Building a kayak in Tiilerilaaq

It’s fun to build something with your own hands! So even though far from being an experienced paddler, I decided to get involved in this project. We started our build in August, a kayak for schoolchildren to use, built with the technique of skin-on-frame. We follow the instruction of the Cape Falcon Kayak, based in Portland OR. Our kayak is going to be the lightest and smallest version of their F1 kayak, adapted to the weight of a paddler up to 45 kg. Cape Falcon Kayak founder Brian Schulz is a real expert in kayak building and we are fortunate to have him guiding us and supporting our project.

Kayak, or qaajaq in West Greenlandic spelling, can be translated as “on surface”. In East Greenlandic spelling it is called dsaqqit (pronounced tscha-ke). Greenland truly is the land of the kayaks. Kayaks are used for transportation and recreational purposes. In the past they were used for traditional hunting, stalking prey in kayaks, for example whaling for narwhals with hand thrown harpoons and lances. Even today people would take kayaks along, lashed to the gunwale of the motorboat. Kayak is unsurpassed, if you want to get within a shooting distance of a seal. The seal must be harpooned before it dives and you have to shoot it before harpooning. It goes without saying that Greenlanders are skilled kayakers, known for performing their rolls and brilliant survival techniques.

The way of building a kayak with tools and materials used is different now and in the past, but the overall construction plan is almost the same. In former days of kayak building, women used to sew seal skins together specially prepared to be used as the fabric, for example by chewing the skin to make it softer. The wood and fabric for our kayak was bought overseas. In the old days the only wood to be found in Greenland was actually driftwood carried by the rivers from Siberia and currents to the coasts of Greenland, in the east and west. To be able to bend the wood for the curved parts of kayak’s frame, it was kept in sea water for a long time, many months, and to aid bending it would even be chewed on. We used our home made steaming setup for bending the coaming, ribs and deck beams.

We are building the boat mostly at school. As now our kayak is starting to look like a kayak, there is a considerable interest from children and adults alike. Now everyone can recognize that we are building dsaqqit. There hasn’t been any kayak built in Tiilerilaaq since 1954. Mostly older generation would pass kayaks in their possession on to the younger one.  But there is not much interest in building kayaks, and as the old kayaks perish, the traditional knowledge is disappearing. Nevertheless kayaks were still used for hunting in Tiilerilaaq until late 80-ties, which is quite remarkable. Eventually motorboats beat out the kayaks completely. There were kayaks built in Tasiilaq in the 90-ties, mostly for the museum. So it is encouraging to see this interest in our build.

Kayak will always be one of the cultural symbols for Greenlandic people.

It’s not really about kayaks or canoes, it’s about getting young people to appreciate who they are in the face of juggernaut of globalisation and keeping indigenous culture alive. Perhaps tourism and its interest in kayaking can potentially contribute to reactivate local knowledge.

You can follow our progress in building the school kayak here:

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2 Responses

  1. Hello,
    I read your article interestingly. I was particularly interested in the kayak article. Is the kayak culture declining in Tiilerilaaq? I run a Greenland kayak club in Japan. It is an official club of “Qaannat Kattuffiat” in West Greenland. They are doing various activities to pass on the kayak culture to the younger generation. Is there such a club in East Greenland? If Tiilerilaaq children are interested in kayak culture, I would like to cooperate with them. (^^)/

    1. Hello Eiichi-san, Thank you for your kind words. Indeed there is more kayak related activities on the West coast than in East Greenland. For example Peqatigiiffik Qajaq Nuuk is quite active. But on settlements in East Greenland not much is happening, people are busy with daily surviving to put it plainly. Some kind of a revival program would be great in fact. I will PM you on that. Thanx again and regards, Kamilla

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Travelling never ends.. for work and pleasure I spend much of my time on travels and this blog is an attempt to record (at least some!) of memories made and help me appreciate the value of my personal journey. I share here my passion for all things Arctic, Greenland in particular, and some tidbits about other cold places I visited. Thanks for reading!