Learning the old way to roll a kayak

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Learning the Greenland kayak roll on Flathead Lake


Ed Hopkins bobbed in his kayak on 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 in his kayak. 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 styles 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 that are 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.

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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 wood and fabric 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.

It was Shawn Baker, another member of the Flathead Paddlers group, who 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 is also helping to build a new composting toilet at Cedar Island this month, 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 to the old ways. 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 the knowledge.

“The skills classes are all about furthering your skills that you learn elsewhere,” member Anne Clark said. 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 on Flathead Lake.

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 hotdogs 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?”

On the Net: groups.yahoo.com/group/FlatheadPaddlers

 Copyright Montana Living 2008

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