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Greenland national kayaking championships




White stretches as far as I can see. I catch a glimpse of coast and realize all that white isn’t clouds; it’s the arctic ice sheet. Rivers of ice run from a pure white blanket into jumbled blue blocks, like dominoes tipping into the sea below me. What are all those little white dots? I’m fogging up the airplane window in my eagerness to see the world outside. It registers that the white dots are monster icebergs, probably the size of football stadiums. The ocean below me is carpeted with bobbing blocks of white. This entire country of Greenland is unmistakably white, not green. I get a little uneasy as the questions mount: What am I doing? Why did I come here? Am I really going to roll in that sea of liquid ice?


I look at the view again and reframe my thinking. I’m here to experience the kayaking culture of Greenland. I’m excited to see my Dad, who’s been on an around-the-world trek for over a year and half. I’m here to have fun and play in the kayak my dad designed specifically for me to roll in. “Bring on that ice water. It looks like a great adventure!”


greenland out of an airplane window and traditional greenland dress collage


This journey started over three years ago when I was sitting on the beach at an event called SSTIKS (South Sound Traditional Inuit Kayak Symposium), a Greenland kayaking gathering held on the Hood Canal in Washington State. My Dad had just come out with a new Greenland rolling and touring design, the Murrelet, and I was having a great time rolling it. Greenland kayak instructor Dubside came up to us and said, “Hey Freya, you’re getting pretty good at this rolling, you should go to Greenland and compete in the Greenland National Kayaking Championships.”


My father looked at me and said, “I’ll design you a kayak to roll and we can take it to Greenland.”

“Deal! I know just what I want,” I replied.


So we began to create a Greenland rolling machine: a kayak with lots of rocker for maneuvering quickly in tide races like Deception Pass or rock gardening along exposed coasts, one that would fit like an extension of my body, that was designed to roll effortlessly and that would give me confidence in any situation. Now, almost four years later, after four prototypes and countless sessions on the beach analyzing how the kayak rolled, I was on a flight to Greenland to participate in the Greenland National Kayaking Championships in my custom-made, take-apart kayak, which was flying in the belly of the airplane beneath me.


Many kayakers think of the Greenland National Kayaking Championships as the Olympics of kayaking, but it’s more like a Greenlandic kayak family picnic. Nothing is taken too seriously. Spectators cheer just as loudly for the last person to cross the finish line as they cheer for the first. If an event is supposed to start at 9am it will probably begin by 11:30am. I’d been warned that as an international this can get annoying and you just have to go with the flow. My goal in going to Greenland was not to win. Instead, the rolling was an excuse to see a new country and a new culture. Learning some 30 ways to roll a kayak was my ticket. What better adventure for my father and I than to go where kayaking began and to hang out at the family picnic.


sisimiut, greenland


On the day of the rolling competition I arrived at the suggested time of 9:00 am. Almost no one was around. Every event starts with the little kids then works up to the teenagers, women and men. As an international you don’t really know when they’re going to throw you into the mix, so you just hang out all day, watching the other competitors. People began arriving and getting their gear ready for the day. I found it fascinating to watch as people pulled traditional sealskin tuiliks out of plastic bags and unrolled them in the frigid seawater. A sealskin tuilik is a highly prized possession and costs about US$3,000. They need to be carefully taken care of, and one great way to do that is to freeze them when they are not in use and then thaw them out slowly in seawater. I noticed there were about 3 tuiliks at the event and between each person’s turn to roll they were trading them from competitor to competitor. There didn’t seem to be much fuss about taking your time on the water. Some people would sit in their kayak for 15 minutes getting up the nerve to do one basic roll. Everyone on shore patiently waited for each competitor and when he or she succeeded or failed they cheered just as loudly, no matter the outcome. At first I wondered, “Why can’t they just do the rolls they know and get off the water,” but I realized there was something I really liked about the way things were conducted. Time didn’t matter. Every person got a fair chance to do their best, whatever that may be, and when they finished everyone cheered for their bravery.


I realized I really like this way of doing things much better than running everything by a Swiss clock. Culturally I am more accustomed to one’s worth being calculated by speed, strength and performance, but the Greenlandic way actually fits much better with my personality and my ideals. I enjoy being on the water not for competition but for the sheer pleasure it brings me. Watching the other participants I was reminded of this and became even more determined to just have fun on the water when it was my turn.


We waited patiently as 9am slid to noon. Noon slowly approached 3:00 and eventually 6:30. While sitting on a rock and listening to the Greenlandic language burble overhead, I suddenly heard the word “international.” The French woman beside me, Sandi, jumped up as her name echoed over the loud speaker. I hadn’t heard my name yet. A great amount of confusion ensued as we tried to determine whether I was supposed to get ready to roll. Apparently they’d forgotten about me. In an ironically abrupt moment I was suddenly hurried on the water.


national greenland kayak competition image collage: skin on frame kayaks, traditional seal skin tuilik and kids getting ready to compete


I quickly gathered my kayak, paddle and (neoprene) tuilik and headed down the dock. I tried to stay calm. “Relax. This is the fun part. This is what you came here to do and damn girl you’re going to have FUN!” As Sandi pulled off the water I lined my kayak up and hoped for the best. The fact that the atmosphere was so relaxed helped me relax. I just rolled. The sun was out and felt reassuringly warm. I was even sweating in my neoprene and dry suit. Luckily, with a mixture of excitement and nerves, the icy water didn’t feel too much cooler than the Puget Sound on a cold winter day.


I let my body and kayak work together and do what I had practiced a thousand times before. With each roll I was pleasantly surprised when I executed it correctly. I laughed when my vertical sculling roll clearly had no sculling in it, and just had fun on the water going down the list and trying every roll. I was very happy when I got my forward-finishing brick roll on both sides because it’s one of the hardest rolls. I tried my straitjacket, which I have completed successfully a few times, but doubted it would happen in the event. I think my failure entertained the crowd. The Greenlanders graciously cheered for me, and my dad beamed on shore. As I got out of my kayak, I was smiling from ear to ear. I had not done the absolute best I could, but I certainly hadn’t done my worst and most of all I had fun on the water. As I got out of my kayak one of the little boys who had won a race the day before was there to help me out. He smiled, gave me a big fist bump and said, “You a very good roller.”


The next day on the bulletin board the rolling scores had been posted. Looking through the numbers I found mine: 259. Looking through the other numbers I was shocked to see that I had achieved the highest rolling score of any woman or man at the event! This was certainly a surprise to me. Later I learned I had gotten the second highest female score of all time, right below Freya Hoffmeister, who had a score of 275 when she came here and competed. I’m perfectly happy to have a score second to Freya Hoffmeister, who just became the first person to circumnavigate South America by kayak. There must be something about the name Freya and kayaking.

The week after the competition my dad and I flew to Ilulissat, which sits approximately 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We couldn’t believe our eyes as we drove into town. The bay was littered with icebergs. This would be a whole new kayaking adventure. Some competitors from Ilulissat had kindly picked up my kayak from a once-a-week ferry that took it from Sisimiut to Ilulissat. It was sitting on the doorstep of the Ilulissat kayak club, which is on a beautiful little cove right in the front of town. Through our connections from the Kayaking Championships we met John Pedersen, a local man heavily involved in the Ilulissat kayak club. He was kind enough to give me a spare set of keys to the kayak club, let me store all my gear right by the water and even let my dad borrow a large plastic kayak to go out paddling.


rolling in the iceburg dotted bay of ilulissat


We slipped our kayaks in the water at about 10:30pm. The light was still high in the sky as we paddled out to explore the iceberg paradise. The glacier ice crackled softly, like static over a radio, as ancient CO2 was freed from the melting ice. The shapes and pure massive size of the icebergs mesmerized us. As the sun got lower, never dipping past the horizon, the ice took on shades of gold and light blue. I was astounded not to see another soul out paddling at such a gorgeous hour.


Greenland had given us way more than I expected. I couldn’t believe I was paddling my kayak in the birth place of kayaking and I was there with my dad, the person who introduced me to kayaking 27 years ago when I was just a baby sleeping in his lap to the rocking of waves on the hull. Now we were here in Greenland paddling with icebergs. I had rolled in the Greenland National Kayaking Championship and learned how to laugh and cheer with the crowd just as loudly for those who came in last as for those who came in first.


sunset over an iceburg dotted bay in ilulissat, traditional greenland paddles at the kayak club and late night on the water selfie

iceburg and bow of kayak







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