Pick-up Sticks – Greenland Style Kayaking
By Conor Mihell
While other facets of paddlesports have ebbed and flowed in popularity, Greenland-style paddling – that is, using the ancient techniques and narrow-bladed “stick” of the early Arctic sea kayakers – has experienced steady growth over the past decade. A case in point of traditional paddling’s popularity is the series of Greenland-specific kayak symposiums scheduled in various locales across North America this summer.
According to Alex Pak, a member of the Northern Lights Qajaq Society, which is organizing a gathering at Minnesota’s Kathio State Park on the weekend of July 23, Greenland-style’s appeal lies in its simplicity, efficiency and its snake charmer’s way of “demystifying” the roll and encouraging paddlers to push their boundaries. “[Rolling] has long been considered to be a major achievement among sea kayakers,” says Pak. “Contrary to this, Greenland kayaking has taught us that rolling is easy, fun, and accessible to all kayakers.”
What’s more, Pak points to the do-it-yourself mentality of traditional paddling as a key element that’s bolstered its success – particularly in tough economic times. “With new fiberglass kayaks costing $3,000-4,000 these days,” he says, “a skin-on-frame [kayak] and a paddle that you can build yourself for a few hundred dollars seems like a much more attractive option.”
For its 2010 gathering, the Minnesota group has imported the talents of Helen Wilson, a traditional paddling veteran who has competed twice in Greenland’s national kayaking championships, and Will Bigelow, the founder of Massachusetts’s Walden Qajaq Society. Wilson and Bigelow headline an event in which “we are all students and we are all teachers,” says Pak. “Greenland-style kayaking is not about hierarchical divisions between instructors and students but rather it is more about forming a mentoring relationship on the water.”
Besides instruction and camaraderie, a highlight of the gathering is sure to be a quirky competition involving a paddling obstacle course, harpoons and inflatable seals – a roundabout way of getting to the roots of traditional kayaking. “While it is possible to paddle with a Greenland paddle and forget about the history and culture behind that particular design, it is impossible to do that with a harpoon,” says Pak. “Throwing a harpoon from a kayak using a throwing stick is incredibly difficult and it really makes you appreciate the skills and talents of the Greenlandic kayakers who had to hunt for subsistence in this manner. Since seals are not native to Minnesota, we have inflatable animals as targets and we take turns paddling an obstacle course while throwing the harpoon. It’s great fun!”
Other Greenland-style events slated for this summer include Qajaq Training Camp (August 27-29, Frankfort, Michigan), with headliners Cheri Perry, a Greenland games champion, skin-on-frame boat-builder Turner Wilson and Adam Hansen, a native Greenlander; Naturally Superior Adventures’ Greenland-style Symposium (August 26-29, Wawa, Ontario), featuring long-time Greenland-style coaches Doug Van Doren and Bonnie Perry; and the Delmarva Paddlers Retreat (October 1-4, Lewes, Delaware), a 120-participant-strong celebration. For more information visit www.qajaqusa.org.
Also, look for a feature on Greenlandic kayaking champion Maligiaq Padilla in the August issue of Canoe and Kayak magazine.