Posts Tagged With: Illorsuit

Some Final Thoughts




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

Some Final Thoughts  

Ken Taylor / Cameron

November 21, 2015, with some additions on January 10, 2016

It’s been a great satisfaction for me to finally get this report out on the internet. An unexpected result, and a tremendous pleasure, has been that Kattanguaq, of Ikerasak, who was with me in Illorsuit in 1959 (and who I mention so constantly in the report) and Paninnguaq, Emanuele Korneliussen’s granddaughter, have both contacted me by email after seeing some piece of the report online. We’ve stayed in touch and Paninnguaq, in fact, has been able to help me check out one or two facts for the report. What an amazing bonus! I had honestly never expected to hear from either of them.  That someone, related in some way or other to the people and events of 1959, might contact me some day was of course always a possibility. But you two particular people, Kattanguaq and Paninnguaq, amazing!

As I said at the beginning, it was the enthusiastic encouragement of members of QajaqUSA that got me going on converting my “good old” slide show into a “blog” on the internet.  I’m especially grateful for all kinds of encouragement, support and assistance to Richard Nonas, Vernon Doucette, Harvey Golden, Greg Stamer and Eric Eaton.

Duncan Winning having arranged for the kayak made for me in 1959 to end up in the care of the Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museum (in my home town, Glasgow) was perfect. His and Bill Samson’s and Sue Ellcome’s visit to the Museum’s warehouse to see the kayak, in 2012, and Bill and Sue sending me their photos, with permission to use them in my report, made it even more so. I am tremendously grateful to all three of them.

In 2004, Duncan and Gordon Brown, a well known Scottish sea kayaking coach and author, travelled to Greenland and kayaked from Uummannaq to Illorsuit.  They used two “Expedition” kayaks donated by Island Kayaks of Skye.  As Duncan says in his report, “This was particularly appropriate as they were the latest design to be based on Ken Taylor’s kayak.”  At Illorsuit, Duncan and Gordon met two of Emanuele’s sons and one grandson.

Duncan submitted a report, “Inuit Origins of Modern Recreational Sea Kayaks,” to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which had financed the trip.  A revised version of this report was later published in the December 2008 issue of Sea Kayaker.

Duncan’s email address is:

QajaqUSA which I have mentioned so many times, can be found at

Qaannat Kattuffiat, the Greenland Kayak Association of which QajaqUSA is the American chapter, can be found on facebook, and at Qaannat Kattuffiat, P.O. Box 1171, 3900 Nuuk, Greenland.

I also want to give my thanks and appreciation to my old friend Mr Campbell Semple, who first suggested that we take up sea kayaking and with whom I spent those wonderful summer vacations kayaking much of the west coast of Scotland.

And, of course, none of it would have happened if the late Professor Harald I. Drever, after Campbell and I met him at Kinlochbervie on the northwest coast of Scotland on the last of our many kayaking trips, if he had not invited me and arranged for me to go to Illorsuit in 1959.

As I’ve said, that summer in Illorsuit was the most wonderful experience of my life.  To return to it in my memories while putting together this report has been very special.  So, once again, I want to thank the people of Illorsuit for welcoming me into their village life and for giving me such an unforgettable experience.  I so admired and still admire the extraordinary skills, the fortitude, the patience, the forbearance and good humor of those wonderful people who, with so much friendliness, put up with my intrusion into their life in Illorsuit of 1959.

And now  …  what I’ve been saving ’til last:

First, a photo looking at the Uummannatsiaq mountain from above Uummannaq town as of  September 28th:

1 aaa to Ikerasak cd

and, finally, here is my favorite photo of them all, the same view as of October 19th, a few days before I left:

1 aaaa to Ikerasak later cd

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Chapter Six: Variations in Kayak Design





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

Chapter Six

Variations in Kayak Design

Ken Taylor / Cameron

July 22, 2015


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.

GGgunwale options0002 (2)

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  —  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 Birket-Smith says, “almost forming a right angle with the deck” (1924, page 269).

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.”

seeqq cropped

Figure 41 of Golden’s KoG (page 57)

This shows the “seeqqortarfik,” as described by Petersen, with a curved and complex shape.  Also 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.

seeqq and masikFigure 31 on page 49 of Petersen (1981)

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 many 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.

photo: Danish Arktisk Institut

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 “masikis 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 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  —

Heath's cross sect smaller

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” (1981, 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: Daily Life in the Village — Subsistence and such




Table of Contents

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


DAILY LIFE IN THE VILLAGE  —  Subsistence and Such

Ken Taylor / Cameron

June 6, 2015

Settling in

For various reasons 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 through the village 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 

By coincidence the coal boat “Nordlyset” arrived that very same day with the year’s supply of coal.  By derrick and “grab” the coal was unloaded into rowboats sculled out to the movable “jetty.”  As the (quite small) tides came in and went out the jetty had to be moved up and down the beach.  The coal was then shoveled into sacks and carried to the store house (mainly by the woman).  There it was weighed and stacked.  While the Nordlyset was there I was visited by Knud of the boat’s crew and two Inuit passengers for coffee and cigarettes.  The conversation was fun as between us we had some Danish, some “kalallissut” (Greenlandic), and even a few words of English.  The coal unloading (given some interruptions due to the weather) was still going on on Wednesday the 9th when the villagers worked at it ’til 10:00 pm.

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, more and more as the “shyness” wore off, and my tent soon became the unofficial “youth club” of Illorsuit, but for children, youths, adults, everyone.  We drank a lot of coffee in that tent! and a lot of Scottish beer!  We played musical instruments, and sang songs, and told stories, and they tried to teach me Greenlandic, and we laughed and laughed.  And I learned for myself how very, very cheerful and friendly the Inuit can be.

6-25-ill-else-girl-tent NO BORD

This is Otto’s wife Else (also known as Salamina) and their litle girl Elene outside my tent.  Elene is dressed in her “Sunday best” with white boots and a colorful beaded cape.  You can see some of the Trade Department’s (KGH’s) buildings in the background.  Without exception these were always larger than any of the villager’s houses.

House types

The most traditional (or old-fashioned) types of houses that I saw had walls of stone and turf and were flat roofed.  As it happened there were no longer any like these in Illorsuit itself. 

nug-old-style-houses NO BORD

Nuugaatsiaq examples

Greenland 1959: Ummannaq, John Heath's kayak frame.

Uummannaq examples.  And, yes, that’s John Heath’s kayak.

6 27 Ill. Emm John Q

And here is a back view of Emanuele’s house in Illorsuit.  The pitched roof very likely added to the stone and turf walls of an older structure.

6 19 Ill. skin my Q begin

A more modern style of house, again in Illorsuit.  Pitched roof and wood clad walls, Tobias and Emilia Nielsen’s house.  Old Karen (that’s her in the middle wearing a dark blue dress) helping skin my kayak in 1959, just as she had Drever’s in 1938.

6 14 Ill. shark dogs waiting qainivit phd

A close up of some of the hungry dogs waiting impatiently for the shark butchering to be finished (see again below).  This to let you notice Sakeus’, the catechist/school teacher’s, house way up the hill in the background.  Quite a fine one for his nuclear family.

5 26 Ill. Up Is four houses

And, last but not least, the four single-pitch roofed houses newly built by Danish carpenters that very summer of 1959.  Enoch and family were to move into one of them and the newly weds Aaron and Anthonette into another.  Hansi and Anni Møller and family were to get the third, and I never did hear who the fourth one was for.

By the way, the prominent peak on Upernavik Island clearly visible in this (and several other) photos 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 University came to Illorsuit, climbed the peak and re-named it “Aaraliup qaqa” (Harald’s Peak) in memory of Drever (see Philip Gribbon in American Alpine Journal 1978; Climbs and Expeditions; volume 21; issue 2; page 554).


Learning Greenlandic

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 kindly showed me over the church and the school.  He could understand my minimal Danish and that was a great help from time to time.  He had lived for some years in the adjacent Upernavik District, to the north, and told me of but never demonstrated one or two of the kayak rolls they did up there.  He was a very helpful person but kept to himself most of the 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.  They didn’t seem to be really learning it all that much, but it did mean 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.  And, as the days went by, I gradually became one of the talkers and storytellers of the gatherings in my tent.  Of course I (and I hope they too) got a lot of satisfaction and pleasure from that.

So, yes, they were amazingly welcoming.  True, there were a number of things in my favor, all of them having to do with Drever’s planning and his good advice.  I was connected in some way to Drever who they had the greatest respect and affection for, I was seriously crazy about kayaks and a sea kayaker myself, I was doing my best to learn their language, I was generous with my coffee and my beer (etc.), and I soon started going out in my kayak to shoot sea birds or to fish for food.  Altogether, more or less as Drever had intended, I was in good shape to be welcomed into their village life.  In these ways, also, I was quite different from most of the Danes in Greenland.  Those who spent any length of time in Greenland, in those days, typically showed no interest at all in kayaking.  Perhaps because so many of them were simply too tall to be able to get into a local kayak!  What they really enjoyed (and became very good at) was the winter dog sledding.  Plus, it made sense for them to show no encouragement of the kayak hunting since official policy was to convert the Inuit to fishermen of cod and shrimp.  And, of course, the Danes wanted the Inuit to learn to speak Danish.


A shrimp boat in one of the southern towns we passed through.  That pink stuff in the boxes is the shrimp.

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! Even more important to me was 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.”

Illorsuit May 2003 photo

A photo I found on the net 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 (Erignatus 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 (“kamit“) were still worn by everyone.  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.

sealskin pants Enoch new cropped and zoomed photo 26 on non vd d disc

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 outfit.  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.

Only once did I see Kalasi’s elderly, widowed mother in her black colored boots.  It was dusk already so too dark for photographs.  She was trudging home with an enormous load of wild blueberries and dry grass for someone’s “kamit.”  They said she’d been out since ten o’clock that morning.

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 Nine: The Umiamako Hunting Trip).  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.

Years ago I had a copy of an invaluable book “Bogen om Grønland” published by the Politikens Forlag.  But it was long gone!  Quite recently, thanks to the wonders of the internet I was able to get hold of another copy.  And, according to it, 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 a man 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

I was told that on September 14th Johan had seen a seal and Enoch two (one a Harp Seal) but they didn’t catch either.  Nevertheless, we did occasionally have seal meat in the village.  A few seal were caught by men who’d gone down the coast shark fishing.  I’ve mentioned the Bearded Seal that Aaron caught that way.

During the first period of time I was in the village  —  August 22nd to September 15th  —  I was able to buy some seal meat from Enoch on August 31st; Karli came with a gift of seal meat on September 5th.

My second period of time in the village was from September 23rd to the 28th.  For the first of those days we were still eating meat from the Umiamako hunting trip.  Then on the 28th dinner at Otto and Else’s was a fine meal of seal cuts, enormous slabs of meat tho’ from the smallest kind of seal, I was told.

My third and final stay was from October 9th to October 18th.  On the 9th we had a gift of seal from Enoch; and also some seal liver (which he knew I especially liked); then on the 10th we ate seal meat at Otto’s; on the 11th I bought 3 kilos from Tobias to send to Herr Gotfrisen in Uummannaq as a thank you gift.  On the 12th I was able to buy meat from Enoch for the dinner I gave to celebrate the completed skinning of my kayak; and on the 15th we had (my) last dinner of seal meat at Tobias and Emilia’s.

With such a shortage of seal meat that summer, I soon noticed that 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 in Peter’s family 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.”  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 them 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 large 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.  We ranged from just short of the valley where we went for the picnic the day before, to level with the Zeeb’s houses which meant we had to double back a mile or more to find a way down to the level of the village.

On Karrats Island, it was when Tobias and I climbed the hill to look for any areas of calm water suitable for seal hunting that we came across a few ptarmigan.  We were climbing up through a small and very pretty little valley, nicely sheltered from the wind, when Tobias spotted three.  They were very noticeable in their transitional summer/winter plumage, well ahead of others I’d seen at Ikerasak.  We stalked up ’til a bit closer and lay down to shoot with our .22s.  I got one and the others flew off to the right, high up on a rocky ridge.  We followed them and, before I was ready, Tobias got in a shot but missed and they flew clear across the valley and over the opposite ridge.  We went on to the top of the coll and saw a patch of calm water farther up Karrats Fjord where we later went looking for seal.  Then back down the valley looking for the ptarmigan.  Sure enough Tobias spotted them and we got another two.  We went on down, it was very warm in the bright sun, and we rested by a lochan in very beautiful surroundings  —  looking out to the sea quite filled with icebergs.

Several Day Hunting Trips

The highlight of the summer, however, was my going with three of the village hunters on a several day seal hunting trip, by kayak, to the traditional hunting camp at Umiamako.  See the whole story in Chapter Nine “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako,” posted separately.

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, so his trip was over by the time I got back.  But, by great good luck, I had been able to buy a fourth skin at Nuugaatsiaq on the way back from Uummannaq.

Borrowing each other’s kayaks

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

And 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.  

Greenland 1959: Ikerasak

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

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 was 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, bit it seemed to be a very stable kayak.  The harpoon and its throw stick were both much lighter weight than I’d expected and the spectators had fun watching me try the harpoon.  The moment I got back with it the owner put it up on its rack  —  too high for the dogs to reach.

Greenland 1959: Qaersut, kids with kayak pn frame behind

Children at Qaarsut and kayaks on their “out of dog reach” 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 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.

The same afternoon that Johannes tried my kayak Karl Ottosen persuaded me to try his.  He was one of two men I met who had “kayak angst” (the other was at Uummannatsiaq).  Since that meant he’d had to give up kayaking, Karl was very keen to sell me his kayak.  It was way too tight a squeeze for me, tho’ I did manage to get in.  So I was able to refuse his offer.  After all, what I really wanted was to have one built for me.

While the Nordlyset was still at the village, Otto Murch (passenger), Knud (crew), and Karli Zeeb all tried out my kayak.  It got pretty wet from the breakers on the beach.  Karli, however, was very fastidious and careful about it, an obviously skilled and experienced kayaker.

September 7th was the big day when Ludwig had suggested lending me his kayak.  With Peter in mine and Karli as “escort,” 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).

On September 10th when the “Poul Egede” arrived bringing the priest Rasmussen and the dean, Anders, for Aaron and Anthonette’s wedding the next day.  Enoch, and Paulus in Karli’s and Johannes in mine, paddled out to “kayak welcome” them.  That was a fine sight in the old days as many archival photos show.  It was now getting quite dark but nevertheless Ludwig tried out my kayak and I Karli’s which seemed small to get into and not too comfortable (for me) but a pretty stable kayak.  This must’ve been the time that Ludwig paddled my kayak so powerfully that its bow rose up out of the water at an angle like I’d never seen before.

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 and become the bulk of the dog food needed in the winter.

6 06 Ill. shark fa arrive with

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.”

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.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, Peder Moller skinning a shark.

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.

6 08 Ill. shark laughing

 A very happy Peter with his brother Johannes.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, Peder Moller skinning a shark.

 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!

6 10 Ill. shark skinning fa watching

The first liver out on the beach


His father Hansi helping butcher one of them.  That’s Johan and Anna’s daughter  Anne Marie in the red coat with her little son Bintsi.  The other woman is Else Ottosen.  The old man behind her is Jensi.

Here’s an interesting interlude to the shark butchering.  Ludwig has spotted a “serfaq” (Black Guillemot) out on the water, probably attracted by the shark liver.  With a stick to steady his rifle he’s hoping to get a shot at it.  I don’t remember if he got it or not.  


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.

6 14 Ill. shark dogs waiting super-zoomed to show chinedness of two kayaks

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.

After that. Enoch who seemed a real expert showed me how to use one of these whips.  They have two feet long wooden handles and a long, long seal skin thong with a piece of split thong attached at the end as a lash.  The basic motion seemed to be very much like how you might cast a dry fly with a fishing rod.  Later I was given a whip of my own, as part of the villagers encouraging me to return and spend the winter with them (more about that at the end of this section).  I had that whip for some years.  I well remember practicing with it one snowy (of course) winter in Wisconsin.

These sled dogs, needless to say, 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.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, view of tent in snow with dog.

Hansi and I were there when the pups had just been born, one as the mother tore off the membranes, etc.  Hansi said he could tell that one would be no good and sure enough only 5 of 8 survived, 4 male and one female.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, shark meat being hung (?).

Hansi processing what look like small halibut.  I expect these fish also went up on the rack to sun dry.  Some of his dogs are keeping a close eye on what’s happening.  You can see the nursing puppies in the background.  There’s a sled stored on the rack among the pieces of drying shark meat.

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, Jacob and Anna's family.

Anna, her daughter and grandson, with some of their dogs (and one puppy).  They had two puppies at that time which they were bottle feeding as a supplement to their mother’s milk.

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.

nug-our-boat-at-pier NO BORD

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.

And, speaking of dogs, something I really didn’t want to talk about is that the Illorsuit dogs were constantly trying to get into my tent to scavenge for any food they might find.  [I was comforted, just recently, reading Ernst Sorge’s “With Plane, Boat and Camera in Greenland,” to learn that the German film crew making the movie “S.O.S. Iceberg” had exactly that same trouble when based at Illorsuit and Nuugaatsiaq in 1932.  I am much indebted to Vernon Doucette for finding and very kindly gifting me a copy of this book.]

6 24 Ill. girl and tent

Behind Elene you can see the turf “ramparts” I had to put up around the tent to try and keep the dogs out.

Obviously then these are working dogs and not at all what we would call pets.  So that day I found Karl Ottosen up on the hill looking out for Karli Zeeb’s safe return from kayak hunting, I was quite surprised when Jonas joined us escorted by what looked like his entire dog team.

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.”

And, because of all that it was illegal to have a dog in your team that had killed another dog.  If one of your dogs did so you were obliged, by law, to execute it immediately.  In fact I was shown one dog, in Illorsuit, that was a killer but he was such a fine sled dog that he had never been executed and still worked hard every winter.

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.  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, as was the chianti and the coffee with Schubert’s Trout Quintet playing in the background!  One other time I ate dog meat, at Sophia’s in Illorsuit.  But that was the tasteless meat of a three year old dog.

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.

Greenland 1959: Umanatsiaq_into kayak with tuilik

Johannes preparing to roll Tomas’ kayak, at Uummannatsiaq.

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.  I have a note of having helped Peter and Johannes skin a dog that had been killed as it was too old to be of any more use.

Kent hunter two0001 phd

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

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Kayak Racing at Illorsuit





Table of Contents:

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


Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                       

May 23, 2015, latest update October 23, 2017


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 in place. 

6 35 Ill. Race first two z 25 cropped

 Hansi and Enoch ready and waiting

6 36 Ill. Race five ready look back NO border

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

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, getting ready for a kayak race.

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.

And here he is, safely launched and ready to go.  Turned out it wasn’t his own kayak (the one he tried to sell to me) that he used, but Malaki’s.

Karl, on the extreme right, with three of the others now ready to start.  Interesting that, for the duration of the race, most if not all of the men had their harpoons way out of normal position, pushed well forward close to their kayak’s bows.  This is well visible in Karl’s case. 


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.

RACE theyre off 16 c and z.tiff

And they’re off!


Well on their way but still quite a way to go.

7 05 Ill. Racers almost outa sight z 25 cropped

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!

RACE winners 15.tif

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.

04'02'23 Drever trophy

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.

Race winner 1974 Illorsuit

photo: H. 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.

RACE scan disc Karl back cool hands in water

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 Three Daily Life in the Village — Social Life




Table of Contents

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



Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                                                                                                

May 17, 2015

Endless Hospitality

During the time I was in the village, Kattanguaq and I were invited over for a meal or for coffee or to drink home brewed beer, at an “imiamik,” 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.

Here are just a few examples of what we were invited for: a meal of frittered cod, potatoes, gravy and (of course) coffee, at Anna and Johan’s; a crowded “imiamik” with gramophone music to dance to at Emilia and Tobias’; a very pleasant “kaffemik” at Regina and Enoch’s, who were living with his father Knud, when we listened to Louis Armstrong on the radio!; a wedding day with the two fathers-in-law thoroughly drunk and entertaining and old Olabi (who Rockwell Kent writes about) singing “Tipperary” over and over again; a great “imiamik” at Gunnar’s with “citron” laced with schnapps, Tuborg beer, and Helene’s latest home brewed beer  —  7 days in the barrel and 14 days in bottles; enormous slabs of seal meat at Salamina and Otto’s with their two little daughters Elene and Andrea doing “party pieces” of dancing together, imitating hens, etc., etc.

Several times there were birthdays, I just mentioned the “imiamik” or home brew sessions which were when we would sing and dance and make up new words for Greenland songs  —  the “sonja kalipoq” song about the whaling boat coming home with a whale in tow, the “ai jai ai ai ja” song about how too much coffee might make you fat.  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.

In the evenings there would also invariably be a crowd of people in my tent, drinking coffee, beer, playing music, singing, 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.  One evening I had Jørgen the dentist and his assistant Aase to my tent for dinner.  The day the skin was sewn onto my kayak, I gave a special celebration dinner for the women who had done the sewing work and their husbands, plus Emanuele and his wife.  And after that there was an “imiamik” at Olabi’s which ended quite late.  Otherwise, 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.

6-25-ill-else-girl-tent NO BORD

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

Following Drever’s guidance and example, I always took small gifts with me for the host family.  On birthdays, of course, I would also take a special birthday gift for whose ever day it was.  Rockwell Kent, as I found out later on when I finally learned of and read his book “Salamina,” had also given small gifts in that way.  He has a charming description of how quite small children, all dressed up in their Sunday best for the occasion, would be sent out to all the houses to invite people to the child’s birthday party.  When Anna Zeeb had a birthday I noted “the corner of the room piled high with presents: shampoo; scrubbing brushes; soap; towels; candles  —  looked like everything the shop has to offer [I gave her a mirror] and a “naja” (Ivory Gull) from Aaron!”  Several of the villagers also gave Kattanguaq and me gifts of various kinds  —  cooked fish, fresh fish, seal meat, a soapstone dish, some razor blades.  Towards the end of my stay, Ole gifted me a pair of fine ivory toggled straps for my “kamit” and Johan, who had made the paddles and harpoons for John’s and my kayaks, gave me a beautifully made harpoon line tray for my kayak, as a gift.  Now that I’ve checked through my journal I’m almost surprised to see how many gifts they gave us!  Certainly, I remember the people of the village as being remarkably generous, with their time, their friendship, their gifts and their hospitality.

Other social events

I’ve mentioned village dances which happened more or less every week.  They were 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.  The men and women would be on opposite sides of the hall, going across to ask someone for a dance, woman doing so as much as the men.  More informally, we would sometimes dance a bit in someone’s house usually as part of an “imiamik.”

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 by Sakeus or Enoch, I don’t remember which of them.  It struck me that everyone was being very formal and shy.  But my presence may have affected things as I’d arrived just the day before.  That same evening there was a dance, a lot of fun, with Gunnar playing ’til 1:00 am or so.

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 (which was September 11th) 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 was told by someone) 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.  Anna Zeeb had been at my tent earlier on in full “Sunday best” and a few other people were too.  But I was disappointed not to see more people in their finery.  I wondered if it’s being a Friday and not a Sunday had anything to do with that?  Of course there were many children in the church so there was a general background of wails and chatter.  Deacon Anders led the service with Sakeus at the organ and giving the opening and closing remarks.  But not the final benediction which was by Anders.  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.  I took Aaron a pipe and Anthonette a tartan kerchief.  Kattanguaq gave them 50 .22 bullets and a packet of cigarettes.  Then it was along to Anthonette’s father Karl Ottosen’s for a very enjoyable “imiamik,” that was when the two fathers-in-law were so much fun and when Olabi entertained us all (and completely surprised me) by singing “Tipperary.”

In fact, there had been another wedding while I was sick with the ‘flu.  On August 27th Palase Rasmussen and the Doctor arrived.  I didn’t really know why they were at the village until, the next day, the newly-weds Jonas and Amalia very sweetly came to see me at Gunnar’s, while a number of people were already there visiting me, with coffee and cake from their “wedding breakfast.”

And one Sunday, a group of us went for a picnic!  The day had begun for me with young Peter showing up at my tent with a flask of coffee at 7:30 in the morning.  He and his father Hansi were on the way to their shark lines and it was my chance to go along and see how things were done.  But not a single shark that day, the baits were all untouched.  There was quite a wind on the way home and it began to snow so I put up the flysheet again using stones for the guy ropes as the ground was frozen.  Kattanguaq and I had lunch of a fulmar and a kittiwake that I’d shot the day before and then I slept for a bit.  When I woke up I was thinking that I really should go along and measure Edvard’s kayak, but I’d been reading about Gino Watkin’s expedition to Labrador and how they all had a “day off” on Sundays.  So I was just thinking what a great idea that was when Sophia came in to say the weather was good enough, after all, for us to go on the planned picnic.  Wonderful!  They came along in Ole’s motor boat, he, Algot and Karli.  Elizabeth was being bashful about coming but Edvard ferried her out in a rowboat and we set off, southwards down the coast.  Everyone was very cheerful.  We came up on some birds and a couple of us I tried to get one.  

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, view icebergs.

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.  I went down to help Ole and Algot anchor the boat, which they did with a stone anchor balanced on the bow and jerked into the water with the mooring line.  Karli got back, but hadn’t seen any ptarmigan so we all had more coffee, some snowballing, the young women rolling rocks downhill, shooting at the rocks, paper bags, etc.

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 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.  I gave the “serfaq” I’d shot to Sophia.  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 soon all got sleepy.  What a good day that was.

We do some geology!

Drever had asked me to find and bring back to him in Scotland certain specific rocks that he needed more information from.  It sounded like a needle in a haystack idea but in fact it worked out fine.  He provided me with an aerial view of the north end of the Island marked with the locations he was interested in plus some close-ups of the rocks in question.  Johan, who had worked with Drever many times reckoned he could find what was wanted.

7 16 Ill. four geols at tent

So here are Johan and Algot outside my tent preparing for the “expedition.”

Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, geological trip.

Algot, Kattanguaq, Johanna and Johan as we leave the village.  By the way those houses away around the bay separate from the rest of the village  —  those were the Zeeb family houses. So one of them was Johan and Anna’s.  And my tent was in the low lying area, this side of the visible houses, hidden from view behind Johan.

7 19 Ill. Geols teabreak two

Of course we had a tea break.  We must’ve hidden the bottle from the camera but the tea was well laced with Scotch.  And sure enough we were able to find the rocks Drever was interested in and take the samples he wanted which I then delivered to him back in Scotland.

Not so isolated

In some ways Illorsuit may seem like an isolated community, far away 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.  I forget which boat took us there on August 11th.  Then the Fishery Inspector’s boat “Poul Egede” took us to Uummannatsiaq on the 12th.  On August 18th the Police boat came, and also the “Pinasse” to take Bent, Kattanguaq and me to Uummannaq.

Greenland 1959: Ikerasak, two motor boats in harbor

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.  So I was able to send my regards to the Rasmussens.

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 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 (it was very similar to the Nielsen brother’s boat we used for the Umiamako trip).  The dentist’s work was done right there on the beach with some sort of an old-fashioned drill.  Amazingly, he hadn’t yet learned how the Inuit indicate “yes.”  So I watched him asking one young boy “does it hurt” and the boy was raising his eyebrows like crazy.  Everyone assumed the dentist knew what that meant but (poor boy) he didn’t.

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.

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’ve told how I’d already been there for an afternoon with the priest’s family, the Rasmussens, so it was good to see everybody, including Hr Poulsen the trade post manager, one more time.

Greenland 1959: Qaersut, kids at...

A few of the Qaarsut children with a part of the village behind them.  On the horizon, to the left, that’s the Uummannatsiaq mountain.  The photo’s from my earlier visit.  And then on to Niaqornat, also on the Nuussuaq peninsula, some miles farther west  —  the village where those other reindeer were hunted that year.  That was my only “visit” to that village, unfortunately in the dark.  It seemed an attractive place, nestled among hills and hillocks, facing north.

Bertelsen two

photo: Danish Arctic Institute

This photo, taken in 1902 by Dr. Alfred Bertelsen, shows two kayaks offshore at Niaqornat.  Interesting that two kayaks of that date show the same bow and characteristic stern design as the Uummannaq Bay kayaks of 1959.

A Johannes Petersen was with us to fetch his motor boat from Niaqornat back to Uummannaq.  He invited me ashore for coffee at his brother’s, a pleasant break from being on the boat.  This while the unloading went on by lantern light.

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.  Now that was really 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, where I was able to buy the fourth seal skin needed for my kayak, we reached Illorsuit that afternoon with fairly calm seas and sunshine.  On the 11th the “Leif” was heard, soon arrived, and I was able to send some “thank you” seal meat to Herr Gotfrisen.

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!”  I’ve told how I’d already been given a dog whip and been shown how to use it.  Now they also showed me the remains of an old sled that could be rebuilt for me to use.  And, both Tobias and Hansi said that I could stay with them!  That was really generous of them and would’ve been fine but, of course, I would’ve preferred to have a house to myself.  So Hansi and I even discussed the idea of my renting his (as he was moving to one of the new ones).  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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Kayak Rolling at Illorsuit




Table of Contents

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

Kayak Rolling at Illorsuit

Chapter Eleven

Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                                                                                                                    

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

Nov 7, 2016 for new title


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 terribly delighted with this, effusively grateful.  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, in 1959, 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;”

[Greg Stamer has posted  —  “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]

(3) “they take hold of one end of the pautik with their mouths, moving the other with their hand;”

[Greg Stamer has posted  —  “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]

(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  —  the one with the end of the paddle under the deck thong(s), though something very similar was known in East Greenland;  the one with one end of the paddle held in your mouth, which I had not seen mentioned anywhere else; and the one 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.  And, 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 (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 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.  

5 02 Ill. Jonas dons tuvilik      

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 Eight 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 permanently stitched to the deck of the kayak.

roll-enoch-looking-back_NO BORD 5_06_ice-tif

 On his way back out again for the second set of rolls, joking with someone back on shore.

Roll 50% Enoch chest scull_5_09_ice

 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.

Enoch begin rec chest scull 35% tylr_gl59_5_17_ice

Beginning his recovery from the chest sculling brace.

Enoch chest scull rec 35 % tylr_gl59_5_15_ice

Up again from the chest sculling brace with his hands now in the low brace position.

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.

Enoch begin sweep cropped 100% 7.tif  

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

10.tif Enoch cap'd ready to sweep 

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

9.tif Enoch hands together recovery

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

Roll 50% Enoch recover in elbow 8.tif

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.

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 of how a basic sweep roll is done.

cameron0001source: Adney and Chapelle 1964, page 224

Since that time a number of sources have greatly increased our knowledge of the traditional kayak rolling of the Inuit of Greenland.  

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 Heath did 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 want 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.


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).  Similarly, 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).

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

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Chapter Four: Ikerasak Village and Uummannaq Town





Table of Contents

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


Ikerasak village and Uummannaq town

Ken Taylor / Cameron

February 17, 2014, re-titled June 6, 2015

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.

Uummannaq Bay latest Feb 14 copy 2 c and z (2)

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 Uummannatsiaq Island [which now has the name Ikerasak Island, as on this chart].

        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.  His wife and family had been passengers on the trip from Copenhagen and she very kindly offered me a room in the upstairs of one of the KGH buildings.  Jørgen and Merete, a young couple I had been fellow passengers with on both the Umanak and the Juto had also offered to put me up but in the end Bent and I accepted the offer of a room to share in Palase Rasmussen and his wife’s house.  Jørgen was arriving as the new dentist in Uummannaq and he’s the dentist who came to Illorsuit that I mention in Chapter One.  Herr Rasmussen was the Lutheran priest in Uummannaq.  Everyone always referred to him as “palase” the Greenlandic word for priest.  Ole, of the Juto, gave me some more of the famous shrimp that I passed to Fru Rasmussen.

       Soon there were several of the local Danes at the Rasmussens’ and someone went to find some seal meat for me to try.  I liked it alright but, at least that time, it did seem a bit tough.  Staying at the Rasmussens’ 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 on the same boat 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 and 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 Six “Variations in Kayak Design,” and Chapter Eight “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.


       A second 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!

TYLR_GL59_1_24 (ICE)

       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 on 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.

       Turned out that the reindeer hunt had been old Jacob’s idea for years.  He was a retired 60 year-old hunter and with two friends in their 50s 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 they don’t sound to be all that “old” but in a way they were.  The Danish Administration had made hunting by kayak illegal for any man more than 50 years of age.  In that sense all three were “retired.”

       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 two.  For the 12 month period including the time of my visit, as well as these 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 hunters’ 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 event with a photo of old 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’s house for an excellent fish dinner.  He was 72 years old and his wife Dorsay 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 houses 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 “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.  And it did seem that that made a difference as there was no sign of the “initial shyness” phenomenon he told me about and that I later experienced during my first week or so in Illorsuit.

       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’s recorder.  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 old 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 the trade post manager’s house, and I met his Inuit wife London and their two beautiful children.


       Here they are, the little girl in her “Sunday best.”

Kats bro with seal 2_03_ice

        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, old Jacob’s son, and some of the children assembling Bent’s Klepper folboat that we were going 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.

Uummannatsiaq view 1_30_ice

        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 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 also 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 two men I met afflicted in this way the other, 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 a meagre 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 it was 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 dogskin 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.  We stopped to eat some blueberries.  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 Scottish kayak got a lot of attention.  Here is Jacob, the leader of the reindeer hunters, trying it out.

Ik boy my Q 1_36_ice

       And one of the village boys trying it, using my obviously strange feeling “Euro” 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 local 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 old 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.  Oh, that other boat is the Police boat that I was told was there to pick up dog food for Upernavik (the next district north).

Ik ferried us to Pinasse 2_21_ice

      The rowboat that had ferried us out to the Pinasse returns to the jetty.

Ik farewell guns on hill 2_25_ice

       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 that wonderful, invaluable week at Ikerasak was over.

Ik 2 30 Ik view back to Uumtsiaq mntn distant

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

Uummannaq Town


       The m.s. Tikerak in Uummannaq harbor.   And there’s the so distinctive Uummannaq [“heart-shaped”] mountain.  The Tikerak was more or less the same shape and 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.

5 32 SECOND Uu stone church

       Here’s a good overview of the central part of the town including the famous stone church  —  the only one in Greenland built of stone.  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.


       A view into the harbor.  The grey building on the left was one of the KGH grouping.  You can see an array of barrels of fuel in the background.  The two, larger black-hulled boats were the Otto Mathiesen and one of the other “official” boats.  Note the two kayaks on the smaller, grey-hulled motor boat, very much as we loaded our kayaks on the Nielsen brothers’ boat for the hunting trip from Illorsuit to Umiamako (see Chapter Four).


       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!


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

       I told in Chapter One 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 sealskin kayak got ready and paddled of,” 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 [how the Danes loved their ptarmigan] 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 and Merete, and the dentist’s assistant a young woman called Aase, all of whom 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 really 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.  As you can see in the next photo, he did have a hunting float (“avataq“) with him but that seemed to be for him to hold it between the side of his kayak and the rock he was taking off from kind of like a fender which made sense as his kayak was covered with canvas  —  much less strong than seal skin.


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


       Looking to the southwest from the hill above Uummannaq out to the open sea (the Davis Strait) beyond the end of the Nuussuaq peninsula.  And, yes, those are all icebergs you can see on the horizon.

Uumm to Ubekendt 9_01_ice

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

Uumm to Ikerasak 5_37_ice

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



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Chapter Eight: The Hunting Equipment




Table of Contents

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

Chapter Eight


Ken Taylor / Cameron                            

September 12, 2013

with an update on the shooting screens as of April 9 and June 17th, 2015 and January 10, 2016

and the addition of the section on kayak racks (which was in the Building the Kayaks chapter) as of July 16, 2015

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 knew 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 was 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 Nine, 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. 

       I’ve just realized that some people may not have any idea what an Greenland Inuit winter ice chisel is / looks like, so here’s 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 (1981).

        The paddles were all of this design, with a fair sized loom and distinct shoulders where this met the blades.  These were reinforced with 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 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 (rightly or wrongly) 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  — 

Goodnow Judy c and z fourth try IMG_0326

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

3 13 Umiam Tob and En with Qs

        And I almost forgot that his paddle shows up nicely in this photo.


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.

Paddle mine with Madsen cropped      

        And here’s a close up of my Illorsuit paddle, from that day at Loch Lomond.  Again, that same design.

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).

drever rolling

photo: unknown

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

       Beginning in the late 1800s the Greenland Inuit dealt with the problem 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 (see 1986: 48).  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.

        One complication of using a skeg:  from a beach, either someone has to help you get launched or another kayaker has to arrange your skeg for you once you’re afloat!  By the way, you can also see that the paddle Karl is using here has that local design  —


Greenland 1959: Illorsuit, kayak fear man (?) being launched for race.


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 One).  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.

T prep four float

       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 loop of thong stitched into the kayak skin for that purpose. Again that missing data must’ve had this information.  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.

screens 4 29 Umia Aftn hunt one

         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 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.

Otto Ottosen in 1966 resized

photo: Chris Hare

As you can see, both Ludwig and Otto still had what look to be fully equipped hunting kayaks when Hare took these photos in 1966.  In one of his articles he describes accompanying Otto, that year, on a kayak hunting trip on which Otto did catch a seal from his kayak.  But in a different article Hare says “[In 1966] the affluent hunter owns a motorboat.  True, in many cases, little more than a dinghy with an outboard motor, but he is “motorised.”  Both Ludwig and Otto were, when I knew them in 1959, very definitely two of the “affluent” hunters of the village and so in 1966, presumably, were “motorised.”  And yet, as these photos show, they still had and could use their kayaks for seal hunting.

As you can also see, and by all means to my surprise, just before they gave up kayak hunting the Illorsuit hunters had switched to this different style of shooting screen.

So, by 1966 the style of shooting screens had changed.  But 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 finding and 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  —

AAA Sorge screen TWO c and z smaller


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, “Reaching 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 on one side begins to get waterlogged 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 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

photo: Danish Arktisk Institut

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

5 02 Ill. Jonas dons tuvilik

         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

sealskin pants 3 19 Umiam Enoch sucks gut

            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.

sealskin pants Enoch new cropped and zoomed photo 26 on non vd d disc

       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 the earlier photos of him in his kayak, 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.  He’s behind the others in that same photo above.  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.  But 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, 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, pages 74-76).  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.  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.”



photo: William S. Laughlin

       This photo of me carrying “my” kayak, at Hellerup Harbor, Copenhagen, 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.


Harping Iggy Lomond

photo: unknown

       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

         This happens to be one of my favourite photos, so I’m not too happy about “mutilating” it by this crop and zoom  —  but this does allow 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.

       The following photos of the “norsaq made by Johan Zeeb for John Heath, were 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.

        John's norsaq_top

photo: Greg Stamer

        View of the top showing the two peg holes and the shaping of the sides for a right-handed grip.

 John's norsaq_side flipped

photo: Greg Stamer

       View of the side.

John's norsaq_bottom

photo: Greg Stamer

       View of the underside, showing the groove or hollow which fitted over the harpoon.  The short thong with the button on its end (see above where I describe the use of harpoons) has broken off.

The harpoon line

       All of the hunters kept their harpoon lines carefully coiled on their harpoon line trays, with the harpoon head at the top end of the coil and a connecting strap to the hunting float at the bottom.  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, if anything, worse than I.  They simply don’t get a chance to kayak until they get their own at age 18 or so.  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 “avataq” 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.

Harp heads photocroppeddarkenedsmallerplus0001

        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).

       I hadn’t zoomed in on this photo before, when I wrote the chapter on “The Hunting Trip to Umiamako.”  So I see now that I need to add a “correction” to that chapter.  I had thought that Tobias removed his harpoon head from the seal (as in this photo) as step one of his preparing the seal to be towed.  In fact, I now realize that there were three other things he had to do first.

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 Nine), 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).

avataqs 6 36 Ill. Race five ready

        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, Table 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


        A “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 Four) 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.  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!


Nuuss page 109 line trays copy trays only


       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 section on “Re-encountering 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 would have 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 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 the 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 the ice scraper was not 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’s 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, in this photo you 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!

A question 

       And now to finish this section I have a question.  Tobias has an item on his fore deck that I simply don’t recognize.  This first photo shows it best.  It’s that two to three feet long black rod, parallel to the yellow wooden spar, that seems to be helping hold the diagonal leg of the line tray in place  –

Tob tow classic


         It’s also clearly visible in this photo.

       Well, I’m stumped.  Kampe or John, does either of you or does anyone else know what that is?

–  x  –  x  –



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Chapter Twelve: Re-encounters with the Kayak




Table of Contents:

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

Chapter Twelve


Ken Taylor / Cameron

July 5, 2013, re-titled June 18, 2015

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 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 number of their photos in my Chapter Eight, “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. 

       Here’s the one way that it 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 Duncan 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.  I never did get the full story from him but at some point I believe it was Duncan who 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 (“asatdlerfik“) fore 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.

        But something here 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 Susan 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.


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.


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 chapter on “The Hunting Equipment.”

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.

Sue raked stern

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

–  x  –  x  – 


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Chapter Seven: Skinning the Kayaks





Table of Contents:

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

Chapter Seven

Skinning the Kayaks

Ken Taylor / Cameron

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

Skinning Drever’s kayak in 1938

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

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

Skinning my kayak

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Flat seam stitching


       Raised seam stitching


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


both photos:  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

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

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


photo: Mark Starr 

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



both photos: Vernon Doucette

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


photo: Harald I. Drever

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

Skin or canvas on 1959 kayaks

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

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

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

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