The History of Kayaking
Paddling in Kit’s kayaks is a present day celebration of an ancient aboriginal invention. There is no date marking the birth of the kayak but it is estimated that North America’s aborigines kayaked the Arctic over 5,000 years ago. Inuit people are most commonly credited with the arrival of the kayak, and while the exact birthplace of kayaks is uncertain, Aleutian hunters are thought to be among the original users of these boats.
The original kayaks looked very similar to the glass, Kevlar, and plastic boats we paddle today except they were made with different materials. The initial kayaks likely had a wood frame with a sealskin deck. Spray skirts, also made of animal skin, were then sewn to the deck of the boat in order to keep chilly Arctic water out of the cabin and to better insulate the rider. This meant that the Inuit were in essence, an extension of their boats, increasing the importance of expert maneuverability. The Inuit had to be able to roll their boats upright if they flipped over as a safety measure; this maneuver has since been nicknamed “the Eskimo roll.” The boats paddled by Inuit people were hunting tools. The quiet approach of a kayak made it a sleek and ideal hunting vessel. Sometimes Inuit hunters would even drape a white cloth into the water from the front of the boat to make it look like a floating chunk of ice.
It is storied that when Russians came into contact with Aleutian kayak hunters in the 1700’s, they were so impressed with their capabilities that they returned to exploit the Aleutians for trading purposes. They kidnapped these talented hunters and took them to destinations throughout Coastal North America to hunt for sea otter skins and other trade-worthy materials. Under the imprisonment of Russian traders, Aleutians hunted the sea otter to extinction in the waters south of Alaska: a sad testament to Aleut hunting abilities.
Kayaks were not introduced as a recreational toy until the middle of the nineteenth century. This introduction came in the form of a boat called “the Rob Roy.” In 1845, Britain’s John MacGregor commissioned the construction of a series of cedar and oak decked canoes. In a Rob Roy, MacGregor explored rivers and lakes throughout Europe and recounted his adventures in a book called “A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe.” In the introduction to the book, MacGregor stated that his objective was to introduce people to a new mode of traveling on the continent. The book was a best-seller and shortly after its release, paddling became a popular pastime throughout Europe. MacGregor did not note the aboriginal lineage of the “Rob Roy” in his book but his design was based off sketches of Inuit kayaks.
The evolution of the kayak has continued steadily since the “Rob Roy” and the popularity of the sport has grown exponentially as kayak designs have become increasingly advanced. In 1873, MacGregor and his Canoe Club introduced paddling as a competitive sport with a regatta. In 1924, kayaking was introduced as a demonstration sport in Paris at the Eighth Olympiad and in 1936, the sport returned to the Olympics as a full medal sport. Whitewater slalom kayaking was later added as another Olympic sport for paddlers to compete on the world stage.
A milestone in the structural evolution of the kayak came in the 1950’s when the first fiberglass boat was introduced. Since this milestone, builders have been able to make sturdy boats that weigh less and are extremely versatile. In 1984, the first plastic kayaks were made. Kevlar is another increasingly popular boat building material that is very strong but also lightweight. Anyone who has gone paddling in recent years has most likely been in a boat made of either fiberglass, plastic or Kevlar.
Kayaks today serve as the world’s most popular self-propelled watercraft. People use kayaks as a way to explore the water in rivers, lakes and oceans throughout the world and our home, British Columbia, is often listed as one of the planet’s best places to paddle. In fact, British Columbia is steadily and stealthily gaining a reputation as a mecca of sea kayaking in North America.