I was recently exchanging emails with an online acquaintance, Curt Gashlin, discussing Greenland mentoring. The dialog reminded me of a subject I have been meaning to write about for some time, the differentiation between a Greenland kayaking mentor and a general kayaking instructor or coach.
The majority of kayak instructors I have come across have been certified by either the ACA or BCU. Both organizations have published curricula and established methodologies that describe in detail the skills necessary to establish competency as a paddler and/or instructor. While the BCU has established paths (3 star, 4 star leader etc.) for individual skill development as well as instructor development, the ACA now seems focused on certification of Instructor development paths (L1, 2, 3 etc.). Both organizations have developed some specialization curricula in open-water, surfing, and even a traditional paddling endorsement from the ACA.
Despite the seeming growing interest in traditional paddling, and the tacit adoption by the ACA of traditional techniques, some instructors persist in their degradation of Greenland paddles as a viable tool for the ocean. Gordon Brown, BCU Level 5 Sea Kayak award, Level 5 Inland Kayak, Level 3 Surf, ACA Advanced Open Water Instructor, remarked a while ago that “There is no place within modern sea kayaking [for skin on frame kayaks and Greenland paddles]”. Sean Morley, ACA Level 4 Coastal Kayak Instructor and Level 3 Surf Kayak Instructor, commented on a recent descent of the Grand Canyon using Greenland Paddles “[Greenland Paddles are] just not suitable for the river or in ocean rock gardens, surf zone or tidal rapids”.
It would be easy to incorrectly generalize and use the statements by Gordon and Sean to claim that BCU and ACA instructors are anti-Greenland paddles. My own experiences have been to the contrary. I have found many instructors certified by the BCU and ACA who are excellent Greenland mentors. I have similarly found instructors with no experience of using Greenland paddles who are not willing to have their students use them as they do not feel competent to instruct in their use. I have also met a few instructors who refuse to recognize that the Greenland paddle requires the learning and application of some different techniques, and insist on teaching forward strokes and maneuvers as if there is no difference.
The challenge for us as learners is how to identify the people who will make a good Greenland mentor. I chose the word “people” over instructors for a good reason. The Greenland mentoring community is much broader than simply those people who are certified by the BCU and ACA to instruct. My initial rolling training was provided by a group of enthusiasts, only one of whom had any paddling “qualifications” on paper, but all of whom were qualified to teach me.
The Italian Greenland paddlers use a lovely expression “Spirito Inuit”. The Inuit were subsistence hunters using their qajaqs to hunt seals and other wildlife to provide food and shelter to sustain their families and communities through the harsh climates of the northern regions. They passed their skills down through the generations, each son learning from their father how to paddle, roll, throw a harpoon etc., and each daughter learning how to prepare food, skins and sew. It has been my experience that many paddlers immersed in the traditions of Greenland style paddling embrace the same philosophy, or spirit, as the Inuit and are willing to pass on their skills to anyone that wants to absorb them, without continuing the same gender distinctions, of course.
I recently published an article in Ocean Paddler magazine, documenting forty thoughts on how to teach Greenland style rolling. Many of them would apply as generalizations to any teaching of recreational paddling independent of the style of paddle or stroke or roll being taught. However that does not mean that there are not important differentiations in the way Greenland style paddling should be taught. Extended paddle strokes are the norm with the Greenland paddle. The ease with which the paddle can slide through the hands and extended to apply leverage is an important skill to perfect. Many people skilled at using a euro-blade will fail to extend the Greenland paddle and as a result are dissatisfied by the turning moment created by the narrower Greenland paddle. Similarly, due to the characteristic narrow blade the optimum depth of immersion of the Greenland paddle is different than the Euro-blade. The forward stroke differs too, as even greater attention needs to be paid to the catch to ensure sufficient blade is submerged, and the use of the canting angle differentiates the paddle’s usage still further. Anyone who doubts the need to vary canting should try using the twenty-some paddles in my collection and feel the different angle each one needs to be paddled with to perform optimally. Then there is the abdominal crunch style of paddling used by the Inuit, as an alternative to the use of the core rotation. How many of your paddle instructor acquaintances have the skills necessary to be fluent in these techniques and able to guide you in their adoption? Most of these differences are not documented in a training syllabus by either certification body, but instead they reside within the hearts and mind of the Greenland paddling enthusiast and the modern Inuit paddler.
My recommendation to you if you are searching for a Greenland paddling mentor is not to dismiss credentials. They provide an excellent foundation for teaching skills, but to inquire beyond them and ask people how they teach differently with a Greenland paddle, and what skills they feel equipped to transfer. When you meet the attitude that all paddles are the same, my recommendation is to politely disengage as you are dealing with someone who probably lacks the experience or attitude to help you in your learning journey. Instead seek out those passionate enthusiasts who may or may not have a certificate but do posess the knowledge, love and spirit of the Inuit Qajaq culture.
I for one hold no paddling certification, but I do have the passion for passing on the rolling and paddling techniques I have learned from my many mentors. I have the “Spirito Inuit”