The Rebirth of a Tradition – The Launch of Brooks Paddle Gear
25 years ago, give or take a few, kayaking was nearly extinct in Greenland. It was not only the Inuit’s skills afloat that were being lost, but the ancient art of making paddle gear, equipment like the seal skin tuilik, the avataq and the akuilisaq had all but vanished, replaced by the motor boat, Helly-Hansen oil skins, gum boots and rifles. There remained only a few Greenland women left whom had the knowledge and skills to prepare the seal skins, and the wherewithal to sew them together with the sinew, the way their ancestors had for millennia before them.
Back then there was a Greenland paddler named Hans Kliest-Thomassen, he lived in Nuuk, in the south-west of Greenland. He was a member of a small passionate group of Greenlanders, the Nuuk Qajaq (kayak) Club. Collectively they were determined to keep the qajaq culture alive and preserve the ancient hunting skills. A Canadian paddler, Thomas Quinn, was working in Nuuk and paddled with Hans and the members of the Nuuk Qajaq Club. Hans was concerned about the lack of available paddling gear and talked to Thomas about the challenge.
When Thomas returned to Canada he contacted George Brooks, the owner of Brooks, a Canadian maker of diving wet-suits. Hans’s idea was to have Brooks make a tuilik from modern materials on behalf of the Nuuk kayak club. Thomas brought a traditional seal skin tuilik to George and together they took the skins apart, made patterns and developed a method of recreating a facsimile of the tuilik in neoprene. They kept the traditional shape and approach to assembling the panels. They replaced the materials and methods of securing the tuilik to the cockpit rim and sealing the wrists and face with modern rope, shock cord and hook and loop fixtures.
Once George and Thomas had worked through the challenges of manufacturing they sent some of the new neoprene tuiliks to the Nuuk Qajaq Club in Greenland. What happened next was unexpected. Over the previous years fewer and fewer children had been interested in kayaking, and the skills were dying with the hunters who passed each year. The limited availability of traditional seal skin tuiliks for children, the challenges of preserving them and to be totally honest probably the smell of seal skin rubbed with animal fat were also a part of the problem. With the availability of neoprene tuiliks suddenly the children became interested again, and the following year, having trained in neoprene tuiliks they competed and dominated the national kayaking championship.
In the late 1990’s Maligiaq Johnsen Padilla, arguably the most renowned Greenland paddler in history, toured the USA with the Brooks tuilik, demonstrating rolling and other hunting skills. The exposure this created helped the Brooks tuilik become a “consumer product” vs. a specialty item made for the Nuuk Qajak Club.
An early version of the Brooks tuilik,
modeled by Steven Brooks.
In 1996 Brooks Wetsuits Ltd. was turned over to Charles Brooks when George retired. Charles operated the company as two divisions, Brooks Dive Gear and Brooks Paddle Gear and was instrumental, working with input (and a very smelly seal skin avataq!) from Thomas Quinn, expanded the Brooks Paddle Gear line to include the Akuilisaq and Avataq.
So that is the back-story of how Brooks became a fixture in the global Greenland paddling community, and in a small way helped save the Greenlandic qajaq culture. Many people have for years considered the Brooks tuilik as the gold standard for commercially made tuiliks. Over the past decade a few other companies started making tuiliks, however I have always considered Brooks the most authentic replica of the original seal skin versions, and with good reason it would seem given their genealogy.
Over a decade ago, back in the 2004 a product technician named Som Jarvinen joined Brooks. Som was put to work on the development and production of the Brooks line of paddling gear. Originally from Thailand, Som studied design at a highly regarded international design school in Bangkok. Som transferred those design skills to her work at Brooks, assisting the business grow its product portfolio making patterns, cutting, sewing, assembling and acting as quality control for the Brooks line paddling gear.
Turn the clock forward now to 2015, Charles Brooks, looking to spend more time with his family, decided to stop making the Brooks paddle gear line, including the Greenland gear, and focus exclusively on the Brooks Dive Gear supplying commercial diving suit to the industry.
Som and Mark Jarnvinen.
Serendipitously Charles’s decision came at an opportune moment. Mark, Som’s husband, is a serial entrepreneur, having run many previous businesses. Som’s passion and expertise for the Brooks paddling product line complemented by Mark’s entrepreneurial spirt created a unique combination, allowing them to extend an offer to revive and take over the Brooks paddling product line. Thus Brooks Paddle Gear, a new business, was born, run by the husband and wife team of Mark and Som Jarvinen. Mark and Som have decided to maintain the traditional manufacturing approaches developed by George Brooks, and passed on to his son Charles, and, importantly, to continue to manufacture the line of Greenland inspired paddling gear.
Som is the technical brains behind the venture, applying her education, experience and skills to ensure the traditional methods of construction continue to be applied. She is committed to producing the highest quality tuilik, avataq, akuilisaq and mittens for traditional Greenland paddling enthusiasts, plus of course the many other items of paddle gear for which Brooks had been renowned. Mark runs the rest of the business, connecting with the customers, liaising with distributors and suppliers, working out what products to focus on developing next, plus running the back office and managing the shipping and logistics.
Harvey Golden and Wendell Phillips in Brooks tuiliks. (Photo courtesy of: Wendell Pillips)
Mark shared with me that they are currently working on prototyping a new tuilik concept for release later in 2016. It will be made of a lightweight breathable material, a great idea for those people in warmer climates who are still looking to enjoy the freedom and benefits of traditional Greenland paddling gear without risking overheating or worse hyperthermia. I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.
The Brooks Paddle Gear business needs to grow. Mark and Som are looking to expand distributors overseas, especially within Europe and Asia. Both customers and distributors can contact Mark through their new website http://brookspaddlegear.com
I wish Som and Mark well in the years ahead as they continue to supply our kayaking community with quality Greenland paddling gear.
Please note: I was not solicited to write this article. I contacted Mark and interviewed him after learning of their takeover of the Brooks Paddle Gear product line. During the interview Mark shared with me the background above. I have been a happy customer of Brooks paddle gear for many years, regularly using and writing about their tuiliks and avataqs.