 1905, that sensory deprivation cannot have been the cause of the problem.

Alfred Bertelsen’s writing on Kayak Angst

In 1963, when I was an anthropology student in Wisconsin, it turned out that my academic adviser Dr. William S. Laughlin also had an interest in kayak angst. He and I wrote a paper on the subject in which we commented on the fact that it had never been reported from other parts of the Arctic/Sub-arctic, but only from Greenland. We suggested that there might be a genetic predisposition to the problem, such that it occurred only among the Inuit of Greenland. While preparing that paper, I read Bertelsen’s 1905 publication “Neuro-patologiske Meddelelser fra Grønland” and his later 1940 publication in which he essentially repeats his earlier conclusions. He worked both as a district medical officer and in more senior positions on the West Greenland coast from the early 1900s to 1927. It was in 1902-1903 that he recorded the 60 case histories of men afflicted by kayak angst included in his 1905 publication  —  5 of them from the Uummannaq district where Illorsuit is located.

A few other people had already written about kayak angst. Bertelsen tells us that in 1864 a Dr. Carl Lange had attributed it to excessive enjoyment of coffee. In 1882 tobacco was given as the cause by Dr. L. C. von Haven. In 1883, Dr. M. Hastrup suggested it might be a form of epilepsy and then, in 1886, wrote that he believed that it had existed before the Greenlanders had any access to coffee or tobacco. Dr. G. Meldorf, in 1900, agreed with von Haven that tobacco might be the cause. Meldorf, it turns out, was the first person to inquire into the incidence of the ailment: he found that it was reported by at least 10% of the men over 18 years of age of the Qaqortoq district [then Juliannehaab] in southwest Greenland.

Bertelsen notes that Dr. Knud Pontoppidan, in his “Psychiatriake forelaesninger og studier [Psychiatric lessons and studies]” of 1893, had suggested that kayak angst might be a form of agoraphobia. This is interesting as Bertelsen describes how, when he was invited in 1902 to join the Danish Literary Greenland Expedition, Dr. Pontoppidan (who had always claimed that the Danes had a special obligation to study kayak angst as a national affliction of the Greenlanders) made a point of encouraging him to give his attention to the matter. Bertelsen says that it was in response to this encouragement that he collected the 60 case histories that are in his 1905 report.

Bertelsen’s data on kayak angst

The information in Bertelsen’s case histories [here I am using the translation helpfully provided by Gussow (1970)] has to do with the personal backgrounds of the 60 kayak angst victims who had sought him out, recent events in their lives, whether or not the men had relatives who also suffered from the ailment, any past or recent stress or alarms they had experienced. There is information on the weather and other conditions on the days when they experienced their attacks of the angst, if they were alone or with other kayakers, were they close to land or far out at sea, etc., etc. Bertelsen himself seems to have wondered if any of these factors might explain the occurrence of kayak angst. He reports, however, that while the onset often occurred when the kayaker was alone at sea, a number of cases were known where it happened in the company of others. It could occur under various water and weather conditions  —  in calm and rough water, on foggy and sunny days, with the sun low and in the man’s eyes or high and well out of his field of vision. But no single factor (or cluster of factors) consistently preceded the attacks, and could be considered the “cause” of the experience. 

The survey he carried out in 1903-1904 (for which he followed Meldorf’s example of using questionnaires) gave him some limited information on 70 kayakers, in addition to the 60 of his earlier study. For this total number of 130 men, he gave the following information on the percentages of kayakers suffering from kayak angst:

Upernavik district                                                                15%

Uummannaq district                                                           12%

Ilulissat and Qasigiannguit districts                             12%

Qerqertarssuaq and Aasiaat districts                           13%

and, from Meldorf, for the

Qaqortoq district                                                                  10%

There could be no doubt, then, that for the Greenland Inuit it was a serious problem. Speaking of the total of 130 kayakers (all in northwest Greenland) Bertelsen reported that after 12 years of experiencing the problem 18% of the victims had to give up kayaking altogether; after 7 years, 51% could continue but only if in the company of others; and after 6 years, 31% could still kayak alone “but with lessened confidence [for example, fishing but not hunting].” He also calculated from Meldorf’s data that the equivalent figures for the Qaqortoq district were: 24%; 39%; and 37%.

John Pedersen of Ilulissat says, in a comment on an earlier draft of this article, “many of [the victims of kayak angst] abandon the community and become ‘qivitoq‘ and live for themselves [in the wilderness]. Others commit suicide.”

Sensory Deprivation in Gussow’s interpretation

First, I need to point out that Gussow is not talking about all the 60 men of Bertelsen’s case histories. For some reason this has not been noticed by the several people who have commented on, or simply cite, his 1970 article. This is strange because Gussow states quite clearly that he is talking about what he terms kayak angst “Type II.” What he calls “Type I” angst, “seems to be a regular accompaniment of hunting, common to a majority of hunters, and perhaps to all, at one time or another, [occurring] when the hunter finds himself in an immediate and realistically dangerous situation” (page 229). His “Type II,” on the other hand, which he considers to result from sensory deprivation, he presents as affecting just 20 of these 60 kayakers.

He speaks of nine circumstances which he believes may have led to sensory deprivation being experienced by these 20 men. These are: 1) being alone; 2) sitting quietly or paddling slowly; 3) being in a visually “fixed” or “staring” position; 4) being on smooth, “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas; 5) being in monotonously rolling ground swells; 6) being on “glistening” seas; 7) a suggestion of “bottomlessness;” 8) the sun being in the kayaker’s eyes; 9) there being nothing in view to establish the horizontal.

“Being alone” is the condition mentioned by the greatest number of the 60 kayakers. A total of 37 men spoke of this. But Gussow also gives “being alone” as a condition for his “Type I” kayak angst and only 14 of these 37 kayakers are on his list of the 20 men who had “Type II.” “Being in a visually ‘fixed’ of ‘staring’ position” is really just an aspect of the “sitting quietly or paddling slowly” condition and is not mentioned explicitly by any of the 60 men. “Being on ‘glistening’ seas” is mentioned by only one man, not on Gussow’s list of 20. Experiencing a suggestion of “bottomlessness” is also mentioned only once, by a man on the list of 20.

Removing these four leaves us with a list of five conditions we can consider as possibly having led to experiences of sensory deprivation: 1) sitting quietly or paddling slowly; 2) being on smooth, “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas; 3) in monotonously rolling ground swell; 4) the sun being in the kayaker’s eyes; and 5) there being nothing in view to establish the horizontal. So, in which of the 20 cases did these conditions apply? There is only one case (# 60) in which all five conditions apply. In one case (# 31) none of the conditions apply. And here we have a problem in examining Gussow’s proposal. At no point does he say which, or how many, of these conditions need apply for the kayaker to have experienced sensory deprivation.

Looking at the five conditions, one by one  —  for all of Bertelsen’s 60 cases  —  we have the following.

1) “Sitting quietly or paddling slowly” is mentioned by 23 men, 9 of them on Gussow’s list of 20.

2) Being on smooth “mirroring,” “reflecting” seas is mentioned by 30 men, 10 of them on his list of 20.

3) Being in monotonously rolling ground swells is mentioned by 17 men, 9 of them on his list of 20.

4) The sun being in the kayaker’s eyes is mentioned by 8 men, 3 of them on his list of 20.

5) Nothing in view to establish the horizontal. This is mentioned by 16 men, 5 of them on his list of 20.

From Bertelsen’s data, then, we see that all of the five conditions Gussow speaks of as having led to sensory deprivation were experienced “across the board,” not only by men on his list of 20 but also by a high number (32) of the other 40 men of the case histories. Gussow’s suggestion that (unlike the other 40) these 20 men experienced kayak angst because of sensory deprivation is not at all confirmed by the data in Bertelsen’s 60 case histories.

Kayak angst as a phobia

After detailed discussion of the material in the 60 case histories and in other authors, Bertelsen concluded that the affliction was a phobia; that it was a pathological fear. He goes on to say: “something quite similar … is well known from … material on phobias [he mentions agoraphobia and more specifically topophobia, which is defined as “the fear of certain places or situations”] and I have no doubt that it would be justified here to [name] a particular kind of phobia  for which I would recommend the name Laitmatophobia.” This suggestion of a new label for the affliction, however, has never been adopted.

Kayak hunting, of course, could be extremely dangerous. The risks presented by the waves of an iceberg breaking up or turning over to a new position of stability, the attack of a threatened or wounded sea mammal, accidental entanglement in the harpoon line, the wild seas of storm conditions  —  the hunters had to live with and cope with a constant awareness, and completely rational fear, of these possibilities.

What the 60 men of Bertelsen’s case histories describe, however, suggests that kayak angst had to do with what we would call an irrational fear.

In 1995 Dr. Klaus G. Hansen published an article on the traditional belief of the Greenland Inuit that the (to us) supernatural creatures called tupilaq caused the attacks of kayak angst. And, as Hansen tells us, Kleinschmidt’s 1871 dictionary definition of tupilaq is: “A monster, which people thought, that somebody could put together of certain bones and other things, brought to life by a spell and sent to overturn and kill a particular kayaker …” (Hansen, page 59). A tupilaq could look like a seal, a dog, some other animal, even be invisible. In one kind of attack, in the form of a seal, it would let the hunter harpoon it but then make it impossible for the hunter to release the hunting float from the kayak, capsize the kayak and drown its victim (Petersen 1964, Rasmussen 1938).

Hansen goes on to say: “without wanting to do so [the victim] has created an environment for envy or jealousy” … [for example by being an especially successful hunter or by winning the love of a woman desired by another man]. He quotes from Bertelsen’s case history #12: “It is known that the patient in 1887 was attacked by an opponent suitor who tried to murder him with [a] harpoon from behind.” Later he also says “all Greenlanders [know] the risk of being [the] object of revenge …” (pages 66 and 67). And this revenge, in some cases, would have been attempted by creating a tupilaq and sending it to attack the victim.

We need to remember that, back in 1902-1903, when the 60 kayakers of his case histories were interviewed by Bertelsen, they will have been very aware that they were speaking to a trained medical doctor from Denmark. Until as late as 1953 Greenland was still a colony of Denmark. It seems most unlikely that his patients would have readily talked with Bertelsen about such beings as tupilaq which they surely knew he would consider superstition-based and purely imaginary. Nevertheless, 13 of the 60 men spoke of “feeling threatened by something they could not explain” which I read as having been the oblique way in which a few of them managed to refer to the dangers of attack by a tupilaq. As I’ve said above, in the 20 cases focused on by Gussow the men all describe what he calls “A regularly occurring perceptual distortion [in which a man’s] kayak is shrinking in size, becoming narrower of strangely small …” Four of these men were among the 13 who referred to tupilaq attack, which leaves us with 29 men who had irrational experiences in one or other of those two ways.

Another 28 men reported other experiences and sensations that were also what I believe we would consider entirely irrational  —  for example: Case # 2 where the kayaker described his kayak “becoming heavier and sinking deeper;” Case # 9: “he felt his kayak getting heavy and water getting in;” Case # 13: “he couldn’t raise the paddle which seemed extremely heavy … the kayak became too heavy to paddle;” Case # 17: “as if soot rained down around him;” and Case # 47: “he felt his kayak sinking bow first into the depths.”

In one way or another, then, 57 of the 60 kayakers spoke of something irrational, of experiences that we cannot attribute to any rational fear of danger.  


I have shown that Gussow’s suggestion that sensory deprivation was the cause of kayak angst for 20 of Bertelsen’s patients is not at all borne out by the data in the 60 case histories.

So far as I know, no-one has ever presented a more satisfactory explanation than Bertelsen’s (and Pontippidan’s) that kayak angst was a form of phobia.

From Hansen we do now know that, traditionally, to the Greenland Inuit themselves, an experience of kayak angst was a case of being attacked by a tupilaq, sent by an enemy or rival to kill the victim.

References cited

Bertelsen, Alfred

1905       Neuro-patologiske meddelelser fra Grønland. Bibliotek for Laeger, rk 8, bd 6: 109-135, 280-335. Copenhagen

1940       Grønlandsk medicinsk Statistik og Nosografi. Meddelelser om Grønland, bd 117(3). Copenhagen

Gussow, Zachary

1970       Some responses of West Greenland Eskimos to a naturalistic situation of perceptual deprivation. Inter-Nord, International Journal of Arctic and Nordic Studies, vol 11:227-62. Paris

Hansen, Klaus Georg

1995       Kayak Dizziness. Historical Reflections about a Greenlandic Predicament. Folk, vol 37: 51-74. Copenhagen

Pedersen, John

2017     Re Kayak Angst (11/29/17). QajaqUSA, Greenland Kayaking Forum

Petersen, Robert

1964     The Greenland Tupilak. Folk, vol 6, 2:73-101. Copenhagen

Pontoppidan, Knud

1892       Psykiatriske Forelaesninger og Studier. Th. Lind. Copenhagen

Rasmussen, Knud

1938     (Posthumous Notes On) The Life and Doings of the East Greenlanders in Olden Times. Ostermann, H. (ed) Meddelelser om Grønland, Bd 109, 1. Copenhagen

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Chapter Five: Variations in Kayak Design





Chapter Five

Variations in Kayak Design

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Ken Taylor / Cameron

July 22, 2015, revised June 8, 2018


Before I went there in 1959 I had only seen that one other Greenland kayak, in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University.  So I really had no idea how many different kayak designs the Inuit of Greenland had ever actually come up with.  In the years following I did see a few museum specimens that were not identical to the ones I’d seen for myself in Greenland and I did read about others in, for example, Adney and Chapelle’s The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America (1964).  But it wasn’t until Golden’s Kayaks of Greenland [KoG] came out in 2006 that I realized just how much variation there used to be.  In other words, that the kayaks I knew from the Uummannaq Bay area were examples of just one among several different Greenland Inuit kayak designs.

At all the villages I stayed in or visited, also at the Umiamako hunting camp, and in Uummannaq town, all the kayaks I saw and in many cases measured did have the same distinctive design.  They all had the noticeable simple, positive sheer to the gunwales, the very low fore deck, and the slightly upturned stern. There was one way in which some of them were significantly different from all the others, as I spell out below [this had to do with their cross-sectional shape], but the basic design was the same wherever I went.  In his KoG, Harvey Golden describes and analyses 13 distinct types of Greenland kayak design, spanning the 400 year period, 1600 to 2000, with beautiful scale drawings of the 104 kayaks he describes.  The Uummannaq Bay kayaks that I saw in 1959 were examples of his Type VI.

The masik fore deck beam

All West Greenland kayaks are built with a special fore deck beam, immediately in front of the cockpit, known as the masik. Of all the spars which span from gunwale to gunwale it’s the strongest, the most firmly attached, the most securely held in place by the (seal) skin of the kayak.  It is always curved and its rise above the level of the upper surface of the gunwales is what determines the height and slope of the fore deck.  The front edge of the coaming rests on the masik and this tilts the angle of the coaming and makes squeezing in and out of the kayak possible.  In the Uummannaq Bay kayaks the masik has a distinctive shape. The ends of the masik are cut to be half an inch or so higher than the upper edge of the gunwales.  The result is a distinct “bulge” in the skinned surface of the fore deck.  Golden, in KoG (page 67), speaks of this as a known West Greenland option.  Besides John Heath’s kayak, seven of the 81 west coast kayaks Golden describes have this kind of masik. Two of these are from Disko Bay, one is from Nuuk, and one from Upernavik.  For the other three there is no information on where they are from.

Gunwale curvature

One way in which the Greenland kayak designs varied from place to place had to do with the curvature of their gunwales.  [The gunwales are the longitudinal boards that form the edge between the deck and the sides of a kayak.]   Petersen describes two ways of shaping the gunwale strakes. One involves adjustments in the vertical depth of these strakes, by cutting away portions of the wood and/or adding to the depth of the wood as shown in the sketch below.


Figure 30 on page 54 of KoG.  This shows the more complicated option.

In the other more simple treatment of the gunwales these are two identical pieces of wood, the same depth and thickness for their entire lengths (i.e. not shaped in any way), attached to each other at bow and stern and spread apart in the middle to give the desired width to the kayak.  As you know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of building a skin-on-frame kayak (or anything similar) if you then lean these gunwale boards outwards to give them a “flare” of, say, 15 degrees off the vertical, the result is that the bow and stern will both rise above the level of the mid point.  Seen from the side, this by itself will give you a sweet, continuous “sheer line” curve from bow to stern without any further effort on your part.  Solid geometry will have done the job for you.  And this is how the Uummannaq Bay kayaks, in all the places where I saw them, were built in 1959.

4 11 Umia Tob poses harp


Tobias posing with his harpoon during the hunting trip to Umiamako and me showing the use of the harpoon at Loch Lomond in the spring of 1960.  These two photos show very nicely the curvature of the sheer line in Uummannaq Bay kayaks of 1959.

Here is an example of the result you get from using the other, the more complicated, way of working the gunwales  —
Plate 8 on page 145 of Golden’s KoG 
This is a West Greenland kayak from somewhere between the years 1600 and 1800. Unfortunately, there is no information on where exactly on the west coast it was made.  It is housed in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Netherlands.  Quite unlike the Uummannaq Bay kayaks you can clearly see in the drawing that this kayak has what is known as “reverse sheer.”  In other words, the gunwales are higher above the waterline in the middle of the kayak and lower at both bow and stern.
Bow and stern design
Kayak designs also varied in the profiles of bow and stern.  This photo of Johan Zeeb’s kayak, at Illorsuit, shows the gradually rising shape of the bow with its lower edge a convex curve, that was characteristic of the Uummannaq Bay kayaks in 1959.  Also (tho’ a bit obscured by what looks like it may be his harpoon for some reason way out of its normal position) the moderately abrupt rise (rake) of the stern piece, with its lower edge also a convex curve.

photo: Sue Ellcome

A close up of the kayak built for me shows this raking stern design.  The photo was taken in August of 2012 at the Kelvingrove Museum. The angle of this raking stern is 17 degrees above the horizontal in my kayak and 14.5 degrees in the one made for John Heath.  Approximately that much of an angle, as you can see in so many of my photos, was characteristic of the 1959 Uummannaq Bay design.  In the Upernavik District, just north of Uummannaq, the kayaks used to have their sterns turned up at a much steeper angle.  As Porsild says, “almost forming a right angle with the deck” (1915, page 121).

Several of the Illorsuit kayaks (lined up for the race in the village bay, see Chapter Ten) showing these characteristic bow and stern shapes.  Note that the kayak farthest from the camera, Ludwig’s, had its stern piece broken off by the early winter sea ice of the previous year.

And an absolutely “classic” 1959 Uummannaq Bay kayak up on its qainivik in Uummannaq town.

Here, an almost extreme example of how differently these parts of a kayak could be made  —

plate 77 on page 362 of Golden’s KoG 

This is a kayak from Nanortalik near the southern tip of Greenland, dating from 1928.  Golden describes it as being “rather extreme in form, its ends being very long and narrow. It has a remarkable fore and aft symmetry … the bow being nearly identical to the stern in profile and plan.”  He also refers to its “[long] and concave ends …” (2006, page 377).

The seeqqortarfik

Another feature of west coast kayak design which Petersen discusses in detail has to do with the fore deck beam immediately in front of the masik, called the seeqqortarfik.  He describes it as having a quite complex shape so as to curve upwards one or one and a half inches “to give more room for the legs” (2001, page 21).

seeqq cropped

Figure 41 of Golden’s KoG (page 57)

This shows a seeqqortarfik, as described by Petersen. This example has an especially curved and complex shape. It is of a kayak from Kangaamiut in the Musee de la Marine, Paris. Also shown is the second deck beam, curved but with a simple shape.

With the exception of only two specimens (#5 and #73), all of the 81 West Greenland kayaks in KoG do have curved fore deck beams  —  though only 7 of them with the complex shape described by Petersen.  These seven are all from the southwest coast.  More simply curved beams are recorded for the other 72 kayaks – some with a lot of curvature, some with very little.

The Uummannaq Bay kayaks had very slightly curved fore deck beams, usually with a rounded and slightly arched lower surface.

post Spain inside ahead to bow

photo: Greg Stamer

This recent photo by Stamer of Heath’s kayak shows the masik and the only slightly curved fore deck beams in front of it.

post Spain along first deck beam

photo: Greg Stamer

Looking along the length of the fore deck beam immediately in front of the masik. This shows the slightly rounded upper surface of that deck beam; how it sits quite a bit lower than the bottom surface of the masik; and how the fore deck stringers are supported by the deck beams but do not touch the masik.  This last detail is because “otherwise the kayak framework might creak, which would be easily heard by a seal.” (Petersen 1986, page 28).


Zooming in on my photo of Heath’s completed kayak at Uummannaq town, you can again see how very slightly the fore deck beam closest to the masik is curved.

Still on the subject of the seeqqortarfik, Petersen describes it as being separated from the masik by only 1 to 1 1/2 fingers’ width.

Figure 31 on page 49 of Petersen (2001)

In this image that’s the masik (vertical on the page) at the extreme right with the seeqqortarfik close beside it.

This is also the case for some examples in Golden’s KoG.  From his scale drawings of four kayak frames (#25, #50, #51, and #71) and of “amidships framing layouts” (for #9, #14, #26, and #66), and also from his text and sketches, we have information on the size of the gap between the seeqqortarfik and the masik for ten of the West Greenland kayaks in his KoG.  In each case, the gap appears to be less than three inches. In four cases (#33, #50, #56, and #71) there is essentially no gap at all.

In Uummannaq Bay (and there was an interesting discussion of this on, back in 2003 and 2004), the position of this deck beam was different from other kayaks of the west coast.

In the Uummannaq Bay kayaks, the masik alone gave a firm hold on your thighs when you “gripped” the kayak by upwards pressure of your legs.  Rather than being separated by just 1 to 1 ½ fingers’ width, the first deck beam in front of the masik was positioned to be just in front of your knee caps. Greg Stamer’s photo of that part of Heath’s kayak shows this well.


photo: Greg Stamer

As Stamer said in a post on in September of 2004: “I don’t recall my fit in the replica that Harvey Golden created that I paddled recently. However by measuring the distance from my lower back to my knee, and applying this to the kayak, it appears that my kneecaps would extend just in front of the masik and my knees would not quite reach the first deck beam.”

So much for the 1959 kayaks.  now let’s take a look at the earlier examples.

photo: Vernon Doucette

Another look at the 1896 Goodnow kayak.  That same sheer line curve, that same rising bow and raked stern.


Danish Arctic Institute/Alfred Bertelsen

Alfred Bertelsen’s photo from 1902 showing two kayaks off shore at Niaqornat.  You can see the characteristic curve of the sheer line and the rising bow and raked stern features.

photos: Vernon Doucette

Rockwell Kent’s Illorsuit kayak from the early 1930s.  It has the same sheer line curvature, with rising bow and moderately raked stern.


photos: Harald I. Drever

First, Drever’s just completed kayak, in 1938, with Knud Nielsen who made it.  The second photo shows it while still being built (it’s upside down in the photo).  The outward lean of the gunwales and the smooth curve of the sheer line already showing up beautifully.

Well, that’s a lot of looking through the photos and comparing what they show with certain of the different designs shown in Golden’s KoG.  I’m convinced, and I hope you agree, both that there was such a thing as an Uummannaq Bay kayak design and that we can recognize it all the way from the 1896 Goodnow kayak, thru the 1902 kayaks at Niaqornat, Kent’s and Drever’s Illorsuit kayaks from the 1930s, and on to the many kayaks that I saw and tried out and measured and photographed in 1959.

All in all, compared with other design types found elsewhere in Greenland and known from museum specimens of many years past, the Uummannaq Bay kayaks of 1959 could be said to have an essentially simple, a very basic design.  As well as the noticeable sheer, very low fore deck and slightly raked stern piece, they do have one quite distinctive feature  – the fore deck beam closest to the masik is positioned to be in front of your knee caps. 

Variation in cross-sectional design

Everything that I’ve said so far has been about the similarity of all the Uummannaq Bay kayaks I saw.  As I drafted it at one point: “they all seemed to be made from the same mold.”  But there was one quite significant way in which they did vary  —  in the cross-sectional shape of their hulls.   

Depending on how its ribs are shaped and whether or not the side stringers are set on the ribs so as to be on the same plane as the outside surfaces of the gunwales, a kayak will be what’s called “hard-chine” or “multi-chine.” And this is not just an aesthetic difference, not just a difference in “what they look like.”  This is a difference that affected their actual handling, their very performance as hunting kayaks.

Golden discusses changes in the cross-sectional shape of kayak designs in his analysis of the emergence of the seven West Greenland kayak types (KoG, pages 530-543).   Here (as he does too) I am talking about the simultaneous use of both hard-chine and multi-chine kayaks in one area at one time.

It’s fascinating to me that while Emanuele had made my kayak to be hard-chine, just a few days later he made Heath’s multi-chine.

Here is the hull shape of my kayak  —

This taken from Duncan Winning’s scale drawing.  It shows how the kayak has flat or “slab” sides and a shallow “vee” bottom.  What’s known as a “hard-chine” cross-section.

And here is the hull shape of Heath’s kayak  —

This is taken from Harvey Golden’s scale drawing of Heath’s kayak (plate 72b on page 315 of his KoG).  With the two side stringers set closer to the central keelson, in Heath’s kayak the lower edges of the gunwales “protrude” to give each side two facets (and not a “slab” shape) plus a bit less of a shallow “vee” bottom.  What’s known as a “multi-chine” cross-section.

       [By the way, enlarging these two drawings allows you to measure the angle of gunwale flare (angle off the vertical) as 16 degrees for Heath’s kayak and 18.5 degrees for mine.]

In his discussion of these two options, H. C. Petersen comments that the multi-chine hull gives a less stable and “more difficult to balance” kayak (having less initial stability).  Arnarulunguaq [John] Pedersen of Ilulissat, Greenland, in an email in which he kindly replied to questions of mine, told me that a hard-chine kayak will have better directional stability (which is desirable, of course, for using guns in seal hunting) while a multi-chine kayak, on the other hand, will be less (directionally) stable but easier to turn and maneuver with.  As H. C. Petersen also says, building it to be hard- or multi-chine “is normally determined individually from kayak to kayak” (2001, page 44).

It turns out that for all seven West Greenland kayak types in Golden’s KoG analysis some of the kayaks are hard-chine and some are multi-chine.  Here (by my count) are the figures  —

                                          Hard-chine                     Multi-chine                   Mixed

Type I                                       1                                       6                                 —

Type II                                      1                                      4                                  2

Type III                                     8                                      2                                 1

Type IV                                     9                                       1                                 2

Type V                                      12                                      4                                1

Type VI                                      5                                     13                                —

Type VII                                    6                                       2                                —

Totals                                        42                                    32                                6

The six “mixed” kayaks have the, obviously rare, characteristic of being hard-chined at one end and multi-chined at the other.

In 1959, when the kayaks were in use, the waterline was just above the lower edge of the gunwale.  So you couldn’t see if a kayak was hard-chine or multi-chine when it was in the water  —  it needed to be out of the water on its rack or being carried.  And, of course, most of my photos of kayaks are of when they’re in use.

Golden’s Type VI kayaks then, more of them are multi-chine (13) than hard-chine (5) and, sure enough, from a careful look at those of my photos which show the hull shape of the Illorsuit and other Uummannaq Bay kayaks I’d say that many, but not all of them, were multi-chine.

Enoch’s kayak at the Karrats campsite as he carries it to the water for his second hunt of that day.  You can see that it has the multi-chine shape, especially from below the line tray back towards the stern.

Another view of that “classic” example.  You can see that at the lower edge of the gunwale the skin cover is actually abraded  —  clearly a multi-chine kayak.
Edvard’s and my kayaks on the motor boat at the Karrats campsite.

By zooming in a bit we can see that Edvard’s was a (slab sided) hard-chine kayak.

One of the Uummannaq town kayaks, a good example of a slab sided hard-chine kayak.

As to why mine was hard-chine and Heath’s multi-chine, why some men’s kayaks were hard-chine and others multi-chine  —  that was never explained to me in 1959.

As I read him, Petersen is speaking of hard-chine kayaks when he says: “in a flat-bottomed kayak the ribs have a marked curve at the sides with an almost completely flat middle section.  … A broad and flat-bottomed kayak … does not tilt over easily so it is good for beginners and for less able kayakers.”  And, a bit further on: “Some kayaks are designed with a special bend in the sides which stabilizes the kayak and prevents it from capsizing too easily.  It is mostly built for beginners and for men who have not mastered the art of balancing in a kayak” (1986, pages 45, 46).

And, appropriately enough, in his “Instruction in Kayak Building” (1981), presumably written for beginners, the (South-West Greenland) kayak design Petersen presents is for a hard-chine kayak  —

image from the front cover of 3rd edition of 2001

–  x  –  x  –

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Chapter Two: Subsistence activities





Subsistence activities

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Ken Taylor / Cameron

June 6, 2015, revised June 23, 2018


Seal hunting at the village

I could see that there were kayaks, kept on their “out of dog reach” racks, outside almost all of the houses. BUT, by this time I’d been told that there were very few seal to be found that summer. That was a bit of a shock. Based on his own experience of past years, Drever had told me that I could expect to be offered seal meat (to buy or as a gift) almost every day! And it meant that there was much less kayaking going on than I had hoped to see.

In those days seal hunting was still the primary occupation of all the able-bodied men. Seal were hunted during the winter by harpoon and rifle at the breathing holes, by netting, and in the spring by shooting the “sleeping seals” lying out on the ice. All travel on the sea ice was by dog sled, with teams of six to eight dogs harnessed in “fan-trace” arrangement. Uummannaq Bay was famous for the “glass ice” that formed at the beginning of the winter, smooth ice with no snow cover. That allowed the hunters to move about on the ice without the seal hearing that they were there. In 1958, the year before I was there, they had 60 days (all of January and February) of this “glass ice.”

A photo I found on the internet of Illorsuit in May of 2003. The sea is frozen solid, everything is covered with snow with some recent sled tracks visible.

The kayak hunting was done in the summer season, of 5 to 6 months open water. Five species of seal were found in the seas around Illorsuit. These were the Ringed Seal (Pusa hispida), the Harbor Seal (Phoca vitulina), the Harp Seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus), the Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus), and the Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata). Of these the Ringed Seal was very much the most common. The main item of the villagers’ diet was still seal meat. Half-cured skins the hunters could sell to the village KGH store, or keep for their own use in making clothing and equipment.

The traditional seal skin boots were still worn by most people most of the time. These kamit have an inner boot of skin with the hair left on the inside, pointing from top to bottom and an outer boot of depilated skin. You put a wad of dead grass between the inner and outer boot under your foot and also some inside the inner layer. These parts of the boot were of Ringed Seal skin. The soles of the outer boot were of the far tougher Harp Seal skin. I soon arranged with Anna Zeeb for her to make me a pair. And they were the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn. With the hair of the inner boot pointing downwards they were easier to put on than any other boots or shoes I’ve ever had.

Most of the men, especially when kayaking, still wore the traditional seal skin trousers. The short trousers (more like mini-skirts) and thigh length boots of the girls’, women’s, and widows’ “Sunday best” were also made of seal skin. The girls and unmarried woman wore white boots; married women wore red; and widows wore black.  With those shorts and boots, plus a colorful shirt and cummerbund and  —  the special feature of it all  —  a cape of colored seed beads, a girl or woman was in her “Sunday best.” This was the closest to their traditional clothing that some girls and women ever wore in those days. Only a very few, usually older, women would wear the boots every day.

Enoch Nielsen, his wife Regina and their two children. Regina’s fully attired in what I’ve just described as the girls’ and unmarried women’s clothing. It seems she hasn’t been a married woman long enough to get around to making, or having made for her, a pair of red colored boots. The little girl is also wearing her white boots, etc., but no beaded cape. Also, it looks like Enoch is wearing a brand new pair of sealskin trousers.

Louisa Zeeb with her grandson. She’s not wearing her beaded cape, but does have on her married woman’s red boots.

Many, though not all, of the kayaks were skin-covered, and much of the hunting gear for kayak and dog sled was made of seal skin. Ringed Seal or Harbor Seal skin was used for trousers, boot uppers and certain of the kayak and sled accessories. Harp Seal skin was used for boot soles and for skinning the kayaks. When the time came, unfortunately, it took weeks for me to accumulate the four Harp Seal skins needed to skin my kayak. Bearded Seal skin was used for thonging, e.g. dog whips, dog traces, harpoon lines, and kayak deck thongs.

During the time I was there only one Bearded Seal (enormous) was caught and that by a young man out checking his shark lines by row boat. Very carefully advised and instructed by two of the older men, Aaron immediately began skinning it into cylinders. That, of course, was quite different from the way all other seal are skinned with a cut down the center of their belly (see photo in Chapter Eight: The Hunting Trip to Umiamako). The first cylinder of skin was five or six inches wide and when cut in a continuous spiral it will have given a good length of thong, perhaps enough for a harpoon line, certainly more than enough for a dog whip.

According to the data in an invaluable book “Bogen om Grønland” published by the Politikens Forlag, that was the only Bearded Seal caught at Illorsuit during the 12 months of 1959-1960. In fact, in the whole of Uummannaq Bay there were only eight Bearded Seal caught during that year.

I only saw anyone leave the village by kayak to go seal hunting I think it was just twice (though I did hear of individuals doing so a few other times). I did also once come across Karl Ottosen on the slope above the village with a telescope who said he was looking for Karli Zeeb’s safe return from hunting.

Illorsuit Arali nuuna

photo: Harald I. Drever

A photo by Drever of a kayaker returning from hunting

Borrowing each other’s kayaks

During those days at Ikerasak, Jacob the reindeer hunter, two different boys, and the trade post manager all tried out my Scottish kayak without incident and a lot of interest.

One of the Ikerasak boys in my kayak (using my feathered Euro paddle which must’ve felt weird).

My own first opportunity to try out a local kayak came when Bent Jensen and I visited the small “dwelling place” Ummannatsiaq, at the far end of the island from Ikerasak. A few days later I was able to try one at Ikerasak itself (see Chapter Three, “Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town”).

Between returning from Ikerasak to Uummannaq and finally leaving for Illorsuit, I went with the Rasmussen family for an afternoon visit to the village of Qaarsut. It’s pleasantly situated on the north side of the Nuussuaq peninsula, looking north to the Uummannaq mountain. Again I asked to try one of the kayaks. Not as easy as I’d hoped as, immediately after the church service (the reason for the visit), most of the men had gone hunting. We found one after a bit and I squeezed in OK. It felt possibly a little less comfortable than the others I’d tried so far. It had all its hunting gear in place with the harpoon looking a bit precarious to me, but it seemed to be a very stable kayak. The harpoon and its throw stick were both much lighter weight than I’d expected.

Children at Qaarsut and two kayaks on their racks

In Illorsuit, as soon as I’d gotten installed in my tent the kayak borrowing began. I was delighted that people wanted to try out my kayak. Especially, of course, it was boys without yet any kayaks of their own who wanted to do this.

One of the first times was when Jonas tried mine, and I his. It was a very nice looking seal skin covered kayak, with bone and ivory trimmings, the most attractive I’d tried so far. I had the usual struggle to get in but then it felt more roomy than others, with no real hold on my thighs. It seemed a little less stable than some I’d tried. We went round the corner and started playing with the harpoon. Which again felt very light and “comfortable,” both it and the throw stick smaller than I’d ever imagined. The thongs and slides and hooks, etc., on the fore deck seemed super practical and efficient. And, after more time with it than I’d had with the kayak at Qaarsut, I ended up convinced that the harpoon on its hook and knob was really quite stable. I was struck by how “minute” the white screen at the bow seemed to be.

The next day Peter’s kid brother Johannes tried my kayak and managed it well in spite of fairly rough water. And the day after that was Peter’s turn. And soon it became a regular thing for Peter and his brothers to borrow my kayak to hunt birds and to fish. Several other villagers also gave it a try. They were always quite non-committal and no one ever criticized it for being so tubby compared to theirs.

September 7th was the big day when Ludwig had suggested lending me his kayak. With Peter in mine and Karli as “escorts,” we went some distance down the coast hoping for seal. We saw none, I turned around to admire two icebergs and – capsized. No problem, after all I’d already rolled an Inuit kayak at Ikerasak. But I was upside down in the frigid Greenland water and I completely forgot that I needed to change my grip on the paddle to do the sweep roll that I knew. So, after a few half rolls, Karli had to rescue me. I got so cold on our way back to the village I eventually couldn’t even move my arms! An awful experience (see my “Illorsuit Adventure” article in QajaqUSA’s newsletter MASIK, Spring/Summer 2009 issue).


With such a shortage of seal meat that summer, several of the villagers had taken to hunting sea birds and fishing to provide their families with something to eat. So I began doing so too. Sometimes that would be with Peter in his family’s rowboat but more often I preferred to go out in my own kayak. And sure enough, just as Drever had told me to expect, the first time I returned with some birds I had shot, people leaned out of their windows to call out piniatorssuaq!  That was kinda sweet as the word means “big hunter.” These were actually quite small scale hunts, usually in the evening, not far from shore and either inside the village bay or just around the corner. I often did it without but it worked best if you had some shark liver (which floats) to throw out on the water as “ground bait.” That soon brought some birds around to check out their prospects.

Once I went hunting with Jonas, each in our own kayak, with some liver he had brought along. Several birds came around and twice he waited until he had two “birds in a row” and got them both with one shell. What’s more they were Ivory Gulls! bigger and better than most other sea birds. The little auk was a good catch, also the serfaq (Black Guillemot). But most of the time the birds that showed up were kittiwakes or fulmars, both perfectly edible but a bit boring.

Some days the fishing would be good: small to medium sized cod with the lines we all had. Several of my neighbors were fishing those days, some of the boys borrowing my kayak to do so.  And a number of times I received gifts of fish, just caught or once or twice cooked already. That was Sophia’s speciality, very kind of her. Out fishing in my kayak one day: Peter was in his father Hansi’s kayak, and Ole Quist was in Malaki’s. Then Severin joined us in Johan’s kayak! It was nice to see that kayak in use. Between us all we caught a lot of fish that day.

One day a group of young people and I were preparing to go inland in search of ptarmigan. Hansi, who was himself going out in his kayak after sea birds, suggested that we do so too as he reckoned there’d be no ptarmigan that day. But we were intent on the ptarmigan idea and the four of us set off. Sakeus’ son Nicolet, Edvard Quist, Kattanguaq and I. By that time (it was September 28th) everything was snow covered and the ptarmigan were fully in their winter plumage, every single feather a vivid white, with only their tiny black beaks at all visible. Quite a change from the only half “winterized” ones Tobias and I had seen on Karrats Island just eleven days earlier. I clearly remember the almost eerie effect of looking down into a small dip in the terrain, hearing the low pitched chirping of the birds, and not being able to see a single one of them. Then as we got closer, suddenly a whole flock of 30 or 40 birds would take flight, whirring off as one unit. That was such an impressive sight. Even with careful shooting we ended up with only six between us all. Altogether we must have seen 150 to 200 birds. 

Several Day Hunting Trips

The highlight of the summer, however, was my going with the three Nielsen brothers on a several day seal hunting trip travelling, with our kayaks on board, by inboard motor boat to the traditional hunting camp at Umiamako. See the whole story in Chapter Eight “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.” 

The three brothers (and two of our kayaks) on the way to Umiamako

Both Johan and Karli told me about similar several day hunting trips. Johan did not have an inboard motor boat but he did have a powerful outboard motor. He insisted it worked just as well for him (and was just as fast) as the two or three inboards other villagers had. He used it regularly and had recently got back from a six day trip on which they caught two seal. Anna, Kalasi and Sara had gone with him. They used a tent and all had gone well.

By September 22nd, Karli Zeeb had invited me to go on another several day trip. We would use his inboard motor boat. I was keen to do so as there was at least a chance that we would catch another Harp Seal and I still needed a fourth skin for skinning my Greenland kayak.  Unfortunately, I made the foolish decision of going to Uummannaq in hopes of repairing the movie camera, and his trip was over by the time I got back.  

Shark Fishing

The shark fishing I’ve just mentioned was a constant and very important feature of village life. The liver and skin of these shark could be sold for a good price to the KGH store in the village. The white meat was cut into rectangular blocks, split down the middle, and hung up (on high racks out of the reach of the dogs) to sun dry to be used as dog food in the winter.

Hansi Møller in his rowboat with the five shark his son Peter had just caught.

This (October 11th) was a huge day for Peter. That was the most shark I ever saw anyone catch at one time. They used long lines (1/2 kilometer long they reckoned in one case) each with a number of large hooks baited with seal blubber. Usually by rowboat, they would go one or two miles down the coast of the island and sink the lines to the sea bottom using a fairly heavy weight and a “glider.”

Though not a total count, I also noted that on September 3rd Hansi had come home with three shark. On the 6th, Jonas with his father and wife came back with two. That same day, Hansi and Peter had caught three. September 6th, Karli returned in his inboard motor boat with two and earlier in the day I’d seen him helping other people landing one or more. On the 11th someone else had one or more shark. September 13th Peter had another three. And on October 11th, the day of Peter’s five shark, Ole and Algot caught another three.


Peter skinning the first of his shark

These Greenland Shark, or Sleeper Shark (Somniosus microcephalus) are bottom feeders during the summer months, when the waters are warmer [!] than they prefer. Although they can grow as big as 21 feet, 8 to 14 feet is the more likely size for the many adults that were caught annually off the coast of West Greenland. They will approach the surface of the water in winter, often coming right up to the ice edge. But most of them withdraw in summer to 100 fathoms or deeper. It is one of the most sluggish shark species, offering no resistance whatsoever when hooked and, although they are known to eat seal, large fish, and even in one case an entire reindeer, they do not normally attack or harm humans in any way  —  at least not in the summer.


Here’s Peter removing the liver from one of the shark. As you can see, it’s enormous almost filling the inside of the shark. Later in Europe, among other things, it’ll be used to make cod liver oil!


His father Hansi helping butcher one of them. 

The Sled Dogs

Unlike in other parts of the Arctic, in 1959 Greenland the sled dogs ran loose in the towns and villages. Each family’s team functioned as it’s own small “pack” and they coexisted with very little squabbling between them, unless there was some food to fight over. Because during the summer, the “off season” for sled pulling dogs, they were given almost no food at all. They were expected to fend for themselves by catching small fish on the shore line and eating the guts and offal of the seal, fish, birds, the people caught, and any other scraps that might show up from time to time. Also, horrible thought, by eating human excrement. But there was one other important source of summertime food for the dogs: the carcasses of the shark.

This shows some of the village dogs waiting impatiently for the butchering of the shark to be completed. And well out of their reach you can see shark meat from earlier in the year turning pale brown as it dried in the sun. They’re being kept back with dog whips until at last it’s their turn. The sharks’ skeletons are of cartilage which is easily eaten by the dogs. And, of course, they will also eat the fins, the offal, etc. When the butchering is finished, everyone down at the shore line runs for dear life out of the dogs’ way as they rush down to get their share. A few minutes later there’ll be not a sign left of the shark.

These sled dogs are impressive, strong, half wild, beautiful, and scary at times. A few yards from my tent, one of the neighbor’s bitches was about to whelp in an old meat storage cellar. For a few days the lead dog of that team lay outside, on guard. That was right on the path I used to head into the village. One or two snarls from that dog and I soon found a way to detour around that little scene. I can’t find a photo with the male “on guard” but here is one from a few days later of the mother dog nursing the pups.


The extreme way of not feeding your dogs in summer was to maroon them somewhere far from the village.  Enoch kept his dogs at Sarqa, the southernmost tip of the island. Algot had his some distance down the coast. I saw them when he brought them back to village late in my stay and while they weren’t exactly overweight they seemed to be in good shape. Otto, and at least one other man, had theirs across the sound, on Upernavik Island.

ik-reindeer-three NO BORD

One of only two or three photos that show any dogs at Ikerasak.

The only dog in my photos of Nuugaatsiaq.

So it seems that at both Ikerasak and Nuugaatsiaq the sled dogs were almost all away from the village. And, of course, those will have been (some of) the Nuugaatsiaq dogs we saw on Karrats Island as we came in to our first campsite on the Umiamako hunting trip.

Dogs of virtually all other breeds will stop attacking any dog that “submits” by lying on its back, exposing its belly to the attackers. This is not true, however, of the Greenland sled dogs. If the dog being attacked ends up on its back, on the ground, the attacking dogs will kill it. This was a terrible source of anxiety for the Danes living in a town like Uummannaq. The mothers of young children lived with the fear that one of their children would fall down and be attacked (and therefore killed) by the sled dogs. For that reason the young Danish children were never allowed outside on their own but were at all times in the care of what we would call a “nursemaid.”

Several times I heard it said (by other Danes) that of course the Danes did well in the winter sled driving races  — they could afford to buy the best dogs. While that must be true enough, Enoch had come in third in a major dog sled race in early 1959. The race was a three hour run from Uummannaq to Uummannatsiaq and back. A total of 84 sled teams took part.

But it wasn’t just the Danes who bought and/or sold dogs. In late September the Danish doctor came to Illorsuit and when he then left for Nuugaatsiaq he was asked to vaccinate one of Sakeus’ dogs that was going to someone there. When I returned to the village from Uummannaq in early October, along with the rest of our baggage there was a sled dog someone was sending to Algot.

The dogs also serve two other functions. Their meat can be eaten  —  by humans or by other dogs in extreme situations. And their pelts provide good quality animal skins for various purposes. When we got back to Uummannaq from Ikerasak, Frøken Larsen invited Bent and me to lunch. The special treat of the meal was to be dog meat  —  from two young puppies. I don’t remember how she prepared it but it was delicious!

When Bent and I visited Uummannatsiaq and the tuilik came loose from the coaming just as Johannes was about to demonstrate some rolling, Tomas the owner of the kayak, not at all pleased, pulled out his beautiful dogskin “seat” and hung it up to dry.

On the hunting trip to Umiamako we had a dog skin and a reindeer skin as the “groundsheet” of our tent. Tobias’ beautiful winter sleeping bag was of dog skin on the inside and seal skin on the outside. 

Kent’s drawing of a winter hunter: reindeer skin jacket; seal skin mittens; dog skin pants.

Hoping to return

As I’ve said, it was the most wonderful experience of my life. And, of course, everyone was well aware of how much I was enjoying myself. And of how much I would love to spend the winter with them too. Everyone liked that idea. “If you’ve enjoyed it here in the summer you should see it in the winter – there are no Europeans around [!], the hunting is good, it’s when we really have a good time!”

A wonderful dream! but to this day I’ve never ever been back to Illorsuit.

And then, too soon, on October 18th the “Otto Mathiesen” arrived at 6:00 am and took me and Kattanguaq to Uummannaq for the last time. What a sad, sad day!

A day or two later I left for Copenhagen as one of three passengers on the quite small m.s. “Hanne S.” All was uneventful ’til we passed Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland, and soon entered a bank of dense fog. We slowly, slowly steamed ahead with the Captain on the bridge day and night. A very scary situation. But we got through the fog (and the icebergs) safely and in due course reached Copenhagen.

The following spring, the Hanne S. was the first boat to leave for Greenland. It got there safely, took on a load of cryolite at Ivigtut, also some passengers, and was on its way home to Copenhagen when it was caught in a severe storm and was lost with all hands.

–  x  –  x  –

Categories: Illo 1959 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Chapter Nine : The Kayak Race in the Village Bay







The Kayak Race in the Village Bay

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                       

May 23, 2015, revised June 27, 2018


One of the several things Drever did to boost the prestige of kayaking in Illorsuit was to establish an annual kayak race to be held in the village bay together with a kayak rolling competition.  He set this up in 1957 and donated a trophy on which the winners’ names would be engraved, year by year.  He charged me with organizing this double event in 1959.  I was more than happy to do so and several of the hunters were also keen on the idea though with the weather as cold as it then was (it was October 14th), few of the men were interested in any kayak rolling.  In fact, Ludwig had reminded me of it all back when we were checking out his kayak for me to borrow (back in early September), showing me the hurricane lantern which had been his prize for winning the race in 1957.

So  —  The Race

The men who wanted to race had chosen an ice floe some good distance offshore and to the north as the “buoy” they would kayak to, turn around, and then return to the starting place.  They had also decided, or perhaps Drever had worked this out with them, to use their kayaks with full hunting gear (except for their guns, of course) in place.


 Hansi and Enoch ready and waiting

Hendrik, Hansi, Enoch behind, Ludwig and Edvard now ready


The same five, getting impatient by the looks of things.

And here you see what was for me perhaps the most interesting thing about the race that day.  Here is Karl Ottosen, the man with “kayak angst” who could no longer kayak, being launched to join the others and take part in the race!  He’s the man who offered to sell me his no longer of any use to him kayak when I first arrived.  Evidently his was a case where the presence of other kayakers nearby protected him from an attack of the kayak angst.

You can see that he has the skeg already in place on his kayak and that’s why he needs to be “launched” in this way.



Karl, on the extreme right, with three of the others now ready to start.  

All nine competitors lined up ready to start.  Closest to the camera is either Jonathan or Jacob, then Algot, Enoch, Karl, Hansi, Hendrik, Jacob or Jonathan, Edvard, and Ludwig.

And they’re off!

On their way back.  Some of them went all the way around the “buoy,” others just waited for the leaders and joined them as they came around!

And the winners arrive.  Ludwig first, just as in 1957, Enoch second and Hendrik third.  And the sun came out!

7 12 Ill. race back Q on Q

Hendrik Korneliussen fooling around.  Interesting to see how Edvard’s steadying himself with his paddle across Ludwig’s kayak.  And, by the way, another opportunity to see the hull of a kayak  —  Hendrik’s is definitely “multi-chine.”

Back to the winners  —  Ludwig chose a clock as first prize, an alarm clock from Copenhagen; Enoch a model schooner for his little son Valdimar as second; and Hendrik a cooking pot as third prize.

I confess that I did wonder for a while if the others had held back and allowed Ludwig, the village “headman,” to win.  Not a bit of it!  Speaking of Drever’s 1967 expedition to Illorsuit, Chris Hare (an English kayaker who had been on Drever’s 1966 expedition) tells of a much more ambitious kayak race that Drever arranged.  This one was from Uummannaq to Illorsuit, a distance of 55 miles.  Eight different kayakers took part, from all over the district, and the winner was  —  Ludwig Quist!  And he did so in just 12 hours  —  4.5 mph on average for 12 hours of paddling.  Chris’ account was published in the Winter 1967 issue of American White Water, vol. XIII/3,  pages 4-5, reprinted from Canoeing (England).

Ludwig the winner c and zphoto: Chris Hare (1966)

Ludwig Quist, winner of the 1967 Uummannaq to Illorsuit race.

The trophy that Drever gave to the village for the winner of the Uummannaq to Illorsuit race.

On 11/2/2014, Martin Nissen posted on the QajaqUSA forum website this photograph of a kayaker who had, obviously, just won a race.  Carrying the winner of a race in this way, still seated in his or her kayak, is (so far as I know) a relatively recent tradition which is now used at the annual Qaannat Kattuffiat competitions.  Nissen tells how the photo, taken by Drever, is from 1974 and had been sent by Drever to H. C. Petersen.  The scene is apparently in Illorsuit though it seems not to be known whether this was a local (village bay) race or another Uummannaq to Illorsuit race.

photo: Harald I. Drever

Drever was in Greenland again in the summer of 1975  —  “to further his aim of a ‘Transcultural Centre’ [in] discussions he had arranged with Danes, Canadians and Greenlanders [which, unfortunately] were hampered by illness and other mishaps …”  After a short illness he died in October 1975.  (E.K.W.  St. Andrews University Alumnus Chronicle, June 1976, No.67, page 53).       

In 1978, Philip Gribbon of the Physics Department of the University of St Andrews published some information on the possible future of this Uummannaq to Illorsuit race in the Polar Record (volume 19, issue 118, pages 55-56).  He speaks of “The Harald Drever Memorial Project, 1977” and of money being raised to guarantee the continuation of what Drever had so generously started. I’ve been unable, however, to find any other information confirming that the race was ever held again.  Chris Paton, who lived in Uummannaq from approximately 2007 to 2010, and has written about his time there in his “Seven Settlements” reports (, tells me that he heard it spoken of but was never there at the time of year when it might have happened.

I’ve asked Paninnguaq, the granddaughter of Emanuele Korneliussen who built the two kayaks in Illorsuit in 1959, for anything she could find out.  She very kindly put a request online, in both Greenlandic and Danish, for any information anyone might have.  All she was able to find was that her own mother, Birthe Korneliussen Petersen, born in 1956, remembers a race from Uummannaq to Illorsuit from when she was 10 or 11 years old.  That must have been the race of 1967 that Chris Hare wrote about.

Back to Karl Ottosen on the day of the race

When Karl took part in the race that day he knew, of course, that he would be close to shore and that, as one of eleven participants, he would not be alone. That meant his not being exposed to the two most common possible triggers of repeat attacks of the kayak angst – being alone and being far out at sea. It must also have helped him to know that he would have these several other kayakers with him who could come to his rescue if needed. Also that he would be close enough to shore to be able to paddle there to put an end to an attack if he were unlucky enough to have one that day.

So the risk of his having an attack of the angst may have been small but nevertheless it was clear that the others were concerned about him and, as you can see in this photo, three of them carefully escorted him back to the finish line.

The three escorting Karl safely home.  Edvard on the left, then Jonathan or Jacob, Karl in the middle and Algot on the right.

Karl safely back, along with his “escorts.”  Ludwig and Enoch cooling off with their hands in the ice cold water …

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Categories: Race 1959 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Chapter Ten: The Rolling Competition





The Rolling Competition

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                                                                                                                    

March 18, 2015 and March 28, 2015 for additional information on two of the rolls listed by Crantz, revised June 14, 2018


Jonas Malakiasen doing a dance on the beach before he inaugurates my new tuilik.

Immediately after the race was over we moved on to the rolling  —  only Enoch, Johan and Hendrik, as it was such a cold day.  A fine display from Enoch, I filmed it all [with the defective camera, so all for nothing] and he carefully did them one by one for this.  Johan was not on form and eventually wrenched the tuilik from the coaming of the kayak and got soaked.  Hendrik very good at the sculling braces and also managed the elbow stroke for the first time in his life!

Enoch took my tent as first prize; Hendrik a toy submarine for his son as second; and Johan a primus stove for his grandson Bintsi.  He was so delighted with this. A day or two later, at Sakeus’ where the trophy which Drever had given to the village was for safekeeping, Enoch watched as I carefully engraved “Enoch Nielsen 1959” on the front of the trophy.  He was immensely proud, spoke of how his son would show it to his friends at school!

Maybe because I already had the still photos taken on that earlier occasion (September 23) I didn’t take any photos on the day of the race.  So all the photos shown here are from that earlier day.  But first a word about kayak rolling in general.


Kayak hunting, in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, has always been a dangerous thing to do.  From the waves created by an iceberg breaking up or turning over to a new position of stability, from the risks of attack by a threatened or wounded sea mammal, from accidental entanglement in the harpoon line, from the wild seas of storm conditions, there has always been the possibility of a kayaker being capsized.  Since getting out of the kayak to save yourself, if you were alone, was never an option due to the extreme coldness of the water, the Inuit of Greenland and their relatives all the way across the Arctic and down to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, had developed a number of ways to bring themselves back upright after a capsize.  “Kayak rolling,” as we call it, has been observed and commented on from the earliest times of outsider contact with the Inuit of Greenland.  

Before I left for Greenland I had read one of the earliest accounts for West Greenland  — David Crantz’ 1767 description.  In this he says, “I have observed ten different exercises; there are probably several others which have escaped my notice.”

First he describes what we nowadays call side and chest sculling braces in which you catch the kayak when only halfway over and return it to the vertical by sculling the paddle blade back and forth.  Next, eight rolls using the paddle to recover from a full capsize.  These are: (1) recovering with “a swing of the pautik [paddle] on either side,” what we nowadays call the standard sweep roll; (2) with one end of the paddle under one or more of the fore deck thongs and “a quick motion of the other end;” (3) “they take hold of one end of the pautik with their mouths, moving the other with their hand;” (4) with the paddle held “across the nape of the neck;” (5) with the paddle held “behind the back;” (6) with the paddle held over the shoulder; (7) with the paddle held under the bottom of the kayak with both hands; and (8) by leaving the paddle on the surface of the water and then pulling down on it once capsized.  Then, three rolls without the paddle: (1) using the throwing stick; (2) or a knife; (3) “or even the palm of the hand …”  Of this last he remarks that it “rarely succeeds.”  So, though he is usually cited (quoted) as speaking of ten ways of rolling, in fact he lists the two sculling brace maneuvers and twelve ways of rolling (The History of Greenland, English language edition, 1820, pages 140-141).  

Most of these maneuvers are well enough known nowadays and are included in the 35 performed at the annual competitions of the  Greenland Inuit kayaking association Qaannat Kattuffiat [QK].

Three of the paddle rolls he describes, however, are not performed at the QK competitions:

(1) the roll with the end of the paddle under the deck thong(s), though something very similar was known in East Greenland (see below).

Greg Stamer, however, has posted the following: “I have seen (and performed) Masikkut aalatsineq (forward leaning scull with the paddle on the fore deck) performed with one end of the paddle slid under the fore deck lines. I have seen a number of Greeenlanders perform this roll.” (, Greenland Kayaking Forum, 3/23/2015);

(2) the roll with one end of the paddle held in your mouth, which I had not seen mentioned anywhere else

Greg Stamer also has information on this one: “Maligiaq told me of rolling with one end of the paddle held in your teeth as a modification to the “armpit roll”, I did try and succeed at this roll, but it’s painful and hard on both your teeth and paddle.” (, Greenland Kayaking Forum, 3/23/2015); and

(3) the roll where you pull down on the paddle as it floats on the surface of the water, though this one is known nowadays, by non-Inuit recreational kayakers, as the “butterfly roll.”

I had also read Fridtjof Nansen’s “The First Crossing of Greenland” (1890) and “Eskimo Life” (1893).  In these books he describes how, after their successful crossing of the Greenland ice cap, from east to west, Nansen and his five companions spent almost seven months living among the Inuit in the Nuuk district of West Greenland.  He and four of his group became fascinated by the local people’s kayaks and soon acquired and learned to use kayaks of their own.  While it seems that none of them ever learned to roll their kayaks, he did give some account of the rolling skills of the Inuit they lived among  —

“You cannot rank as an expert kaiak-man until you have mastered the art of righting yourself after capsizing.  …   A thorough kaiak-man can also right himself without an oar by help of his throwing stick, or even without it, by means of one arm.  The height of accomplishment is reached when he does not even need to use the flat of his hand, but can clench it; and to show that he really does so, I have seen a man take a stone in his clenched hand before capsizing, and come up with it still in his grasp” (1893, pages 52-4).

Two other valuable sources of information were Spencer Chapman’s “Northern Lights” (1934a) and his “Watkins’ Last Expedition” (1934b). These are his reports on the two expeditions to East Greenland led by Gino Watkins in 1930-31 and 1932-33.  His accounts were especially interesting to me as Watkins, Chapman and others learned to kayak and to roll their kayaks.  

Chapman reports that “only about one in four of the hunters [could kayak roll] … the more skillful … had a great many ‘trick’ rolls.  …  and about half a dozen in the whole Angmagssalik district  —  have learned to roll … with the hand alone.”  Seven of the expedition members learned to roll but Watkins was the only one who could do so [at that time] with the throwing stick or with the hand alone (1934a, pages 204-205).

When he returned to Greenland on the second of these expeditions, Chapman continued his kayaking and added to his rolling skills: “[One day] I managed to roll in eight different ways with the paddle, then for the first time I came up with my hand alone” (1934b, page 303).

Tragically, it was on this second expedition that Watkins, while out alone seal hunting by kayak (something that he loved to do), had an accident of some sort and was drowned.  The others found his kayak but they never did find his body.

Kayak Rolling in 1959

During my years of sea kayaking back in Scotland, while of course we knew of kayak rolling as a skill that the Inuit had developed, this was simply not a part of what it was all about for us.  I never heard of anyone even thinking of trying to roll our beamy Scottish kayaks.  For us rolling was just that amazing thing that whitewater kayakers did. 

When I wanted to learn at least the basics of rolling a kayak before I left for Greenland, it was with the help of some whitewater kayakers that Campbell had met that it happened.  Campbell was able to borrow a whitewater kayak for an evening and, in the Glasgow Western Baths swimming pool, he and I managed to teach ourselves how to do the “Pawlata” or basic sweep roll (the Standard Greenland roll).  I was glad that we had as I did need to know that roll the time I capsized in Ludwig’s kayak and was able to roll at least part way up three times and (finally!) be rescued by Karli Zeeb (see my “Illorsuit Adventure” article in QajaqUSA’s newsletter MASIK, Spring/Summer 2009 issue).

While I was in Greenland none of the hunters I knew ever needed to roll.  But I did learn of a few kayaking accidents.  The highest peak on Upernavik Island visible from Illorsuit, so Drever told me, had been named Paulus Peak in memory of Johan Zeeb’s younger brother who died while kayaking.  Kent describes witnessing the rescue, in view of the village, of a hunter called David who capsized when a Harp Seal he had harpooned off his left bow dragged his harpoon line across the kayak and pulled him over.  He also tells of how a man he knew called Peter was “lost at sea.  They found his kayak later, torn to shreds.  Only a walrus it is thought, could have done it” (Salamina, pages 105-6 and 330).

But some of the men were willing to roll when I asked them to, as a demonstration.  Whatever practicing and/or training of novices happened that summer, it was all over and done with before I even arrived at Illorsuit in early August.  There was in fact a special kayak in the village used for training boys aged 8 to 10 years old to kayak (though not to roll).  Hendrik Korneliussen was the villager employed to provide this training. Unfortunately, I arrived too late in the summer to see this being done.

The second time that I asked people to put on a demonstration that I could photograph  —  actually to take part in the competition we held on October 14th, the day of the race  —  several men said “thanks but no thanks” … already the weather was just too cold.

Enoch Nielsen, Illorsuit’s champion roller, was always keen on the idea so once that beautiful full jacket (“tuilik“) had been made for me by Tobias’ wife Emilia with the ivory buckles and hooks done by Enoch himself, we had two fine sessions of kayak rolling.  Apparently no-one else in the village had a “tuilik” (it was mid-September by this time) so my brand new one would be used.  Jonas Malakiasen, Johan Zeeb, Enoch and I did the rolling that and the next day.


Back to Jonas putting on the “tuilik,”  getting help tying the sleeves tight around his wrists …

Jonas adjusts tuilik 12.tif 5 - 04

… and making sure it was tight around his face.

The dead eye at waist level is part of the “suspender” arrangement for when (in the old days) a kayaker wanted to shorten the length of the jacket while out hunting for example and not at that moment using it to roll.  With one pull to let the bone or ivory hooks on the thongs coming over his shoulders slip through the dead eye he could release the “suspender” and have the full length of the jacket free to allow him to move his body as needed for whatever roll or rolls he needed to do.  As I’ve mentioned in Chapter Seven on The Hunting Equipment, Petersen (1986) tells how important, in fact essential, for successful kayak rolling it was to have the jacket opened out to its full length. 

Jonas went first and did some side and chest sculling braces with no problem but when he went over to do a full roll he lost his grip on the paddle and floundered badly.  Someone was able to quickly go out in a boat to help him but by that time he was half out of the kayak and got his pants soaked and the “tuilik” wet.  Martin Zeeb had been planning to do some rolls but now didn’t want to because of the “tuilik” being so wet.  But then Johan showed up and agreed to try, to my surprise as he was about 57 years old and a “retired” kayaker.  He gave us a thoroughly expert display of three or four different rolls and both sculling braces.  

The next day it was Enoch’s turn  —  the champion.  So I began by filming him doing several rolls.  As I’ve already mentioned the camera turned out to be defective so, of course, that was a waste of time and opportunity.  He must have run through his repertoire quickly giving me only time to get it all (supposedly) with the movie camera. It then took some persuading to get him to go out again and I was only able to get these few still photos.


Here he is squeezing himself into his kayak before his first set of rolls.  Notice that, as was always the case when anyone demonstrated rolling, he has the harpoon line tray and gun bag in their normal place on the fore deck.  At least eight of the 18 active kayakers had the front end of their gun bags attached to a special loop of skin permanently stitched to the deck of the kayak.

 As everyone always did, he “warmed up” first with some side and chest sculling braces.

It seemed that all the kayakers knew both the side (on your back) and the chest sculling brace techniques.  In fact, one man said that he was so good at these that he didn’t need to learn the “real” rolls.  If that sounds a little strange, it’s worth remembering that two of the rolls in Enoch’s repertoire use these sculling techniques to recover from a fully capsized position.

Beginning his recovery from the chest sculling brace.

Enoch and everyone else at Illorsuit did the chest sculling brace with both thumbs pointing at the tip of the paddle.  At the Qaannat Kattuffiat championships , “some judges allow [this], but in 2003 you were required to keep your normal paddling grip” (see Capsize Maneuvers Performed at the Greenland Kayaking Championships,  Which is what I saw being done, and it was the first time I’d ever seen this, by members of QajaqUSA at Delmarva in 2004.

Going over to perform a basic sweep roll (the Standard Greenland Roll), his paddle close up against the bow of the kayak.

Now fully capsized, paddle still close to the bow, both hands at the water’s surface, ready to begin the sweeping recovery.

One thing that really impressed me was that Enoch and other men too could do this roll so well that they would be upright again with the paddle having swept through only some 25 to 30 degrees.  They would then turn the paddle over to a low brace position and complete their recovery bent over the fore deck. While this may not always have been the case, in the rolling that I saw in 1959, they never completed leaning back on the after deck. At the QK championships nowadays when you do a Standard Greenland Roll you are expected to “finish leaning aft [but you] are optionally permitted to finish in a low brace, sweeping forward, as shown in the video clip” (see

When it was my turn that first day I tried to do that too (i.e. sweep through only 25 to 30 degrees) but I couldn’t. Enoch told me that it was OK for me (a novice) to go ahead and sweep my paddle out to the full 90 degrees if necessary.  One other thing he said struck me as interesting: “the chest must work.”

Given that they had that level of skill, they also did the side sculling brace with their paddle kept close to the bow of the kayak  —  again sweeping out from the bow only those 25 to 30 degrees.

More rolling by Enoch

Recovering from a hands together in the center roll.  It looks like he almost overdid it!

Recovering from a “paddle held in crook of elbow” roll.

1959 Illorsuit kayak rolling in perspective

Soon after I returned from Greenland Drever arranged for me to visit the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, where I was shown films of Watkins and other of his expedition members performing some of the rolls they had learned in East Greenland.  Especially interesting was to see the East Greenland version of one of the rolls that Enoch had shown me in Illorsuit (more below).

In the early 1960s, when John Heath and I were working on what in due course became his Appendix on “The Kayak Roll” in Adney and Chapelle (1964), I sent him detailed descriptions of the full list of rolls that I had seen and learned of and heard about at Illorsuit.  For some reason (I’m not sure that I ever did learn what that reason was) that information didn’t make it into the final text, though six of my photos (one of Jonas and five of Enoch) were used.  Heath gives a fine introduction to the art of kayak rolling in which he quotes Crantz (1767) in full and it was in this Appendix that he first published his brilliant “turn the page upside down” drawing (on page 224) of how a basic sweep roll is done.

Here is the updated version, where he “turns the page” for you, on page 24 of his and Arima’s Eastern Arctic Kayaks (2004).


Qaannat Kattuffiat, the Greenland Kayaking Association, was founded in 1985.  It now holds an international kayaking competition in a different town in West Greenland each year.  At these, in addition to various races, Inuit and foreigners compete in performing 29 different kayak rolls and six related maneuvers.  Manasse Mathaeussen, who died in 1989, had known all of these maneuvers and taught others any that they wanted to learn.  It was Manasse, by the way, whose family was living in East Greenland at the time, who taught Gino Watkins how to roll (see Heath 1990).  QajaqUSA (which is the American chapter of Qaannat Kattuffiat) gives a description of all of these 35 maneuvers, with video clips of several of them, on its website (see reference above).

So, 29 different ways of rolling a kayak.  That sounds like a lot I know but, as Martin Nissen says, “kayak rolling has developed into a discipline in its own right … while many methods of rolling developed from hunting needs, other ways of rolling have developed simply because they can be done, and they are fun” (2012, page 3).

In 1989 Paul-Emile Victor and Joelle Robert-Lambin published their “La Civilisation du Phoque: Jeux, Gestes et Techniques des Eskimo d’Ammassalik.”  I am grateful to Vernon Doucette for telling me about this source.  In this, Victor gives detailed descriptions of 18 rolling and four related maneuvers he had observed in East Greenland back in the 1930s (volume one, pages 66-79).  Sixteen of these were approximately the same or very similar to sixteen of the maneuvers nowadays done at the Qaannat Kattuffiat competitions.  Six others, so far as I know, were unique to East Greenland.  These were  —

(1) a sweep roll beginning with your arms crossed, paddle at the stern of the kayak, first sweep downwards, uncross your arms, sweep back to the stern, end leaning foward.  (2) a sculling roll with the working end of your paddle reaching only to the tip of your elbow.  (3) a sculling roll with the middle of your paddle under a longitudinal fore deck thong (this is obviously similar to Crantz’ “[one end] of the pautik among the cross straps of the kaiak”).  (4) a sculling brace where with the kayak on its side, you reach over the kayak and by sculling  on the other side you can hold the kayak in that almost 90 degrees from vertical position.  (5) what non-Inuit recreational kayakers nowadays know as the “balance brace” where you lie with your back in the water, paddle on the surface, and without moving your paddle hold that position.  (6) the same as #5 but face down in the water.

In 1990 John Heath published, in Sea Kayaker, an obituary for Manasse Mathaeussen.  For years Manasse had been the undisputed dean of Greenland Inuit kayaking and kayak rolling.  I’ve mentioned what an invaluable resource he was in the bringing into being of Qaannat Kattuffiat in the mid 1980s. 

In his article in Eastern Arctic Kayaks (2004), Heath gives extremely detailed descriptions of 41 kayak maneuvers (most of them kayak rolls) known in West Greenland.  With the exception of five variations of other rolls on the list, these include all of the 29 actual rolls performed at the QK competitions.  He also describes the roll with one end of the paddle tucked under the fore deck thongs listed by Crantz.

Included in Heath’s article is a series of excellent, step-by-step, close up photos, by Vernon Doucette, of Pavia Tobiassen and Ove Hansen, both from Greenland, performing eight of the rolls discussed.

Martin Nissen (a past president of Qajaq København, the Danish chapter of Qaannat Kattuffiat) published a definitive account of the history of kayak rolling in West Greenland in the Sea Kayaker magazine of August 2012. Among much else, he describes how it was demonstrated numerous times in Europe and eventually learned by a number of Europeans and others.  Back in the 1920s, it was Edi Hans Pawlata, an Austrian sportsman, who became the best known of the Europeans who learned to roll a kayak.  As I’ve mentioned above, we still speak of the “Pawlata” roll, his version of the standard Greenland Inuit sweep roll.  

Volume Four (2009) of QajaqUSA’s journal QAJAQ is devoted to a translation of an article by Pawlata and one by a Franzl Schulhof  with information on their involvement in making known and popularizing the art of kayak rolling.

Back to Illorsuit

Enoch either demonstrated or told me of both the side and the chest sculling braces as well as 19 different ways he knew to roll a kayak.  Eleven of these 19 (as I now know) are included on the list of rolls to be performed at the Qaannat Kattuffiat championships.  But he also knew eight other rolls.  In fact, what seemed to be his favorite “trick” roll is not on the QK list.  In this, which was a sweep roll, he would grip his paddle so that the end of the blade he was about to roll with reached only as far as the tip of his elbow.

Of the 29 actual rolls on the QK list of 35 maneuvers, the eleven that he knew were:

eight sweep rolls  —

(1) the standard Greenland roll (demonstrated, see photos), the basic sweep roll of the repertoire[QK #3]; (2) paddle in crook of elbow  (demonstrated, see photos) [QK #4]; (3) paddle behind neck (demonstrated) [QK #9]; (4) paddle in armpit (demonstrated) [QK #11]; (5) with arms crossed, hands apart, (demonstrated) [QK #15]; (6) sealing float held between hands apart (not seen) [QK #19]; (7) throwing stick from stern to bow (not seen) [QK #21]; (8) throwing stick from bow to stern (not seen) [QK #22]

two sculling rolls  —

(9) the paddle vertical roll (not seen) [QK #12]; (10) paddle held under kayak roll (not seen) [QK #16]

and one “pull down” roll  —

(11) the storm roll (not seen) [QK #5].

The eight other rolls (not on the QK list) that he also knew were:

six sweep rolls  —

(12) hands in paddling position (demonstrated), this is the one that non-Inuit recreational kayakers nowadays call the “screw roll;” (13) hands together in center of paddle (demonstrated, see photos); (14) arms crossed, hands in center of paddle (demonstrated); (15) working blade reaching only to your elbow (demonstrated), Enoch’s favorite “trick” roll  —  I was fascinated to read Victor’s description of the similar East Greenland roll which, however, is done as a sculling roll; (16) end of paddle held in to your belly (demonstrated); (17) beginning with your body on the after deck (similar to the Steyr roll, not the same as the reverse sweep roll on the QK list) (demonstrated, see photos);

and two sculling rolls  —

(18) from fully capsized, use side sculling to recover, with paddle at water’s surface (demonstrated); (19) from fully capsized, use chest sculling to recover, again with paddle at water’s surface (demonstrated)  —  Enoch did this roll by falling forward to capsize, in East Greenland it was done by falling backwards (which is how I assume both Heath and I saw it done in the films at the Scott Polar Institute).  Oddly enough, this way of rolling is not mentioned by Victor.

I need to emphasize that roll number (17) in this list of Enoch’s rolls is absolutely not the same as the “reverse sweep roll” performed in the QK championships.  As I say, it is close to being a Steyr roll.  In “Rolling from the Back Deck” by Chris Joosse: “The set up position is different in that instead of facing up towards the surface, [you will be] leaning against the back deck of your boat facing the bottom of whatever body of water you’re in.  … consider the sweep a constant exercise in looking more or less down.”

Years later, in Madison, Wisconsin, this Steyr-like roll that Enoch had taught me became my favorite. For me, it was the easiest and the most elegant of them all.     

I’ve already mentioned a particularly interesting thing about rolling as done at Illorsuit in 1959  — forgive me if I repeat it here.  The Illorsuit kayakers always completed their roll recoveries bent forward over their fore decks. They did not complete their rolls leaning back on their after decks.  I was puzzled when I first saw this technique used with great care by QajaqUSA kayakers  —  at Delmarva in 2004.  And then I learned that this is how you are expected to complete seven of the rolls at the Qaannat Kattuffiat competitions in Greenland.  And three of the rolls described by Victor for East Greenland also have this feature.

I was told about two other ways of rolling.  Sakeus Bertelsen the village catechist and school teacher told me that in the Upernavik District (immediately to the north of Uummannaq), where he had lived for a while, some hunters could roll using their harpoon shaft instead of a paddle.  And various of the Illorsuit villagers knew that Manasse, at that time living at Saqqaq in the Vaigat District on the south side of the Nuussuaq Peninsula, could roll by sweeping with his two hands, in kayaking mittens, held side by side.

Of the eighteen active kayakers in Illorsuit, in 1959, fourteen could roll and most of them by a number of methods.  Three men could roll by more than ten methods.  Four kayakers could not roll, though they could do the side and chest sculling braces.  Two of these four were young hunters who had been kayaking for only one or two seasons.  The six older men in the village, who no longer kayaked, were all said to have been skillful kayak rollers in their younger days (I’ve already mentioned Johan Zeeb, one of these six, who rolled so skillfully that day in September).

Enoch recovering from an after deck roll (the Steyr-like one).  You can see he has both hands in low brace position and he’s about to complete by leaning forward over his fore deck.

Roll 73% Enoch warm hands after 20.tif

And here, of course, trying to warm his hands back up again.

So … I was duly impressed!  Compared to what I had read up until that time (in Crantz, Nansen and Chapman), Enoch’s ability to roll his kayak in 19 different ways struck me as being definitely impressive. I only wish there was information on the traditional rolling skills of other individual Greenland Inuit hunters to compare with Enoch’s. But, to the best of my knowledge, there is no such information available in any source. Except, of course, for what Heath tells us of Manasse: “[as of 1985] he was the only Greenlander who could perform all of the rolls, braces, and rescue maneuvers that Greenlanders have developed over many centuries” (1990, page 10).  

Nissen gives an astonishing statistic for rolling as it was practiced in Greenland in 1911, “just before the dramatic decline in the use of kayaks in Greenland and throughout the Arctic.”  According to the figures put together by a Hans Reynolds, only 867 of 2,228 active kayakers in Greenland (only 39%) knew how to roll.  And this in spite of the fact that, as Nissen says, “rolling competitions and shows have taken place in Greenland as far back as anyone remembers” (2012, page 3).  

And, as I mentioned above, Chapman says of the Ammassalik people that “only about one in four of the hunters [could kayak roll]” (1934a, page 204).

Heath (2004, page 41) has an account that I think puts these possibly surprising facts in the appropriate perspective.  “One of the veteran seal catchers at Sisimiut in 1995 could not do any of the capsizing maneuvers that the youngsters were performing.  But he had once caught 20 seals in one day, which won him more respect in his community than he would have gotten as a champion [kayak roller].”

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Chapter Three: Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town






Ikerasak village and Uummannaq town

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Ken Taylor / Cameron

February 17, 2014, revised June 24, 2018

A first week at Ikerasak village

In Chapter One I’ve already told how, thanks to Frøken Larsen’s having very kindly sent him a radiogram, Bent Jensen the Danish anthropology student doing research in Ikerasak village came to Uummannaq to meet us arriving on the m.s. Juto.


chart: Grønlands vestkysten Hare Ø-Prøven scale 1: 400,000:

courtesy: Vernon Doucette

You can see where Ikerasak is on this chart: in the southeast corner of the Bay, some 28 miles from Uummannaq, and at the far end of Ikerasak Island.

For me, of course, meeting Bent Jensen was the main event of that day. But it was also important for me to meet and “check in” with Herr Nystrøm the “Colony Manager” and head of the Royal Greenland Trading Department (Den Kongelige Grønlandske Handel or KGH) for the Uummannaq Bay district.

Bent and I accepted the offer of a room to share in Palase Rasmussen and his wife’s house. Herr Rasmussen was the Lutheran priest in Uummannaq. Everyone always referred to him as palase the Greenlandic word for priest. Soon there were several of the local Danes at the Rasmussen’s and someone went to find some seal meat for me to try. I liked it alright and in due course came to really enjoy seal meat. Staying at the Rasmussen’s turned out to be a very comfortable arrangement for Bent and me and I remember that we stayed up ’til 3:00 in the morning talking about life in Ikerasak and in Illorsuit.

Bent needed to return to his village for another week or ten days to finish up his work and invited me to go with him. He had already spent more than a year living in Ikerasak and was on a return visit to continue his research when we met. Well, I didn’t need much persuading, as he was offering to introduce me to life among the Inuit, help me learn a few words of the language, and let me see him at work among the villagers. What an amazing opportunity! So, of course, I made ready to go with him as soon as he could arrange a ride for us on one or other of the official (police, doctor, trade dept., etc.) Danish boats.

Luck was on our side so that the very next day, after farewelling the travel companions heading farther north on the m.s. Juto (one young couple were going all the way up to Thule), we had exactly one hour to get ready for a ride to Ikerasak on the small KGH boat “Pinasse.” It was just enough time to do some unpacking and have my Scottish kayak ready to take with us! One young village girl (now fully recovered) was returning to Ikerasak with us after eleven months at a tuberculosis sanitarium down south.

It was about a four and a half hour trip but finally we got there and as we came in to the harbor over to our left there was a group of 10 or so kayaks up on their racks, all painted white and all with hunting gear in place. Bent mentioned that some of the men were away at a salmon fishing camp and others were on the nearby Nuussuaq Peninsula hunting reindeer.

Some 110 people lived in Ikerasak at that time, in 19 households. The houses were quite spread out because of the rocky terrain, so this view of the center of the village shows only 7 or 8 of the houses. Immediately in the background: a typical old-style house. The thick walls built of stone and turf with a flat roof. Those are the two white uprights of a sled safely stored out of the way for the summer on top of the house. And that’s the usual shark meat hanging on the rack to the right.

Bent and boy on mntn Ikerasak 1_29_ice

Bent and one of the youngsters when we climbed some distance up the mountain a few days later. I wanted to include this photo here as it gives some idea of the profusion of icebergs and brash ice near Ikerasak. Only a few miles further to the southeast is the “Store” glacier, at that time the second most productive on the entire west coast of Greenland.

This is the glacier that the group of scientists who travelled to Greenland with Peary in 1896 came to study. And that was the trip that led to the “Goodnow” kayak ending up in Sudbury, Massachussets (see Chapter Five “Variations in Kayak Design,” and Chapter Seven “The Hunting Equipment”). At the beginning of the new film “Chasing Ice” the first huge calving of what they call a “peninsula” of ice was filmed at “Store” glacier.

Another look at Bent’s own house which he had bought more than a year before. The photo of the center of the village is just to the right of what you see here. That’s Bent, of course, and Kattanguaq one of the villagers. The mountain in the background is the Uummannatsiaq (or “small heart-shaped mountain”) which, in those days, gave its name to the island (and the smaller village at the other end of the island).

With Bent voicing typical Greenlandic apologies for its inadequacies, we were soon comfortably sitting down in his house, which Kattanguaq had cleaned while he was away, eating an omelete while Bent was writing Hr. Nystrøm in Uummannaq to arrange for his return trip to Copenhagen on the Juto as it headed south … when, huge excitement, the reindeer hunters had been seen and they had two reindeer! Everyone rushed down to the harbor to meet their rowboat. These were the first reindeer at Ikerasak for 10 years!

That’s the rowboat they used on the left. The man turning to look behind him is the trade post manager Johannes, a Dane. The taller man with the white cap is also a Dane, Hr. Nielsen, formerly the trade post manager, who when he retired decided to stay on in Ikerasak with his Inuit wife, Dorsay.

Turned out that the reindeer hunt had been Jacob’s idea for years. He was a “retired” 60 year-old hunter and with two friends in their fifties had  been gone for eight days hoping to show that they “weren’t finished yet.” The other two men had actually shot the reindeer and then they had all gutted and butchered them and bundled the pieces in the skins and hiked for three days and three nights to get the meat back to the village before it began to spoil. I realize that they don’t sound to be all that “old” but in a way they were. As I mentioned in Chapter One, the Danish Administration had made hunting by kayak illegal for any man more than 50 years of age.       

By 1959 there were still a few reindeer to be found, but very few. I don’t remember how many they had seen but they successfully hunted the two. For the 12 month period including the time of my visit, as well as those two reindeer, only eight others were caught in the Uummannaq Bay district and all of these at Niaqornat, one of the two villages on the Nuussuaq peninsula itself (Bogen om Grønland 1962, pages 287-363).


One of the hunter’s wives carrying one of the bundles of meat to their house.

Two young men carrying a second bundle. That’s Bent with the camera, of course. He later published an article in which he refers to this day with a photo of Jacob’s wife stamping for joy as she performed a traditional dance of celebration.

After the excitement had died down we were invited to Hr. Nielsen and Dorsay’s for an excellent fish dinner. He was 72 years old and she had been his kifaq (or housekeeper) for 50 years before they finally married. They had a fine house, Danish style, on the very fringe of the village looking out over a small lake. Dorsay spoke hardly any Danish and he had learned even less of her language though he’d lived there most of his life. He came out originally as a coal miner before eventually becoming trade post manager at Ikerasak. In spite of their language  difficulties they seemed to get along just fine, teasing each other all through dinner.    

Next we went to one of the other two hunter’s house to buy some reindeer meat. It was a small, low earth house with a large sleeping bench where the old man was sitting in state with one of the rolled up pelts behind him. His wife was in the process of cutting up their share of the meat (with an ulo the incredibly sharp, crescent-shaped “woman’s knife”). We were offered the tongue and some steak and some ribs. A boy was sent off to weigh it and he brought it to us at Bent’s house. But it amounted to 8 kilos and was really too much for us to eat, and more than we could afford. So we canceled the ribs but bought the rest. We also got some of the fat which we used by putting small chunks of it in our coffee  —  this was considered quite a delicacy. 

By now Bent had told me that he’d introduced me as his cousin and asked the people to treat me just as they did him. 

We tried to sleep for a while but visitors kept showing up and then an elderly woman who had arranged to come sing for Bent to record. And soon after that we were off to an imiamik (home brewed beer party) which was great fun. The owner’s quite drunk 24 year old son was especially friendly, delighted that he and I were exactly the same age. Next we went to Jacob’s son Johannes’ house where we found Jacob and Bent gave him a picture of a reindeer that he’d brought especially for him from Copenhagen.

That evening there was a dance, we drank coffee in two or three other houses, for dinner we had reindeer steak, delicious  — it was a big day!

And then the next day we had a wonderful lunch of more reindeer, stewed, at Johannes’ house, and I met his Inuit wife London and their two children.


Here they are, the little girl in her “Sunday best” (and, behind them, that’s Jacob in my Scottish kayak).     

My “first seal!” At least the first hunted seal that I saw. This is Kattanguaq’s older brother with the seal and some birds he had just hunted by kayak.

During lunch Bent had raised the idea of our paying a quick visit to the small Uummannatsiaq village (officially a “dwelling place” — Ikerasak and Illorsuit were “outposts”) at the other end of the island. And that very afternoon a large motor boat was heard approaching the village. It turned out to be the “Peter Egede”  —  the Fishery Inspector’s boat and he agreed to take us to Uummannatsiaq,

So here’s the scene behind Bent’s house of Johannes, Jacob’s son, and some of the children assembling Bent’s Klepper folboat that we wanted to take with us to Uummannatsiaq so we could return to Ikerasak “under our own steam.” The handsome buildings in the background, by the way, none of them are Inuit, they are all Royal Trade Department. We finally got away at 9:30 pm (it was still full daylight 24 hours a day) for the 1 3/4 hour trip down the north side of the island, taking a large piece of reindeer meat with us as a gift.

And here is Uummannatsiaq and some of its 53 people. A very small village, of a few old style stone and turf houses but there were not so many people around as they were all drunk from celebrating the 50th birthday of the daughter of Karen who at 72 was the oldest person in the village. It was Karen that Bent wanted to see in connection with his research but she was just back from Uummannaq so everyone in that family was sleeping! Instead we went to Knud Nathanielsen’s house. Bent gave them the gift of reindeer meat which was very well received, and so were we. We took presents over to the birthday girl but she was still asleep.

We were given the large sleeping bench to ourselves to sleep on tho’ later on Knud in fact joined us on it. And we spent a pleasant night. This was the arrangement in all the houses I ever visited  —  one large wooden sleeping bench shared by everyone who happened to be there on any given night.

One senior woman of the house made quite a speech of her appreciation of having a Britisher in her house since Britain had so helped Denmark during the war! That was a totally unexpected pleasure. So I thanked and thanked her (through Bent’s interpreting, of course) and told her that I would pass on what she had said to everyone back home.

From Uummannatsiaq the view was to the south to the nearby Nuussuaq peninsula, another opportunity to admire the sight of several glaciers pushing their ice down from between the mountains all the way to sea level.  

One of the men in the photo above had “kayak angst,” and so could no longer kayak. He was one of three men I met afflicted in this way. One of the others, who I’ve already mentioned, was Karl Ottosen of Illorsuit.

The kayaks here were the first I’d had a chance to examine in detail. They were typical Uummannaq Bay kayaks, just like the ones I would soon find in Illorsuit (and everywhere else).

We got up late the next morning at 10:30 or so and first checked on the Klepper which was fine. One man was painting the hull of his kayak white and two other men were puttering around with theirs. We had breakfast at Knud’s of a little reindeer meat  —   most of what we’d given them had gone to Knud’s father as a matter of seniority. Then for coffee to the smallest and oldest earth house where Knud’s father and brothers lived with the owner, an unrelated old woman. A charming little house very cozy inside, we were given wild blueberries with the coffee as a special treat and later they gave us the rest of the berries to eat on our way home. Next up to the house on the hill for more coffee where Johannes and brother and sister-in-law and nephew and their old mother all lived.  Bent had often stayed with them. The mother still wore the traditional sealskin pants every day. Bent had tape recordings to make and I went off to measure kayaks.

Bent had told them that I wanted to try out a kayak so Knud carried his down to the landing for me. Young Jacob (still too young to have one of his own) was already out in the bay in someone else’s kayak, apparently waiting to escort me. I’d had a good look at the cross-sectional shape of the kayaks so I wasn’t too nervous though it was certainly the narrowest most tippy-looking kayak I’d ever tried. Our Scottish sea kayaks of those days were a lot more beamy. Knud had it ready for me to enter from the “near” side with his paddle across the fore deck and him standing on it to steady the kayak for me. But nothing doing, even with me being only 5′ 8″ tall the kayak was too small (or, rather, I was too big) and I simply couldn’t get into it. Johannes suggested that I try his which was maybe a touch bigger. At first it seemed just as bad but then Johannes indicated the fore deck thongs for me to pull on and I managed to squeeze  myself in. To my delight I found it stable enough to sit in without any help from the paddle. Jacob and I then went twice around the bay and then around the corner and out of sight of the village to where there was a great view of icebergs and the Uummannaq mountain. We made it back safely to the landing and that was my first trip in a genuine Inuit kayak!

I then measured four of the kayaks — Johannes’ (actually his brother’s) and Knud’s and Karl Nielsen’s, an older fellow with one of best looking kayaks in the village, also Oscar’s. Johannes helped a lot, demonstrating the use of towing straps, floats etc. Then Johannes’ nephew came down to call us for food: tea and black bread and fat and cookies. It was a small lunch but Bent explained that the hunters would generally go out in their kayaks with empty bellies and (hopefully) eat big meals at night as a result of their hunting. I measured two more kayaks and then there was talk of some kayak rolling. The one full jacket (tuilik) in the village had been repaired (there’d been a hole in the hood) and Johannes was getting ready to roll Tomas’ kayak. First I quickly measured the last kayak, still drying, the one that had been painted that morning.


Johannes getting ready. He began by warming up with some side sculling but while he was doing that the tuilik came loose of the coaming and water got into the kayak. Not good! Tomas pulled out his fine dog skin kayak “seat” to hang it up to dry off and immediately took away his kayak.

Well, after that, it felt like “time for us to leave” so we quickly got loaded up into the Klepper and set off to friendly farewells.


We paddled home to Ikerasak (about 11 miles away) along the south side of the island in an iceberg choked passage between the main island and a smaller one right beside it. This is one of the impressive icebergs we paddled past.

On the way we saw a number of seabirds and managed to shoot a black guillemot and two fulmars  —  the first use of my shotgun. The sound was now fairly choked with ice and it took a lot of false starts and some backtracking for us to find a way through. Later Bent said that we’d really taken way too many risks going as close as we had to some of the bigger stuff.  … that it was really good to remember that they really are dangerous. And not too much farther up the sound we watched a small scale demonstration of an iceberg rolling over and throwing off chunks of ice. On the island we passed a few shelters used as “hides” for hunting and one fox trap of stone. One more dicey bit of paddling between two icebergs quite close to each other and we were almost home. We saw the little isolated house where we’d had coffee the first morning and we reached the harbor with lots of people coming down to meet us and help us up to Bent’s house.


And one of the last icebergs we passed. 

Kattanguaq said she thought we had drowned we were so much later than the time Bent had said we’d be home! Then when Bent asked her to tell us the Ikerasak news she said “oh no, it’s you who have been traveling, you‘re the ones with news to tell.”

Later on, at midnight, as I sat outside cleaning the shotgun, I was sweating in the warmth of the full daylight.

Back at Ikerasak where my kayak got a lot of attention. Here is Jacob, the leader of the reindeer hunters, trying it out (with an improvised paddle).

Cam W Scotland 1955 1958 KT WC c58photo: Harald I. Drever      

And here, just for the fun of it, is my same kayak on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a photo I found on the internet a few years ago, and I’d no idea who took it!  Just recently, however, I heard from Duncan Winning that a copy of it was among the photos Alan Byde received from Dr. Drever years ago. So Drever must have taken it when we met at Kinlochbervie in 1958!   

Of course, I also wanted to try out one or more of the Ikerasak kayaks and someone went to get a kayak for me to try but the owner was asleep so I tried another one but couldn’t get into it. The next day we did find one I could get into and I managed to roll it a couple of times to everyone’s delight.

Ik Me and Jacob 2 20

Too soon it was time to leave. Here’s me with Jacob as we all say goodbye on the jetty. My being Bent’s “cousin” must’ve worked as I was told Jacob said to me “thank you for behaving so well to us.”

Greenland 1959: Ikerasak, two motor boats in harbor

My kayak being paddled out to the “Pinasse” by one of the village boys. The other is the Police boat.

Some of the men and boys had disappeared from the farewell scene at the jetty. But then we saw them on the two hills on opposite sides of the harbor ready to give us what had become the traditional farewell salute of gunfire. Someone dipped the village flag and one of the crewmen dipped the boat’s “jack flag” and to much waving we pulled out of the harbor and around the corner. Hr. Nielsen was waiting and he dipped the flag at his house and Bent’s continuing research visit was over and, for me, so was a wonderful, invaluable week at Ikerasak.

And a final look back at the Uummannatsiaq mountain as we approach Uummannaq.

Uummannaq Town


The m.s. Tikerak in Uummannaq harbor. And, of course, the so distinctive Uummannaq [“heart-shaped”] mountain.  The Tikerak was more or less the same size as the m.s. Juto I’d arrived on and the m.s. Hanne S that in due course I left on for Copenhagen.

Here’s a good overview of the central part of the town including the famous stone church. Most of the houses you see here belonged to Danes though one or two of the smaller ones must have been “Danish style” Inuit houses.

The view across the harbor to the sanatorium where, years ago, the many children with tuberculosis were cared for.

Again I was able to check out the several kayaks up on their racks (these photos were taken on a later visit to town).  There were quite a number of them, though not all of them skinned and ready for use. The Danes spoke of Inuit who had jobs of one kind or another in Uummannaq but who kept and occasionally used their kayaks as “Sunday hunters.”

From this angle you can see various of the KGH structures in the background. Huge piles of barrels of fuel, storage houses  —  the one on the right with its walls apparently built Inuit-style of stone and turf, and with a flat roof!

Seven more of the Uummannaq kayaks, with a corner of the cemetery visible in the background.

I told in Chapter Two of how Palase Rasamussen invited me to go with his family on an afternoon visit to Qaarsut village. As we were about to leave I noted in my journal: “the hunter in the sealskin kayak got ready and paddled off,” presumably one of the Sunday hunters though that’s all I noted and I now have no memory of it. When we returned to Uummannaq I delivered some ptarmigan (they are so delicious) to Frøken Larsen and to Merete the dentist’s wife  —  gifts from Herr Poulson of Qaarsut.

The next day the m.s. Juto returned from the north now of its way south and on to Copenhagen. For some reason it just anchored outside the harbor so a bunch of us took Bent and his luggage, with a load of mail for him to take to Copenhagen, out to it in a small boat. It was good to see some “old friends” on board,  including an elderly American man very pleased with the ivory walrus tusks he’d bought in Thule. Palase Rasmussen was like a happy child trying on his long awaited pair of Thule-style polar bear skin trousers!

On Saturday August 22nd I met quickly with Martin Zeeb of Illorsuit and then Kattanguaq and I got everything [Drever had arranged all kinds of provisions for me] packed onto the “Otto Mathiesen” for the trip to Illorsuit. Palase Rasmussen and Herr Nystrøm were there to see us off and also a boy called Hansi who was from Ikerasak. One of the young villagers Hendrik Quist was on the boat but he was very reserved. We were given some seal meat by the crew and we also had sandwiches from Fru Rasmussen. I remember it as a long, slow trip in dull weather the only highlight being when three of the crew and I were taking potshots at seal with .22 rifles. Eventually we actually shot one and gaffed it aboard.

And so  —  Illorsuit, looking “pretty dismal” as I tell in Chapter One.

From September 29th to October 8th I was back in Uummannaq again for what I had hoped would be just two or three days.  This was about the defective movie camera I’ve mentioned a few times and the totally vain hope that with the help of electrical engineer Herr Gotfrisen it might be possible to fix it. We thought we had but as it turned out it was still faulty and everything I ever shot with the wretched thing was totally out of focus and of no use at all. I must have thought it would be easier than it was to arrange a ride back to Illorsuit but there wasn’t going to be a boat until October the 8th so I lost a whole ten days on that trip. Of course, it did give me lots of time to socialize with Frøken Larsen, Jorgen, the dentist, and his wife Merete, and others I knew from the boat trip. Again the Rasmussens had me stay with them which was very pleasant, I saw a lot of Herr Gotfrisen, of course, and met a number of other people. I’ve already mentioned the pleasures of Danish hospitality and I can add here that the Danes kept very comfortable, cozy homes and it was fun and I really enjoyed being their guest.


Another look at the m.s. Tikerak in Uummannaq harbor. This shows how the harbor is well sheltered by a small but very nearby island.


One of the Uummannaq “Sunday hunters” entering his canvas covered and not fully equipped kayak.  It seemed he was going out to fish, not hunt. Bundled up on the foredeck, under the harpoon line tray, he had what looks like a fishing net. He did have a gun in his gun bag but no harpoon or harpoon line. And yet he did have his shooting screen with him. In my experience: very unorthodox. Something I never saw at Illorsuit or Umiamako. 


And he takes off, that island (and a large iceberg) again very present.

Looking to the west from the hill above Uummannaq out to the open sea (the Davis Strait) beyond the Nuussuaq peninsula. Icebergs glinting on the horizon.

The view to the northwest. That’s most of Ubekendt Island with Illorsuit just off the picture to the right.

From above Uummannaq, another look back at the Uummannatsiaq mountain.

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Chapter Seven: The Hunting Equipment




Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

Chapter Seven


Ken Taylor / Cameron                            

September 12, 2013, revised June 26, 2018

Uummannaq Bay hunting equipment

You might think it goes without saying that the kayak is used only by men.  But that is not always the case.  In years past, at a time when there were not enough men in the villages of southeast Greenland, a number of women there took on the role of kayak hunters.  About the early 1930s, when Rockwell Kent stayed in Illorsuit, he speaks of a woman called Karen (not the same woman I knew) who “could handle a kayak like a man.  She’d killed her seal.  Few Greenland woman could match that.” (Salamina, page 141).  Keld Hansen tells of “two elderly women, Dorte Pjetturson at the settlement of Illulik and Signe Petersen from the settlement of Qaarusulik, had both shot bears and caught a number of seals from kayaks in open water and from the ice” (2008, page 225).  When I was in Illorsuit in 1959, however, all the kayak hunters were men. 

I’ve described the equipment that was made for my kayak, all of it entirely typical of what the Illorsuit hunters were using at that time.

However, it’s good to remember that the seal hunting I observed and know about was all happening late in the open water season. My stay in Illorsuit was from August 22 to October 18.  So the hunting and the use of hunting equipment that I know about were not necessarily typical of the summer as a whole.

Because of the use of firearms, certain hunting tools that had for generations been essential to survival were no longer needed.  The traditional bird darts, bladder darts, and the killing lance (with its associated wound plugs), none of these were any longer in use.  As Hansen (2008) tells it: “the rifle has replaced the kayak lance.  The cal. 22 rifle and the shotgun have replaced the bird dart and the bladder dart” (page 10).  On the other hand the use of firearms had led to certain innovations.  The gun bag (obviously), the skeg, and the shooting screen were all “invented” as a result of the use of firearms.

The killing lance, back when it was still in use, was carried on the left side of the after deck.  In its place Tobias had the spar of wood you can see in the several photos of his kayak in Chapter Eight, The Hunting Trip to Umiamako .  I was told that this made it easier to carry a small seal on the deck.  From my photos I can see that at least seven of the Illorsuit hunters had some equivalent on their kayaks.  In one or two cases these were winter ice chisels.  At Umiamako, at least three of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters had spars of wood on their after decks, in one case what looks like it might be an ice chisel. 

Here is what a Greenland Inuit winter ice chisel is / looks like, in another of Rockwell Kent’s drawings from Illorsuit  —

Illorsuit winter ice pick0001 (2)


This drawing of Petersen’s happens to show almost exactly the design of the 1959 Uummannaq Bay paddles.

  Pet paddle0001 - Copy (3) cropped

Figure 42 on page 75 of Petersen (2001).

The paddles were all of this design, with a fair sized loom and distinct shoulders where this met the blades.  These were reinforced with bone or ivory strips along their edges and with a substantial bone piece at each end.  The end pieces did not extend beyond the edges of the paddle blades as in some other districts and historical periods.  They were as wide as the wooden blade of the paddle plus the minor extra width of the bone/ivory edging, giving a smooth outer end shape to each blade.   You can see this, of course, in some of the photos.  The paddles for John Heath’s and for my kayak (both made by Johan Zeeb, by the way, not by Emanuele who made the kayaks themselves) have this design.  It’s interesting, I think, that Drever’s and Rockwell Kent’s kayaks also made in Illorsuit, both in the 1930s, had/have this same design of paddle; and so does the paddle associated with the Goodnow kayak of 1896!

Incidentally, Petersen mentions that in “Uummannaq Fiord the kayak paddles are longer. … it is not uncommon to find paddles over 2 meters long” (1986, page 66).  He also mentions drip rings made of rope being used in Uummannaq Bay but I didn’t see any when I was there. 

The paddle for Kent’s kayak, which is now in the Adirondack Museum of upper New York State, is a fine example of this type  —

photo: Vernon Doucette

The much older kayak now in the Goodnow Library in Sudbury, Massachussets, has a fascinating story. 

In 1896 a group of scientists from the Massachussets Institute of Technology, Boston, one of them a Dr. George Barton, accompanied Robert Peary on one of his return expeditions (his sixth) to Greenland.  Peary’s plan was to bring back to the US the largest of a group of meteorites located near Cape York in north Greenland.  It weighed 31 metric tonnes and is now on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.  As was the plan for their work, the MIT researchers were left off at Uummannaq town to carry out studies of glaciers and inland ice in the southeastern corner of Uummannaq Bay.  The team travelled by umiaq and a local hunter called Ludwig Sigurdson was hired as a hunter, guide and “pathfinder” (through the icebergs, brash ice, etc.). 

At the end of the summer, Barton bought Sigurdson’s kayak and brought it back to the States where he donated it to the Sudbury town library.  In 2001 Kane Borden and Mark Starr surveyed it and Starr includes his  measured drawings of the kayak as one of five shown in an appendix to his book “Building a Greenland Kayak” (2002).  As you can see in these two photos from 2007 and 2001,  it’s a beautiful specimen and extremely well preserved and well looked after.


photo: Vernon Doucette


photo: Mark Starr

Some years ago Vernon Doucette built a replica of this kayak which he then gave to Judy Segal (of QajaqUSA).  Here is a photo of her using it on Walden Pond with her comments  — 

[Image 6: Judy G’now replica E/f]

photo: Dan Segal

“I love this kayak. It’s petite, light, and beautiful. … It’s like a partner: it does just what I want it to … [of ] several kayaks … including many replicas. … this is the kayak I almost always choose. And I love looking at it.”   The paddle, by the way, [a different design as you can see] is a copy made by Harvey Golden of one from East Greenland.

Unfortunately, the paddle which is with the Goodnow kayak in the Sudbury town library has been a bit damaged but one of the blades (which has an old repair) shows that it did have the same design as the 1959 paddles  —

Goodnowkayak-075 paddle tip two

Goodnowkayak-077 paddle tip three

photos: Vernon Doucette

One of the best of my photos to show a 1959 paddle in use is this one of Tobias towing a seal he had just caught  —

Tob tow classic


Ludwig's paddle race winner

 And here’s Ludwig, winner of the village race, with his paddle well visible.

       Greenland 1959: Ummannaq, man entering his kayak.

Zooming in on the Uummannaq town “Sunday hunter” entering his kayak. It’s underwater, as he’s using his paddle as an outrigger to steady his kayak while he’s squeezing into it, but I think you can make out that same design of the paddle blade.

The skeg or fin

Many recreational kayaks, nowadays, are equipped with rudders.  Back in the 1950s our (homemade) Scottish sea-going kayaks, like mine that I took with me to Greenland, all had rudders of one kind or another.  When the kayak hunting in Greenland began to include the use of firearms, it became more important than ever before to have good directional stability.  Especially with the earlier kind of guns used, the recoil could be enough to capsize your kayak if you fired at much of an angle from straight ahead.  Drever writes of having once made that mistake, as recently as in 1938, and of being capsized.  Luckily, Johan Zeeb was there to rescue him.  As he tells the story, that was when he asked to be taught how to roll a kayak! (Drever 1958 “The Kayakers of Igdlorssuit” in the Alumnus Chronicle; and 1967 “An Island in Greenland becomes linked with St. Andrews,” in Scotland’s Magazine).

photo: unknown

Knud Nielsen teaching Drever how to roll his kayak, in 1938 or 1939.

Beginning in the late 1800s the West Greenland Inuit dealt with the matter by adding a small skeg or fin to the equipment of their kayaks.  This was attached to the keel line of the hull, close to the stern of the kayak. Also, of course, the pequngasoq shaping of the hulls of the kayaks in the Sisimiut and Maniitsoq regions that Petersen describes improved the directional stability of the hunters’ kayaks (1986: 48; see my Chapter Four “Building the Kayaks”). 

In the Uummannaq Bay district in 1959, all of the kayaks that I saw were equipped with the same kind of skeg.  They were small, solid 7″ x 12″ boards always attached to the kayak by what Golden has called the “stick” method (KoG, page 90-91): a small wooden spar set across the after deck, with cords from two small holes in the skeg attached to this stick.

4 37 Umia Tob his Q

In this photo of Tobias deflating his towing float/flotation bladder after a successful hunt at Umiamako, you can clearly see the skegs on the nearby kayaks.

 The gun bags

The earliest use of guns was in the mid-1800s but back in the days of muzzle loaders and before the gun bag came into use it was quite dangerous to use firearms as these had to be put inside the kayak between the hunter’s legs.  Several hunters are said to have lost their lives in accidents with these guns.  All this changed when a hunter called Nukappi of Qaarsut invented the gun bag, around 1870 (Qaarsut is the village I visited one afternoon with Palase Rasmussen and his family, see Chapter Two).  Needless to say, use of the gun bag spread very quickly up and down the west coast (Petersen 1986, pages 108-109).  The gun bags are always described as having a wooden support holding the open end clear of the deck to avoid having water enter the bag.  Unfortunately, only one of my photos shows any sign of this support and, for some reason, one was not included in the gear made for my kayak.


Enoch squeezing into his kayak before he goes out to demonstrate rolling.  Between his paddle and the open end of the gun bag you can see something made of pale wood.  That must be the gun bag support.

Tobias inflating his flotation bladder in preparation for towing a dead seal back to camp.  Here you can see the gun bag lifted clear of the deck, and the stocks of both his shot gun and rifle.  You can also see how the open mouth of the gun bag is held up to the underside of the harpoon line tray by two cords.

I already mentioned how, on a kayak like mine, the front end of the gun bag would be tied to the bow thong. But some of the hunters had a special piece of thong stitched onto the kayak skin for that purpose (see KoG, page 82). By examining the various photos I have of some of the kayaks, I can see eight kayaks that have this special gun bag attachment device (Tobias’, Enoch’s, Edvard’s, Hansi’s, Hendrik’s, Malaki’s, and two of the Uummannaq town kayaks on a communal rack).  Only one photo shows a kayak with the gun bag tied onto the bow thong: the Uummannaq town Sunday hunter’s.

The shooting screen

Every kayak I saw was equipped with a white camouflage screen attached close to the bow.  This was for the hunter to duck down behind, motionless of course, any time that a seal he was stalking turned in his direction.  At different times and in different places there have been other ways that Greenland hunters arranged this camouflage screen on their kayaks.  Right up close to the bow and of that pretty much standard size was how it was being done in Uummannaq Bay while I was there.  Unfortunately I never did see a hunter put his shooting screen in place while already in the kayak.  I was told that you can clip the wooden support piece onto the tip of one blade of your paddle and then pull it towards yourself until it clips securely onto the fore deck just behind the stem piece.

A close up of two of the Nuugaatsiaq kayaks with shooting screens in place.  Especially on the white kayak being carried to the shore, you can see clearly how close to the bows the screens were attached.

Update on April 9, 2015  —  I’ve been looking at Chris Hare’s reports on his 1966 visit to Illorsuit, as a kayaker member of Drever’s expedition of that year.

Here is Chris’ photo of Ludwig Quist (who won the village race in 1959) in 1966.

Ludwig Quist in 1966photo: Chris Hare

And Chris’ photo of Otto Ottosen in 1966.  When I was there, Otto was spoken of as the best hunter in the village.

photo: Chris Hare

As you can see, and by all means to my surprise, by 1966 the Illorsuit hunters (or, at least these two men) had switched to this different style of shooting screen — larger than in 1959 and positioned immediately in front of the harpoon line tray.

And, I had no idea for how long the 1959 style had been in use.  For none of the earlier kayaks for which I have photos and/or information is there anything to tell us what style shooting screens were used with those kayaks. Recently, however, I’ve seen Ernst Sorge’s “With  ‘Plane, Boat and Camera in Greenland.”  [I am much indebted to Vernon Doucette for very kindly gifting me a copy of this book.]  In the group of photos that follow page 80 there are two photos of a kayak equipped for hunting, and the shooting screen is exactly the same style as in 1959.  Sorge was in the area (with the “S.O.S. Iceberg” film making crew) in 1932.   

Here’s the close up photo  —

photo: Ernst Sorge

Two-thumbed mittens

When I was there all of the hunters were equipped with the typical two-thumbed sealskin mittens.

4 20 Umia Tob holds up seal

Tobias holding up a seal he just caught for me to get a good look at it.  He’s wearing his mittens but unfortunately you can only see one of the two thumbs.  In fact the two drawings by Rockwell Kent that I have at the beginning of  Chapter One, “Life in Illorsuit” show them better than any of my photos.  What it’s all about is that the hunter begins the day wearing the mittens one way, then when the sealskin they are made of begins to get waterlogged on one side he’ll turn them over, use the other thumb sheath, and have the dry sides on the insides of his hands.    

The tuilik or full jacket and the tuitoq or waist band (“spray skirt”)

In 1959 when all the kayak hunting was done using guns, no-one any longer wore the full-jacket.  In fact, hardly anyone even seemed to have a full-jacket.  The kayak rolling at Illorsuit was all done using my brand new tuilik. At Uummannatsiaq village where young Johannes prepared himself to demonstrate some kayak rolling, it seemed there was just one tuilik  —  and it had a hole in the hood which had to be quickly repaired.  Hansen mentions that in the village where he did his research only one hunter “Bendt Frederiksen owns a garment of this type, made by his mother Laurette” (2008, page 138).

Also, I’d been puzzled by photos, and even an old drawing, of “full” jackets that came down only to the kayaker’s hips.  Surely, I thought, these would not be long enough to allow for any necessary kayak rolling?

Moller image from Ark

Danish Arktisk Institut/John Møller

A well-known photo [AI #18977] showing that short length “full jacket,” taken by John Møller at Nuuk in 1910.

Jonas Malakiasen putting on my brand new tuilik to demonstrate/practice some kayak rolling.  The jacket indeed reaching “almost to his knees.”

Because Petersen tells how: “In more recent times the kayak suit reached only to the hunter’s hips, but formerly it went down almost to his knees.  …  this seems to have been a matter of fashion  —  an unfortunate fashion, as it has cost any number of hunters their lives.” He then quotes a story of a capsize told him by a friend which ends with “… I certainly would have drowned if I had been wearing the short, modern type of suit” (1986, pages 112 and 114). 

I’m happy to be able to say that I never saw or even heard of any of these short tuilik in 1959. 

What everyone did wear when kayaking was the tuitoq as in this photo of Enoch carrying his kayak to the water.  You can see that it’s little more than a cylinder of seal skin, though narrower at the top.  Of course, it was made to fit as tightly as possible onto the coaming ring.  Many photos of the old days show hunters with suspenders for their tuitoq but I didn’t see any in 1959.

Enoch carries

And a closer shot of Enoch’s almost worn out sealskin trousers and and his sealskin boots, typically what the men wore when kayak hunting.  He’s being his usual entertaining self  —  clowning with a piece of seal intestine.

And, a few weeks later, Enoch with his wife Regina and their two children.  And now he’s wearing a brand new pair of sealskin pants.

The camouflage anorak

As Enoch has in the two photos just above, and Tobias also in my many photos of him in his kayak in my Chapter Eight, The Hunting Trip … , most of the hunters had a white anorak made of very thin material which they wore over their other clothes for camouflage while stalking the seal.  You can see that Enoch also has something white on his hat.  It’s actually one of my handkerchiefs.

The harpoons themselves

Enoch Nielsen was the only Illorsuit hunter with a winged (ernangnaq) style harpoon. You can see it in the photo below.  That’s him in the foreground.  Below his harpoon line tray you can just make out the dirty white, elongated shape of the wings of his harpoon  —

Enoch's winged harp


Winged harpoons0001 (2)

Three designs for the wings on that kind of harpoon (Petersen 1986, page 79).  I see Enoch’s as being quite similar to type C, but without the decorative hearts and diamond.

Enoch squeezing into his kayak at the Karrats campsite.  Another view of his winged harpoon where you can see the two wings separately.

Everyone else in Illorsuit had the knob (unaq) style of harpoon like the one on the kayak Karl Ottosen is using (that’s him in the pink sweater). He has the harpoon pushed well forward of its usual position on account of the race they had just finished.  You can actually see the “knob” way forward practically at the tip of the bow of the kayak.

Hansen (2008) speaks of one young hunter he knew who used a winged harpoon.  The other hunters he knew in the Upernavik district all used a modified version of the knob style of harpoon.  Which of the two was considered more effective I don’t believe has ever been decided. Hansen was told: “Some hunters maintain that the wings make the harpoon more stable in flight both in the air and in the water, whereas others believe that they are only of significance when the whole harpoon shaft is under the surface of the sea. The knob harpoon has certainly a tendency to lose direction in the water whereas the winged harpoon appears to continue along its trajectory” (page 113).  And Petersen says, “According to an old hunter: ‘When you have used a knob harpoon and switch to a winged harpoon your harpoon feels like it has become better oiled and is more willing to fly'” (1986, page 79).      

And then, when we got back to Illorsuit from Umiamako trip, I discovered that Jacob Zeeb, Johan’s nephew, was making himself a winged style harpoon – just like Enoch’s!

The harpoons as I saw them in 1959 did not have the two hanging straps attached to the actual shaft of the harpoon that Petersen describes as having been traditional (1986, page 76).  Actually you can see how having these two straps allowed the harpoon to hang over the side of the kayak in the 1910 photo showing the short “full jacket,” above.  Scavenius Jensen says of these straps: “they are used in the winter to have the harpoon hang in the water along the side of the kayak so that the harpoon will not ice up on the deck” (1982, page 34).

What the harpoons I saw in 1959 did have was one short thong with a bone button on its end attached to the throwing stick. This allowed them to dangle their harpoons in the water for its coldness to tighten up the thongs of the harpoon foreshaft, while and only while they were settling themselves in place  and making sure that all their hunting gear was ready for use.  Since I was able to accompany the hunters in my Scottish kayak, I was there to see where the harpoons were placed when they began to hunt.  Pretty much as soon as they set off they lifted their harpoons out of the water and onto the side deck where they were kept in place by the hook at the bottom of one leg of the line tray and the ivory tab set on the bulge of the “masik.” This, of course, was what I saw in late September — before it was cold enough for there to be any risk of the harpoon icing up on the deck. 


photo: William S. Laughlin

       This photo of me carrying “my” kayak, at Hellerup Harbor, Copenhagen (in 1960), shows more clearly how the harpoon is held in place by the hook at the bottom of the right hand leg of the line tray and the tab on the end of the masik A winged harpoon is supported in the same way (see photo above of Enoch’s winged harpoon in place on the side deck of his kayak).



Another shot of a knob harpoon in place on the side deck.  In both these photos you can also see how the throwing stick is clipped onto the harpoon just behind its point of balance.

 4 11 Umia Tob poses harp

Tobias posing as if about to throw the harpoon, gripping the throwing stick.  In fact, his hunting float no longer being on the after deck of his kayak, let’s you know that he’d already harpooned a seal before I asked him to pose for this photo.

 photo: unknown

Me throwing the harpoon at Loch Lomond. Showing the leverage provided by the throwing stick.  Interesting that the shaft of the harpoon is bent by the force of the throw.  A good chance, by the way, to compare the looks of the two kayaks  —  Tobias’ and the one made for me.

The throwing stick (norsaq)

Since Enoch used a winged harpoon his throwing stick was a bit unusual.  At the fore end it was essentially identical to everyone else’s throwing stick, shaped to fit the grip of his hand and with the same hole for the peg on the shaft of the harpoon.  Where it was different was at the back where it ended with a hook which fitted a depression between the two wings of the harpoon  —

Enoch's winged throw stick cropped and zoomed less zoomed

Again this close up which allows you to see how the end of his throwing stick hooks into place between the two wings of the harpoon. 

Everyone else in Illorsuit used a knob harpoon with the norsaq clipped onto pegs placed just behind the point of balance of the harpoon.  It’s the rear peg that the norsaq pushes on to send the harpoon on its way.  That peg is set at an angle, sloping backwards.  The forward peg sits at right angles to the shaft of the harpoon.  When the throwing stick is hooked onto the rear peg and then firmly clipped onto the forward peg it’s held securely in place.

This photo of the norsaq made by Johan Zeeb for John Heath, was posted some time ago on by Greg Stamer.

     John's norsaq_tip

photo: Greg Stamer

A close up of the rear end which engaged with the rear peg and propelled the harpoon on its way.

Here’s a photo (from 2012) of the norsaq Johan made for “my” kayak, to show how it had the short thong with button I described just above.

photo: Bill Samson

The Goodnow kayak, from 1896, had a norsaq with it. While it has also broken off, apparently it had exactly the same short thong with button as the 1959 examples.

photo: Vernon Doucette

The harpoon line

All of the hunters kept their harpoon lines carefully coiled on their harpoon line trays, with the harpoon head at the “front” end of the coil and a connecting strap to the hunting float at the other.  The lines were all of seal skin, Bearded Seal skin, cut in a long spiral from the cylinders of skin cut from the seal for this among other purposes.  Once the desired length had been cut in this way it was carefully softened and trimmed, leaving it with some slight stiffness which would help it coil easily and regularly.

Tob tow classic

Here’s Tobias, one seal already hunted, caught, and being towed back to camp, with his harpoon line neatly coiled back in place on his harpoon line tray. 

Most hunters, but of course this depended on their individual skill, used harpoon lines that were 30 to 40 feet long.  They may have been longer in the old days, before the use of firearms made it possible to be closer to the seal before throwing the harpoon. 

My own first experience with a harpoon was when I tried out that kayak at Qaarsut.  I was struck by how very light weight, almost flimsy the harpoon was.  In my journal I commented, “very much lighter and [more] innocuous-seeming than I had expected.”  Later, at Illorsuit, I had this confirmed when I tried throwing Jonas’ harpoon, the day I borrowed his kayak while he was trying out my Scottish one.  He let me do what I could with his harpoon, and demonstrated his own skills.  “Harpoon very light and cosy in the hand, smaller (throw stick too) than I’d ever imagined. … Harpoon in ready position on hook and knob is very steady and no real inconvenience to paddling.”  Then there was the day Karli, Peter and I went looking for seal, with me in Ludwig’s fully equipped kayak. In my journal: “We played with the harpoons for a bit  —  Peter inexperienced, just like me, Karli very good indeed … taught me a good deal about technique …”  Of course, those times, we were practicing with the “unarmed” harpoon.  When it’s for real the hunter has to also cope with the (small) weight of the harpoon head and the weight and drag of the uncoiling line.  And the line has to be long enough for the hunter (for his own safety) to be able to get the hunting float thrown well clear of the kayak before the line “runs out.” 

The harpoon head

Since long before 1959, the blades of the harpoon heads were all being made of metal.  The bone or ivory body of the harpoon head was still carefully shaped in one or other of the many traditional ways so as to “toggle” sideways under the seal’s skin.  Petersen (1986) shows with drawings and photos an astonishing number of variations in harpoon head design: 18 in all.  None of the harpoon heads I saw had the barbs carved in the sides of the body that were known in other times and places on the west coast.  Like all harpoon heads, of course, they were designed to stay in place once the seal’s skin had been penetrated and to toggle sideways to ensure that the harpoon line with the float at its far end was securely attached to the seal.  Both functions were taken care of by means of a double tail with a certain amount of outwards, curved flare.

Harp headsdrawcropped0001

Figure 86 on page 83 of Petersen (1986).  Harpoon heads from West Greenland.

A portion of figure 87 on page 84 of Petersen (1986).

The specimen labeled “E” in the drawing above shows the kind of harpoon head with side barbs that I never saw during my visit.  Specimens “G” and “H” are close to the ones I did see and, in fact, the one photographed (twice) in fig. 87 is almost exactly like the ones I saw in use.  Petersen explicitly says that this type was used in the Uummannaq area.  As you can see in this photo of Tobias removing his harpoon head from a seal, they were actually quite small.  Several times I was shown how you could hide one from view in your closed fist.


Here I’ve zoomed in to show the harpoon head (that’s it, hanging from the loop at the end of its line, below Tobias’ left hand).

The hunting float (avataq)

The inflated and highly buoyant hunting float was needed for two reasons.  Once it was firmly attached to the seal it would be virtually impossible for the animal to dive deep and escape.  Also, in the case of a seal thin enough to sink when dead, that too would be impossible on account of the float’s buoyancy.  The very first seal I saw successfully hunted, at the beginning of our hunting trip to Umiamako (see Chapter Eight), was like that and when Enoch handed me his harpoon line with the seal still on the end of it I had to pull it up from quite a depth.

Wherever I saw kayaks they all had the same kind of avataq, made of the entire skin of a small seal with its black outer epidermis intact, and not shaped in any way.

Farther south on the west coast the hunting floats had a more or less standard curved shape.  There was a special device used to shape the floats in this way.

photo: John Møller/courtesy of Vernon Doucette

This is a photo Golden has on page 48 of his KoG.  It shows a hunter in Nuuk, in 1910, with a huge seal he’s just caught.  His kayak’s a beauty and has that kind of curved avataq.

In the Uummannaq Bay area and also in the Upernavik area (see for example the photographs on pages 104 and 118 of Hansen 2008), the hunting floats were not given this shape.  In the photo below, some of the Illorsuit ones are good examples of this, especially the ones on the two white kayaks (Ludwig’s and Hendrik’s) and the one on the kayak in the foreground (Hansi’s).

The floats were held in place immediately behind the hunter by two lengths of bone which were tucked under the one or two after deck thongs.

The harpoon’s foreshaft

So that’s what it was all about – getting your hunting float securely attached to the seal you’re hunting, so that it cannot escape and won’t sink when it’s dead.  The thrust of the harpoon delivers the harpoon head into the body of the seal.  But what happens then?  The harpoon head needs to separate from the harpoon itself and be left in the body of the seal and that’s when you begin to see how ingenious the whole thing really is.

harp foreshaft0002 to left(3)

At the front end of the harpoon shaft there is a ten inch long “foreshaft” of ivory or bone. It is held tightly in place against the (reinforced) end of the wooden shaft of the harpoon by an arrangement of seal skin thongs as shown in this “front and back” drawing in Petersen (1986, page 75).  The harpoon head itself is held onto the foreshaft’s blunt point by means of its line being clipped to a peg part way down the length of the harpoon shaft.  When the harpoon strikes the seal, driving the harpoon head through and under the animal’s skin, that’s when the foreshaft is crucial.  The shock of the strike, the diving of the seal, plus the momentum and weight of the harpoon shaft as it resists the movements of the seal, make the foreshaft hinge over at an angle releasing the tension at the front of the harpoon line and allowing the harpoon head to slip off its place on the foreshaft. Or perhaps you could say that it allows the harpoon’s foreshaft to fall back out of the cavity at the base of the harpoon head. The harpoon will then float to the surface to be picked up as soon as possible by the hunter and, assuming the drag on the harpoon line has made the harpoon head toggle sideways underneath it’s skin, the seal will be securely “caught.”

So that’s how it works and the hunters all seemed to be extremely accurate with their harpoons.  Drever tells of how in 1957 he pulled a target in front of a group of the men with his outboard motor boat, at “full throttle,” and when he stopped all eight harpoons were firmly in the target.  For what it’s worth I never did see or hear of anyone missing a seal and having to pull his harpoon etc. back in to rearrange it all and try again.

Harpoon line tray design

I’ve spoken of the beautiful harpoon line tray that Johan made for me.  As you can see in several of the photos, the circular “tray” portion of this is flat  –  just like Johan’s own.  But many of the line trays in use in Illorsuit had what I’ll call a split “butterfly” shape.  Here, for example, is Enoch’s  – 




This is Scavenius Jensen’s 1958 measured drawing of a harpoon line tray from Sukkertoppen (now Maanitsoq) – very much a flat line tray (Jensen 1975, Plate IX).


In this photo Hendrik’s (he’s leaning forward in the white kayak) has the “butterfly” shape, so does Hansi’s (behind him).  Karl Ottosen in the pink sweater is in Malaki’s kayak which looks to have a flat line tray. 


 Here, in the middle, Ludwig’s tray is flat.



From this and other photos of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters’ kayaks at the Umiamako camp I can make out five flat and two butterfly-shaped line trays.


Uummannaq town kayaks three of them with butterfly-shaped line trays.

More Uummannaq town kayaks, these two with flat shaped line trays

The “Sunday hunter” at Uummannaq entering his canvas covered kayak.  His line tray has the flat shape.


Here is an exaggeratedly butterfly-shaped line tray  –  at Uummannatsiaq, near Ikerasak, which (as I tell about in Chapter Three) Bent Jensen and I visited before I made it to Illorsuit.

I thought it would also be interesting to check out the photographs and drawings in Golden’s KoG to see what shape of line trays they show.  Apart from two of my photos of Illorsuit hunters and one photo of me paddling my Illorsuit kayak on Loch Lomond in 1960, there are eleven photos showing West Greenland examples and three photos showing East Greenland examples, plus two measured drawings and five sketches of West Greenland specimens and one measured drawing of an East Greenland specimen.  All 22 have flat harpoon line trays.  [There are also three or four photos of West Greenland kayaks where I can’t make out the shape of the line trays.]       

In Keld Hansen’s Nuussuarmiut (2008) he shows two variants of the harpoon line trays as used in the Upernavik district, in 1967-68 (see below).  Both have flat line trays.

Was this then an Uummannaq Bay innovation? Does anyone know of such “butterfly” shaped line trays being used anywhere else?

Back to the Ummannatsiaq specimen  –  not only is this a butterfly-shaped line tray, it also appears to have an extra leg or something on its left hand side. Maybe it’s a “brace” between the rim of the line tray and the diagonal leg?  By checking all of my photos that might show this feature, I reckon that Hansi’s line tray also has this “extra” piece; one other Illorsuit hunter’s tray has it; two of the Nuugaatsiaq kayaks also have this feature; and one of the Uummannaq town kayaks does.

When I looked again at Hansen’s Plate 10, I saw that both variants have this kind of a brace from the rim of the tray to the diagonal leg.  Also, both show a brace from the center piece to the vertical leg!



 The relevant section of Plate 10 of Hansen’s Nuussuarmiut, shown here with his kind permission.

Towing Gear

All the hunters carried the gear needed to tow one or more seal back to village or camp.  A dead seal (unless small enough to be carried on the after deck) was generally towed on the left side of the kayak, though the few hunters who used the left arm to throw their harpoons would presumably tow their seal on the right side.  The seal were always towed “belly up” and head first, securely fastened by towing straps to the side of the kayak.  These straps, made of seal skin thong, were usually kept inside the kayak until needed.

The seal’s head was held close against the kayak by a strap with a toggle of bone at one end which was inserted through a cut in the seal’s chin and an ivory button some 10 to 12 inches along the strap which was tucked under a fore deck thong (typically the fourth in front of the coaming).   At the end of the strap there might be a lateral bone (or wood) handle and a firm pull on this would release the front of the seal from the kayak.  But the chin towing strap my kayak was equipped with had a simple loop rather than a bone (or wood) handle (see Chapter Eleven, “Re-encounters with the Kayak”).  From the photos here it looks like Tobias’ chin towing strap also ended in a loop.  I see no sign of any bone or wood handle in these photos.

A second thong or strap was similarly attached to the seal’s belly close to its navel.  This had a seven or eight inch long ivory pin which was slipped under the after deck thong(s), pointing forwards.  Once the head of the seal was released, the drag of the seal’s body would pull this pin free.  This second strap had a small flotation bladder attached to it which would help the hunter find the seal when ready to do so and keep the seal floating if it were thin enough to sink.  When a hunter caught two (or more) seal, the second would be attached by another strap to the first, and so on.  In that way, if a hunter needed to free himself of the seal he was towing for whatever reason, that one firm pull on the front strap would release it/them.  As I mention in the chapter “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako,” Edvard once caught two seal when hunting from that camp and, that same day, so did one of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters.

Several photos in that same chapter show Tobias preparing a seal for towing back to camp using these towing straps and flotation bladder.

Fabricius, Birket-Smith, and Petersen (1986, pages 105 to 107) all show drawings and/or photographs of these straps as being linked together on one fairly long length of thong.  This had me puzzled for a while as I was sure I remembered Tobias using two separate straps  –  one for the head attachment and one for the hind quarters.  Checking in Hansen’s Nussuarmiut I found that in the Upernavik district they also used two separate straps.


Towing gear Nuss cropped x 2

Plate 14 in Hansen (2008, page 120)

What this shows is the head strap, which he calls the towing line (orsiut) on the left, with a1, a2, and a3 being enlarged drawings of its three parts; the b and c drawings show the navel strap and flotation bladder also with their various parts repeated in enlarged drawings; item d on the upper right he calls an adjustable drag line (also orsiut).  It must the additional strap that would be used to attach a second seal to the first, etc.


Zoomed in on Tobias towing a seal to get a better look at the way he’s using his towing gear.  You can see the ivory button tucked under the fourth fore deck thong with the strap coming from it crossing the yellow spar of wood and then bunched up in front of him.  That’s what he’ll pull on if he wants/needs to release the seal.  Behind his elbow that’s the flotation bladder attached to the navel strap with that strap’s  seven inch long pin tucked under one of the after deck thongs.  The head strap and the navel strap are not connected to each other. 

This arrangement is virtually identical to what Hansen shows in his plate 14.  So this kind of towing gear was used in both the Upernavik district and Uummannaq Bay.

Kayak knives

Tobias’ kayak knife had a long handle of wood, just over two feet long, and a blade the size of that of a Swiss army knife.  As you can see in one of the photos in the Hunting Trip chapter, he even used this knife to cut off chunks of (cooked) seal meat already gripped with his teeth.  He used it to kill the seal he caught by harpoon alone (the first one I saw him catch), and in preparing that and other seal for towing back to camp. 

4 25 Umia Tob prep tow five

Here he is making the incision to fasten the rear or navel towing strap to a seal.  Interesting that he has another knife, what looks like a regular pocket knife, under the third thong on his fore deck.

The ice scraper 

I left Illorsuit before the first sea ice of the winter appeared, so it was not yet cold enough for the ice scraper to be in use while I was there.

Kayak racks

In all the villages I visited and again in Illorsuit, there seemed to be kayaks everywhere, at least in front of all the houses. They were kept on racks (qainivit) some individual, some communal, high enough to be out of reach of the ever-hungry dogs who if given the chance would eagerly eat much of the hunting gear not to mention the very (seal) skins of the kayaks.  The kayaks actually in use during those days were kept upright with all their hunting gear in place, with a cover of some sort over the manhole.

Here, if you can make them out amidst all the snow, are three of the Illorsuit kayaks on their racks. The center one shows the classic single kayak rack design of a horizontal spar at one end and a “vee” shaped support at the other.

When the gale of September 12th became really fierce, early that morning, there was a general rush down to the qainivit to get them, the kayaks on them and the shark meat racks all roped down and anchored more securely.  My Scottish kayak which was being kept on Sakeus’ fish rack was partly filled with rainwater!  Ludwig helped me take it to safety in the dance hall.  Sakeus’ own kayak lost its manhole cover which I saw being blown out to sea!  Meantime I was also struggling to keep my tent from being blown down, holding up the ridge pole against the force of the wind, and needing help to re-peg some guy ropes that had come loose.  Later on, with Peter’s help, I put in a totally unorthodox new pole to hold up the ridge at its center point.  

The kayaks and their qainivit all survived.  But that was quite a day. The following day was a flat calm!  With what looked like low, snow-laden clouds and the upper two thirds of Upernavik Island now covered with snow.

7 29 Johan with kayak

Johan with his kayak (more than a month and several snowfalls later).  He has that same kind of rack: a horizontal spar at one end and a “vee” shaped support at the other.

One of the Qaarsut kayaks on a rack with a horizontal spar at both ends.

Kayaks on a communal qainivik in Uummannaq town.  Several things worth noticing …  The closest kayak is a good example of how the sea ice in the early winter can gouge into the thickness of the sealskin.  Interesting is the darker color of the fourth skin, closest to the stern.  Possibly a repair was needed and was done by replacing just one of the four skins on the kayak.  Also, of course, that this kayak is currently in use with most of its hunting gear attached.

Left-handed kayakers?

In my chapter on “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako,” I mention at one point that Tobias was right-handed (his harpoon was on the right side of his kayak). That was probably correct and confirmed by his preparing seals for towing always on the right side of his kayak, even though they would then be moved to the left side for towing back to camp or village.

Golden in KoG, pages 88-89, talks of off-center cockpits on some old time kayaks and of right- and left-handedness, as does Petersen (1986, page 40). Whenever the condition of the kayak examined allowed, Golden shows on his scale drawings and/or tells in his text what was the position of the harpoon support. Of the 81 West Greenland kayaks, there is no information for ten.  Of the 71, only two have the support on the left hand side. The other 69 all have it on the right.

At Uummannatsiaq, in my photos you can see four right-handed kayaks.  At Qaarsut, three right-handed kayaks.  At Umiamako, my photos show that at least 10 of the 12 Nuugaatsiaq kayaks were right-handed.  I can’t swear to this (because of all that data having gone missing) but I don’t remember that any hunter in Illorsuit had his harpoon on the left hand side of his kayak.  Of the 18 kayaks at Illorsuit, three that I tried out, and another 11 where this can be seen in my photos, were right-handed.  For one kayak in one photo I can’t make this out.  And retired hunter Johan Zeeb’s kayak was also right-handed.

Of course some of the Greenland Inuit must’ve been left-handed, but it seems that virtually all of them were trained to use the harpoon with their right arm.

 Nevertheless, if we take another look at the photo above we can see that one of the Uummannaq town kayaks on the large communal rack (of the three kayaks with line trays it’s the one farthest from the camera) has its fore deck equipment arranged for a left-handed hunter!

More recently, checking the 2,200 photos in the collection of the Danish Arctic Institute that show kayaks, I found only one example of a left-handed kayak. By coincidence, this was also at Uummannaq, probably from 1902 —

Danish Arctic Institute/Alfred Bertelsen

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Chapter Eleven: Re-encounters with the Kayak




Chapter Eleven


Ken Taylor / Cameron

Chapter One Life in Illorsuit; Chapter Two Subsistence activities; Chapter Three Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Four Building the Kayaks; Chapter Five Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Seven The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Eight The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Nine The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Ten The Rolling Competition; Chapter Eleven Re-encounters with the Kayak

July 5, 2013, revised June14, 2018

Seeing the kayak again!

My own earlier re-encounter with the kayak

photo: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

One of three photos of the kayak Kelvingrove has had on its website for I’m not sure how many years.

When I left Scotland in 1961 I suppose I never expected to see the kayak again.  In 1982 or ’83, however, I did and in what was for me a very exciting way. 

Long before, during the years that Campbell and I were exploring the west coast of Scotland by kayak, we had visited the Glasgow University Hunterian Museum as we’d heard that they had an Inuit kayak.  We saw it and the one thing I remember from that day was our agreeing that it was surely the most narrow and tippy kayak we’d ever seen.  Years later, as an anthropology student in Wisconsin, I supposed that it must have been a “Caribou Eskimo” kayak since I remembered it as being so extremely narrow.  On a visit to Glasgow in ’82 or ’83, with some time on my hands, I thought I’d go have another look at it and then cross the river Kelvin to the Art Galleries (as we used to call it) and check out an exhibit on Charles Rennie Mackintosh (architect of the Glasgow School of Art).  I had my first surprise in the Hunterian when I saw the kayak on display and saw that it was from West Greenland, so not nearly as narrow as I’d thought.  Then, as I entered the Kelvingrove Museum I saw that they had a kayak on display in the middle of the huge entrance hallway.  My immediate thought was:  “I know this person!” 

Well, of course, it was a kayak not a person but a closer look and I could tell that yes I did know it.  For, believe it or not, it was “my” kayak, the one made for me in Illorsuit in 1959!  I still hadn’t known that it had ended up at Kelvingrove.  So that was quite a day!

By the way, the Hunterian has three kayaks so the one I saw in ’82/’83 may not have been exactly the same one I had seen years before.  But all three of their kayaks are from West Greenland and all of them (compared to our Scottish kayaks of the 1950s) are quite narrow.  In Golden’s “Kayaks of Greenland” [KoG] one is #21, one #26, and the third #28.

       Beam dimensions:  17 1/2 “; 17 1/4 “; 18 1/4 “.                                                                                                             

       Our Scottish kayaks:  26  or 27 inches.


photo: Valentina Roman

Here’s a nice photo of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Thirty years later!

Meantime I’d heard, years before, from someone who’d seen the kayak in storage with boxes sitting on top of it.  He was concerned that it wasn’t being taken care of properlySo for many years I’d kind of given up hope for its condition.

But then the news, in a post on, that Bill Samson had seen the kayak again at the museum!  It turned out that Duncan Winning, Bill Samson, and Sue Ellcome had all been there that day, in August 2012.  As part of an email correspondence, Bill and Sue have both very kindly sent me copies of their many photos and their OK for me to use some of them on this website.  These photos show a number of features of the kayak and its equipment in greater detail than any of mine do.  And I’ve already used a few of their photos in my Chapter Seven, “The Hunting Equipment.”  I’m very grateful to them both.


photo: Bill Samson      

So here it is “in all its glory,” as of August of 2012, looking to be in much better shape than I’d expected.  And from what Duncan has told me, now being very carefully looked after!   Its various items of equipment spread around on the tables.

The appearance of the skin of the kayak, in this photo, at this date, is exactly what all the (unpainted) skin covered kayaks looked like everywhere I saw them in 1959. As I mentioned in the chapter on Skinning the Kayaks, the original black outer epidermis still there, for example, in the photos from Loch Lomond in 1960, had evidently quite worn off by 2012.  

Here’s the one way that the kayak does seem to have deteriorated  —

photo: Bill Samson

An interior view looking towards the bow.  The ribs have given way where they cross the keelson.  This could be because of the weight of those boxes someone saw but it could be because of shrinkage of the skin.  Golden found exactly this kind of “hull collapse” in several of the museum specimens he studied (e.g. KoG pages 159, 277, 341).  You can also see the only slightly curved fore deck beams.  It looks as if the beams are resting on top of the gunwales but that’s just because the upper inch or two of the gunwales is in shadow.


photo: Bill Samson

A photo of Duncan Winning from that same day.  I had left the kayak with Duncan and his close friend Joe Reid in 1961 when I moved to the States.  In due course, it was Duncan’s measured drawings of the kayak that led to the creation of the Anas Acuta (see more in the chapter on Building the Kayaks).  I never did get the full story from him but I believe it was Duncan who at some point arranged for the kayak to be put in the care of the Kelvingrove Museum.

Am I imagining this or has the coaming hoop which began life as a perfectly “flat” hoop become somewhat re-shaped to fit the structure of the kayak frame (mostly to fit the rise of the masik)?

Here’s one of several shots of the Goodnow kayak which, to my eye, show this same “re-shaping”  —

Goodnow showing re shaped coaming

photo: Steve Bartlett

photo: William Samson

Here’s the harpoon line tray (upside down), showing what a beautiful job Johan had done.  You can see the small hook at the bottom of the “pistol grip” leg which attaches to the third (asatdlerfikfore deck thong.  Also the vertical leg with its much larger hook which is one of the two supports for the harpoon.  This photo also shows how that leg is more than 90 degrees around from the pistol grip.  That’s so that the line tray can be positioned at enough of an angle for the pistol grip leg to not get in the way of the guns in the gun bag.

Here I’ve zoomed in on the photo of Tobias and Enoch with their kayaks at the Karrats campsite. This let’s you see how Tobias’ line tray sits at that angle with the opening of his gun bag easily accessible.

But in the 2012 photo of the line tray something is strange.  The third leg is attached vertically to the ring of the tray.  This is incorrect and must’ve been a “repair” done by who knows who.

close up line tray shopped

This close up of the line tray in the photo of me carrying the just completed kayak shows that this leg was originally a typical diagonal strut.

Madsen and me

A photo from Loch Lomond, in the spring of 1960, which also shows very clearly how the line tray originally had a typical diagonal as its third leg.  As I’ve already mentioned, that day I had the line tray incorrectly attached to the fourth deck thong and angled too far to the right.  But, because of that mistake, this photo shows all the more clearly that the third leg was indeed a diagonal.  With me is Herr Madsen, at that time the Danish Consul in Glasgow.

photo: Sue Ellcome      

This is a photo taken that same day by Sue Ellcome, showing the line tray from the other side.  You can see the dark circle on the side of the horizontal center piece of the “pistol grip” where the leg in question was originally attached.  As Golden says of a harpoon line tray associated with an early kayak of the 1600s “[it] is symmetrically constructed unlike later types that have one leg protruding diagonally  from the center … ” (KoG page 133).  

Duncan has spoken to the Museum people about this, so I’m hoping that they’ll correct it in some way.


photo: Bill Samson  

As you’ll know from almost any of my photos, during the time I was in Illorsuit the hunters never inflated the hunting float as full of air as you see it here.  In a museum, on the other hand, this is probably the best way to preserve the skin it’s made of.   The float is sitting on the table upside down.  But this let’s us see the two hinged lengths of bone which are tucked under the after deck thong(s) to hold the float in place.  Here they are stretched over the bulging, more than usually inflated float.

Sue E's avataq close up bigger

photo: Sue Ellcome      

A close up showing how the two bone pieces are attached, actually hinged, together.

Sue avataq with straps

photo: Sue Ellcome

This shows the loop of thong at the back end, which provides a handle to grab the float with. Also the length of thong coming from the forward end of the float which attaches to the harpoon line. This, of course, is way out of it’s “normal,” “correct” position. In use, it would be stretched out away from the other end of the avataq

photo: Bill Samson

A full view of the paddle, definitely an example of that Uummannaq Bay design I speak of in the chapter on Hunting Equipment.  It looks as if the blades were very slightly “feathered” to each other.  But this must mean that the wood has warped a bit.  When new, the paddle blades were perfectly in the same plane.

You can also see the two pegs on the harpoon shaft that the throwing stick is clipped onto.

Sue norsaq pegs

photo: Sue Ellcome

Here Duncan Winning and someone of the Museum staff are holding the throwing stick exactly where it would fit onto the pegs.

Sue harpoon foreshaft

photo: Sue Ellcome

Showing how the harpoon’s foreshaft is held tightly in place and yet able to hinge over to release the harpoon head.  Not so “tight” at this date but that’s because the relative warmth of the west of Scotland means that the sealskin thongs have slackened a bit.  The arrangement of the thongs is almost identical to that shown by Petersen (see chapter on The Hunting Equipment).


photo: Bill Samson

Sue norsaq bottom

photo: Sue Ellcome

Two nice shots that show very clearly the hollow on the underside of the throwing stick which fits over the harpoon shaft. 

I’m pleased to see that the short thong with its ivory button is still there. This short thong and button is missing (broken off) from the throwing sticks of both the John Heath and the Goodnow kayaks (see photos and discussion in The Hunting Equipment chapter). 


photo: Bill Samson

The shooting screen laid out flat on the table and its wooden support.

Sue white screen holder

photo: Sue Ellcome

The two bent over nails that hold the screen in place: an interesting example of “crude but effective.”


photo: Sue Ellcome

The shape of its underside which allows it to clip onto the bow of your kayak.

Sue gunbag hook

photo: Sue Ellcome

Here’s a beautifully made hook at the open (near) end of the gun bag to attach it onto the appropriate fore deck thong.

Sue thong strap

photo: Sue Ellcome

The towing strap for the head (throat) of the seal. 

I had no memory of this being with the kayak.  Apparently there is no strap for the hindquarters of the seal, nor any sign of a flotation bladder.  I describe the use and arrangement of the towing straps in detail in the chapters on The Hunting Equipment and The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.

Sue coaming rear

photo: Sue Ellcome

The back of the cockpit coaming where the kayak skin is pulled over and pegged onto the outside of the coaming ring.

Sue slab side

photo: Sue Ellcome

A good shot of the “slab” side of the (hard chine) kayak.

photo: Sue Ellcome

The characteristic Uummannaq Bay raked stern, with its protective knob of bone.

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