I wonder, who were the first kayak anglers? The question seemed simple enough, but finding the answer sent me on a virtual adventure back in time to the Inuit invention of the qajaq. At first, the trail was hot, then my inquiries cooled as I entered the expansive icy Arctic.
Was the Qajaq Used for Angling?
The first stop on my quest was the Canadian Canoe Museum, my favorite clearing house for the history of paddle power. Museum curator Jeremy Ward took me to the beginning. “All roots for kayaking lead directly to the Inuit development and use of the qajaq.” Qajaq became kayak in English and the small, light seaworthy boat took on a new life as a recreational paddlecraft.
Ward says the kayak was invented by Inuit, Yupik and Aleut people who lived from Siberia to Greenland. The first kayaks were constructed of a bone or wood frame covered in animal skin. Today, the same concept is used with carbon fiber and Kevlar to create modern kayaks. Evidence of early kayaks stretches back 4,000 years to the initial migration of Asiatic people across the Bering Strait.
While typically used for hunting marine mammals such as seals, walrus, whales and swimming caribou, Ward says any harvest could possibly include fishing. But, he stopped short of pointing to the first kayak anglers. “When I think of traditional Inuit fishing practices, I think of spearing at rock weirs or jigging through ice; I don’t recall seeing images of kayak fishing by Inuit.”
What Do the Qajaq Experts Think?
Ward pointed me to a colleague, Vernon Doucette, editor of the Qajaq: A Journal Dedicated to the Study of Northern Native Watercraft. While I was tracking down Doucette, I dropped a line to Jeff Jackson, professor at Algonquin College and the smartest kayak fisherman I know.
“All roots for kayaking lead directly to the
Inuit development and use of the qajaq.”
Jackson also suggested the first kayak anglers were Inuit, but he couldn’t point to one tribe or geographic area as the birthplace of the sport. Instead, he introduced me to James Raffan, the Yoda of paddling’s past, present and future.
I caught the prolific author, speaker and adventurer on a reflective snowy afternoon and was lucky to receive a long and detailed musing. “Not surprised to hear you’re running around in circles trying to answer this question, because in its essence your question is sort of tautological.”
Answering an Unanswerable Question
Just because a question is worth asking, doesn’t mean it has an answer. Raffan went on to imagine the origin of the first kayak anglers. “In my mind, the history of people, boats, naval architecture begins with a log.” He explains the first kayak angler could be the first Neanderthal who pushed a log into the water, climbed aboard and speared a fish.
Finding the first kayak angler requires defining the word kayak. “If you’re talking about a skin-on-frame decked vessel propelled with a double-bladed paddle by one or more sitting paddlers facing in the direction of travel, then it starts with the Inuit.”
Some people argue early Pacific islanders hold the title. There is certainly evidence of paddlecraft in their ancient history. After studying the history of the area and participating in a project in the Marshall Islands, Raffan says, “I can say with some certainty I know of no double-ended watercraft, decked or paddled, that might compete for a kayak designation.”
He supports his conclusion with common sense. “With abundant trees of sufficient size in the equatorial regions of the Pacific, it makes far more sense to use a dugout, or stitched plank, technology instead of skin-on-frame,” he starts. Then, he asks, “Why deck a canoe when the water there is so warm? Why paddle when you can employ the wind for propulsion?”
Evidence Points to Inuit as First Anglers
Okay, so we can assume the first kayak anglers were Inuit. But who were they? Where did they live? What did they catch? How did they fish? Raffan slowed me to a stop. “Because of their need for the oils of sea mammals for fuel, which is all that’s available when you live above the tree line, they didn’t do a lot of fishing.”
While Raffan says Inuit did catch fish with spears, nets, weirs and by hand, he couldn’t say they used a kayak. “When water is frozen most of the year, just walk along, dig a hole in the ice, drop a line and Bob’s your uncle,” he laughs. Sensing my disappointment, he added, “I wouldn’t rule it out as a reason to muddy the claim of Inuit being the first kayak anglers.”
Just as the trail seemed muddy, Qajaq Journal editor Vernon Doucette dropped a line. “I have no idea who the first kayak anglers might have been,” he started. The whole Arctic was peopled and the kayak seems to pop up throughout the region’s history. “It would be impossible to tease out who was the first at anything.”
However, Doucette says the Inuit did fish out of their kayaks. He even has evidence, sending me photos and illustrations of Inuit fishing in kayaks. According to Doucette, Arctic people targeted sharks, halibut, whitefish, cod and wolf-fish, sculpin, herring and more. They would use set lines, nets, leisters (harpoons) and jigging lures. “There is most likely archeological evidence but finding and sorting it would be a chore.”
Qajaq Creators Paved the Way
Doucette’s invitation prompted me to imagine dropping everything, quitting my job and kissing my family goodbye. Then, like Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, growing a beard and venturing north to discover archeological evidence of the first kayak anglers. I pictured myself building a skin-on-frame qajaq, learning to paddle with a stick and joining modern Inuit on a qajaq seal hunt.
After thousands of years, the convenience and effectiveness of kayak fishing hasn’t changed. While I might not be able to travel back in time to fish with the first kayak angler, he is fishing with me every time I hit the water.
This article was first published in Kayak Anger Issue 44. Subscribe to Kayak Anger and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos or browse the digital archives for your desktop here.
An illustration from the 1886 book, Our Arctic Province, by Henry Elliot, shows early kayak anglers. | Feature photo: Courtesy of Vernon Doucette