A cold fog clung to the mounds of lichen covered rocky hills, obscuring the taller craggy peaks. Slowly descending past widely spaced houses - brightly painted in yellow, red, green, and blue; the saturating mist settled on the water, dulling the sounds of boats and seabirds inside the sheltered inlet. Emerging from a throng of ramshackle fishing boats moored along a soggy pier, Immannguaq (little) Emmanuel glided effortlessly across the silky surface of the frigid water in his traditional hand built kayak. The black canvas and low profile of his boat creating perfect camouflage against the inky water.
Emmanuel was born and raised in Sisimuit, Greenland, the colourful little town on the rocky cliffs above and has a long family history with the qajaq. Kayaking was, and remains in the central hub of Greenlandic culture. His grandfather was a great kayak hunter catching fish, seals, and occasionally taking larger prey like walrus or even polar bears.
Two prominent features of Greenlandic kayaking are the specialized equipment and unique and varied rolls. Emmanuel proudly shows off a sealskin dry top which was crafted by his grandmother back in the 70’s. His grandfather had caught a large bearded seal to feed his family and using the skin and different tanning techniques, Emmanuel’s grandmother had fashioned an integrated skirt / top which still holds up to the adverse Arctic weather 45 years later.
In a land devoid of trees, resourcefulness is key, so the iconic narrow paddles are fashioned out of scarce driftwood from Europe. Now replaced by imported strips of wood, canvas, and resin, boats were fabricated by stretching seal skins over a structure of bone, creating a stable and stealthy form of hunting transportation which is also perfect for rolling.
Emmanuel paddles away from my zodiac to demonstrate some of the literally hundreds of rolls in his repertoire. There seems to be a different roll for any situation - being dragged towards shore by a walrus, capsizing in heavy swell, pulled broadside by a whale, and my favorite: paddling upside down underwater, beneath an ice floe to sneak up on a polar bear.
Halfway through his show, Emmanuel paddles over and I give him some hot tea from my flask. The exposed skin on his hands and face is puffy and red from the near freezing temperatures of the North Atlantic. Unfazed by the cold, once he catches his breath, he paddles back out for another round of rolls, proud to share this special part of his heritage with us.
- August 2015