The History of the Hunting Boat

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The word “qajaq” or “kayak” comes from the indigenous people of Greenland and literally translates to “hunter’s boat”

I’m not much of a history person, or one for having a memory bank of facts, but when I read a tweet about the first kayaks ever made - I was intrigued. We are now halfway through the season and although I have used these vessels extensively, I know nothing about them. So why did they come about? Who built them? And how did they do it? I wanted to know . . .

The Why: They were originally designed to help the hunter stealthily stock their prey on the shoreline. This why, when you’re out in the archipelago you can get closer to wildlife than if you were swimming, sea-dooing, or transporting in any other capacity. Kayaks allow the paddler to encounter wildlife without disturbing it or posing as a threat due to their low lying and discreet nature.

The Who: These hunting boats were first created and used by the Inuit, formerly referred to as Eskimos. These people were the native inhabitants of Greenland, the northeastern point of Russia, Alaska, and the uppermost regions of Canada. My soul began to sing when I read that last country, as my homeland has a very modest list of admirable inventions, recognised by the rest of world. As the writer of this blog, I’m going to definitively say that Canadians were the co-creators of the kayak and mentally add it to our list. Woot woot!

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The How: Created nearly 4000 years ago, the earliest kayak frames were constructed using driftwood or (more impressively) whalebone skeletons - if there weren’t any trees in the surrounding arctic landscape. They were then covered with stretched water-loving-animal skins, such as seals. Additionally, they were unsinkable due to air-filled seal bladders which kept the vessel afloat. The kayak construction was traditionally a team effort between the hunter and his wife, where the hunter would customise his frame for the purpose of his travel whilst his wife would stitch the skins. But their teamwork didn’t stop there. The hunter’s wife sewed an additional skin jacket that was laced to the kayak, enabling the paddler to have as much mobility as possible without tipping the kayak. This seal jacket is known today as a spray deck or spray skirt. It was an absolute must because the majority of Inuit’s could not swim, due to freezing temperatures of the water, and they needed to be able to recover quickly in the event of capsizing. This aversion to water and need to regain posture immediately in order to avoid hyperthermia, lead to the manoeuvre known today as an eskimo roll. Although it has the word “roll” in it, it is nothing like a cinnamon roll :(