Posts Tagged With: Ken Taylor

Chapter Five: Variations in Kayak Design





Chapter Five

Variations in Kayak Design

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

July 22, 2015, revised June 8, 2018


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

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

The masik fore deck beam

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

Gunwale curvature

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


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

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

4 11 Umia Tob poses harp


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

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

photo: Sue Ellcome

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

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

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

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

plate 77 on page 362 of Golden’s KoG 

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

The seeqqortarfik

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

seeqq cropped

Figure 41 of Golden’s KoG (page 57)

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

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

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

post Spain inside ahead to bow

photo: Greg Stamer

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

post Spain along first deck beam

photo: Greg Stamer

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


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

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

Figure 31 on page 49 of Petersen (2001)

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

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

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

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


photo: Greg Stamer

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

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

photo: Vernon Doucette

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


Danish Arctic Institute/Alfred Bertelsen

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

photos: Vernon Doucette

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


photos: Harald I. Drever

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

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

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

Variation in cross-sectional design

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

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

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

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

Here is the hull shape of my kayak  —

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                          Hard-chine                     Multi-chine                   Mixed

Type I                                       1                                       6                                 —

Type II                                      1                                      4                                  2

Type III                                     8                                      2                                 1

Type IV                                     9                                       1                                 2

Type V                                      12                                      4                                1

Type VI                                      5                                     13                                —

Type VII                                    6                                       2                                —

Totals                                        42                                    32                                6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image from the front cover of 3rd edition of 2001

–  x  –  x  –

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Chapter Two: Subsistence activities





Subsistence activities

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

June 6, 2015, revised June 23, 2018


Seal hunting at the village

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illorsuit Arali nuuna

photo: Harald I. Drever

A photo by Drever of a kayaker returning from hunting

Borrowing each other’s kayaks

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

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

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

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

Children at Qaarsut and two kayaks on their racks

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Several Day Hunting Trips

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

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

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

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

Shark Fishing

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

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

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

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


Peter skinning the first of his shark

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


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


His father Hansi helping butcher one of them. 

The Sled Dogs

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

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

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


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

ik-reindeer-three NO BORD

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

The only dog in my photos of Nuugaatsiaq.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoping to return

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Nine : The Kayak Race in the Village Bay







The Kayak Race in the Village Bay

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron                                                       

May 23, 2015, revised June 27, 2018


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

So  —  The Race

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


 Hansi and Enoch ready and waiting

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


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

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

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



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

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

And they’re off!

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

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

7 12 Ill. race back Q on Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo: Harald I. Drever

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

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

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

Back to Karl Ottosen on the day of the race

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One: Life in Illorsuit






Life in Illorsuit

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

revised May 26, 2015, revised June 24, 2018


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

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

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

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

courtesy: Vernon Doucette

A chart of Ummannaq Bay, Illorsuit is the village on the northeast side of the large pear-shaped island called Ubekendt Ejland.

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

My stay in the area was from mid-August to late October. Being well north of the Arctic Circle, the area had a short but warm summer with the midnight sun visible from early May to the beginning of August.  For a number of reasons I got there later than planned so I missed the midnight sun. But when I first arrived it was still full daylight 24 hours a day.

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

Drever’s plan was for me to learn all I could about the kayaks and kayak hunting of the Illorsuit people with the hope (so he told me later) that my doing so would increase the prestige of kayak hunting in that area.  He was rightly concerned about this as farther south on the west coast the Danish administration was encouraging the people to give up seal hunting and to fish for cod and shrimp.  

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


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

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

So far so good but by that time I was an old dog trying to learn the new tricks of the basic computer skills I would need in order to get this done.  Over the last few years I have been extremely grateful to the several members of Twin Oaks Community who have helped me learn some at least of these computer skills.

Some background   

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

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

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

Anna Zeeb who was still living in Illorsuit in 1959

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

     “The Greenland kayak, although very maneuverable and efficient,

is at the same time so absurdly small and frail

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

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

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

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

The village in 1959

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

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

Upernavik Island, eight miles across the sound from Illorsuit

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

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

Getting there

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

Frøken Larsen was returning to Uummannaq to take up her duties as head of the children’s hospital. Without telling me so she had very kindly sent a cable to Bent Jensen a Danish anthropology student working in the village of Ikerasak to let him know that I would be arriving. Thinking that I was a geology student of Drever’s he nevertheless went out of his way to come to Uummannaq to meet me. Bent and I were invited to stay with the Lutheran priest “Palase” (the Greenlandic word for priest) Rasmussen and his family. You can imagine how pleased we both were when we met and discovered that we had such similar interests in the Inuit life of the area.

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

Bent very kindly invited me to go with him to Ikerasak where he was to continue his research for another week or ten days.  I describe that amazing visit in Chapter Three.  Right now I want to get us to Illorsuit!

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

In due course, Bent and I returned to Uummannaq. Kattanguaq came too as she was planning on travelling south to Qullissat on Disko Island. She was told there would be a long wait before she could make that trip, so we agreed that she would come to work with me in Illorsuit, being paid for this while she waited for her trip to Qullissat. 

I want to acknowledge what a great contribution Kattanguaq made to how well things went for me and my work in the village.  At least as much as anyone else she could understand what I was trying to do (and Bent must have told her some about this)  —  and translate my attempts to say what that was into Greenlandic.  Not to mention that she was a friendly, outgoing person who already knew a few of the Illorsuit people and quickly became friends with pretty much everyone.  

A few months ago a very happy thing  —  she and her husband contacted me by email from Southwest Greenland where they now live.

First Impressions of Illorsuit

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

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

It was only later that I came to realize that it’s the view from Illorsuit that’s so special.  I hope my photographs do it justice.  Across the sound, the mountains and glaciers of Upernavik Island.  And the icebergs!  Two of the four major glaciers on the west coast of Greenland emptied into the waters of Uummannaq Bay.  One of them, the Rinks glacier, is just 57 miles northeast of Illorsuit.  So the view looking out from the village is really amazing: an endless parade of spectacular and constantly changing icebergs being slowly moved southward by the underwater currents, melting, breaking up, rolling over to show their sculpted undersides. 

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

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

Settling in

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

Otto Ottosen’s son sitting on some frozen fresh water


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

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

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

Learning Greenlandic

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

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

Some social events

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Not so isolated

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of Nuugaatsiaq village

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

– X – X –

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Chapter Four: Building the Kayaks






Building the kayaks 

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

Ken Taylor / Cameron

July 9, 2012; revised June 24, 2018


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


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

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

The kayak Emanuele Korneliusen made for me


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


And it performed beautifully!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emmanuele b w rib teeth enlarged darker

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

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

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

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

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

1)   the beam or width.  Emanuele made it with exactly the same width as Ludwig Quist’s (20 15/16 inches).  And Ludwig won the village race in that kayak!

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

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

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

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

Emmanuele b w0000 mine sideways darker

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

Details of the bow

Emmanuele b w0000 mine stern

Details of the stern

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

Greenland 1959: Ummannaq, kayaks on rack.

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

post Spain int ahead tilted

 photo: Greg Stamer

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

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

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

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

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

The kayak Emanuele made for John Heath.

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

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

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


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

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

Checking a rib


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

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

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


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

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

gunwale templates two0001cyan (2)

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

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

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

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

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

pequngasoq sketch TODAY

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

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

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

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

photo: Jørgen Hyldegaard

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

John with Illorsuit kayak

photo: Harvey Golden

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

More details about my kayak

A photo from the day, in the spring of 1960, when I showed and demonstrated the use of the kayak at Rowardennan Youth Hostel on the shores of Loch Lomond.   This could not have been more appropriate as Duncan Winning and I had both been members of the Scottish Hostellers Canoe Club (in Britain kayaks were still being called canoes) and my first ever kayaking had been on Loch Lomond.

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

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

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

quick release cropped cropped 0001 (2)

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

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

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

The hunting gear, etc. for my kayak

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



 photo: Bill Samson

More about Heath’s kayak

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

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

photo: Harvey Golden

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


photo: Harvey Golden

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

photo: Kathy Tucker

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

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

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

IMG_1980 (2)

photo: Greg Stamer

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

IMG_2006a (2)

photo: Greg Stamer

And again, from bow to stern.

The Emanuele Korneliusen kayak and the Anas Acuta

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

“Anas Acuta,” by the way, is the scientific name for the Northern Pintail Duck. You can see how its distinctive tail made its name a good choice for the kayak.

photo: Audubon Canyon Ranch

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

 photo: Greg Stamer 

photo: courtesy of QajaqUSA

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

photo: courtesy of QajaqUSA

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

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