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  • Writer's pictureJustin Pahnturat

Great Lakes Adventure Journal: My Journey with the Greenland Paddle

Learning something new that is actually very ancient

Let's go back in time 4,000 years

Chances are unless you are an experienced sea kayaker you may not know exactly what a Greenland paddle is. Before we try to understand the Greenland paddle we need to first take a step back in time 4,000 years. Sea kayaking was created by early humans, the First Nations of what is now Alaska, Canada and of course, Greenland. The Inuit and Aleut are often credited as the first kayak makers on Earth and they did so in order to hunt seal and walrus on the frigid waters of the North for survival in such a harsh climate. These early hunters also navigated long distances all around the Artic north in their kayaks.

The kayak is a watercraft designed to be fast, agile and keep hunters alive in icy waters. The boat needed to be easily manueverable in order to chase prey but also perform well in all seafaring conditions like waves and wind in order to get the paddler safely back to shore. The first kayaks were constructed with wooden frames and sea mammal hides which made them very light weight and bouyant which is a big factor in staying afloat in dynamic waters.

Another amazing design aspect of the kayak is that if the boat capsizes in the water that it can easily be righted by a skilled paddler. The hunters on the water were often capsized by the sea mammals while they were hunting and thereby created the artform of rolling a kayak back to right side up. What's even more astounding is that early sea kayakers developed a roll technique for nearly every single dangerous scenario or problem that could possibly occur on the water. For example, there's a method of kayak rolling for storms and big wind, there's a kayak roll that just uses a single arm in case the other arm is injured and even a kayak roll for when you lose your paddle and use just your hands to get the boat back right side up. In total, I find it beyond fascinating that there are more than 30 kayak rolls created by the Inuit and Aleut.

Another ancient artform appropriated by Europeans

There a historical reports dating back to the 1700's of Inuit sea kayakers from Iceland and Greenland ending up in Europe and even North America. These events were the first time that Europeans became aware of the sea kayak. While these reports are a bit fuzzy they all point to the idea that these sea kayakers never intended to visit what is now Scotland or Newfoundland are were swept away from Greenland by storms, wind and ocean currents. The Europeans that learned this took note of these formerly unkown watercraftsand from there began another thread of kayak evolution.

A German architectual student in the early 1900's is credited as being one of the first white people to paddle a kayak but I would guess there were many others before him. In the 1940's the British used kayaks in the second world war to use in stealth approaches and attacks. The British military kayaks were made from fabric and lightweight metal alloys like aluminum and purposefully designed to easily dismantled. In the 1950's the first fiberglass sea kayaks were made which continues to this very day. Sometime in the early 1980's plastic roto-molded kayaks began being mass produced here in the US. Fast forward to present day 2020's and now most people can buy something resembling a plastic bathub or barge at any major big box retailer that bears almost no resemblence to the original kayak design.

A few things got lost in translation

Many things have changed from the original design and technique of the Inuit sea kayak. Biggest difference: these days the sea kayak is used for recreation and travelling distances rather than hunting. When the British decided to began to use the kayak as a war craft by Royal Marine Special Forces they created a 4-man kayak, played around with construction materials and used a different design of paddle. This paddle design is classified as a "European Paddle" and is the most common paddle now asscociated with sea kayaking.

kayaker on big waves
Kayak Guide Justin at Deaths Door Bluff using a European style paddle.

Greenland paddle vs. European paddle

While the modern day 'Euro' paddle can be described as single bar with a 10" x 6" oar at each end the Greenland paddle resembles a long stick in comparison that flares out at each end to a width of about 4". At glance the design differences are very clear and when put to use in the water the two paddles perform very differently. Just like Inuit and European cultural differences so follows the performance of the two paddles in the water.

The most commonly used type of paddle here in North America is the Euro paddle. I'm a sea kayak guide and Instructor with ACA certifications that has been paddling for the last two decades with the Euro blade. The European style paddle is the style of paddle that I first learned to kayak with. Honestly, before I became an advanced sea kayaker I had no idea the Greenland paddle even existed. A big reason for that is all the ACA kayak instruction curriculum in North America is based on the Euro blade.

Learning to paddle all over again

It was late fall 2022 in Door County, Wisconsin when I decided to finally take the leap and get myself a Greenland paddle. It was October and my kayak tour season had long since wrapped up so I had more time on my hands to research and practice with my new paddle. Personally, I love challenges. I know that I'm at my best when I push myself to learn new things.

sea kayaker using a Greenland paddle
Kayak Guide Justin using a Greenland paddle early winter 2022.

It was a clear and crisp fall day on Lake Michigan as I stood on the beach of Europe Bay on the very northern tip of Door County getting my gear and kayak ready to hit the water. I had launched from this spot many, many times but that day felt different. Suddenly in the pit of my stomach came the very same feeling I had during my first time in a sea kayak. My emotions were a jumbled mess of anxiety, nervousness and fear. Wow, it had been such a long time since I'd felt those emotions as my confidence in the sea kayak had become very strong with Euro paddle in my hands. I paddle dynamic waters all year long, sometimes in wind or 3-4ft waves, I could turn, brace and roll my sea kayak so well that I now was teaching these skills to others but now the Greenland paddle with its different feel, look and technique was humbling me back to a beginner student level.

The is only one way to learn and that is to do it. If you want to be good at it you need to do that thing often. Sounds simple but most folks I talk to never seem to match up their actions with the things they'd only dreamed of and never get around to actually doing it. The idea of going to my grave without even trying the things I want to do scares me more than anything in this world.

On the flip side, nothing has ever brought me such peace and fulfillment as trying something new and becoming really good at it. It is my opinion that a good life comes from the effort to always be learning and growing. John Berryman, a poet, once said "We must travel in the direction of our fear". Now I understand what he meant by that: there's nothing to gain by paddling the same, safe and familiar pattern in shallow waters. Challenge yourself often in many ways and you will grow into a very powerful person.

What are the differences between using a Greenalnd paddle versus a Euro paddle?

Here's a quick breakdown of the main differences between the two paddles. In my next blog post I'll be going into more detail regarding the perfomance aspects of the Greenland paddle but for now here are the main points.

At a glance the Greenland paddle appears to be more stick like in appearance. The shaft is round and the blades are flat and much narrower than the Euro blade style of paddle. Greenland paddles are superb for rolling, easier on the body and can be used in almost any conditions. Another huge factor is the efficiency of performance in the water. With a Euro blade expect a higher cadence of strokes while the Greenland creates more power with less effort and a slower cadence. This unique quality of the Greenland stick allows for the paddler to cover longer distances with less exertion which makes for a more enoyable ride with less stress on the shoulders. While the Greenland paddle will not accelerate like a Euro blade it is my personal opinion that I can keep my sea kayak moving much faster overall. And again, with much less exertion. The Greenland paddle is also a bit more forgiving and bouyant in the water so while the idea of learning a new way of paddling may be off-putting to some experienced paddlers because the form and technique is different I would say it's super difficult or impossible; it just takes some effort and time out on the water.

Give it a try!

As an experienced sea kayaker, guide and instructor I highly recommend that you give the Greenland paddle a chance. I promise you it will be a humbling but also enlightening experience that will bring you a deeper connection with the water and after all, that's what it's all about!

-Kayak Guide Justin

Stay tuned for more about the Greenland paddle! New Greenland paddle tutorial coming soon!


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