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A traditional Inuit kayak at a fjord in Greenland. (Photo: Clive Tully / Alamy)

Appreciating the Indigenous Roots of Kayaking

What might seem like a sleek modern sport was actually developed as a sophisticated means of survival by Inuit peoples of Greenland.

by Chevaughn Dixon
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Fiberglass and neoprone — kayaking can feel like a slick modern sport that requires pricey, cutting-edge equipment. The truth is that its roots lie with brilliant Indigenous peoples who engineered their versatile crafts from natural materials. Inuit peoples of Greenland developed the resilient vessels and smart techniques for kayaking, which allowed them to hunt in the ocean even in harsh conditions. Today’s seemingly high-tech boats, paddles, and other sports gear owe everything to their Indigenous forerunners.

An Inuit narwhal hunter paddles a traditional kayak at Inglefield Fjord near Qaanaaq, Greenland. (Photo: Louise Murray / Alamy)

That proud Inuit history is still celebrated here annually at the Hudson River Greenland Festival (formerly hosted in Croton-on-Hudson, and planned for September 2024 in Fahnestock State Park). At the festival, techniques like rolling and harpooning are taught, and people who have grown up or kayaked in Greenland come to share knowledge.

On a cool June evening a few years ago, I packed my little car and drove from Yonkers to Croton to learn about traditional kayaking’s roots firsthand. For the first time there, I met Greenlanders like Angerlaq Andersen-Olsen and Dagny Andersen, living descendants of the founders of qajaqing (the traditional spelling of kayaking).

Chevaughn Dixon (left) with Greenlanders Angerlaq Andersen-Olsen and Dagny Andersen at the Hudson Valley Greenland Festival. (Photo: Courtesy Chevaughn Dixon)

Upon arrival I saw many people sporting the little “skin boats,” and festival founder Jack Gilman quickly impressed me by rolling one. Many participants were very proud to show each other boats that they built from scratch. I asked if these boats were built like those of Inuit peoples, and they shared that Inuit-built boats were actually much more sophisticated given their limited resources at the time. I quickly learned that kayaking’s originators engineered very practical kayaks using driftwood and skin from the seals they hunted, and that their kayaks were very slim, fitting like a pair of socks.

I stood there holding my Euroblade paddle, which festivalgoers quickly made clear they were not very fond of. “Greenland paddles are better!” a bearded man shouted. The long, skinny sticks, he added, were made for long-distance paddling and rolling.

Interior of a Greenland-style kayak used in the Hudson Valley. (Photo: Riley Johndonnell / Scenic Hudson)

During the Ice Age, I learned, many people traversed the Earth to new lands as hunters and gatherers. Some would settle in Greenland. Due to the freezing climate, Inuit peoples had to develop certain survival skills, including qajaqing. Along with fire-making and harpoon-throwing, kayaking was one of Greenlanders’ most critical skills. Qajaqing was developed to help people navigate safely around the freezing water during hunting. They hunted for fish and sea mammals such as seals and whales.  

In addition to learning how to paddle, Greenlanders had to develop other techniques to assist them. At the festival I learned that there were at least 35 different techniques in traditional Inuit qajaqing, and they each had a special situational purpose. The rolls are broken into two styles: forward finish and aft (back deck) finish. Some of the techniques are the side sculling, a move that is still used to teach rolling and prevent capsizing. Another maneuver is the standard Greenland roll or sweep roll. My personal favorite is the storm roll; it’s a great roll in high winds and choppy water that allows the paddler to very quickly recover after capsizing.

Maligiaq Padilla (left) helps work on a kayak frame at the Hudson Valley Greenland Festival. (Photo: Courtesy Jack Gilman)

As sundown approached on the festival’s first day, I went into the pavilion to hear talks on Greenland culture and the competition. Greenland kayaking legend Maligiaq Padilla sat down and described many of the rolls based on word translation from Kalaallisut, a Greenlandic Inuit language, to English. 

The next day, we went down to the water to practice some of the skills. The water was pretty chilly, and someone recommended I put on more gear. One of the guys handed me a Tuiliq and said Inuit peoples used it to keep them warm when they rolled.

Traditional Inuit kayaks racked in Illulisat, Greenland. (Photo: Ashley Cooper Pics / Alamy Stock Photo)

Later I read about this in David Crantz’s 1767 book, The History of Greenland. “When they travel by sea, they put on as a great-coat over their common garment, a [tuelik], a black, smooth seal’s hide, that keeps out water,” Crantz wrote. When I tried on the modern version, which is made with neoprene, it sealed around the cockpit rim of my boat like a spray skirt does and on my wrists and around my face, keeping the water from getting onto my body. 

As the day went on, I practiced throwing the harpoon, a spear-like projectile used to hunt large fish or marine mammals. The harpoon was accompanied by a norsaq, which acted as a trigger to hold and release the spear. The norsaq is also used for rolling qajaqs as well. 

The annual Hudson River Greenland Festival includes instruction on how to execute traditional kayak-rolling maneuvers. (Video: YouTube)

After dinner I went inside to capture a rope gymnastics demonstrations — another integral part of Inuit cultures. The sport helps to build balance, strength, flexibility, and oh, yes — pain tolerance. Rope gymnastics builds calluses in the hands, which are very useful for kayak hunters.

I volunteered to try the most basic moves. It was difficult, to say the least — it felt like I was going to blow my shoulders out. I could only imagine how dedicated Inuit peoples had to be in order to use kayak hunting as their primary means of survival. “Sometimes [hunters] tie a cord to the beam of a house, suspend themselves to it by foot and arm, and throw themselves into many artful postures like rope-dancers,” Crantz wrote.

Along with fire-making and harpoon-throwing, kayaking was one of the most critical skills Greenlanders developed. (Photo: Wili Hybrid / Flickr)

While kayaking was developed as a means to hunt and survive, today kayaking has evolved into more of a way to venture into the wilderness. To reconnect with the water that flows through and around the earth. Equally important is the connection it forms to ourselves, and to the creatures that populate the seas and land on a deeper level. 

I hope to travel to Greenland and kayak there among the masters someday. My journey of learning more and appreciating this Indigenous history started here in the Hudson Valley, but it is still just beginning.

Dixon and some fellow Hudson Valley Greenland Festival participants hope to travel to Greenland one day to appreciate for themselves where kayaking was developed. (Photo: Mauritius Images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)
Chevaughn Dixon is a professional sea kayaker with 12 years of experience guiding and teaching. He is director of the Hudson River Riders, a program providing youth and people of color with outdoor access in Yonkers, and he has introduced more than 5,000 people to paddle sport in the NYC area. 

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Our mission is to immerse you in the storied history, fresh happenings, and coming solutions for making the Hudson Valley greener and more livable long-term.

Viewfinder is published by Scenic Hudson, the celebrated nonprofit credited with launching the modern grassroots environmental movement in 1963. With over 25,000 passionate supporters, Scenic Hudson’s mission is to sustain and enhance the Hudson Valley’s inspirational beauty and health for generations to come. Viewfinder supports that mission, because the better people understand what makes this place special, the more they will invest in protecting it. 

Keep up with the latest stories by subscribing to Scenic Hudson’s monthly digital newsletter, and connect with us on social via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Threads.

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Lynn Freehill-Maye
Managing Editor
editorial@scenichudson.org 

Riley Johndonnell
Director Creative Strategies & Communications
rjohndonnell@scenichudson.org

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  • Illustrators, we commission artwork on the regular. Drop us a note with some of the beauty you’ve created.
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