The History of the Kayak—an Ingenious Inuit Invention

Thousands of years ago in the High Arctic, Inuit hunters invented the lightweight qajaq (or kayak, depending on the Arctic region) so they could more easily harvest seals and whales out on the water. The qajaq—‘man’s boat’ or ‘hunter’s boat’ in Inuktut dialects—was ingeniously constructed by using only the materials on hand. That meant, in the eastern Arctic, the qajaq was typically built using dried seal skins stretched over a structure fashioned from whalebone. (In the western Arctic, wood was used to build the boat’s frame.)

Each qajaq was custom designed and crafted by the hunter to take account of his own physical size and weight. This ensured the qajaq would be as stealthy and responsive as possible when it mattered most. (This fact drove European newcomers crazy. When they tried to replicate the exact dimensions of a qajaq they encountered, they would be constantly disappointed, finding the crafts tippy or sluggish. This continued until they realized each boat varied in size according to its owner.)

 

A vintage photo of an Inuit man in a kayak
Richard S. Finnie. Library and Archives Canada, e002342722

 

The qajaq was far from the only Inuit seafaring innovation. The umiak was a much larger boat that could accommodate as many as 15 people, allowing groups of families to travel large distances during the summer months and hunters to harvest whales together.

When it came to qayaq accessories, the hunter’s attire was just as innovative as his vessel. The pilot wore a form-fitted waterproof jacket called a tuilik, which would stay sealed around the face, wrists and the qajaq’s opening in order to ensure no water got in if the boat capsized. The air trapped inside the tuilik would also provide buoyancy, allowing the pilot to quickly roll the qajaq and return above the water, while keeping dry. The tuilik was traditionally made from seal skins or the intestines of whales, other large sea mammals or polar bears.

Today, a kayaker venturing out on frigid waters will don a neoprene tuiluisaq (or tuilik) before hopping into a polyurethane kayak. Although these materials may have changed over the years, modern qajaq designs are essentially clones of their predecessors, right down to the smallest detail.

 

A vintage photograph of an umiak in use.
 

 

Photo Credit: Rudolph Martin Anderson

 

There are plenty of places to take a qayaq in Nunavut, to paddle some of the Arctic waters that inspired the age-old invention. Inukpak Outfitting offers kayaking tours out of Iqaluit, from half-day excursions that let you explore the rocky shores of Frobisher Bay to multi-day trips out to a summer camp away from the city. For the adrenaline junkie, there’s always the whitewater on the Sylvia Grinnell River near Iqaluit. 

 

There are also weeks-long expeditions, like a trip through the tundra domain of the caribou, muskoxen and grizzly bear, down the Thelon River to Baker Lake. Or a ten-day journey with one of our operators down the Soper River to the charming community of Kimmirut, weaving around Katannlik Territorial Park—a Baffin Island wilderness paradise blessed with waterfalls and abundant wildlife. 

A group prepares to head out on a kayak adventure @inukpak.outfitting
Photo Credit: @inukpak.outfitting

 

If you want to get a close-up look at a traditional sealskin qajaq, drop into the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, which prominently displays an authentic vessel, along with other Inuit inventions. While there are no traditional qajaqing tour opportunities just yet, they may not be that far off. High school students in Iqaluit have begun to build their own traditional qajaqs, stretching sealskins over wooden-frame structures, under the guidance of community elders, who learned these skills from their parents and grandparents.