Learning the old ways of kayaking


Ed Hopkins bobbed in the cool water of Flathead Lake.

Sitting in his kayak, he tucked his narrow wooden paddle under his arm and extended it like a long wing. He adjusted his nose plugs and flipped over.

Only the bottom of his boat was visible atop the water; then with a swoosh, his upper body emerged and he was quickly upright.

"That was better," he said, re-adjusting himself in his kayak seat.

For a group of kayakers with the Flathead Paddlers club, Tuesday nights mean going to class. They meet each week to refine their safety skills and paddling techniques. For Hopkins, 65, these sessions are a chance to share some of his knowledge about the Greenland style of kayak rolls. Hopkins has learned several different styles of the kayak roll, based on the more than 30 styles that Greenland Inuit natives have used for hundreds of years.

Many kayak techniques and tools used today have descended from the Greenland natives. Modern spray skirts, for instance, imitate the age-old tuilik, a hooded, dress-like garment that Inuit natives wore while hunting in their kayaks. A leather thong held the garment tightly around their wrists and necks, keeping out the freezing water.

The tuilik attached to the cockpit of the kayak, much like neoprene spray skirts do today.

But wearing the tuilik also meant that if the Inuit wearing it tipped over, a roll was the best method of survival.

"You either rolled or you died," says Hopkins, who recently built his own Greenland-style kayak. "Greenlanders didn't swim."

The Greenland techniques have become popular in the modern kayak community, not only for their historical value, Hopkins said. "They're easier on the joints, so they're popular with the middle-aged group," he said. "There's just a kind of growing interest in the Greenland techniques.

"These guys have been doing this for a couple thousand years, so they must be doing something right."

Greenlanders developed these kayaking techniques and tools because their livelihoods depended on it, according to Hopkins. "If their boats weren't seaworthy or their equipment didn't work, they'd either die or their family didn't eat," Hopkins said. "They developed it to become successful hunters."

Shawn Baker, another member of the Flathead Paddlers group, got Hopkins interested in the Greenland techniques. Baker has mastered many of the Greenland techniques, including one where's he able to use a 15-pound rock instead of a paddle to help roll his kayak.

The Flathead Paddlers club holds skills session weekly and its members enjoy camping trips each

year. Last year the club took a trip to the Broken group of islands in British Columbia. The club also is helping build a new composting toilet at Cedar Island in conjunction with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"We all enjoy kayaking and we encourage others who are just getting into it to learn the techniques and safety techniques so we can all have a good time and nobody gets hurt," Hopkins said. While the roll is practically required of whitewater kayakers, 95 percent of sea kayakers don't use one.

"You don't have to be able to do the rolls, but we want most of our members to at least be able to do the rescues," Hopkins said.

He recently spent a week in Oregon building his own wood-and-fabric kayak, which although shorter and wider than a true Greenland kayak has some similar features. The boat weighs only 20 pounds is just shy of 16 feet, much smaller than those used by Inuit natives hundreds of years ago. "I'm getting more used to the boat," Hopkins said.

MOST OF the 65 members of the Flathead Paddlers club don't build their own kayaks or have the extensive knowledge that Hopkins does.

But that's why they're here: to share knowledge.

"The skills classes are all about furthering your skills that you learn elsewhere," member Anne Clark said, noting that none of the members are certified kayak instructors. She began sea kayaking six years ago and has taken several kayaking trips and lessons, including a whitewater kayaking class at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. "We try to share the wealth," she said.

Clark's training was evident Tuesday night - if not in the rolling, at least in the paddling. Almost effortlessly, each paddle stroke propelled her sleek, yellow kayak through the placid water near Woods Bay.

Club member Glen Aasheim, a retired physician from Tacoma, is a relative newcomer to kayaking and found the paddling club a good way to learn kayaking techniques and safety. "This group is really active and congenial," he said over hot dogs and some of his home brew after the session Tuesday night as a campfire crackled nearby.

"Nobody makes you feel like you don't know anything."

Of course a good bit of joking goes on with any group of like-minded people.

After one member struggled to upright his overturned kayak, Sharon Hopkins asked him, "Was that a stick-in-the-gravel roll?"

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published