Posts Tagged With: Harald I Drever

Chapter Five: Variations in Kayak Design





Chapter Five

Variations in Kayak Design

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

July 22, 2015, revised June 8, 2018


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

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

The masik fore deck beam

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

Gunwale curvature

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


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

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

4 11 Umia Tob poses harp


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

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

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

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

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

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

plate 77 on page 362 of Golden’s KoG 

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

The seeqqortarfik

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

seeqq cropped

Figure 41 of Golden’s KoG (page 57)

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

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

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

post Spain inside ahead to bow

photo: Greg Stamer

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

post Spain along first deck beam

photo: Greg Stamer

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


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

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

Figure 31 on page 49 of Petersen (2001)

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

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

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

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


photo: Greg Stamer

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

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

photo: Vernon Doucette

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


Danish Arctic Institute/Alfred Bertelsen

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

photos: Vernon Doucette

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


photos: Harald I. Drever

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

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

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

Variation in cross-sectional design

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

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

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

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

Here is the hull shape of my kayak  —

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                          Hard-chine                     Multi-chine                   Mixed

Type I                                       1                                       6                                 —

Type II                                      1                                      4                                  2

Type III                                     8                                      2                                 1

Type IV                                     9                                       1                                 2

Type V                                      12                                      4                                1

Type VI                                      5                                     13                                —

Type VII                                    6                                       2                                —

Totals                                        42                                    32                                6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image from the front cover of 3rd edition of 2001

–  x  –  x  –

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Chapter Two: Subsistence activities





Subsistence activities

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

June 6, 2015, revised June 23, 2018


Seal hunting at the village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illorsuit Arali nuuna

photo: Harald I. Drever

A photo by Drever of a kayaker returning from hunting

Borrowing each other’s kayaks

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

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

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

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

Children at Qaarsut and two kayaks on their racks

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Several Day Hunting Trips

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

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

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

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

Shark Fishing

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

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

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

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


Peter skinning the first of his shark

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


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


His father Hansi helping butcher one of them. 

The Sled Dogs

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

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

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


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

ik-reindeer-three NO BORD

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

The only dog in my photos of Nuugaatsiaq.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoping to return

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Nine : The Kayak Race in the Village Bay







The Kayak Race in the Village Bay

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                       

May 23, 2015, revised June 27, 2018


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

So  —  The Race

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


 Hansi and Enoch ready and waiting

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


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

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

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



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

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

And they’re off!

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

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

7 12 Ill. race back Q on Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo: Harald I. Drever

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

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

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

Back to Karl Ottosen on the day of the race

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Ten: The Rolling Competition





The Rolling Competition

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                                                                                                                    

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayak Rolling in 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Jonas adjusts tuilik 12.tif 5 - 04

… and making sure it was tight around his face.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Beginning his recovery from the chest sculling brace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

More rolling by Enoch

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

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

1959 Illorsuit kayak rolling in perspective

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Illorsuit

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

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

eight sweep rolls  —

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

two sculling rolls  —

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

and one “pull down” roll  —

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

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

six sweep rolls  —

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

and two sculling rolls  —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll 73% Enoch warm hands after 20.tif

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

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

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

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

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

–  x  –  x  –

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Chapter Three: Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town






Ikerasak village and Uummannaq town

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

February 17, 2014, revised June 24, 2018

A first week at Ikerasak village

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


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

courtesy: Vernon Doucette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bent and boy on mntn Ikerasak 1_29_ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


And one of the last icebergs we passed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ik Me and Jacob 2 20

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

Greenland 1959: Ikerasak, two motor boats in harbor

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

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

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

Uummannaq Town


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

–  x  –  x  –



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Chapter Seven: The Hunting Equipment




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

Chapter Seven


Ken Taylor / Cameron                            

September 12, 2013, revised June 26, 2018

Uummannaq Bay hunting equipment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illorsuit winter ice pick0001 (2)


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

  Pet paddle0001 - Copy (3) cropped

Figure 42 on page 75 of Petersen (2001).

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

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

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

photo: Vernon Doucette

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

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

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


photo: Vernon Doucette


photo: Mark Starr

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

[Image 6: Judy G’now replica E/f]

photo: Dan Segal

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

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

Goodnowkayak-075 paddle tip two

Goodnowkayak-077 paddle tip three

photos: Vernon Doucette

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

Tob tow classic


Ludwig's paddle race winner

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

       Greenland 1959: Ummannaq, man entering his kayak.

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

The skeg or fin

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

photo: unknown

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

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

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

4 37 Umia Tob his Q

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

 The gun bags

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


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

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

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

The shooting screen

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

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

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

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

Ludwig Quist in 1966photo: Chris Hare

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

photo: Chris Hare

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

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

Here’s the close up photo  —

photo: Ernst Sorge

Two-thumbed mittens

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

4 20 Umia Tob holds up seal

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

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

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

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

Moller image from Ark

Danish Arktisk Institut/John Møller

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

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

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

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

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

Enoch carries

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

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

The camouflage anorak

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

The harpoons themselves

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

Enoch's winged harp


Winged harpoons0001 (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


photo: William S. Laughlin

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



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

 4 11 Umia Tob poses harp

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

 photo: unknown

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

The throwing stick (norsaq)

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

Enoch's winged throw stick cropped and zoomed less zoomed

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

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

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

     John's norsaq_tip

photo: Greg Stamer

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

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

photo: Bill Samson

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

photo: Vernon Doucette

The harpoon line

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

Tob tow classic

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

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

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

The harpoon head

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

Harp headsdrawcropped0001

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

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

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


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

The hunting float (avataq)

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

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

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

photo: John Møller/courtesy of Vernon Doucette

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

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

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

The harpoon’s foreshaft

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

harp foreshaft0002 to left(3)

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

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

Harpoon line tray design

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




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


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


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



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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Towing Gear

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

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

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

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

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


Towing gear Nuss cropped x 2

Plate 14 in Hansen (2008, page 120)

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


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

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

Kayak knives

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

4 25 Umia Tob prep tow five

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

The ice scraper 

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

Kayak racks

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

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

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

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

7 29 Johan with kayak

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

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

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

Left-handed kayakers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danish Arctic Institute/Alfred Bertelsen

–  x  –  x  –



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Chapter Eleven: Re-encounters with the Kayak




Chapter Eleven


Ken Taylor / Cameron

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

July 5, 2013, revised June14, 2018

Seeing the kayak again!

My own earlier re-encounter with the kayak

photo: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

       Our Scottish kayaks:  26  or 27 inches.


photo: Valentina Roman

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

Thirty years later!

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

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


photo: Bill Samson      

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

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

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

photo: Bill Samson

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


photo: Bill Samson

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

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

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

Goodnow showing re shaped coaming

photo: Steve Bartlett

photo: William Samson

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

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

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

close up line tray shopped

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

Madsen and me

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

photo: Sue Ellcome      

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

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


photo: Bill Samson  

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

Sue E's avataq close up bigger

photo: Sue Ellcome      

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

Sue avataq with straps

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

photo: Bill Samson

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

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

Sue norsaq pegs

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

Sue harpoon foreshaft

photo: Sue Ellcome

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


photo: Bill Samson

Sue norsaq bottom

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

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


photo: Bill Samson

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

Sue white screen holder

photo: Sue Ellcome

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


photo: Sue Ellcome

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

Sue gunbag hook

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

Sue thong strap

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

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

Sue coaming rear

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

Sue slab side

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

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Chapter Six: Skinning the Kayaks






Skinning the Kayaks

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

May 4, 2013; revised June 27, 2018

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. And 1959, as I was told as soon as I arrived at Illorsuit, was turning out to be a year of very few seal. 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 wasn’t able to catch it. While we were at Umiamako one of the Nuugaatsiaq hunters caught one and agreed to sell me the skin. On the way back from Umiamako I was able to buy a different skin at the Nuugaatsiaq village store. Finally, on October 9th on my way back to Illorsuit from Uummannaq, the boat had to call in first at Nuugaatsiaq and  I was able to buy the skin of the seal caught 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, unfortunately, 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 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.  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 over the hull of the skins (as I’ve just mentioned) and also 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 (see Golden’s “Kayaks of Greenland” [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, 339). 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 (in other chapters) 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. And this end result, of course, suggests that all the Illorsuit kayaks were skinned in the same way as mine.

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 bone or ivory fittings, and the bone “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 on the fore and after decks. 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 and/or bone 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 asalloq (plural asatdlut)  or “pistol grip” rear leg of the harpoon line tray should be hooked onto this deck thong. In front of it one more thong with no sliders. 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 bone or 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 use in the several photos of Tobias preparing a seal for towing and towing it back to camp in Chapter Eight “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 Hooded 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 Hooded 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: Life in Illorsuit






Life in Illorsuit

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

revised May 26, 2015, revised June 24, 2018


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.

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

courtesy: Vernon Doucette

A chart of Ummannaq Bay, Illorsuit 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.

My stay in the area 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.  For a number of reasons I got there later than planned 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.  

A shrimp boat in one of the towns we stopped at on the way north.


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 basic computer skills I would need in order to get this done.  Over the last few years I have been extremely grateful to the several members of Twin Oaks Community who have helped me learn some at least of these computer skills.

Some background   

In the early 1930s, the American artist Rockwell Kent lived for well over 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 would be pointing backwards and, yes, you wouldn’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 some parts of the island.

As a result of his work on Ubekendt Island and in the west of Scotland, Drever was one of a small group 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 farther afield.

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.

The prominent peak on Upernavik Island clearly visible in both photo and painting had for some years been known as “Paulus Peak” in memory of Johan Zeeb’s younger brother, who had drowned in his kayak while out seal hunting. Three years after Drever’s death in 1975, a group of mountain climbers from St. Andrews came to Illorsuit, climbed the peak and re-named it Aaraliup qaqa (Harald’s Peak) (see Philip Gribbon in American Alpine Journal 1978: Climbs and Expeditions: volume 21; issue 2; page 554).

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.

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 nevertheless went out of his way to come to Uummannaq to meet me. Bent and I were invited to stay with the Lutheran priest “Palase” (the Greenlandic word for priest) Rasmussen and his family. 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.

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

Bent very kindly invited me to go with him to Ikerasak where he was to continue his research for another week or ten days.  I describe that amazing visit in Chapter Three.  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 and I returned to Uummannaq. Kattanguaq came too as she was planning on travelling south to Qullissat on Disko Island. She was told there would be a long wait before she could make that trip, so we agreed that she would come to work with me in Illorsuit, 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 things went for me and my work in the village.  At least as much as anyone else she could understand what I was trying to do (and Bent must have told her some about this)  —  and translate my attempts to say what that was into Greenlandic.  Not to mention that she was a friendly, 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 57 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. 

But that first day, I wasn’t impressed.  It turned out that I was coming down with the ‘flu. Gunnar, the trade post manager, was very welcoming and kindly offered me a room in his two-storey house, where I could stay until I was better and could get my tent up and organized. I ended up spending a week as a guest/invalid in his house. 

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 the village.

Settling in

As I’ve mentioned I got there quite late in the summer. Only two weeks after I arrived in the village, on the 4th of September, the small creek running close to where I’d pitched my tent froze up. From then on fresh water would have to come from whatever brash ice and small icebergs came aground in the village bay. And from soon after that the village and surrounding places were covered in snow. So the weather was getting cold. But Ludwig Quist, the village “headman” soon lent me two reindeer skins to add to my bedding and with those I stayed warm even on the coldest nights.

Otto Ottosen’s son sitting on some frozen fresh water


During the time we were in the village, Kattanguaq and I were invited over for a meal or for coffee or to drink home brewed beer, virtually every day. On some days we’d be invited more than once, to two, to three, once even to four people’s houses. It was a lot of hospitality. And it was all kinds of fun. And I was constantly being told “you must come visit in my house more often.” Of course, this was something the villagers did among themselves. Usually when I went to someone’s house there were already other people there. I remember the people as being remarkably generous, with their time, their friendship, their gifts and their hospitality.

My tent was a Stormhaven, a kind of “wall tent.” It was well big enough to stand up in, with plenty of room to sleep, to cook, and to party. And that we did! In the evenings there would almost invariably be some people in my tent, drinking coffee, drinking beer, playing music, singing songs, trying to teach me Greenlandic, teaching each other card games, and generally fooling around. And this would happen even after some other evening event such as a dinner out or a village dance. In my journal, I can find only three evenings (during the final getting-packed-to-leave days) when we were not having fun in my tent.

Else (Salamina) Ottosen and her daughter Elene outside my tent.

Learning Greenlandic

A school teacher named Vagn had managed to teach me a smattering of Danish on the boat trip from Copenhagen but the only people in the village who spoke Danish were the teacher/catechist Sakeus Bertelsen and Gunnar the trade post manager, both from southwest Greenland. Sakeus was good at understanding my minimal Danish and that was a great help from time to time.

Otherwise, the villagers and I were going to have to communicate in Greenlandic. In the months before I left for Greenland an old friend from high school, Scott Baxter, happened to have time on his hands and offered to go through the Schultz-Lorentzen Greenlandic to English dictionary looking for the words on a short list that I’d come up with. [Thank you again, Scott, that was an enormous help.] During the week in Ikerasak Bent Jensen also helped when he had time, so that when I arrived in Illorsuit I already had a small vocabulary to build on. What then helped a great deal was that the children were being taught Danish in school which meant their having some idea of the grammar of European languages. Greenlandic (kalallissut) is a polysynthetic language in which long “words” (really the equivalent of our sentences in English) are formed by stringing together roots and affixes. So its grammar is totally different from what we have in English or any of the West European languages. Needless to say it is very, very difficult to learn. So it wasn’t really that I ever learned correct Greenlandic but that the school kids, some especially, got to be really good at translating my “kitchen Greenlandic” (as the Danes liked to call that sort of thing) into real kalallissut. And everyone eagerly taught me all that I could manage to learn. Towards the end of my stay, it was beginning to feel like (always with the help of one of the youngsters) I was able to say much of what I needed to about everyday things. 

Some social events

More or less every week there were village dances held in the village hall – a gift to the village from Rockwell Kent (with the amazing story of how he finally managed to get it built in his book “Salamina”). The young men would rapid-fire stamp dance, showing off but also announcing the dance to everyone. The music was provided by someone, usually Gunnar, playing a piano accordion. He was good and the best dances were when he played.

One special event, the day after I arrived, was a Sunday afternoon “kaffemik” in the village hall, put on by the Blaa Kors, an organization that existed to discourage people from drinking anything alcoholic. And that was serious business, of course, as kayaking is dangerous enough without anyone doing it while drunk or even hung over. Everyone in the village showed up, in relays, to enjoy the coffee and treats. Salamina Ottosen seemed to be in charge. There was a hymn sung and a talk given by it was either Sakeus or Enoch.

Another special occasion was Aaron and Anthonette’s wedding. The evening before Palase Rasmussen, a deacon called Anders, and Sakeus all arrived on the “Poul Egede” from Uummannaq. In the morning I had Palase and Anders in for coffee before they had to rush off to the church. I went to the wedding too, of course. The hymns were familiar to me from my Presbyterian upbringing, though sung (so I had been told ) in seven-part harmony, with distinctive variations of recitative and rising half notes. A Greenlandic style that I recognized from the boat trip up from Copenhagen. Deacon Anders led the service with Sakeus at the organ and giving the opening and closing remarks. Palase Rasmussen, to my surprise, was as much a spectator as was I. Quite soon after the service the “Poul Egede” left, to a salute of firing guns from Sakeus’ and Aaron’s houses.

The formalities were over, it was time to party. First there was a kaffemik at Aaron’s father Christian Nielsen’s house. Then it was along to Anthonette’s father Karl Ottosen’s for a very enjoyable imiamik (of home brewed beer), when old Olabi (who Kent had written about) entertained us all, and completely surprised me, by singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”

And one Sunday, a group of us went for a picnic! We went in Ole’s motor boat, some seven or eight of us, heading southwards down the coast.


A photo of the sound between Ubekendt and Upernavik Islands, opposite where we went for the picnic.

We got to the chosen site, a wide valley with a river on the right as seen from the sea. Karli immediately disappeared up the hill to look for ptarmigan, and Algot went out again in the boat to fish – and caught a large cod. The rest of us had coffee and rock cakes, provided by the ever-generous Sophia, squatting here and there on the snow, sitting on our anoraks, etc. Karli got back, but hadn’t seen any ptarmigan so we all had more coffee, some target practice, some more snowballing.

We left for home about 5:45 pm, in quite heavy seas that had the boat bucking around, but taking them very well. I tried to cook the cod on a “primus” stove  but the boat’s movement was too much. We sang songs and made jokes all the way home, yelling with delight at every extra big wave. The sky in the direction of Uummannaq was gold and green, very beautiful, with the icebergs in the subdued light more colorful than usual.

We landed way along at Abraham’s house for some reason, Algot gave me the cod. We walked back to the tent to prepare a meal with Sophia, Ole, Algot and Karli all showing up. They stayed on as Regina and Enoch, Lea and Hendrik, Johanna, Peter and Hansi all joined us. We drank beer and tea, played cards and got sleepy. What a good day that was.

Not so isolated

In some ways Illorsuit may seem like an isolated community, 55 miles from Uummannaq, the “county seat” where all the Danes lived. But in the summertime that’s not really so. For one reason or another we were frequently visited by the relatively large boats owned and operated by the Danes.

This was also true at Ikerasak. The day after we got there the Fishery Inspector’s boat “Poul Egede” came by and was able to give Bent and me a ride to Uummannatsiaq. The day the “Pinasse” came to take Bent, Kattanguaq and me back to Uummannaq the Police boat also arrived at Ikerasak.

Here are the two boats at Ikerasak. One of the village boys has paddled my kayak out to the “Pinasse” for it to be loaded on board for the trip to Uummannaq.

On August 22nd the “Otto Mathiesen” brought me and Kattanguaq to Illorsuit. It turned out to be the boat most used as a “bus” to move people from place to place. A big event was when the “Nordlyset” arrived on September 4th with a year’s supply of coal for the village – and stayed for the six days needed (given some interruptions due to weather) to get all the coal unloaded. That same day the “Poul Egede” arrived and left immediately for Uummannaq with Sakeus on board.

On September 10th the “Poul Egede” was back bringing Palase Rasmussen and Deacon Anders, to baptise any new children and for Aaron and Anthonette’s wedding the next day. And, of course, Sakeus returned.

Next, was a boat that brought the dentist and his assistant on September 21st (while we were still not yet back from the hunting trip to Umiamako) so I don’t know which boat it was. They were Jørgen and Aase who had travelled on the same boats as I from Copenhagen to Uummannaq, so it was good to see each other again. Three days later Jørgen was taken north to Nuugaatsiaq by Karli in his motor boat while Aase preferred to not go in such a small boat.

Part of Nuugaatsiaq village

On September 25th the doctor arrived in his boat “Rudolphi” and left for Nuugaatsiaq that same day, giving Aase a ride. The “Otto Mathiesen” was also due on the 25th, bringing Hans Zeeb (Martin’s son) home to Illorsuit. It then went I don’t know where (probably Nuugaatsiaq) and on the 29th I got a ride on it to Uummannaq – in the vain hope of getting the cine camera repaired. A Herr Gotfrisen helped me with that in every possible way but, as it turned out, the camera still didn’t work! So that trip was a waste of valuable time.


Looking into Uummannaq harbor. The larger black hulled boat is the “Otto Mathiesen.” Two kayaks on the gray hulled boat, much as we did on the Umiamako trip.

Again on the “Otto Mathiesen” I got a ride back to Illorsuit on October 8th. First, however, we went to Qaarsut, on the north side of the Nuussuaq peninsula. I’d already been there for an afternoon with the priest’s family, the Rasmussens, so it was good to see the people again.

A few of the Qaarsut children with a part of the village behind them. On the horizon, to the left, that’s the Ummannatsiaq mountain. The photo’s from my earlier visit.

And then on to Niaqornat, also on the Nuussuaq peninsula, some miles farther west. That was my only “visit” to that village, unfortunately in the dark. It seemed an attractive place, nestled among hills and hillocks, facing north.

We then headed for Illorsuit, snacking on what we had on the way. I contributed a fine “packed lunch” that Fru Rasmussen had given me, crew member Knud had been given an already cooked little auk by a friend at Qaarsut  — delicious!

Before long we ran into very rough seas and had to by-pass Illorsuit. I noted in my journal: “dozed off a bit – awake to find boat pitching and tossing quite severely, felt sick again so back to wheelhouse to find we were heading away from Illorsuit, Edvard [skipper of the boat] having decided that Illorsuit would be hopeless for unloading … mildly thrilling voyage towards Upernavik Island boat dancing around and hard to keep one’s footing and almost dark and icebergs (big ones) only just visible. Northern Lights best yet and stars brilliant, very enjoyable. Strong phosphorescence …” We kept to the western shore of Upernavik Island and from there to Nuugaatsiaq arriving at 3:00 am. After the morning there, when I was able to buy the fourth seal skin needed for my kayak, we reached Illorsuit that afternoon with fairly calm seas and sunshine.

– X – X –

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Chapter Eight: The Hunting Trip to Umiamako






The Hunting Trip to Umiamako

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

Ken Tayor / Cameron                                                                                                     

October 26, 2011, revised October 12, 2018


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 (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 Nielsen 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. They invited me to go along.

The plan was to first camp on Karrats Island and try the hunting there and then carry on to the well-known Umiamako hunting camp. The camp is on a promontory between the Umiamako glacier and the well-known Rinks glacier  —  which was 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 village 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 the 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. Emanuele had already begun to build my Illorsuit style kayak, but that still had a ways to go so I would be using my Scottish kayak. You can see how 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 we were 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. 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. 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 half way down the length 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. A skin can be sold to the Royal Danish Trade Department store in the village for cash or, depending which species it is, 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 with the wooden spar he 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 Uummannaq Bay 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. 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 (like the one they caught on our way from Illorsuit to the Karrats campsite), 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 four or five 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 I 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. In the Uummannaq Bay district 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 throw a harpoon. Once it was wounded the hunter could usually, but not always, approach the seal to within harpooning range. 

This 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 ivory 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 rear 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 rear towing strap free of the after deck thongs 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 don’t think so (see more in Chapter Six “Skinning the Kayaks”). 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 distance, 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 that other 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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Categories: Ken 1959 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

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