Kayak Angst



Ken Taylor

cameron@twinoaks.org                                                                               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

–  x  –  x  –

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Kayak Angst

  1. Steve Staloff

    From your description, kayak angst = post traumatic stress disorder.

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