Greenland: Where the Kayak Was Invented

by Holly Chavez Blog

The Inuit began using kayaks thousands of years ago for hunting, but the exact timeframe that these miniature boats come from is unknown. What we do know is that the earliest kayaks were made to fit only one person, and there were also two types that were utilized by the Aleut and Inuit tribes that lived in the Arctic region.

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Greenland

Highlights: Kayaking

Greenland: Where the Kayak Was Invented

If you have ever spent time kayaking, you owe a debt of gratitude to the ancient Greenlandic Inuit who invented them as a piece of hunting equipment. In other words, the fun adventures that people have kayaking some of the most challenging rapids on earth would never have been possible if the Inuit did not need an easy to maneuver form of water transportation. Travelers still enjoy using kayaks in this region, but they are not typically trying to go fishing, whaling or sealing. Due to this, recreational kayaks have been adapted to fit into their new niche.

When Were Kayaks Invented?

The Inuit began using kayaks thousands of years ago for hunting, but the exact time frame that these miniature boats come from is unknown. What we do know is that the earliest kayaks were made to fit only one person, and there were also two types that were utilized by the Aleut and Inuit tribes that lived in the Arctic region. The first type of ancient kayak was constructed from light driftwood. The alternative option required whalebone for the frame. The Inuit also used whale fat and seal bladders to make the vessels waterproof and provide them with the necessary amount of buoyancy.

What is the Difference between Kayaks and Umiaqs? 

Kayaks, which the Inuit referred to as qajaq, were a vital part of hunting, but they did not offer any room for additional passengers. In some situations, Inuit tribes needed to relocate, and it was necessary to use water pathways. Therefore, they built a modified version of the kayak and named it umiaq. This bigger vessel was sometimes as large as 18.3 meters (60 feet), and it could transport an entire family, along with their possessions.

The Inuit of Greenland: A Brief History

Greenland was first discovered by Europeans in 982 CE by Erik the Red, who was a Norwegian Viking who had been banned from Iceland. By 986, Erik the Red had brought settlers to the area, and he had also named it Greenland. Vikings lived in Greenland until the late 1500s, but all of their settlements were gone by 1600. At this time, only the Inuit remained, and they had Greenland mostly to themselves until a Danish settlement began in 1721. Interestingly, Greenland was never fully explored and mapped until the 1800s. However, it is likely that the Inuit were already aware of many of the geological aspects that were found by these mapping techniques.

Most of the Inuit who live in Greenland today can trace their heritage to Siberia, Alaska and Canada. In fact, it was less than 150 years ago that the last Inuit immigration into Greenland took place. There are currently only 55,000 Greenlandic residents, and a shocking 20 percent were not born there. Of course, the vast majority of native residents are Inuit, and those who were not born in Greenland have relocated from other countries.

Although it was the ancient Inuit who relied upon kayaks to assist them with hunting, the area still relies on fishing for 95 percent of their exports. Whaling and sealing is also highly important in the outer areas. In some ways, life has not changed a great deal for the Inuit people, but some of them do utilize the tourism trade for financial resources. For example, the arts and crafts that come from Greenlandic Inuit are sought after by many collectors.

The most popular Inuit art takes the form of small figures that are carved out of a reindeer antler, narwhal tooth or walrus tooth and were once believed to be evil spirits. It is not hard to understand why the ancient Inuit embraced this belief when you look at how gruesome these carvings are. Art is now used to keep the ancient myths alive, and cultural lovers who wish to acquire one of these creations should ask for a tupilak. Keep in mind that it is illegal to export a tupilak made from the tooth of whale or Walrus, but all other versions should be okay to take home with you. Travelers can purchase a tupilak from almost any souvenir shop or tourist office in Greenland.

The Evolution of Kayaking from Hunting to Sport

By the mid-1800s, the kayak design was embraced by residents of Europe. However, instead of using these boats to hunt, they decided to create the sport of kayaking. At this time, kayaks had a soft-sided frame, and they became very popular among French and German men. Although this would ultimately change the way the world thinks of kayaks, it did not remove their original purpose. In fact, explorers who visited the South Pole and the North Pole continued to use them as a way to navigate through icy waters.

By 1931, Adolf Anderle introduced the world to a completely different way to utilize a kayak by using it to white-water kayak down the Salzachofen Gorge. It is impossible to determine whether or not Anderle was the first person to try this, but he is often created with creating the modern version of white-water kayaking. Only five years later, kayaking found a place in the Olympics. By 1938, Genevieve De Colmont became the first known female to use a kayak in the Colorado and Green Rivers, which are both located within the United States. 

Kayaking in the Arctic

It is not surprising that the kayak has become a national symbol in Greenland. Not only does this allow modern residents and the Inuit tribes to acknowledge the area’s past but it also serves as a way to attract the attention of tourists. Kayaking during Greenland cruises has become a popular way for people around the world to experience the rush associated with this extreme sport. Many of the people who join our Arctic cruise expeditions are kayaking enthusiasts, and it definitely adds to the overall experience to be able to know that ancient Inuit once kayaked through the same areas.

In the past, each Inuit who took a kayak into the water knew that a single miscalculation could lead to death because there was no one else around who could save them from the freezing cold water. Fortunately, today’s travelers can take advantage of modern safety equipment and the security that comes from having other people nearby. Instead of being a death-defying way to feed an entire tribe, kayaking in this area is now an exciting adventure that makes it possible to explore stunningly gorgeous water while taking in some of the best Greenlandic scenery.

Interested in kayaking in the Arctic or Antarctica? See our kayaking trips >>

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