Chapter Seven: Skinning the Kayaks





Table of Contents:

Chapter One  Reaching Illorsuit;  Chapter Two  Daily Life in the Village  —  Subsistence and such;  Chapter Three  Daily Life in the Village  —  Social Life;  Chapter Four  Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town;  Chapter Five  Building the Kayaks;  Chapter Six  Variations in Kayak Design;  Chapter Seven  Skinning the Kayaks;  Chapter Eight  The Hunting Equipment;  Chapter Nine  The Hunting Trip to Umiamako;  Chapter Ten  The Kayak Race in the Village Bay;  Chapter Eleven  The Rolling Competition;  Chapter Twelve  Re-encounters with the Kayak;  Some Final Thoughts

Chapter Seven

Skinning the Kayaks

Ken Taylor / Cameron

May 4, 2013; re-titled June 18, 2015

Skinning Drever’s kayak in 1938

This is a photo by Harald I. Drever of the kayak made for him in 1938 being skinned.  Here, with the four skins already held in place on the kayak frame by a 10 or 11 inch “pocket” sewn at each end to fit over the bow and stern, they’re at the next step of cross (or zigzag) lacing the skin to pull it tight across the hull of the kayak.

The woman standing on the left is Karen.  In 1959 she was one of six women who sewed the skins onto my kayak.

Skinning my kayak

Work on my kayak got started was in early September. To skin it we would need four Harp Seal skins and there were only two available in the village. That species of seal is more plentiful in the spring and fall, on their migrations to and from their breeding grounds. In September (of 1959) they were few and far between. If anything, you could say that I was lucky to get my hands on as many as four!  While Emanuele was working on the frame, one day Enoch saw a Harp Seal somewhere near the village but didn’t catch it. While we were at Umiamako one of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters caught one and agreed to sell me the skin. Enoch saw another but at a distance. Also on that trip I was able to buy one at the Nuugaatsiaq store. And, finally, on October 9th on my way back to the village from Uummannaq I was able to buy the fourth I needed also at Nuugaatsiaq  —  the skin of the seal caught while we were at Umiamako. So I only just managed to accumulate the four needed, only days before it was time to leave. But the four skins were quickly prepared by Tobias’ wife Emilia, with help from Anna and Louisa and on October 12th the six women got them sewn onto the kayak frame.

This scarcity of Harp Seal skins meant, of course, that there were none we could have used to skin Heath’s kayak with.  So Heath ended up with just the wooden framework of the kayak built for him by Emanuele.  That and the harpoon with throwing stick and paddle made for him by Johan Zeeb.


Here are the six women who did the work of sewing the skin covering onto my kayak.  “Old Karen” is second from the right.  The others are (from the left): Else Ottosen; Sarah Zeeb; Anna Zeeb; Regina Nielsen; [Karen]; and Emilia Nielsen.

The skinning of my kayak that day also began with fitting the “pockets” onto bow and stern and then cross lacing the skin to pull it tight across the hull.  Knud, again “in charge,” Emanuele of course and also Johan and Tobias helping.  And you wouldn’t believe how hard they pulled on that cord.  To say the least, they got the skin stretched as tight as a drum across the kayak’s hull.  It looked to me like the cord they were using would surely pull free of the skin (it was, of course, threaded only half way through the thickness of the skin).  But all went well (of course) and with that done we were ready for the six women to sew the skins together across the decks.  As part of doing that they inserted the several “patches” needed to fill the gaps left by the uneven shape of the four skins.  Since each skin was widest in the middle and a lot smaller towards the neck and tail, sure enough each deck needed one large and one very small patch of spare skin, as well as triangular inserts in front of and behind the cockpit.

Before beginning to fit the four skins to the kayak frame they had been soaked in salt water for two days and then sewn together, end to end, with flat seams.  With that done the “pockets” were then sewn to fit over bow and stern.  All this was done by Emilia, Anna, and Louisa.  The initial lacing together of the skins and the sewing of all the seams, both flat and raised, is done without ever penetrating all the way through the thickness of the skin.  In this way, there are no holes for the water to leak through and the entire covering of the kayak is completely water tight.

Sewing the four skins end to end was done with flat seams to have a minimum of wear and tear and water resistance.  But on the decks, the women used raised seams.  These were considered the most watertight but had the disadvantage of it’s being more difficult to scrape the decks free of ice at the end of the season (KoG, pages 73-4).  As in the one made for me, the Illorsuit kayaks all had raised deck seams.

Here are Golden’s sketches of how “flat seams” and “raised seams” are sewn (KoG, pages 72 and 73).

Flat seam stitching


Raised seam stitching

The six women hard at work.  They were actually doing the job indoors but brought the kayak out through a window for me to get these photos.  Here the skin is already in place with the “pockets” on bow and stern, the lacing has been done by the men, and now the women are working on the deck seams.  Emanuele is waiting for when it’ll be ready for him to attach the bow and stern deck thongs and in due course the cockpit coaming.

A closer look which lets you see where the skins meet across the after deck and shows the gaps where patches of skin will have to be added.  The skin, of course, is still wet while this is being done.  Once it dries it’ll be as tight as a drum.  You can also see the cord of the cross lacing.  That’s Enoch’s wife Regina looking up at the camera.

And here the sewing job is finished and Emanuele has attached those loops of thong, each with its two “buttons” of decorative ivory, at bow and stern.  That they are loops, and not tight across the width of the kayak, is a characteristic of Golden’s Type VI kayaks (see KoG pages 328, 329, 331, 341).  As best I remember, all the kayaks I saw in 1959 had these loops of thong.  Emanuele has now also attached the coaming to the skin.  He had prepared the coaming with a series of pegs of bone which he then hooked the skin onto, one by one.  At the back of the coaming, where your back would come in contact with it, the pegs of bone were set on the outside and the skin pulled up and over the coaming  —  as you can see in the photo (it’s the stern of the kayak that’s closer to the camera).  Golden comments that “this method of attaching the [skin] to the coaming is apparently very old  [from the 1600s and 1700s] … [but has been] ‘held-over’ in certain parts of the northwest coast  … ” (see pages 87, 327, 352).  As well as my kayak, he is referring to #61 and #67 in KoG.  The coaming is held in place in that way, attached to the skin and not at all to the wooden frame. 

I think it’s worth mentioning that the sealskin is stretched and sewn so tightly onto the wooden frame that (when dry) it powerfully “holds the frame together” and adds considerably to the strength of the kayak!

The way they prepared the four Harp Seal skins was with the outer, black epidermis not removed.  This gives the most waterproof skin.   Also, skins of this kind for kayak covering can be most quickly prepared.  No doubt that was one reason why this kind was used as there was very little time left before I would be leaving.  Unfortunately I didn’t learn if all the kayaks are skinned in exactly this way.  Certainly, as you can see in the photos of un-painted skin covered kayaks, the black epidermis had already worn off the skins of all the kayaks I saw in use.  In the photos I show of the kayak at Loch Lomond and at Hellerup harbor, the following spring, you can see that the black epidermis is still intact.  But by the time of the photographs of the kayak taken after it had been deposited with the museum in Glasgow the skin was looking like all the other kayaks in Illorsuit  —  a mottled brown color, not black.  Evidently, the black outer layer of the skin had completely worn off by that time.

The photo on page 75 of Golden’s KoG shows a kayak being skinned using seal skins with the black layer already peeling off.  And one of my photos of kayaks on racks in Uummannaq town shows a kayak with a black fourth skin (the one closest to the stern).  My guess is that skin had been added to the kayak some time after the others, probably because a repair to the wooden frame had been needed.

Another point of interest is that, during the time that I was there, I didn’t see or hear of any treating of these skins with blubber, etc. to improve their water-proof quality.                                   

But, the kayak still needs its various deck thongs with their ivory fittings, and the ivory “knobs” on the tips of bow and stern.  Unlike the thongs at bow and stern, the deck thongs can be put in place by reaching inside through the cockpit.  The same group of men who had done the lacing of the skins across the hull did this job.  Emanuele had prepared holes through the gunwales for these thongs to be threaded through.  But the hole the men now made in the actual skin was little more than a pin prick and, as they let me find out for myself, it took a strong, strong pull to get the length of thong to go through.  Ideally, the thongs for each deck would be the visible part of one long, continuous piece.  Even, as Golden mentions in his KoG, page 79, one single length might be used for all of the deck thongs, fore and aft.  In fact the job was done, for the fore deck, with a thong which was not long enough and you can see the splices that were needed in various of the photos.


both photos:  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

These photos from Kelvingrove show how the deck thongs with their ivory fittings were arranged.  On the fore deck, first a pair of thongs with an ivory slider at each end. These sliders can be used to tighten the thongs whenever this is needed while also keeping the thongs very slightly clear of the surface of the deck skin and much less likely to ever become frozen to the deck.  In front of those two, a single thong joined by a large slider to the nearer of the first pair.  This third thong was called the “asatdlerfik” (see Birket-Smith 1924, page 264).  As the name indicates, the “asaloq” (plural “asatdlut“)  or “pistol grip” rear leg of the harpoon line tray should be hooked onto this deck thong.  An approximately 2 feet six inches long wooden spar is tucked under the second  and the fourth of these deck thongs on the far left.  It serves to keep in place the remarkably flimsy, diagonal, left hand leg of the line tray and can also be used to slide one end of the paddle under to provide a sort of outrigger for stability when the kayak is stationary. The fourth deck thong is where the back (open) end of the gun bag is attached. While some hunters have a special skin loop sewn into the deck seam near the bow for attaching the front end of the gun bag, on a kayak like mine the bow deck thong would used.  On the after deck a pair of thongs with two ivory sliders.  These are to keep the sealing float in place.  It has two hinged together 12 inch lengths of bone which tuck under these after deck thongs.  And I’ve already mentioned the loops of thong, each with two decorative ivory buttons, one near the bow and one near the stern.  On the right hand end of the “masik,” the upstanding “tab” of ivory held in place by its own short length of thong.  This and a hook of bone at the base of the right hand leg of the line tray are the two supports that hold the harpoon in place.  And last but not least, the protective “knobs” on the tips of both bow and stern.  All of these arrangements for the hunting gear can be seen in the several photos of Tobias preparing a seal for towing and towing it back to camp in Chapter Nine “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.”

These photos also show very clearly the seams between the four Harp Seal skins used and the various patches between these.  In 1959 I never saw or heard of skins from other species of seal being used to cover kayaks.  It is interesting, then, that the Goodnow kayak from 1896 was covered with just one seal skin on its front and just one seal skin on its back half. These will have been from either Bladder-nosed Seal or, possibly, Bearded Seal (see Petersen 1986, page 29 where he speaks of both kinds having been used).  Given how important Bearded Seal skins were in the making of harpoon lines, sled traces, dog whips, kayak deck thongs, etc., my guess is that these will have been Bladder-nosed Seal skins.


photo: Mark Starr 

While Kent’s kayak from the early 1930s was covered with four Harp Seal skins  —


both photos: Vernon Doucette

Drever’s kayak from 1938 was covered with what look to be two Harp Seal skins on its front half and one Hooded Seal skin on the back  —  

photo: Harald I. Drever

It seems likely that by 1959 using Hooded Seal skins for covering kayaks was a thing of the past.  In 1959-1960, compared to 1,025 Harp Seal there were only 17 Hooded Seal caught in the entire Uummannaq district (Bogen om Grønland 1962, pages 287-363).  Only one of these 17 was caught at Illorsuit. 

Skin or canvas on 1959 kayaks

 As mentioned, it was hard in those days to get enough Harp Seal skins for all the kayaks to be sealskin covered.  Some of the kayaks had to be canvas covered.  In H. C. Petersen’s “Instruction in Kayak Building” (1981) he tells how to cover a kayak with canvas and not at all of how to do so with sealskin.  He speaks of how “the seal population of Greenland began to decline at the beginning of the present [20th] century …” (page 55).

In 1959, all the eight kayaks at  Uummannatsiaq were canvas covered, and in Illorsuit one of the eighteen.  All the canvas covered kayaks I saw were painted white, for camouflage.  Six of the skin covered kayaks at Illorsuit were also painted white, and one of them sky blue.  From the Umiamako photos, you can see seven seal skin kayaks plus 5 painted white.  These white ones may have been canvas but but I think that unlikely.  Of all the Uummannaq Bay villages, it was at Nuugaatsiaq that the hunters caught most Harp Seal in 1959-1960.  Their catch for that 12 month period was 218, compared with 97 at Illorsuit (Bogen om Grønland, pages 287-363).  Most likely, all of the Nuugaatsiaq kayaks were seal skin covered. 

I was told that a canvas covered kayak isn’t strong enough to bounce around on the beach the way a skin covered one can.  But the main disadvantage of the canvas seems to be that it isn’t strong enough to withstand the scraping of the first thin sea ice forming at the beginning of winter.  As you can see in several of my photos, virtually all the sealskin covered kayaks had deep scrapes near the bow because of this.  These were real gouges.  You could probably have fitted a pencil into the gouges on some kayaks.  What happens is that you go out hunting on a totally calm but very cold day, with no ice on the water.  Later in the day the temperature suddenly drops a degree or two and a thin skin of ice forms on the surface of the water.  And you have to force your kayak through it.  I was told that sometimes the ice becomes too thick for you to simply force your way through.  Then you have to turn sideways, break the ice with your paddle, turn again and paddle forward a few feet.  And so on.  Obviously it’s quite a risk but one that most hunters used to take as the scrapes and gouges near the bows of their kayaks clearly show!  Kent tells of one time a villager called David only just managed to make it home through ice of that kind.  “not only had David to break his way through [the ice]; he had to propel that constantly accumulating weight of ice that formed on the kayak, and wield with iced-up mittened hands an ice-incrusted paddle” (Salamina, page 250).

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Chapter One: Reaching Illorsuit






Table of Contents

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

revised May 26, 2015 and January 10, 2016



        I once spent a summer in the village of Illorsuit in the Uummannaq district of northwest Greenland.  It was the most wonderful experience of my life.

        For several years leading up to that time, my old friend Campbell Semple and I had kayaked the west coast of Scotland from the Firth of Clyde up to and around Cape Wrath.  The day before we went around the Cape we met Dr Harald I. Drever, a geologist from St. Andrews University. He had been to northwest Greenland four times and was a great admirer of the kayaking skills of the villagers of Illorsuit.

In this 2011 satellite image of Greenland Illorsuit, on an island in the huge Uummannaq Bay, is approximately half way up the west coast.


This is a 1941 map of Uummannaq Bay.  Illorsuit (spelled Igdlorssuit on the map) is the village on the northeast side of the large pear-shaped island called Ubekendt Ejland.

That winter Drever wrote to invite me to spend the summer of 1959 in Illorsuit, on my own.  The Stromness Fund which he and his brother had created in memory of their father, Prof. Sir James Drever, would provide the funds for my trip.  I am deeply grateful to the Fund for this generosity.

I always call it a summer but in fact my time in Greenland was from mid-August to late October. Being well north of the Arctic Circle, the area had a short but warm summer with the midnight sun visible from early May to the beginning of August.  So I missed the midnight sun but when I first arrived it was still full daylight 24 hours a day.

In 1959, some 110 people lived in Illorsuit (lat.71’ 14” N., long. 53’ 30” W.) which was one of seven “outposts” and two “dwelling places” spread out on mainland and island sites in the huge Ummannaq Bay. The “county” town of Ummannaq itself is on an island in the southeast of the Bay and at the time had 747 people living there, most of them Inuit, several of them Danes. The total population of the District was 1865.  The outpost Illorsuit had its own church, school and store, with a catechist-cum-school teacher and an outpost manager, both of them Inuit (or “Greenlanders” as they were usually called), from other districts on the west coast.

Drever’s plan was for me to learn all I could about the kayaks and kayak hunting of the Illorsuit people with the hope (so he told me later) that my doing so would increase the prestige of kayak hunting in that area.  He was rightly concerned about this as farther south on the west coast the Danish administration was encouraging the people to give up seal hunting and to fish for cod and shrimp.  In fact, quite unknown to Drever, to me, and perhaps to anyone, the ancient tradition of seal hunting by kayak was about to come to an end.  By 1966, when Drever went back to Illorsuit on yet another geological field trip, things were already transitioning from the “traditional” seal hunting by kayak to the “motorised” seal hunting reported on by Chris Hare (see more on Hare’s observations in Chapter Eight, The Hunting Equipment).  


The photos I show here were all originally color slides.  And for many, many years the most I could ever do to “tell the world” about Illorsuit kayak hunting in 1959 was to give a slide show.  Of course I did just that, at every opportunity, in Denmark, in Scotland, in the US.  By the time I had the good fortune to learn of QajaqUSA and to meet many of its members, in 2003 and 2004, the available technology meant that my slide show could now be shown on the internet!  Fantastic!  Something I never even dreamt of when I was taking the photos and learning all I could about kayaking in Illorsuit all those many years ago.

I still would never have done this, however, without the enthusiastic encouragement of members of QajaqUSA.  In particular I want to thank Vernon Doucette and Richard Nonas for so kindly doing everything they could to keep me “on task.”  Vernon, in fact, took on the enormous job of cleaning the central Virginian mold from almost all of the slides and converting them to high-definition digital images.  I don’t know how to thank you enough, Vernon.

So far so good but by that time I was an old dog trying to learn the new tricks of the many computer skills I would need in order to get this done.  Over the last few years many members of Twin Oaks Community where I’ve lived since 1988 have helped me learn some at least of the mysteries of using computers.  I especially thank Dream, Arizona, Tim, Alex, Sunshine, Adder and Paxus for so patiently showing me what I needed to know.

Some background   

In the early 1930s, the American artist Rockwell Kent lived for more than a year in the village. He illustrated his book “Salamina” with many distinctive drawings of the villagers and their lifestyle.

Kent’s image of a kayak hunter wearing the full jacket, the “tuilik, no longer used for hunting when I was there.

A rather more romantic image by Kent which actually shows the kayaker’s two thumbed mittens better than the other.  And, yes, the harpoon “should” be pointing backwards and, yes, you “shouldn’t”  carry your kayak on its harpoon side!

Anna Zeeb who was still living in Illorsuit in 1959

In the late 1930s, Dr. Drever began a series of expeditions based in Illorsuit.  In 1958 he wrote a charming essay “The Kayakers of Igdlorssuit,” first published in the St. Andrews University Alumnus Chronicle, where he says:

     “The Greenland kayak, although very maneuverable and efficient,

is at the same time so absurdly small and frail

that to chase a seal in it seems almost an impertinence.” 

Nevertheless, he had a local style kayak built for him and learned to manage it and eventually to roll with it.  And he made good use of it in surveying the forbidding coastal cliffs of the island.

As a result of his work on Ubekendt Island and in the west of Scotland, Drever was one of a handful of geologists chosen to carry out the first analyses of the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts.

Dr Harald I. Drever on the occasion of a 1971 exhibit by St Andrews University  about the moon rocks and the first geological studies made  of them.

The village in 1959

 And then, in 1959 and thanks to Drever, I had my opportunity to stay in Illorsuit for a while — to meet its people, to observe and to some extent participate in their way of life, and to enjoy the bounty and the beauties of their environment and its scenery.  Drever had most recently been there in 1957 and so was able to give me photos showing virtually every one of the people I was to meet.  For reasons of his own, he never did tell me about Kent’s time in Illorsuit so I didn’t get to read “Salamina” until later. Some people, including Anna and Johan Zeeb, that Kent had written so much about were still there, still living in Illorsuit.  Over the years, Johan had also worked with Drever on various geological surveys, both on Ubekendt Island and further afield.

So here they are.  Johan and Anna Zeeb, their crippled daughter Anna Marie and her little son Bintsi.  You can see a few of their dogs but not much winter dog meat.  In fact, what they have drying on the rack looks more like fish than shark meat.  There’s also an upside down sled hanging from the rack.

And Bintsi in his decorative “kamit (sealskin boots) with a plastic boat which was probably a gift from me …

and the real boat, a small dory, that Johan was building for him.

Johan posing in front of his still fully operational kayak.  He kept it that way even though he was well over fifty, the age at which the Danish administration had made it illegal for the men to continue seal hunting by kayak.  His was one of only two kayaks I saw painted sky blue, rather than white, as camouflage.

During one of my visits to St. Andrews while Drever and I were preparing for my trip he showed me some photos of especially beautiful scenery. “What a beautiful place it is,” I said.  Standing up and looking me in the eye he said, “but Kenneth, I thought I had told you: you are going to the most beautiful place in the world.”  When I got there and saw it for myself, I could only agree.

Upernavik Island, eight miles across the sound from Illorsuit

And Rockwell Kent’s painting of almost the identical view  —  as of 1933.

Getting there

Nowadays you can fly to Greenland but back in 1959 the way to get there was by steamer from Copenhagen.  I did so on a fairly large boat, the m.s. Umanak, with many passengers.  The Umanak and all other ships sailing to and from Greenland had their hulls painted a bright orange color.  This was a new safety measure adopted after the loss with all hands, that January, of the brand new m.s. Hans Hedtoft on its leaving Greenland for return to Copenhagen at the end of its maiden voyage.

We left Copenhagen on July 25th with many family and friends of the passengers there to say goodbye.  It was my first ever experience  of the moving ritual of the paper streamers from boat to shore until they break as the boat pulls away.  Most of the passengers were Danes and Greenlanders and for 10 days I was regaled with stories about life up there.

We passed the Skagen (the northernmost tip of Denmark) at night and then went by the Orkney Islands (Drever was an Orcadian) at breakfast time with most of us feeling a bit seasick.  But that same day we were singing Greenlander songs at the piano and Vagn, a young Dane who was going to Qutdlissat on Disko island for two years work as a teacher, was already giving me Danish lessons.  We were entertained with Lutheran hymns and songs all in the distinctive Greenland Inuit seven part arrangements.  Beautiful!  Some of the songs were composed by a Greenlander who was there with his family. 

The boat called in first at Nuuk (then called Godthaab) and after a day there some of us were transferred to the much smaller m.s. Juto for the rest of the journey north.  Next we stopped at Aasiaat (then Egedesminde) where we again had a day ashore.  Next was a very quick stop at Qutdlissat (later spelled Qullissat, the town was abandoned in 1972) to let off Vagn, Aase and Edel and allow Jens and Birthe, both Inuit, to see Jens’ father after three years  —  for half an hour!  And then, at last we headed for  Uummannaq (spelled Umanak in those days).

For me it was wonderful to have those ten days to let my head catch up with the fact that I was really and truly going to, hearing about, seeing for myself, and finally arriving at Greenland.  For years Campbell and I had read everything we could get our hands on about the “Eskimos” of Greenland, and now I was actually there.

Our slow progress up the coast had been marked by changes in the scenery, especially a slow increase, mile by mile, in the number and diversity (and beauty) of the icebergs.   As I noted in my journal, once we had passed the end of Nuussuaq (then Nugssuaq) peninsula and turned into the Uummannaq Bay itself, “It is like a new country after the parts of Greenland we have seen to the south. So very much more exciting — more icebergs, more glaciers, higher land, more colorful and varied rocks and, somehow, a more expansive effect from the enclosure of the huge Bay combined with the great distances all around.”  We could see the distinctive Uummannaq (heart-shaped) mountain, clearly visible behind a bank of fog.  I was shown which was Ubekendt Island, where Illorsuit is, and I admired the scene of numerous glaciers relentlessly pushing their ice down to the sea. So this was it! and it was wonderful!

Rockwell Kent’s distinctive take on the local scenery!  I found this painting on Sarah Lowe’s online blog.

Frøken Larsen was returning to Uummannaq to take up her duties as head of the children’s hospital.  Without telling me so she had very kindly sent a cable to Bent Jensen a Danish anthropology student working in the village of Ikerasak to let him know that I would be arriving.  Thinking that I was a geology student of Drever’s he went out of his way to come to Uummannaq to meet me.  You can imagine how pleased we both were when we met and discovered that we had such similar interests in the Inuit life of the area.  Bent and I were invited to stay with the Lutheran priest “Palase” Rasmussen and his family.  Like most of the Danes in Uummannaq they knew Drever of course.  Frøken Larsen had us all to her so comfortable house for the evening where I got to meet many of the Danish people who lived in town.  That was a delightful evening and my first experience of the marvellous Danish hospitality.

The church in Uummannaq, the only stone church in Greenland.  The “heart-shaped” mountain behind.

Was it one or two nights in Uummannaq town? and then kindly invited by Bent I went with him to Ikerasak where he was to continue his research for another week or ten days.  I describe that amazing visit in Chapter Four.  Right now I want to get us to Illorsuit!

But first a look at Bent and a local young woman Kattanguaq in front of his house in Ikerasak.  The mountain is called the Uummannatsiaq meaning “the little heart-shaped mountain.”

In due course, Bent, Kattanguaq and I returned to Uummannaq where she was planning to travel on to Qullissat.  She was told there would be a long wait before she could make that trip, so we all agreed that she would come with me to stay in Illorsuit as my “kifaq.”  Meaning that she would work with/for me as a kind of collaborator  —  easing my contacts with the villagers, helping me with housework, etc., and being paid for this while she waited for her trip to Qullissat.

I want to acknowledge what a great contribution Kattanguaq made to how well it seemed I was able to get along with the villagers.  At least as much as anyone else she could understand what I was trying to do  —  and translate my attempts to say what that was into Greenlandic.  Not to mention that she was a delightful, outgoing person who already knew a few of the Illorsuit people and quickly became friends with pretty much everyone.  A few months ago a very happy thing  —  she and her husband contacted me by email from Southwest Greenland where they now live.

First Impressions of Illorsuit

Another two or three days went by in Uummannaq, then we got a ride on one of the larger Danish boats, the “Otto Mathiesen,” to  —  the place itself.  I was tired, it was drizzling, and, as I noted in my journal, Illorsuit looked “pretty dismal.”   The houses strung out along the narrow strip of land of a shallow bay, very much overshadowed by high, steep, rocky hillsides that were almost cliffs.


A later view of the south end of Illorsuit on a sunny day!

It was only later that I came to realize that it’s the view from Illorsuit that’s so special.  I hope my photographs do it justice.  Across the sound, the mountains and glaciers of Upernavik Island.  And the icebergs!  Two of the four major glaciers on the west coast of Greenland emptied into the waters of Uummannaq Bay.  One of them, the Rinks glacier, is just 55 miles northeast of Illorsuit.  So the view looking out from the village is really amazing: an endless parade of spectacular and constantly changing icebergs being slowly moved southward by the underwater currents, melting, breaking up, rolling over to show their sculpted undersides. …..




 The view looking north


The view from my tent late one afternoon.

But that first day, I wasn’t impressed.  Gunnar (sorry, Gunnar, I never did get a note of your surname), the trade post manager, was an Inuit from southwest Greenland.  He welcomed us and kindly offered me a room in his two story house, where I could stay until I got my tent up and organized.  But, as it turned out, I was coming down with the ‘flu.  So I ended up spending a week as a guest/invalid in his house. 

Bent Jensen had warned me of an inevitable week to ten days of shyness that I could expect from the villagers as they slowly got to know me.  At Ikerasak, he had told the people that I was a cousin of his and that they could treat me just as they did him.  And that worked! the Ikerasak people had been open and friendly around me from day one.  But now, in Illorsuit, I could expect the full effect of this “shyness” phenomenon.  What happened, in fact, was that with my being sick in bed and the villagers naturally wanting to at least meet me, quite a number of them came to visit while I was still at Gunnar’s.  Of course, they loved the photos Drever had given me identifying most of them  —  and immediately persuaded me to let them have the photos of themselves and their family members.

The weather improved, I got better, it was time to get my tent set up. It was difficult to find a dry, level place but eventually, with all kinds of help from many people, it was up and usable. The sun shone and I began to appreciate the beautiful scenery of the view from my tent.

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Chapter Five: Building the Kayaks





Table of Contents

Chapter One  Reaching Illorsuit;  Chapter Two  Daily Life in the Village  —  Subsistence and such;  Chapter Three  Daily Life in the Village  —  Social Life;  Chapter Four  Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town;  Chapter Five  Building the Kayaks;  Chapter Six  Variations in Kayak Design;  Chapter Seven  Skinning the Kayaks;  Chapter Eight  The Hunting Equipment;  Chapter Nine  The Hunting Trip to Umiamako;  Chapter Ten  The Kayak Race in the Village Bay;  Chapter Eleven  The Rolling Competition;  Chapter Twelve  Re-encounters with the Kayak;  Some Final Thoughts


BUILDING THE KAYAKS                                                                                       

Ken Taylor / Cameron

July 9, 2012; re-titled June 6, 2015; material on “variations” moved to Chapter Six July 21, 2015


I think I’ve mentioned that in all the villages I visited before moving to Illorsuit itself, I took measurements and got information on some, if not all, of the kayaks. And then in Illorsuit itself, of course, I also did so for all of the kayaks and in the greatest detail.  I can still picture the sheets of paper I did this on, the red and green box files I kept them in,


I can’t begin to tell you how much I regret that somewhere along the way I lost or threw out those sheets of data. All I can say is that for many years my career as an anthropologist became focused on Brazil.

When I returned to the States in 1980 little by little I did get back into kayaking, first with a rented Chinook and then with a Chinook-sized “skin-on-frame” that I built. And then in 2003 I was introduced (online) to Harvey Golden of QajaqUSA. As a result, I did my usual “Greenland slide show” at the Delmarva Paddlers’ Retreat in 2004.  And ever since then, at the suggestion and with the encouragement of members of QajaqUSA, I’ve been slowly putting together this website wishing, of course, that I still had all that valuable information.

The kayak Emanuele Korneliusen made for me

Here it is, completed I think it was that very same day, with all its hunting gear in place as I carried it down to the shore to try it out for the first time.

And it performed beautifully!

Part of the plan for my time in Illorsuit was, of course, to have a fully equipped kayak made for me and to bring it back to Scotland.  Already while in Uummannaq town on my way to Illorsuit someone suggested that I ask Martin Zeeb (Johan’s brother) if he would be able to do that.  And he agreed to do so.  But when he returned to Illorsuit a few days later it turned out that he was going to be working in the village store and wouldn’t have the necessary time.  He suggested that I check out an old kayak of his brother Abraham’s or, if that wouldn’t do, that I ask Emanuele Korneliusen to build the kayak.  Sakeus mentioned that it could be done in a few days work.  I went along to try out Abrahams’s old kayak but it was not in good condition and was too tight a fit for me.  Once he understood that Martin really couldn’t do the job, Emanuele agreed to build the kayak (and also a second one for John Heath), so we arranged to go and buy the wood from the store the very next day.

As well as Martin Zeeb evidently being a reputable kayak builder, if I remember right, Drever had told me that it had been Knud Nielsen who built his kayak back in 1938.  And it seemed clear that Knud was essentially supervising Emanuele’s work on my and Heath’s kayaks.  Actually, the impression I had at the time was that the job was “given” to Emanuele in part because he was a “retired” kayak hunter and one of the less well-off villagers and it would be (and of course it was) a good opportunity for him to earn some needed cash.  And, as I hope the photos clearly show, he did an absolutely beautiful job of building those two kayaks.

Please note that, over the years, there has been some confusion about how to spell Emanuele’s name.  I now have it from his granddaughter Paninnguaq that the correct spelling (as used by the people themselves) is: Emanuele Korneliusen.

Meantime, Karl Ottosen had persuaded me to try his.  He was one of two men I met in Illorsuit who had “kayak angst” (another man with the “angst” lived at Uummannatsiaq).  Since this had become enough of a problem for him that he had recently had to give up kayak hunting, Karl was very keen to sell me his kayak. But it was way too tight a squeeze for me, tho’ I did manage to get in, so I was able to refuse his offer. After all, what Drever and I really wanted was to have one built from scratch for me!

On September 4th, I went with Hansi (who’d just been helping me make a minor repair to the bow piece of my Scottish kayak), Emanuele, and Gunnar to the storage attic to pick out the wood we would need.  Perhaps because it was late in the summer the selection was very poor.  We did find enough for one kayak and I pointed out to Gunnar that what remained wasn’t good enough to make the second kayak for John Heath.  He said he’d order some more from Uummannaq. The supply of split willow for the ribs looked really awful but Emanuele took some off home to soak and we put three usable boards (two for the gunwales and one for the keelson, etc.) outside to measure later.  It was sold by the “English foot” the Danish foot being slightly different.  The store in Illorsuit didn’t have any coaming hoops in stock and eventually I had to buy them in Nuugaatsiaq.  These were, in fact, mast hoops as used on old style sailing boats.  Also, of course, imported from Denmark.  For some strange reason, the two I bought in Nuugaatsiaq turned out to be slightly bigger than the ones on all the other Illorsuit kayaks. Hansi’s wife Anni who made my spray skirt/waist band (tuitoq) was quite upset when she made it according to the local standard size only to find that it wasn’t quite big enough and had to be enlarged!

These mast hoops, by the way, are not just obsolete memories of a distant past.  In 2004, when I built my replica of the kayak Emanuele made for me, I had no trouble locating and buying an appropriately sized mast hoop.

Emmanuele b w rib teeth enlarged darker

Emanuele working on my kayak behind his house.  Shaping a rib.

I missed seeing how Emanuele measured the length for the ribs but he had soaked them in water for a day or two and was able to bend them to shape with just his two hands and his teeth. [It seems that I’d been filming him with the defective movie camera as I don’t have any still color photos of him doing the work.  On the 9th I did take these few b/w with a different camera.]  Golden mentions that in some of the museum specimens he measured you can see actual teeth marks on the ribs! (e.g. KoG page 191 about kayak #18).

The kayaks, as we’re all tired of hearing, are made to measure for their owners.  So the first step was to take my measurements.  Knud and Emanuele did this by marking what they needed with blue chalk (my memory’s a bit vague on this) on a single piece of cord just a bit longer than my height.  I remember being surprised (impressed?) that all the relevant measurements were marked in that way within the same length of cord.  They then offered to make a slightly wider than usual kayak for me.  But by that time I’d been checking the fit of Ludwig’s which he was offering to lend me for me to go hunting with.  It seemed to fit me well enough, so I insisted that mine be no wider than his.

Also by that time I’d been able to try out several different kayaks  —  at Ummannatsiaq, Ikerasak, Qaarsut and at Illorsuit itself.  So I knew that I could use a little more depth than seemed usual in the hunters’ kayaks.  Just that little bit that would allow me to very slightly bend my knees.  Emanuele did provide for this  —  certainly once I’d managed to squeeze into it, the kayak was always a comfortable fit.  And yet, when I look at Winning’s drawings of the kayak nowadays I’m impressed to see how low the fore deck is.  Quite as low, to my eye, as on the village hunters’ own kayaks.  If I’m right about that, then the extra depth that Emanuele did give my kayak was in the shape and size of the ribs and didn’t affect the shape of the masik (the principal fore deck beam) and the fore deck itself.

There’s been some speculation on about how the size of the kayak Emanuele made for me compared with the kayaks actually being used by the Illorsuit hunters.  So let’s clear up this point  —

1)   the beam or width.  Emanuele made it with exactly the same width as Ludwig Quist’s.  And Ludwig won the village race in that kayak!

2)   the depth to sheer.  At my request he did make it slightly deeper than any of the Illorsuit kayaks.  At 7 13/16 inches, however, it is only 1/16 of an inch deeper than the deepest of the Type VI kayaks in KoG.  That one is a kayak from Upernavik, collected in the 1960s (KoG page 316). 

Heath’s kayak was made to be 5/8 of an inch wider than mine and one inch deeper.

When I went to Emanuele’s on the 8th to see how the work was going, he already had the gunwales and deck beams all fitted together.  But it looked a bit too wide!  So we checked Ludwig’s and yes, mine was set to be wider. As I wanted a typical Illorsuit style kayak, as far as possible, he narrowed it down to be the same width as Ludwig’s.  He did, however, mention that Sakeus’ and Ludwig’s were wider than most.

Emanuele, using his old fashioned frame saw, with the structure of my kayak close to complete.

Emmanuele b w0000 mine sideways darker

The next day he had the ribs all in place and adjusted and was sawing out the keelson piece when the wood broke at a knot. Later that same day he had spliced it back together again over three ribs and had tied it down to the gunwales and it looked like it would be fine.  By that time he also had the side stringers lightly tied in place.

Details of the bow

Emmanuele b w0000 mine stern

Details of the stern

In these two photos you can clearly see how the ends of the keelson were shaped to extend upwards (the kayak is upside down, of course, in the photos) to meet the lower surface of the gunwales.  The keelson of Heath’s kayak is also shaped in that way. What that meant, of course, is that they had to be cut out of a fairly deep board, very much deeper than the vertical thickness of the keelson along most of its length.  That’s what I was referring to when I spoke of one of the boards we bought at the store being for “the keelson, etc.”  The piece cut out of the keelson board will have been more than big enough to provide some if not all of the deck beams.

Greenland 1959: Ummannaq, kayaks on rack.

This shows the bow details of one of the Uummannaq town kayaks.  The design is not quite the same with the keelson, gunwales, and stem piece fitting together in an interestingly different way.  Just as on my and Heath’s kayaks, gunwales, keelson and stem pieces are lashed together.  In both kayaks, this plus joining some of the deck beams to the gunwales, plus attaching the ends of the side stringers to each other are the only places where lashings were used.  Especially in this photo of the Uummannaq town kayak you can see how the ends of the side stringers were not attached to the keelson.  “If they were attached to the actual [end plates of the keelson] the kayak frame would not have enough give in rough seas” (Petersen 1986, page 27).

post Spain int ahead tilted

 photo: Greg Stamer

An interior view of Heath’s kayak which shows the lashing of (certain of) the deck beams to the gunwales.  Notice how on the first deck beam ahead of the masik you can see clearly how the lashings go to the forward half of the beam on the right hand side and to the rear half of the beam on the left.  “This is done to prevent torque on the deck beam; such a force can fracture the deck beams tenons” (Golden KoG, page 56).

On the 11th the weather was nasty so we agreed Emanuele would take a break from the work. The next day was the big gale! Then a day or two when I was busy making a flysheet for the tent.

By that time the frame was close enough to complete that we took it to the village dance hall  —  a gift to the village from Rockwell Kent.  They had me sit in the still not quite completed frame so they could mark the exact positions for the knee and toe beams.

And then the three Nielsen brothers (Knud Nielsen was their father, by the way) and I left for the hunting trip to Umiamako (see Chapter Nine), so I missed the rest of the building of the kayak.

Here is Duncan Winning’s scale drawing of the finished kayak.  This is the drawing which, in due course, led to the creation of the commercial Anas Acuta kayak (see below).

The kayak Emanuele made for John Heath.

The late John Heath, a noted scholar and historian of Arctic and sub-Arctic kayaks, had been in correspondence with Drever in the months preceding my trip to Illorsuit.  Drever put him in touch with me and Heath asked me, if this were to be possible, to have a fully equipped Illorsuit style kayak built for him.  So the plan was that once he had built the kayak for me, Emanuele would build another one for Heath.

Here is one of Golden’s scale drawings of Heath’s kayak, copied with his kind permission from his KoG page 314.

As you can see from the drawings, the two kayaks are almost identical.

Emanuele working on Heath’s kayak behind his own house, with what appear to be very ramshackle saw horses (more below).  He has the gunwales shaped to fit each other at bow and stern, the deck beams and ribs are already in place.  Before he began, when I checked the length of the lumber he was about to use for the gunwales it turned out to be 11 inches shorter than the gunwales on mine.  He said he could scarf on enough to make the gunwale pieces the same length as in my kayak.

A few days later, when I checked on how the work was going, I found that Emanuele was making it to be exactly the same width as mine.  Apparently, we’d had a misunderstanding. When we talked some more about it, we decided it would be better to make Heath’s kayak slightly wider than mine [I knew from letters that Heath was both taller and heavier than I].  That must explain the “extension” of the “masik” that Golden noted and shows in his KoG figure 309, on page 351.  As I’ve mentioned, he also made Heath’s kayak slightly deeper than mine.

Checking one of the ribs


Here he’s made an adjustment to one of the ribs and is putting it back in place.  He had made quite shallow mortises in the gunwales, by the looks of them just with a knife.

Here he has all the ribs sized and positioned to his satisfaction.  So he’s now ready to attach the keelson and the side stringers.

The day my kayak was being skinned, I had checked in with Emanuele who was working in the dance hall.  He was quite upset as he’d just found out that the two gunwale pieces for Heath’s kayak were not bending equally.  Part of how he solved that problem shows in the photo below.  He’s shaped the ends of the two gunwales a little bit differently from each other.  That and his having to add the scarves to the ends of the gunwales (one clearly visible in this photo) presumably helped him get the gunwales to bend the way he wanted.

One of the most well known and respected authorities on Greenland kayaks is H. C. Petersen. He was born in Greenland and spent many years living there. His tri-lingual book Instruction in Kayak Building (1981), and his Skin Boats of Greenland (1986), are probably the two best sources we have on how to build a (west coast) kayak. 

In his book on kayak construction, Petersen describes the use of templates to determine the flare (outward lean) of the gunwales (1981, page 24).

gunwale templates two0001cyan (2)

fig 12 of Petersen (1981) at page 24 showing the design and use of these templates 

To the best of my knowledge, Emanuele did not use any such templates in his work. I never did see exactly how he set the flare of the gunwales for either my or Heath’s kayak.  [The angle of gunwale flare (angle off the vertical) of Heath’s kayak is 16 degrees and of mine is 18.5 degrees.] He did use a cord “windlass” pulling the gunwales together (visible in all four photos above) but the cord he used is passed around the entire gunwales, not attached just at their lower edges. Still, even such a windless together with the usual setting of the deck beams just below the top edges of the gunwales would, of course, have put some flare on the gunwales.  By controlling the tightness of the windlass, by that alone, he may perhaps have produced the gunwale flare he wanted.

But now (that is in 2013), looking at these photos, I have to wonder if the odd slope of one of the saw horses he worked with might’ve had something to do with it.  What I have in mind is that the angle off the horizontal of that saw horse with Heath’s kayak resting on it in the above photos looks to be quite close to the angle off the vertical, i.e. the flare, of the gunwales.  Has anyone ever heard of something like this being done?

So here it is!  In Uummannaq town, ready to be boxed up and shipped to Seattle where Heath lived at that time.  I like how well this photo shows its elegant sheer.

Petersen discusses another interesting aspect of kayak design in his Skin Boats of Greenland: “The curved kayak.  this category is derived from the Greenland word pequngasoq, the curved one … the line of the keel is sinuous … aft of the cockpit the bottom of the kayak is concave … From the side one cannot avoid noticing the sinuous lines that earn this type its name … This type is only found in the area between Sisimiut and Mannitsoq [on the southwest coast]” (Petersen 1986:48). The curve in question is in the profile or side view of the keel line close to the stern, as shown in this sketch from H. C. Petersen (1981, page 9)  —

pequngasoq sketch TODAY

The effect of this keel shape is a bit like that of a skeg in improving the directional stability of the kayak.  “Integral skeg” is one way of referring to this shape (see Golden 206, page 284).  Discussing my and Heath’s kayaks’ keel shape Golden has this to say: “Both Taylor’s and Heath’s kayaks have an unusual keel-line aft of the cockpit.  While drawing up Heath’s frame, I had initially thought I read my offsets wrong, but when I looked at Duncan Winning’s drawing of Taylor’s kayak, I saw the same keel-line as I had just drawn.  The keel rises behind the cockpit, levels out for two feet or so, and then rises abruptly up to the stern.  This keel form is similar to the pequngasoq described by H. C. Petersen … but is much subtler than more southerly examples …” (KoG, pages 349-50).

This is the only one of my photos where it may be possible to see the “pequngasoq” like profile of Heath’s kayak. By zooming in I think I can just almost make it out.

When I was building the replica of “my” kayak, in 2004, soon after having met Harvey Golden online, I noticed the same shape in Winning’s drawing.  And I wondered: did Winning make a mistake? did Emanuele make a mistake? And then I remembered that Harvey Golden would soon be examining my work so I decided to go ahead and build it as in the drawings. Later that year, at the Delmarva Paddlers’ Retreat, I was very relieved that I’d done so when Golden and I talked about that feature of the two kayaks.

In this photo of one of the Nuugaatsiaq men carrying his kayak at Umiamako, I think you can see a pequngasoq-like shape to the hull of his kayak.

photo: Jørgen Hyldegaard

And here in a photo from Saatut, another of the villages in Uummannaq Bay, a kayak (in 1957) with a pegungasoq-like hull.

John with Illorsuit kayak

photo: Harvey Golden

This is John Heath soon after he received the Illorsuit kayak frame.  That’s it hanging above the two Alaskan kayaks with its cockpit coaming, out of position, sticking up above the gunwales.

More details about my kayak

A photo from the day, in the spring of 1960, when I showed and demonstrated the use of the kayak at Rowardennan Youth Hostel on the shores of Loch Lomond.   This could not have been more appropriate as Duncan Winning whose scale drawings of the kayak led to the making of the well-known commercial “Anas Acuta” (more on this below), he and I had both been members of the Scottish Hostellers Canoe Club (in Britain kayaks were still being called canoes) and my first ever kayaking had been on Loch Lomond.

The elegant sheer of the kayak shows up well, with the characteristic Uummannaq Bay slightly raked stern.  Please note: I see that I’d put the harpoon line tray one deck thong too far forward and facing a little too much to its right (see details following the photo taken at Hellerup Harbor, below).  The use of the throwing stick shows nicely, though.

I’ve forgotten the name of the man who took this and several other photos, and kindly sent me 8 by 10 glossies of them.  If you ever see this website, I very much thank you again and hope you’ll get in touch.

Squeezing into the kayak with the help of a good pull on a fore deck thong.  That thong would’ve been tight originally but, even in Scotland, it was warm enough that the sealskin was stretching.  You can see one of the splices where the continuous length of thong being used wasn’t long enough to yield all four deck thongs.  In my lap are the dead eye, clasps and points of the “suspenders” for the tuilik full jacket.  These suspenders would be used when a kayaker was travelling or hunting, holding up the considerable length of the jacket.  The fittings, of course, are designed to allow for a “quick release” if ever the kayaker needs to roll his kayak in an emergency. 

quick release cropped cropped 0001 (2)

Sketch of deadeye, clasps, and point from KoG (fig. 111, page 82)

I never did see anyone using a tuilik in that way.  And in my photos we are always using the jacket for rolling instruction and practice so the clasps that catch on the dead eye are released to open up the full length of the jacket.  On the edge of the coaming ring you can see the strips of bone and wood that help the bottom of the jacket stay in place.  To keep yourself and the kayak watertight, the tuilik has to be tied so tightly around your wrists and face that for those of us who don’t have the wide cheek bones of the Inuit it’s very uncomfortable.  On the jetty, someone’s wearing my kamit sealskin boots.

And, me “chest sculling/side-bracing.”  I love this photo as it shows so many details of the kayak  –  the raised seams on the decks from the sewing on of the seal skin cover; the skin patches needed to fill the gaps between the ends of the four original skins; the deck thongs and their bone and ivory fittings; the flat or “slab” side of the hard-chine hull; the tuilik full jacket; the tip of the stern floating free of the water; the ivory tab piece that helps keep the harpoon in its place; the thongs on the after deck with one of two sliders in view; etc.

The hunting gear, etc. for my kayak

Meanwhile various people had been making the several items of hunting equipment for my kayak.  Johan made the harpoon, with throw stick, and paddle plus the same to go with Heath’s kayak frame.  Also he made an especially fine harpoon line tray which he and his family gave me as a gift!  Anni Møller made the tuitoq while Emilia Nielsen made the tuilik, with Enoch making the various ivory fittings for this.  I saw him at the job one day using a traditional style bow drill with one end held in his mouth.   The avataq hunting float was beautifully made by Karli Zeeb.  Sophia made a fine pair of two thumbed mittens for me, actually without removing the hair.  And, of course, early on in my stay Anna had made my kamit.  With Bearded Seal so few and far between, we agreed that there should be no harpoon line.  I already had a harpoon head someone had given me early on.  I no longer remember who made the gun bag, the white screen, and the skeg, but someone did and they completed the equipping of the kayak. 

Later that year in Hellerup harbor, north Copenhagen.  Gerda and Jørgen Rølling, friends of Bent Jensen, with two of their daughters.

I’m carrying the kayak in the usual Illorsuit way, with my right arm under the masik and my thumb hooked over the knee bar. Because of the relatively warm weather also in Denmark, the sealskin thongs holding the harpoon fore shaft to the body of the harpoon have stretched.  Originally shaft and body would have been “in a straight line.”  Here you can see the harpoon line tray (asalloq) with its stout “pistol grip” leg (correctly, this time) hooked onto the third (asallerfik) deck thong, its remarkably flimsy left hand leg kept in place against the longish spar of wood wedged under the left end of usually three of the four deck thongs.  It’s that same spar of wood that the end of your paddle can be tucked under to help in balancing the kayak when stationary.  Also the self-supporting right hand leg of the line tray with a deep hook at its base to hold the harpoon shaft and how the line tray is canted forwards to let the harpoon line uncoil readily.  Further back, the bone tab sitting on the bulge at the end of the masik also for holding the harpoon in place and ready for use.  And, of course, the throwing stick clipped in place on the harpoon.  Not to mention, which surprises some people, that the harpoon is pointing backwards!  You can see how the coaming ring is attached to the deck skins with small bone pegs  –  on the inside of the coaming around the sides and front and with the skin brought over the coaming and pegged on the outside at the back.  

About the gun bag.  Here you can see how the front end of the bag is tied to the bow deck thong and you can just make out that I have the ivory hook holding the open mouth of the gun bag attached to the fourth deck thong.  BUT, that is not its correct position.  As you can see in the photos in Chapter Nine “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako,” of Tobias preparing to tow a seal he has just caught back to camp, the open end of the gun bag should be much further back, underneath the harpoon line tray.

I want to emphasize that the harpoon as you see it in this photo (and in umpteen other of my photos of men actually engaged in hunting) is in its correct place and is ready for use.  During the time I was in Greenland, all the hunters that I saw (and photographed) kept their harpoons in place in this way.  The harpoons I saw in 1959 did not have the two hanging straps attached to the actual shaft of the harpoon that Petersen describes (1986, pages 74-76).  What they 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 straps of the harpoon, while and only while they were settling themselves in their kayaks and making sure that all their hunting gear was in place and ready for use.  By going out with the hunters in my Scottish kayak, I was there to see where the harpoon was placed when they began to hunt.  As soon as they set off they lifted their harpoons into place as shown in this photo.


Showing how to throw the harpoon, at Hellerup.  And now the harpoon is pointing forwards.  As you pick it up by the throwing stick you have to rotate it, horizontally, in mid air to have it point forwards and to have the throw stick in the correct position for use.  By the way, the trim of the kayak is very slightly “off” in this photo as I do not have shotgun and rifle in place in the gun bag.

In August 2012, Duncan Winning, Bill Samson and Sue Ellcome made a visit to the Glasgow Museum Services Resource Centre and were able to examine the kayak and all its hunting gear. I’ll use some of the photos and information they have kindly sent me in Chapter Eight, “The Hunting Equipment” and in Chapter Twelve, “Re-encounters with the Kayak.”  [Meanwhile, this photo to reassure us all that, as of that date, the kayak was “alive and well.”]


 photo: Bill Samson

More about Heath’s kayak

In Chapter Seven “Skinning the Kayaks,” I describe how there were not enough of the needed Harp Seal skins in the village and I was only able to accumulate the four skins needed for one kayak by buying two skins at Nuugaatsiaq.  And at that, it was only a few days before I had to leave that we got hold of the fourth skin and were able to quickly sew the four skins together end to end and get them sewn on to the kayak frame and so complete “my” kayak.  That being so, it was not possible to skin Heath’s kayak and he ended up receiving just the kayak frame or skeleton plus a harpoon (and throwing stick) and a paddle.

I’ve mentioned that his kayak is one of the 18 Type VI  kayaks analysed in Golden’s KoG (as # 72).  At the end of his discussion he says: “Because Heath’s kayak never made it to the water, I thought it would be fitting to see to it that a replica of it did.”


photo: Harvey Golden

The completed frame of the replica Golden made of Heath’s kayak.  As he explains on his web site “” the wood he used for the gunwales was recycled from another project.


photo: Harvey Golden

Golden’s replica of Heath’s kayak, ready for the water …

photo: Kathy Tucker

and, very successfully, in the water (Golden is performing an elegant side scull).

He was pleased with it: “Despite this kayak being an augmented version of the typical Illorsuit hunting kayak, it performed superbly and it didn’t feel particularly big to me.  It is voluminous, but at the waterline is not particularly wide, so feels nimble”  (KoG, page 354).

Heath’s kayak is now being looked after by Greg Stamer of QajaqUSA.  Here are two recent photos showing what good shape it’s still in.

IMG_1980 (2)

photo: Greg Stamer

Heath‘s kayak, looking from the stern towards the bow, as of January 2013

IMG_2006a (2)

photo: Greg Stamer

And again, from bow to stern.

The Emanuele Korneliusen kayak and the Anas Acuta

When I left Scotland and went to study anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, I left the kayak with Joe Reid and Duncan Winning.  In due course Winning made measured, scale drawings of the kayak.  He very generously sent copies of these drawings to several people he knew in the British kayaking community and also made them available to anyone for the asking.  The story of how this led to the creation of the internationally well known, commercial Anas Acuta kayak is told in his article “Ken Taylor’s Kayak.  The Origins of Modern Greenland-style Kayaks” in the December 2008 issue of Sea Kayaker.  About the influence of the kayak Emanuele built for me, Winning says: “… I produced a drawing which has given rise to a large number of semi-replicas, … at least four commercial Greenland-style hard-chined kayaks, and a number of round bilge designs, all with a connection to the [Illorsuit] kayak.  … The Anas Acuta is one of the better-known offspring.”

Photo taken at the 2004 Delmarva Paddlers Retreat of an Anas Acuta and the replica I built that year from Winning’s drawings   —

 photo: Greg Stamer 

photo: courtesy of QajaqUSA

Again at Delmarva 2004, just after I’d finally launched the replica.  That’s Harvey Golden keeping an eye on me (I hadn’t been in so tippy a kayak for many years).

photo: courtesy of QajaqUSA

A group photo at Delmarva 2004.  From the left, that’s Harvey Golden again, Dan Segal one of the Walden Pond self-named “Pond Scum,” Richard Nonas who I thank for his encouragement in the Introduction to Chapter One, myself, Vernon Doucette who converted almost all of the color slides to digital images, cleaned of mold, Greg Stamer who now has care of “Heath’s kayak,” Will Bigelow, also of the Pond Scum, and Pavia Lumholt, a Dane whose mother is a Greenlander.

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Chapter Nine: The Hunting Trip to Umiamako





Table of Contents

Chapter One Reaching Illorsuit; Chapter Two Daily Life in the Village  —  Subsistence and such; Chapter Three Daily Life in the Village  —  Social Life; Chapter Four Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town; Chapter Five Building the Kayaks; Chapter Six Variations in Kayak Design; Chapter Seven Skinning the Kayaks; Chapter Eight The Hunting Equipment; Chapter Nine The Hunting Trip to Umiamako; Chapter Ten The Kayak Race in the Village Bay; Chapter Eleven The Rolling Competition; Chapter Twelve Re-encounters with the Kayak; Some Final Thoughts


Ken Tayor / Cameron                                                                                                     

October 26, 2011

and May 20, 2015 for an update about the harpoon head 


Heading towards the Karrats Isfjord hunting area.  The mountainous spine of Karrats Island visible behind the iceberg on the left.

Another nice looking Greenland iceberg.

  BUT  —

this is the complete picture!  I found this amazing photo just a few days ago (in the “Life in small bites environmental blog”) and couldn’t resist inserting it here.  It’s entirely relevant, of course, as an iceberg rolling over is one of the many life-threatening hazards faced by the kayak hunters.


Soon after I arrived at Illorsuit, two weeks went by without anyone in the village catching a single seal.  For me that was disappointing, but for the villagers it was really serious, it meant that there was not enough to eat.  Besides a few rowing boats and dories, there were three boats with inboard motors in Illorsuit in 1959.  Tobias and Edvard Neilsen owned one of these large enough for four people plus kayaks.  They and their brother Enoch were already planning a hunting trip of several days to the Karrats Isfjord.  First they would camp on Karrats Island and try the hunting there and then carry on to the well-known Umiamako hunting camp.   They invited me to go along.    Although Emanuele had already begun to build my Illorsuit style kayak, that still had a ways to go so I would be using my Scottish kayak.      The Umiamako camp is on a promontory between the Umiamako glacier and the well-known Rinks glacier  —  one of the four most productive on Greenland’s west coast.  We would go there because the fresh water melting off the face of the glaciers and the many icebergs supports many species that fish eat.  And the fish, of course, attract seal.

 A 2008 image from Google Earth showing Karrats Isfjord in  detail (though with much, much less ice than in 1959).  Karrats is the long, skinny island on the lower left.  Nuugaatsiaq is on the other side of the “log jam” of ice.  Umiamako glacier comes down from the top center.   The Rinks glacier is almost out of the picture on the top right.  And Umiamako hunting camp is on the promontory between the two glaciers.


Here we are on the way to Karrats.  That’s Edvard on the left, Enoch sitting in the middle and Tobias standing behind Enoch.  They were good company and it was fun travelling and hunting with them.  Edvard a rambunctious youngster but impossible not to like, Enoch, some 30 years old, was the funniest person in the village (and the champion kayak roller), and Tobias, at 37, was always very serious, incredibly patient and reliable. You can see that the kayaks were held in place just above the level of the gunwales of the boat, resting on temporary spars of wood.

One of the many icebergs we passed  —  an old one that’s obviously already had its underside eroded by the water currents and has rolled over in order to reach a new position of stability.      And then, while wewere only half way across the sound, we already saw a seal.  Enoch and Edvard immediately lowered their kayaks to the water and gave chase.  While they were stalking the seal, Tobias and I were in the motor boat, circling around some fair distance away.  Very quickly they caught up with it and harpooned and secured it.      

At last I’d seen a successful seal hunt!  Not to mention that at last we had some seal meat to eat.  This was a wonderful beginning to our trip. They brought the seal back to the boat on the end of the harpoon line and gave that to me for me to pull the seal up to the surface while we got the two men and their kayaks back on board. Sure enough it had sunk quite far and if not harpooned first there would have been no point in shooting it.  In the spring the seal still have a good layer of their winter blubber which will keep a seal floating on the surface.  But for many seal this is no longer true in the late summer.

We continued on our way towards Karrats Island, some 17 miles from Illorsuit, where we planned to camp for the night.  On the way Tobias and Edvard went after another two seal but didn’t get them.  We had some soup, still on the motor boat, and finally arrived that evening.


As soon as we landed Tobias skinned and butchered that first seal and the four of us gathered around the carcass and ate small pieces of raw liver accompanied by pieces of blubber.  Another delicacy they showed me is the eyeball.  When you bite into it in your mouth the vitreous fluid tastes very much like raw oyster.      

I’ve since learned that raw seal liver is an important source of calories, calcium and iron.  The blubber, besides its high energy value, has large amounts of vitamin E, selenium, and other antioxidants, which may reduce the effect of the free radicals formed within the body’s cells.  It also has Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D which, of course, prevents rickets.  Another positive effect of consuming blubber is on record for the Uummannaq District, exactly where Illorsuit is  —  no deaths due to cardiovascular diseases occurred in the 1970s.

Next he boiled up some meat and blubber and we got down to some serious eating.  Of course, I’ve been asked hundreds of times what the seal meat was like. What I usually tell people is that it’s like a very rich and tender beef stew.  And that it’s delicious!  By the way, you get a clear view in this photo of Tobias’ hunting knife, kept under the thongs on his fore deck while kayaking.


Enoch clowning by sucking into his mouth a piece of small intestine.  Behind him you can see the “primus” paraffin stove we had with us and a cooking pot made from a dried milk can.

Edvard and I then piled stones over the innards.  Enoch tied the seal’s skin and the carcass together and dumped them off shore attached to the boat’s mooring rope.  My kayak we took ashore, leaving the others on the boat.  All these precautions were because of the dogs that someone from the nearby Nuugaatsiaq village had left on the island for the summer.  We had seen them and cursed at them as we approached, but fortunately they never showed up at our campsite.  We found a patch of dry ground where we could pitch the tent but it was so rocky that we had to anchor the tent with stones. But there were seal ribs lying everywhere  —  obviously this was a regularly used hunting camp.  We settled down for the night at about 10:00 pm, Enoch and Edvard just lying down on their sides with their hands in their pockets, on the reindeer and dog skin “groundsheet.”  Tobias in his winter sleeping bag of dog skin with a seal skin outer layer and I in my down sleeping bag.

Looking towards Umiamako from high on Karrats Island.  The photo shows exactly the area where we would soon be hunting.         

The next morning we were up at 7:00 for a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal with Tobias and Enoch also eating some more seal meat.  There was quite a wind blowing so Tobias and I climbed up the hill to the top of the island to look for any areas of calm water.  On the way he spotted a few ptarmigan, in their half brown/half white fall plumage.  We got three of them.  We climbed higher until we could see a favorable calm patch farther up the Karrats Fjord towards the Rinks glacier.  As in this photo, I could see that in the direction of Umiamako the sea was covered with icebergs, brash ice and ice fragments of all shapes and sizes and colors.  What you see is the Umiamako glacier, the campsite itself is immediately to the right of it.      

We joined the others and decided to go up the Fjord immediately.  We had one possible sighting of a seal and then went ashore on the right hand shore of the Fjord.  On the way we shot some Ivory Gulls.  I stayed at camp that afternoon while the others went out in their kayaks for two hours or more. No seal that time. Tobias had seen five and got a shot at one; Enoch had seen two; and Edvard none.  

We spent the night where we were with a brilliant full moon gleaming on the icebergs nearby.         

Tobias woke us at 5:30 to a flat calm. We had a quick breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, packed up and set off again back towards Karrats Island.  We got a few more Ivory Gulls on the way across but didn’t see any seal.  First we landed at the site of the old settlement of Nuliarfik, abandoned in 1934 or 1935 but with still one structure there maintained as a hunting shelter.

Nuliarfik 3_08_ice

A terrible photo!  But it’s the only one I have of Nuliarfik.  That’s Edvard and me on the beach.     

At about 8:30 am we took off again in our kayaks.  At last this was my opportunity to accompany one of the hunters in my Scottish kayak to observe and photograph from close up how they went about catching their seal.  Tobias and I paddled out into the ice-strewn area between Karrats and Umiamako while the other two kept closer to the mainland.


It’s not so easy to find a seal and I remember long stretches of time slowly paddling along both of us looking to left and right hoping to see a seal among the many, many icebergs and brash ice fragments that seemed to litter the surface of the water. I wondered how is it possible to tell what is a seal and what’s just a piece of dark colored ice or of white ice in shadow. Before too long I realized that what was happening was that we were scanning the water ahead of us as if by radar. You need to scan a wide arc in front of you back and forth, over and over again until: suddenly something has changed.  You narrow the arc of your scanning until there it is, there’s what’s different, there’s your seal. Then you wait motionless, ducking down behind your white bow screen and with the advantage of your white camouflage anorak, until it dives again. Next you have to make a judgement as to where it’ll re-surface depending on what species you reckon it is and whether you think that it’s feeding or travelling or sunbathing or whatever else seal do. Tobias seemed to be good at that but several of the seal we saw during those days we never saw again.         

Eventually I saw one seal but it disappeared.  After sighting another, we were stalking it and were probably getting close when suddenly it surfaced just ahead of Tobias looking in his direction and I thought well, we’ve lost this one for sure.  But to my amazement I saw that Tobias was paddling full tilt toward the seal.  It reacted by rising higher out of the water as if to get a better look at him.  He lifted his harpoon and, by now quite close to the seal, threw it with what looked like all his force.  The harpoon hit the seal in the neck and it immediately dived. But the harpoon line was now firmly anchored to the seal and, just as was done in the old days, Tobias had caught the seal using only his harpoon.  That was truly extraordinary, something few outsiders have ever seen.     

The seal was well harpooned and it wasn’t long before Tobias was able to pull it to the side of his kayak and kill it with his hunting knife.  That (what you see in the photo above of three of us eating) was simply what looked like the blade of a pocket knife attached to the end of a two and a half feet long stick that he kept under the deck thongs on the fore deck.

               Unfortunately, his catching that seal was one of the times I used the defective movie camera so I didn’t get any photos of that special event.  But here, a bit later, is Tobias with the seal attached to the left side of his kayak ready for towing back to camp.  The photo shows a lot of the details of his hunting gear.  The harpoon line tray with its bone ring to keep the harpoon line in place, with the end of its “pistol grip” leg firmly held in place clipped under a deck thong, its flimsy looking left leg kept in place by the yellow-looking two foot long spar of wood, and its (hidden from view) right leg that ends in a hook for the harpoon shaft, that you can see a piece of, to rest in.  Extending forwards from under the line tray is his gun bag  —  you can see the stocks of his two guns sticking out of it.  His fully inflated sealing float on the after deck is the entire skin of a small seal, and the smaller flotation bladder is made of the stomach of a large-sized seal.  The forward-pointing bone pin on the strap of the bladder is visible, tucked under the after deck thongs, and also the long spar of wood on the left side of the after deck, where traditionally the killing lance would go.  A wind blew up so we headed back, with a great deal of brash ice meaning a lot of twisting and turning to find a way through.

  Returning to camp with the seal.  This photo gives some idea of how much ice we were surrounded by.  Those mountains in the background form the spine of Karrats Island.  Nuliarfik was at the near (left) end of the island and our first camp was on the other side and at the far end of the island.  Edvard had got back to Nuliarfik ahead of us but with no seal. We made some soup and then Enoch arrived with another seal. We moved back to our first campsite at the other end of the island where we cut open Tobias’ seal and had the usual snack of raw titbits. This time I fried some liver and all three of us enjoyed it that way. Later on Tobias and Enoch went out again, Tobias saw one and shot it but it got away. Enoch didn’t see any.

Tobias skinning one of the seal we caught while camped on Karrats Island.  These skins are valuable items.  Depending which species it is, a skin can be sold to the Royal Danish Trade Department store in the village for cash or used for clothing, kayak skins, boot soles, harpoon lines, kayak deck thongs, dog whips, sled dog traces, etc.  You can see that two of the kayaks have been taken ashore.  Edvard’s and my kayak are the two on the boat.  Just in front of the tiller you can see one of the temporary cross spars used to support the kayaks, with my kayak resting on it and the boat’s gunwale.  One seal is tied to the side of the boat to keep it “refrigerated” in the cold water, with the towing strap bladder float still attached.

A domestic scene one morning still at the Karrats campsite with Tobias working on the inboard motor, Enoch picking dry grass for lining his “kamit” or sealskin boots.  These have an outer boot with its sole made of the same tough skin used for kayaks and an inner one with the hair left on in the inside.  The grass goes between the soles of the inner and the outer.  The result is an extremely comfortable, tough, and waterproof boot.  It looks like Edvard is cleaning a cooking pot.  To the left of him you can see the carcass of  a seal.  My tubby Scottish kayak in the foreground and Tobias’ behind it.  You can tell it’s his ‘cos of the knobbed “unaq“-style harpoon.  Enoch’s was an “ernangnaq”-style  or winged harpoon  —  he was the only hunter I met with that kind of harpoon.  And it’s not Edvard’s kayak ‘cos you can see the wooden spar Tobias kept on his after deck.  I was told it was there to help steady any small seal Tobias might carry home on his after deck.  Much easier, of course, than towing it through the water.

Tobias and Enoch, again at the Karrats campsite, standing beside their kayaks.  Enoch is wearing his sealskin trousers and they both are wearing sealskin boots.  Again you can see the wooden spar Tobias has on his after deck.  His towing strap bladder is still inflated from his most recent catching of a seal.  You can make out the keel skeg on Enoch’s kayak, held in place by cords or thongs attached to a slat of wood resting on the after deck.

Whenever I look at this image I’m reminded of Drever’s comment that:

“The Greenland kayak, although very manoeuvable and efficient,

is at the same time so absurdly small and frail …”

Enoch with his kayak readied for hunting carrying it down to the water.  He’s doing so in typical Illorsuit style, the kayak upright, his right arm under the “masik” (thigh bar) with his thumb hooked over the “knee bar.”  You can see his gun bag on the fore deck, under the harpoon line tray, and the skeg in place near the stern of his kayak.  In this case he has his white screen already in place at the bow.

His paddle is well out at right angles to act as a stabilizer while he squeezes himself into his kayak (I read somewhere recently that it’s really more like pulling on a pair of trousers).  He seems to be simply holding his paddle together with the deck thongs.  Given the slight angle on each side of the fore deck the far blade of his paddle could be three inches or so below the surface of the water, enough to resist the kayak leaning in either direction.  You can clearly see that he has his harpoon hanging in the water, kept from drifting away in this case by the harpoon line itself.  The cold water will tighten up the seal skin thongs that hold its various parts together.  As soon as he is ready to take off he’ll settle the harpoon in its regular place, on his right, beside and in front of him on the fore deck.  You can also see the “wings” at the back end of his unusual harpoon with his throwing stick in place immediately in front of them.  The harpoon is pointing “backwards,” of course.   

The next morning we woke late at 7:30 or 8:00. Enoch went up the hill and said no wind in the direction of Nuugaatsiaq. This is the most northerly village in the Uummannaq Bay, located on a fairly large island northwest of Karrats Island and some 25 miles north-northeast of Illorsuit.  So it was only some six or seven miles from our camp.  We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and set off.

Approaching Nuugaatsiaq.  About half again as big as Illorsuit and maybe a little less well off.   Of course, the brothers knew people there and were glad to be able to visit.  We got another Ivory Gull but saw no seal on the way to the village. We did some shopping in the store (I was able to buy a kayak coaming ring, at last!) and the Outpost Manager invited me for lunch. Two young boys tried out my kayak and I noticed that there seemed to be very few kayaks in the village. Later I joined Tobias for coffee in the house of a special friend of his where they had a photo of him and his wife and one of Anna and Johan Zeeb, of Illorsuit.

A view across the village.  As is typical, the larger houses with pitched roofs are those of the Trade Department  — the manager’s house, the store, warehouses, etc.

Our boat with our four kayaks on board moored by the village pier.  That’s the south end of Karrats Island showing on the left.  And in the distance that’s Ubekendt Island so here we’re looking straight towards Illorsuit!


One of the village boys trying out my kayak.  This shows a bit more clearly how our kayaks were loaded onto the motor boat.

Some of the Nuugaatsiaq boys and to show how much ice there is outside that village.

Soon we took off again, heading up the ice-filled Sound toward Umiamako. At first it looked to me like a “dead” glacier but they said it still produced a few icebergs. Beyond the promontory where we planned to camp was the Rinks Glacier, the source of the huge quantities of ice surrounding us on all sides. It was a bit too windy for any hunting and in any case we saw no seal on the way.

And, finally, we were approaching the hunting camp at Umiamako.  It had been obvious at Nuugaatsiaq that most of the kayakers were away from the village.  Somehow, no-one mentioned to me that they had (also) gone to Umiamako.  So, for me, it was a wonderful surprise when we got there to find the beach already occupied by a number of kayaks and two or more carcasses of butchered seal.


Two views of all the kayaks.      

Umiamako, even more so than where we had camped on Karrats Island, was truly a traditional hunting site as the beach was littered, almost made of seal bones from years of successful hunting.  As we approached two of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters were returning to camp, but without any seal. Altogether there were twelve of them at the camp. We joined them at their dwarf willow campfire and also got Tobias’ primus stove going. We all ate seal meat (first some of theirs and then some of ours) ‘til we had room for no more! Then we had coffee in our tent. The Nuugaatsiaq men had only one smaller tent of their own so some of them slept with us in ours, everyone using everyone else’s bodies as pillows. Again it was only Tobias and I who had sleeping bags. But Bent Jensen had told me that the Inuit always said that they had more colorful dreams if they were cold while they slept.


Early the next day, Edvard and Tobias in front of some blue ice.  

As you can see, the weather was overcast most of the time while we were at Umiamako and by afternoon it was generally too dark for photography. So it was only in the mornings, in my Scottish kayak, that I went out with Tobias to photograph his hunting. In the afternoons I had the opportunity to watch and photograph all the hunters as they left for the second hunt of the day.         

As I’ve said, Tobias’ catching that seal without needing to use either shotgun or rifle was a quite exceptional piece of luck. So I was very aware that what I would see now would be the more typical 1959 style of seal hunting, using firearms.  Given that a dead seal might easily sink, however, harpooning the seal was still an essential feature of the hunt.     

That morning at 6:30 or so, after some tea and hard tack, it seemed that everyone at Umiamako launched their kayaks and set off in search of seal.  Surprisingly soon I saw one but didn’t yet have my gun at the ready so couldn’t get a shot at it.  We paddled after it, joined by two of the Nuugaatsiaq men.  As the seal got farther away Tobias dropped out and I kept on with the others until finally it disappeared. 

Later Tobias told me any number of men can chase a seal, it’s all to the good.  He and I paddled towards a large iceberg and I had the strongest feeling that we were about to see a seal.  I told myself to calm down and then suddenly saw one away off to the right. Tobias was already chasing another seal so I had the chance of going for it myself.  I judged its dive well and was close enough to shoot but at best I wounded it only slightly. It came up again on the left and again two or three more times but never close enough for another shot.  Tobias joined me and he got a shot at it but then it disappeared.  Almost immediately I saw another one, or maybe the same one, far ahead.  It surfaced once more and then disappeared.  There was thick low cloud blowing in now from out to sea so we headed back to camp.  We met up with Edvard who had no seal but had seen 10!  I then saw one and Tobias got a shot at it and then shot it a second time. It then resurfaced far away but when we went after it I got close enough to shoot it.  For a while we seemed to have lost it then it surfaced twice close by and then again far off to our right.  Tobias and I went after it and he shot it for what was a fourth time! At last he got close enough to harpoon it.  He killed it with his .22 and soon had it attached to the left side of his kayak and was towing it in to camp.  But catching that seal had taken us all of an hour from first sighting to when he was finally able to kill it.

This seal resurfaced almost beside Edvard’s kayak and here he is trying to harpoon it at very short range.

It began to snow as we approached the campsite as happened again two or three times during our trip. We left the seal tied to the mooring line and came ashore.  Two seal had been caught by Nuugaatsiaq hunters, one was cut up already, the other was brought in just as we arrived.  We piled into the tent for some fried liver and soup.  Another hunter was seen returning with one and it was a Harp Seal!  I arranged to buy the skin for my kayak, and I knew there was another skin at Nuugaatsiaq I should be able to buy.  Enoch said that he’d also seen a Harp Seal earlier that day.     

At 3:15 the snow stopped and the sun tried to come out with the sea as flat calm as ever.  Immediately 4 or 5 hunters took off and Tobias and Edvard went off together.  First back was young Edvard towing two seal!  That was a really big success for him.  Then one of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters came in, also with two seal.  Tobias got back with one.  Four other seal were caught by Nuugaatsiaq hunters for a total of nine seal that afternoon, 13 altogether that day.  Most of them, of course, were Ringed Seal but at least one was a Harbor Seal and one was the Harp Seal just mentioned.     

By 1959 there had been a number of innovations in the techniques and equipment for seal hunting by kayak. These were all related to the introduction of firearms, both shotguns and rifles.  In the days before firearms, the hunters could use the waves to hide themselves from the seal in order to get within harpooning range.  In fact, Otto Fabricius says that in his day (1768-73) the hunters would use one or the other technique  —  using their firearms only in calm weather! But by 1959, at Illorsuit, kayak hunting was always done using the guns.


Image from Qajaq vol 3, no. 1-2, 2005, page 30.  copyright QajaqUSA. 

This shows the way in which a hunter might use the waves themselves to hide behind in approaching his prey.  In this case he seems to be using a bird dart, not a harpoon, so that must be a bird on the surface of the water.

The most obvious of these innovations was, of course, the gun bag, made of seal skin.  It was added to the equipment on the fore deck, its front end attached to either the bow deck thong or a special skin piece sewn onto the deck, its rear (open) end attached to an appropriate fore deck thong.  A hunter kept both his shotgun and his rifle in this gun bag.  The keel skeg was also related to the use of guns as it improved the directional stability of the kayak, important for safe and accurate shooting. Hunting in calm weather with no waves to hide behind, the white camouflage bow screen was introduced.  While hunting it was in place near the bow and otherwise rolled up and tucked under the deck thongs on the left fore deck. By crouching down behind this screen, the hunter could hope to look like a piece of floating ice. Typically the hunters also wore thin white anoraks over their other clothing and sometimes a white topped hat. Also for camouflage, the one canvas kayak at Illorsuit was painted white as were seven of the 17 sealskin kayaks. By 1959, because the use of firearms meant hunting only in calm weather, hunters wore only the spray skirt or waistband (“tuitoq”). The full-body “tuvilik” was used only for learning and practicing kayak rolling.

First, of course, would be the search for a seal and then the stalking of any seal discovered.  If the stalking went well and the hunter was able to come close enough to the seal, he would then attempt to wound it with his shotgun.  This could be done from farther away than it was possible to harpoon a seal.  Once it was wounded the hunter could usually, but not always, approach the seal to within harpooning range. 

The photo above shows Tobias as he fired at a seal with his shotgun.  His sealing float is still on the after deck of his kayak which let’s you know that’s what he’s doing and that he hasn’t yet harpooned the seal.

This is a seal we were hunting, already wounded and harpooned.

Tobias posing in the harpooning position. His hunting float is already gone from the after deck, so he’s already harpooned a seal.   

Tobias being right-handed, his 7 foot (knob-style) harpoon, with harpoon head in place on the 10 inch bone fore-shaft was kept ready on the right side deck, pointing astern and with its throwing stick uppermost.  It was held in place by a bone hook on one leg of the line tray and a large bone “button” on the edge of the deck beside the front of the manhole.  At the moment of harpooning he lifted his paddle clear of the water and raised the harpoon, rotating it to point forwards.  Leaning well back he vigorously hurled the harpoon, holding on to the throwing stick which hinged free to act as an extension of his arm, adding considerably to the force and to his control of the flight of the harpoon.  When the seal was struck by the harpoon it dived immediately and this movement broke free the fore-shaft, which hinged over on its loop of thong, releasing the harpoon head and allowing the harpoon itself to float clear to be recovered later.  The harpoon head, which was small enough that you could have hidden it in your fist, was a sharpened metal point on a toggle shaped bone “body.”   Pulled by the drag of the line and float, the toggle-shaped harpoon head will then have swiveled around under the skin of the seal to give a firm anchorage to the 40 foot line with its inflated float.  As soon as the harpoon was on its way, Tobias freed up his right hand by quickly taking his throwing stick between his teeth. His harpoon line (made from the skin of a Bearded Seal), had been lying, carefully coiled, on the harpoon line tray above the gun bag on the fore deck. With the line unreeling from the line tray, he grabbed the float on his after deck and pulling it free of the deck thongs he bunted it with his elbow far out to his right.  In that way, harpoon, line and float were all well clear of his kayak and there was less danger of his being capsized by the line getting snagged on either the kayak itself or any of the hunting gear on the decks.  The float, made of an entire small seal skin, will have greatly impeded the seal’s attempts to escape and was more than buoyant enough to stay on the surface even if the seal, once killed, sank to the end of the line.  Once he had it harpooned, Tobias was soon able to kill it and prepare it for towing back to camp.

Here he has a seal safely harpooned, as you can tell by the sealing float being out in the water in front of the kayak.  You can see the seal’s head where it has resurfaced right beside the kayak.  After harpooning the seal, depending on the circumstances, the hunter would kill it with a shot of his .22 rifle or with his hunting knife.  Once, I even saw Tobias pull on the harpoon line, two different times, trying to bring the seal to the surface so that he could shoot it.

Maneuvering his kayak to get in position to take a shot at the seal,

and now he is shooting to kill the seal with his light weight rifle.

That low cloud coming over gave us a brief snow shower.  I thought we might lose visibility but on all sides of us the icebergs were still dimly visible so that at no point did we in fact lose our bearings and all was well.

Now that he has the seal caught and killed I’ve paddled close to his kayak and here he’s lifting up the seal to let me get a good look at it.

And now he begins the fairly complicated process of preparing the seal to be towed back to camp.

Making the incision needed to attach the forward towing strap.  He has a forward and a rear towing strap both kept inside his kayak. The forward strap is attached under the seal’s chin so that it’ll be on its back when being towed.  Half way along the strap is a bone “button” which he’ll tuck under one of the fore deck thongs. There is also a toggle like handle, or sometimes just a loop, at the end of the strap.

Inflating the small flotation bladder which is part of the after deck towing strap. This strap will be attached to the after deck thongs with the longer bone pin you can see, pointing forwards.

Making an incision in the skin of the seal’s belly where he’ll attach the rear towing strap.

And with that now attached to the seal, he’s ready to bring it round to the left side of his kayak. At this point he has removed the harpoon head from the seal. That’s it just below his left hand.

Making adjustments.  You can also see his paddle in place as a stabilizer.

The seal floating free as Tobias re-arranges all his hunting gear before putting the seal on the left side of his kayak.  He re-coiled his harpoon line, set it just the way he likes it on the line tray, armed the harpoon with its toggle head, put the harpoon back in place on the deck beside him, his knife back in place on the fore deck and the hunting float on the after deck. With that all done he paddled over to the seal and used the towing straps to attach it firmly against the left side of his kayak.

Which is what this photo shows (from an earlier hunt). He’s decided to return to camp.  With his white screen removed from the bow, he’s not expecting to see and hunt another seal.  However, if another seal appears and he decides to go after it, all he has to do is give a quick pull on the end of the forward strap which releases it from the kayak.  The drag of the seal’s body in the water will then pull the after deck towing strap free and the seal will float clear.  The bladder float serves both as flotation should the seal be especially lean and likely to sink and as a marker to help the hunter find that seal again when ready to do so.  When a hunter catches two or more seal these are towed one behind the other and can be released with that one single pull.

At Umiamako, three of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters getting their kayaks down to the water for the afternoon hunt.

Another hunter about to take off.

And, ready to leave.  The hunters usually did so two or three of them together but typically they would soon separate and each go his own way. In their 1963 report the Cambridge students tell of how “when two hunters … perhaps never come within two miles of each other … such pairs used a simple system of calls to maintain contact, thus hunting more effectively and with greater safety” (1963, page 4). 

A closer shot of three of the butchered carcasses on the beach.

     Myself, doing something or other to my kayak.

Tobias, readying his kayak, deflating his flotation bladder after a successful hunt.      

You can see five of the Nuugaatsiaq kayaks have been painted white for camouflage.  Some of those may have been canvas covered but I didn’t make any notes on that.  Also that two of these white kayaks have a spar of wood on the left after deck, just as Tobias’ has.  Almost a close-up, too, of how the skegs are attached to the kayaks in these villages, with cord or thong to a small wooden cross piece on the after deck.  Notice how all the kayaks have been set down on the rocks so that the stern skeg is in mid-air in no danger of being knocked out of correct position.

One of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters on the last morning at Umiamako. Karrats Island in the background, behind the sunlit iceberg.

The next morning it was too windy so we decided to head for Nuugaatsiaq and then reconsider the weather conditions.  If not good enough we would just carry on home to Illorsuit.  Three of the Nuugaatsiaq men joined us on the boat so we could tow their kayaks.  To keep their kayaks dry, they tightly tied the top of their “tuitoq” around their throwing sticks put vertically in the middle of the manholes.  This time Tobias and Enoch had their kayaks tied on under the cross spars to stop heavy seas coming into the boat.  As we approached the village we shot some duck but we didn’t see any seal.  Some more shopping, including the second Harp Seal skin and we then headed south past Karrats Island until close under the cliffs of Upernavik Island, across the sound from Illorsuit.  On the way, Enoch put out a fishing line and very quickly caught a number of small cod which we cooked up right away and made a large meal of.  That seemed better than eating any more of the precious seal meat.  And then across the sound to Illorsuit.

It was dark by the time we got back but there was a welcoming party waiting for us at Enoch’s house.  Before long, we unloaded the kayaks and got them onto their racks.  We left the seal meat and game birds to be sorted out next morning and I went to bed euphoric after what had been for me some of the best days of my life.

Upernavik Island at sunset.  Where we stopped and ate the cod.       

We had spent two nights on Karrats Island, one night farther up the Rinks Fjord, two nights at Umiamako and altogether we were away from Illorsuit for six days.  During that time, Tobias and his two brothers caught nine Ringed Seal, while 26 others (at least one of them a Harp Seal) were seen but escaped.  I had watched and photographed Tobias successfully hunting four seal and stalking another six that got away.  While we were with them at Umiamako, the Nuugaatsiaq hunters caught at least nine (one of them a Harp Seal and one of them a Harbor Seal).     

Lots of visitors to my tent in the morning, some with the paddles and harpoons for my and John Heath’s kayaks and the “tuitoq” for mine.  That was fun and I enjoyed thanking them all, paying them for what they had made, and admiring their craftsmanship. Then I went along with Enoch to the motor boat which was moored opposite Tobias’ house and we all got our things sorted out.  We agreed that Tobias’ wife Emilia would prepare the Harp Seal skins for my kayak.  I got some of the seal meat and the several birds I had shot on the trip.     

Soon my tent was again full of happy visitors and we spent the rest of the day eating meat, drinking coffee and beer, laughing and telling stories about the places where we camped, about meeting the hunters from Nuugaatsiaq, the ice, the snow, and the many seal that we had seen and hunted.

Another look at Tobias towing that seal he caught by harpoon only, without use of either of his guns.

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