On the wall in one of the rooms at our course centre in Småland hangs a small picture of a kayaker – a picture from a distant kayak culture. The picture is a woodcut – or maybe a linoleum cut, but to me it looks more like a woodcut. It is about 15-16 centimetres high and about 25 centimetres wide.
In the picture, a man in a kayak is struggling against the waves. The man is Inuit. You can see the avataq, that keeps a harpooned seal afloat, on the back deck and the stand for harpoon line on the foredeck. He sits with his head slightly bent against the wind.
The waves come rolling towards him, breaking, but not very high even though they wash over the foredeck of the kayak. The waves are erratic and he paddles in a slight angle against them.
Maybe it is a seal, but it could also be a bird, you can make out between the waves at the top of the picture.
A small picture that nicely illustrates the experience of being alone at the sea in a kayak.
Kayak culture nowadays is a remnant of a vanishing culture. A culture that has left a very direct imprint in the modern world.
The image is just a small dot on the wall at the course centre, but the cultural imprint is the immense popularity kayaking has in our culture. All over the Western world, and wherever we from the Western world go, people paddle kayaks. There are all kinds of kayaks everywhere: Sea kayaks, race kayaks, surf skis, surf kayaks, polo kayaks, whitewater kayaks, sit-on-top kayaks and probably many more varieties. There are self-built kayaks of all shapes, made with very different levels of craftsmanship. There are mass-produced kayaks – some made with great care in both quality and design, others made only to turn a quick profit.
There are competitions: for many years people have paddled to see who is the fastest, both on tracks and on the open sea, there are competitions in paddling riptides, in surfing, in kayak polo and so on, and since sea kayaks have become so popular, there are also competitions in all the things you can do with a sea kayak, all the different technical exercises and all the different ways a kayak can be rolled – all the Greenland rolls.
Kayak culture as it lives and dies
Kayaking is also a widespread social activity: lots of kayakers enjoy going out together. It can be anything from short trips in sunset on a quiet day, to extended expeditions to far corners of the world.
There are many ways kayakers meet, with friends, in clubs for all kinds of activities, for competitions, for longer gatherings whether small local ones or big international ones, for symposiums. They meet to learn and improve, or to meet others and make new kayaking friends.
Or a group of friends think it would be fun to try kayaking and rent kayaks to go for a ride a day when the weather is nice.
Kayaking has become a living part of our culture, one that has trickled down to us from the languishing cultures of the Arctic, mostly from Greenland, but also from the other Inuit cultures along the Polar Sea.
In our culture, using a kayak has changed from being something we do to survive physically, getting food, warmth and clothing, and has turned into something we do to ‘survive’ mentally.
Very few people have kayaking as their profession, most of us do it because it is fun and because it gives us experiences that enrich our everyday lives.
Diversity and kayak culture
In a way, it is a kind of cultural theft. We have taken something that is an essential part of an ancient culture, detached it and made it our own, mostly without references, and without thought of how colonialism, which is still going on, affects an ancient, unique culture.
I won’t scold kayaking for being cultural imperialism – that’s not what changed Inuit cultures.
And I am certainly not one of those who believe that influences from other worlds threaten our own culture – quite the contrary.
Culture is not a static thing. When we meet new people and the cultures they come from, we naturally rub off on each other, learn new things and gain new insights and understandings of the world around us – we broaden our horizons to put it in a cliché.
Cultural preservation is not a question of keeping everything as it has always been, but of understanding and knowing the roots of the culture in which we live. The roots, both of what migrates up to us through time, and of what migrates in to us from outside.
Kayaking is a poignant activity. It has evolved from being a hunting tool in the Arctic Ocean to a worldwide and incredibly versatile sport and leisure activity, encompassing everything from being an Olympic sport to showing civic-mindedness by splashing around Copenhagen harbour and collecting rubbish. This diversity shows the creative potential of the kayak culture.
The Jungle River, the Olympics and the Arctic Ocean
I recently saw a film of a few happy people in their whitewater kayaks paddling down a stunning river in Nicaragua. It was a great film and it was obvious they were having a fantastic time.
They hardly gave the Inuit culture much thought there on the glistening blue waters deep in the Central American jungle.
Likewise, Emma Jørgensen probably doesn’t think about that either when she wins medals at the World Cup and the Olympics. When I was on a lovely trip to the Helgeland Coast in Norway, I didn’t give much thought to life at the Artic Ocean. Not even though I was geographically much closer than I usually am.
Do you have to think about the Arctic Ocean, seal hunting, igloos and drum dancing every time you’re out in your kayak? No, certainly not, but I think it’s good to have an awareness of the roots of the things we do in life – including kayaking.
Kayak roll and the kayak culture
Rolling your kayak along its longitudinal axis is called a Greenland roll, and it is probably here in this part of the modern kayak culture that the reverence for Inuit culture is most evident. Those of us who make it an essential part of our kayaking lives can’t help but wonder why we do what we do with our kayaks.
Moreover, Greenland kayaks are popular not only for rolling – many people love to paddle them.
In Copenhagen Kayak Club, we hosted the 2020 Danish championship in roll. It was a great event on a lovely summer day with many spectators both on land and on water.
The level was really high among the participants, and it was good to see how skilled the juniors are, and how great the breadth is both among the women and the men. The only thing one could wish for was that a bit more of all the talented rollers in our country would show up.
And of course, I have to mention that the women’s class was won by Ida Nielsen from Copenhagen Kayak Club.
Paddle your kayak as you like
One evening on a trip in the summer 2020, we sat in camp and talked about why and how we had become members of the Copenhagen Kayak Club. Ingela, who has been kayaking a lifetime, said she had joined because there weren’t many rules.
The club is young and growing, and there are a few more rules now than when she joined, but not many. Only what is necessary for safety, and so that gear belonging to the club doesn’t get broken. It is a club run by a lot of active volunteers, a club where kayaking culture thrives.
Ingela has a good point: a kayak club should not be so restrictive that it limits. On the contrary, it should encourage you to get out and paddle in a way that suits you best – getting out and experience the freedom at the sea.
The freedom at the sea
The Inuit in the picture is alone at the sea, and there is freedom in that experience.
Often, we talk about freedom as being free from the constraints of a society and culture. Those bonds can be very tight, but despite that, freedom is most of all an inner state.
Out at sea, alone in a kayak, where there are only the waves, the wind, the sky and the water, all the bonds are gone, there is only you and nature – and gradually, all the inner turmoil blows away and there’s just you – alone at the sea.
“The sea is the only thing I feel as something sacred. And every day I give thanks that it’s there. No matter how much it storms or rages, I thank it. Because it gives peace. Not safety, but peace. For it is hard and cruel and merciless and yet it gives peace.”
Pär Lagerkvist, Pilgrim at Sea.