East Greenland Kayak Hunting Equipment



Ken Taylor/Cameron

cameron@twinoaks.org                                                                              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 [https://arktiskinstitut.dk/en/the-archives/photo-collections/].

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 [CH CH CH] the population had returned to a figure of 411 (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.]

graphic: http://www.greenland-guide.gl/reg-east.htm

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 [https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/picturelibrary/]. 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

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

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