A History of Kayaking

The kayak and the accompanying history of kayaking has a rich and ancient history. Evidence of the existence and use of the kayak can be documented back to some 2,000 years, but it’s history dates much earlier. The oldest kayak is on display at the State Museum of Ethnography in Munich, Germany. This kayak was found on the coast of Holland and is believed to have arrived there in 1577.  Indigenous oral tradition, however, dates the use of kayaks back to 4,000 to 5,000 years earlier.

history of kayaking

Kayaks were used for various purposes by Artic Indigenous people living in Northern North America, Greenland, and Siberia. Its main use was for hunting, as a kayak is useful for quietly moving toward aquatic animals on inland lakes, rivers, and arctic coastal waters. The kayak was invented by the Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik people. It was constructed by stitching animal hides together (typically seal skin) and stretching it over a wood or whalebone frame. Some versions added inflated animal bladders to provide more buoyancy. The meaning of the word kayak ( or qajak) reveals more of its history, as the word is derived from the term meaning “man’s boat” or “hunter’s boat”. The hunter (traditionally a man) built his own kayak, so they were very personalized, built according to the knowledge, skill, and experience passed down through the generations before him through the oral traditions. A kayak double-bladed paddle was used to maneuver the kayak. Additional features of the kayak was a garment called a tuilik that both covered the hunter and stretched over the rim of the kayak coaming to keep in the warmth and seal out the cold water. A kayak was generally built for just one person, though there are versions of the kayak that could accommodate two or more hunters. The largest known Indigenous made kayak is called an umiak could measure up to 60 feet in length.

Europeans became aware of kayaks when expeditions were made to explore the arctic region during the 19th century. Polar explorers recognized the usefulness of kayaks for negotiating ice-filled open water and for hauling supplies. Sportsmen from England, Germany, and France adopted the kayak as an option for outdoor recreation and fitness. A contemporary design of the kayak was introduced to Europe in 1845 by Englishman John MacGregor. MacGregor’s design, called a Rob Roy, was a foldable wooden frame covered by a durable fabric. MacGregor publicized his adventures exploring Europe’s rivers and lakes using his kayak design in his book, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe. Though MacGregor invented the modern kayak design, German Johannes Keppler began mass-producing and marketing this recreational kayak.  In the early 20th century, daring sportsmen began using the kayak for amazing exploits. In 1931 for instance, Adolf Anderle used a kayak to paddle down the Salzachofen Gorge on Austria’s Salzach River. Anderle’s exploit inspired the introduction of the International Scale of River Difficulty, a scale using a “class” (Class 1, Class 2, etc.) system to classify the strength of a river’s rapids.

The popularity of John MacGregor’s book led to the formation of kayak sports clubs and in 1873, the kayak was introduced as a competitive sport. During the 1924 Paris Olympics, kayaking was put on exhibition as a demonstration sport. The kayak then achieved international acclaim in 1936 when kayak competitions were added to the Berlin Olympics. Soon after the 1936 Olympics, the kayak became popular in the United States. In the US, women also began using the kayak for competitions and personal recreation. Notably, Geneviere De Colmont in 1938 kayaked the rough waters of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Other similar exploits continued to popularize the kayak throughout the 1940s and ’50s. The 1972 Munich Olympics introduced the first white water kayak competition. Currently, the Olympic Games includes ten different white-water kayak competitions.

three kayaks on shore

The familiar fiberglass (called a “rigid” kayak) design was introduced in the 1950s. Though kayaking continued as a fringe sport, it continued to grow in popularity. By the 1970s, the use of the kayak had truly moved to the mainstream.  The most recent design adaptation of the kayak came in 1984 when plastic was used as the construction material. The kayak and kayaking continue to grow in popularity as both a useful boat for fishing and hunting and as a lightweight durable craft to spend quality time on the water.

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