To many people simply paddling with a skinny stick is sufficient to consider themselves a traditional paddler, however as you dig deeper into the Inuit qajaq culture you will discover a wealth of alternative gear to use in your kayak that can enhance your exploration of the traditional Inuit hunting practice.
In a previous article I shared the history of Brooks Paddle Sports one of several paddle gear manufacturers who make a replica of the traditional Inuit seal skin tuilik. The tuilik is really the grandfather of the modern paddling spray cag, a paddling top integrated with a spray deck (or skirt). The tuilik is just the first of several traditional paddling garments that make up the modern enthusiast’s kit bag.
Pronounced A-Cooly-sack, the Greenlandic akuilisaq really is the original spray deck. Unlike the modern flat spray decks the akuilisaq is pulled up high onto the paddlers chest or upper abs and then goes down to the cockpit rim just like a skirt, it is worth noting that in the USA spray decks are called spray skirts probably a hat tip to their origins. The akuilisaq was used during the warmer months when the tuilik was unnecessary, it was also made of animal skin with the fur facing inwards. To maintain the water proof properties, the skins were “fed” with animal fat rubbed into them regularly, much like we feed hiking boots with wax today to keep them waterproof and supple. At the start of the warm season the akuilisaq was submerged in water and held down with rocks to soften the pelts that dried out and became stiff during the cold months. Unlike a modern flat spray deck the traditional akuilisaq gives the paddler far greater freedom of movement when seated (or rolling) this was especially important when throwing the harpoon, or recovering from an impromptu dunking.
Greenland can be really cold, so it is no wonder then that the Inuit hunters developed great gloves to keep them warm while afloat. Some of the traditional mitten designs had two thumbs allowing the paddler to rotate the gloves if they became two wet on one side. Mittens of various lengths are available today in modern materials, however currently all commercially available mittens have a single thumb.
The Inuit’s primary reason for being afloat in their qajaq was to hunt. Hunting mammals with harpoons presents many challenges, not least of which is how to keep them from sinking. The avataaq is a bladder that was attached the harpoon line, its initial purpose was to exhaust the prey, and then was used to float the prey during recovery. Nowadays we visit the grocery store instead so the avataaq has become used during rolling training and competition. It could be compared to a modern paddle float however the avataaq is usually considerably bigger, tradition would have that it was an inflated mammal pelt. Being shaped like an animal skin the avataaq provides many ways to hang onto iy, which is especially useful when practicing forward finishing rolls. During competition the avataaq is attached to the aft deck of the kayak and then a roll is attempted, the buoyancy of the avataaq makes it particularly challenging to get the kayak to rotate through 360 degrees, this roll simulates the idea of capsizing while carrying prey on the stern deck which was one of the methods used to transport food home.
Two companies offer their own interpretation on each of these three items, Brooks and Reed. They differ in their philosophy considerably which is great as it gives us options to choose from.
Brooks has been in the Greenland paddling gear business considerably longer than Reed, Brooks’s history, as previously documented, coincided with the revival of paddling in Greenland and the growing need for gear and a scarcity of authentic seal skin garments. Brooks took traditional patterns and attempted to maintain the shape and structure while replacing the material with neoprene. The resulting garments are probably the most authentic replicas that a modern traditional paddler can hope to own unless they are prepared to make their own. Brooks offers their products in a few standard sizes and colors.
Of the two, Reed is the relative newcomer to traditional paddling gear. Their approach is one of incremental innovation, arguably this philosophy is aligned to the culture of the Inuit who use(d) whatever material and tools were at their disposal to make the most efficient hunting equipment. Reed use a lightweight aquatherm material to make their gear, and rather than stick with the original structures and shapes they have adapted the patterns to suit the material and included other design enhancements only possible using modern materials. Unlike Brooks the Reed tuilik and akuilisaq are custom made to fit the paddler and the kayak.
The two different approaches come with their own challenges and advantages; aquatherm, Reed;s material, is lighter in weight and offers easier stretch than neoprene. Custom fitting gear does not transfer well between kayaks and paddlers making them really elusively useful to an individual. The cockpit fit of Reed’s gear is not adjustable instead it fits exactly and snuggly to the cockpit coaming, I send them tracings of my cockpits to get them made. This produces a great fit on the one kayak but has caused me to standardize all my kayak builds to one coaming size to save me having to purchase multiple tuiliks. The Brooks gear on the other hand is heavier, warmer, and by design is able to stretch and fit a wide range of cockpit coamings. Reed has come up with an innovative solution by providing a spray skirt of sorts that allows an ocean cockpit tuilik to be fitted to a keyhole cockpit.
The Reed avataaq has a tee shape of tape sewn across it with loops on each end, this provides the paddler numerous ways to hold the device when using it as a training aid, and excellent design feature. However, unlike the Brooks avataaq, the Reed product does not have tie downs making it harder to attach to the kayak for practicing the avataaq roll, or temporary storage on deck.
The Brooks akuilisaq is adjustable at the chest, the cockpit and has adjustable shoulder straps to hold it up. The Reed akuilisaq is custom fitted to the cockpit rim and is only adjustable at the chest where it is cinched using shock-cord and a toggle, the Reed shoulder straps are fixed length. Just like a modern spray skirt, neither akuilisaq keeps 100% of water out of the cockpit when rolling, some eventually finds its way through the chest section, however in my experience they both worked excellently and are a great way to paddle on a warm day.
The Brooks gloves are shorter coming just past the wrists, Reed’s are much longer coming to mid bicep. The Reed gloves have shock cord fitted around the opening allowing them to be cinched up to prevent the ingress of water, they are also larger allowing woolen gloves to be warm inside to provide additional insulation. In my experience they do let in some water when rolling so it is important to consider what you ear under them. The Brooks gloves are neoprene so designed to retain warmth once filled with water, they do not have a wrist closure, something that I think would be of benefit. It is worth noting that historically the Inuit were extremely careful about staying dry, their preference was to remain upright and out of the water. In discussions with John Pedersen, the past president of Qaannat Kattuffiat the Greenland kayaking Association, from Ilulissat, he stated that traditional would move their hands closer together on the loom when conditions made it necessary to keep their hands dry.
Both Brooks and Reed make great gear, your needs and uses will determine which is more suited for you. If you are interested in further learning about the history of Greenland gear or making your own you can find a wealth of information at QajaqUSA.org
You can contact Brooks at: brookspaddlegear.com
You can contact Reed at: chillcheater.com
This article was first published in Ocean Paddler Magazine, Edition 52. Brooks and Reed supplied some of the gear for this article free of charge, if you are in my region and wish to try it please contact me.