Words and photos by Mark Jenkins
Maligiaq Padilla, perhaps the greatest sea kayaker in the world, is being dragged sideways through the icebergs by a surrogate walrus. A harpoon line is wrapped beneath his kayak and over the bow and five men on shore are pulling for all they’re worth, trying to capsize and drown Maligiaq. Called the nusutsinneq kinngunani iluarisamut, or walrus pull, it is the most dangerous skills test in the Greenland National Kayaking Championships, the Olympics of traditional sea kayaking. Inuit hunters were sometimes hauled to their deaths after harpooning a sea mammal too fierce to subdue. The walrus pull is meant to simulate such a scenario. His kayak is quickly yanked onto its side and Maligiaq, head and torso submerged in the icy ocean, sculls with extraordinary speed and finesse to somehow keep the narrow skinboat from capsizing entirely.
When the harpoon line is released, Maligiaq rights himself, the veins in his face bulging and seawater coursing off of his greasy sealskin tuilik. Rising on big inky waves out among the deadly icebergs, he thrusts his pencil-thin paddle over his head, and the small crowd of Greenlanders on shore roar with pride.
Greenland, population 55,000, is the newest country on Earth, having attained independence from Denmark a few weeks before this competition. The transition took place on the summer solstice, the 21st of June 2009, and in July, when the competitors gathered for a weeklong competition in the village of Ilulissat, the sun had yet to set on an independent Greenland. The home-country hero is Maligiaq, 27, crowned Kayaker of the Year an unprecedented seven times, and now competing for his eighth title.
Maligiaq is Greenland’s Lance Armstrong, although the comparison is too facile. Bicycling is merely a sport. It is not integral to the history or culture of the countries where it is practiced; it is a spectacle designed to entertain fans and sell products. By contrast, kayaking has been elemental to the life of the Greenland Inuit for more than 2,000 years. Up until the last few decades, seals, walruses and whales comprised most of the Greenlandic diet. Seals, with whom the Inuit believed they had an intimate spiritual and biological consanguinity, were the staple. Seal meat nourished them, seal skins clothed them and covered their kayaks. In winter, seals could be caught at breathing holes in the ice, but in summer, killing could only be done by kayak. Hence the kayak became the conveyance of human survival, and great hunters were necessarily great kayakers.
“Maligiaq is what we call inuktialak,” says Malik Pedersen, a native of this west coast village of 5,000 inhabitants and an equal number of sled dogs. Pedersen is standing on the glacier-polished rock beside me, clapping and whistling his praise for Maligiaq, who has paddled into the bay and is prying himself out of his kayak as if from a chrysalis. Built like a gymnast, short and ripped with muscles, Maligiaq’s physique alone is evidence of his kayaking mastery.
“Inuk means ‘human being’ and tialak means ‘great’,” explains Pedersen, 25. “Inuktialak is like being a rock star!”
A generation ago kayaking had almost died out in Greenland. The handmade, sleek-as-a-sea-otter, sealskin-and-driftwood crafts were replaced by aluminum outboard motorboats just as soulless snow machines were replacing sled dogs. Recognizing that the loss of the kayak to Inuit culture would be almost as devastating as the loss of its language, a group of old seal hunters, led by the late Ilulissat native Manassa Mathaeussen, spearheaded a kayaking renaissance. In 1985, Mathaeussen and other kayaking elders founded the Qaannat Kattuffiat, the Greenland Kayaking Association. Kayaking clubs sprang up in a dozen villages across Greenland, and the wisdom of hundreds of previous generations began to be passed to the current one. Annual kayaking championships have now been held for over 25 years.
Maligiaq himself learned from his grandfather, Peter Johnsen, one of Greenland’s greatest kayak hunters of the early 20th century. Although Maligiaq’s accent is distinctly Greenlandic, his father is American (hence the surname); his mother, Greenland Inuit. He lived in the United States until he was 3, then moved with his mother back to Greenland. Estranged from his father, growing up in the small west coast village of Sisimuit, Maligiaq became utterly captivated by kayaking and the ancient kayak culture. His mother’s father spent years teaching him not only the intricate, life-preserving skills of open-ocean kayaking, but also the techniques for building traditional kayaks from memory.
“I wanted to learn everything!” says Maligiaq, spreading his muscled, tattooed arms as if to encompass all of the Arctic. “At the age of 12, I even wanted to build my own kayak.”
All Greenland kayaks are hand-made, by their owners, boat specifications tailored specifically to individual body measurements. The diameter of the cockpit—which determines the deck width—is exactly your waist size plus two fingers on each side of the hips; the foot pedals are placed precisely at your particular leg length. The skeleton of the boat was traditionally made from driftwood, the ribs and keel bound together with pegs and seal-hide cord—no nails or glue. Although the skin of the boat was once seal hide, today it’s coated nylon. Fundamentally, the Greenland kayak was engineered to be an amphibious, Arctic-specific extension of the human form. Even the Greenland paddle—excessively long and narrow—is ergonomically designed: The length is that of a cupped hand raised overhead, the diameter of the loom fitting comfortably to the size of your grip.
All Greenland kayaks are long, lean, low-volume boats that even for experienced non-Arctic kayakers are considered tipsy—although as Marcel Rodriquez, a Greenland-style kayaking specialist from Portland, Ore., tells me, “There are no tipsy kayaks, only tipsy kayakers.” Rodriquez, his wife, Jen, and 13-year-old daughter, McKinley (who will turn out to be the top-scoring roller in the female 13-14 age group), are three of only six competitors from outside Greenland, but they represent a burgeoning interest in traditional kayaking. “There are thousands of people in the U.S. who are now building their own Greenland kayaks,” explains Rodriguez. “Worldwide, there are tens of thousands of Greenland-style kayakers.”
For the national championships, most competitors bring along three hand-made vessels: one for rolling, one for sprints and one for the long ocean races. And yet the Greenland games are still a small-town family affair; a week before the opening ceremony, a ship cruises up the west coast of Greenland, picking up the competitors, their kayaks and their families.
There are nine events held over the course of one week: the short-distance race, 3-5 kilometers (depending on category) on the open ocean; the long-distance race, 15-20 kilometers; harpoon throwing from a kayak for distance and accuracy; the portage race; team race; rope gymnastics; individual rolling; and team rolling.
The Inuit invented the kayak roll. Designed to stalk seals and slice through Arctic winds, Greenland kayaks were skittish craft. Capsizing them was not uncommon, but to wet exit was a virtual death sentence. In subfreezing water, a swim meant immediate and mortal hypothermia. Furthermore, most Inuit could not swim, and getting back into such a tight-fitting, bend-your-knees-backward cockpit was practically impossible. Performing a perfect roll was therefore no whimsical trick; it was a matter of life or death. And if an Inuit kayak hunter died at sea, his family might starve.
Greenlandic hunters developed dozens of smooth, elegant rolls for difficult situations: when you have dropped your paddle and have only a harpoon in your hand, or when you’re cutting line and holding a knife, rather than a paddle. Hence at the Greenland National Kayaking Championships there are 33 compulsory rolls, each rated for difficulty, and all must be accomplished on both sides in the freezing Arctic Ocean.
Competitors progress through the series from easiest to most difficult. The standard C-to-C roll, called the siukkut pallortilluqu in Inuit, is the fifth in the progression and with a rating of 2, one of the easiest. Much more advanced rolls follow. The aarianmmillugu is used when a kayaker has stood the paddle vertically behind his back for use as a sail, and must suddenly roll with it in that position. The paatip kallua teurminlluqu illuinnarimik developed to allow the kayaker to roll even when one hand had been severely injured by a narwhal or whale. The avataq isserfiup taqqaanut qaannap sinarsuanut qilerulluqu is used to right yourself after all your hunting gear has slid off the deck and is dangling in the water.
The tallit paarlatsillugit timaannarmik, the most difficult roll of all, with a rating of 10, is also called the “straightjacket” roll. Imagine that you’ve lost your paddle in rough seas, flipped over, and become so entangled in your hunting gear that your arms are bound to your sides. You’re underwater, hanging upside down from your kayak, drowning. Then by a preternatural snap of your body—something only a dolphin or a seal could manage—you flip back to the surface. Only a few people in the world can do the straightjacket roll. Maligiaq performs it with fluidity, almost like a magic trick or a Houdini escape, as if he were part seal, or perhaps part ocean.
The most unusual event of the kayaking championships is rope gymnastics. For millennia, Baffin Bay, the Greenland Sea, all of the Arctic Ocean, was frozen for eight months of the year and kayaking was impossible. The kayaks were shelved on high wooden racks to keep the sled dogs from eating the sealskin rigging and hulls. Harpoon lines bound the kayaks in place during winter gales. At some period lost in the ocean of time, Inuit kayakers began using these dangling ropes as a means of exercise to keep fit for the mortal rigors of kayaking.
Two thick, side-by-side lengths of harpoon line—once made of walrus hide and now made of nylon—are hung at shoulder height from wood scaffolding. The event itself is like a cross between the high bar in gymnastics and a climber’s slackline. There are 75 moves a kayaker must attempt to complete on the ropes in the space of 30 minutes. Again, each must be performed both directions, and each is more difficult than the last.
As in rolling a kayak, almost every maneuver consists in rolling around the rope in different, exotic positions. In the tunuusineg rope maneuver, you must balance on the two ropes lengthwise, as if lying in bed, then flip over and circle back up. In the qivittuusaarneg, you squat atop the ropes with one leg kicked out like a Russian dancer, then twirl in a circle. For the qajaasaarneg usuiaagalerluni, you must complete a full circle wearing a backpack, simulating the extra weight of a kayak punctured by an iceberg and taking on water. For qajaasaarneg tigusilluni, you flip upside down, stop midway, snatch an object from the ground—as if nabbing your sinking harpoon point—and then flip back up.
The competition is held in a grassy meadow by the shore, just down from the Knud Rasmussen Museum. Rows of upside-down kayaks surround the wooden scaffolding. The kayakers grimace and spin, fly off into the grass, rip skin from their hands. Sometimes there are only a dozen spectators. It goes on for hours and hours, right into the violet middle of the glowing Arctic night when the mosquitoes have come out and the judges must wear head nets.
Before his turn, Maligiaq admits to me that he hasn’t been training properly for the ropes. It is an event he has always won, but this last year he was in America giving clinics on Greenlandic kayak building and didn’t practice as much as he should have. Nonetheless, when he swings up onto the ropes, he appears as calm and confident as an Olympic gymnast on the rings—all controlled power and muscle-enforced balance. He works through the 75 maneuvers, his body slowly becoming covered in sweat and attracting clouds of mosquitoes.
In the end, he scores 429 points, taking second, and boyishly tells me he feels lucky to get it. Erik Amondsen from Nuuk, a large, broad-chested, brutally strong guy with a shock of black hair and five years younger than Maligiaq, handily takes first with a score of 509. (Notably, an American named Dubside, competing in a separate category, puts up the highest score ever recorded in rope gymnastics: 721.) Maligiaq’s fame and his positive image in Greenland have spawned a cadre of young, tough kayakers, all of whom are gunning for him. The last competition in the games is the long-distance paddle, which Amondsen excels in, and Maligiaq knows he must win to take the overall title.
Like all top athletes, Maligiaq trains year-round. In the summer, when he can get out on the ocean, he paddles 20 kilometers in two to three hours for long-distance workouts, 10 kilometers in under an hour for short sessions, and a grueling series of 500-meter sprints for speed work. In the winter he does taekwondo, Nordic skiing and pushups—lots of pushups. How many?
“Sets of 200,” Maligiaq shrugs.
Although invited to exhibitions and demonstrations in Europe and the United States, it is not possible to be a professional kayaker in Greenland, so Maligiaq makes ends meet as a carpenter. He also spends considerable time teaching. “I’m working with the young kids,” says Maligiaq, “to build up Greenlandic kayaking.”
Maligiaq understands the challenge; Greenlandic kids, like all children from Tibet to Tanzania, are infatuated with cell phones, cigarettes and electronic games, and disinclined toward the outdoors. “I’m teaching them how to build a Greenland-style kayak and how to roll and how to throw the harpoon. How to use the kayak, so the kayak will be kept alive forever,” Maligiaq says. “That’s my dream.”
The 17-kilometer, open-water race is the final and deciding event of the championships. It’s a gorgeous afternoon in the Arctic: cool, sunny skies and the ever-present icebergs bobbing in the cobalt blue bay like giant diamonds. Other than the rich Danish tourists who, before the financial crash, came in droves to view the iconic icebergs, the championships are the main event in the crayon-colored village of Ilulissat, and yet there are still only a few hundred spectators, most of whom are the competitors’ parents and siblings. The sparse crowd is an indication of just how far kayaking has fallen from its erstwhile place of primacy in Greenlandic society. Seal hunting by kayak is now rare—everyone uses motorboats—and kayaking as a sport is still in its infancy. (I met only one competitor, John Pedersen, an older boater from Ilulissat, who had actually killed a seal from a kayak.)
What the crowd lacks in size, however, it makes up for in enthusiasm. The moment the foghorn blows, the shouting and rooting and running along the shore begin.
The competitors must make two large loops, leaving the bay and disappearing out through the gauntlet of icebergs. They sprint at the start, jockeying for position like horse racers, pass behind the first ‘berg, which resembles a Jean Arp sculpture the size of an ocean liner, then begin to spread out, each kayaker trying to find a pace he can maintain. The longest kayak race in the Olympics is 1,000 meters on warm flatwater and lasts less than four minutes. After a week of hard competition, from sprints to rolling to rope gymnastics, this ultimate test will endure almost two hours.
After the first lap, Maligiaq is in second place, well behind his nemesis, the young, indefatigable Amondsen. Moving in single-file, more like sleek ocean animals than humans, the two glide past an old Inuit fisherman baiting his line in a rocking wooden motorboat, then steer within touching distance of the cheering crowd along the rocky shore.
Maligiaq continues to trail behind as they vanish from sight behind the icebergs. Half an hour later, Amondsen and Maligiaq appear far out on the icy water, fluttering like insects. Maligiaq has gained ground, but Amondsen still holds a commanding lead as they pass the old fisherman, their cleaving double-wake rocking his battered little boat. He doesn’t even look up.
In the final few minutes Maligiaq begins to surge forward, narrowing the gap. He told me he would win this race, no matter what, but only now does it appear possible. Even from this distance I can see his face is set in a rigid grimace, the pain clearly unbearable. And yet his strokes remain machine-like in their precision and timing, his craft slicing through the water like a shark fin. Just 200 meters remain when he overtakes the young gun, Amondsen, who is spinning his paddle like a dervish. Nearing the finish line, Maligiaq begins to bend forward as if pulled by some ancient Arctic force, his paddle whirring with hardly a splash—then he collapses onto the front deck. For the eighth time, Maligiaq Padilla has won Kayaker of the Year.
After a Greenland kayaker wins a race, it is customary to perform a victory roll for the crowd. Most of the time competitors are too exhausted to do anything but one of the simpler rolls, but not Maligiaq. He glides up close to shore, slides his paddle beneath the hull of his boat, and performs the qaannp ataatigut ipilaarlugu. This is a roll created to simulate a situation in which you have capsized, lost your paddle—thus bound to die—then spot it floating on the surface. You grasp the paddle from underneath the water, and right yourself.
Maligiaq, whose name in Greenlandic fittingly means “waves getting bigger,” performs this roll with the same grace, dexterity and determination with which he is helping to resurrect Greenland kayaking.