Kajait and Ice: It Happened

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Kajait (kayaks, ha-yait) use around spring and winter ice was normal for Inuit in northern Labrador, though that concept likely appears foreign and unfounded today to many. I will use many examples to refute this thought, at the risk of repetition. While ice and freezing temperatures bring dangers that restrict the use of Kajait, they remain valuable tools for accessing animals and hunting throughout the year. Though hunting with Kajait greatly increased productivity, which is why it was worth doing, intense survival stories present a memorable perspective. A great deal of information exists on the subject of Kajak (kayak, ha-yak) use in winter and spring, yet, only small a small part is used here. Today Labrador Inuit themselves rarely get to create the narrative around the Labrador Kajak. Without an Inuit voice much detail is lost.


Inuit use of flats, for generations, to hunt at ice edges and tidal currents areas demonstrate an adoption of combining ice to watercraft. To the Inuit, placing a flat onto a Kamutik to go seal hunting is normal or a normal concept. Nunatsiavummiut (people from Nunatsiavut) use flats today probably because they take less paddling experience, they are easier and faster to load, there is higher access to construction material, and skidooo engines make it easier to transport the extra weight. 

Kajak use around ice takes into account five considerations: direct connection to Kajak from a young age, confidence in reading outdoor conditions, paddling speed, speed of potential tidal currents or wind waves and the necessity of hunting. 

Primary research undertaken by Nunatsiavut Government, Department of Language, Culture, and Tourism has begun detailed interviews with elders born in 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s in Hebron, Nachvak, and Killinik, a time and place when sealskin Kajait were used. This provides further evidence of Kajak use around ice in spring and winter. The interviews were independent of each other. The author’s skill and personal paddling at ice edges adds clarity to understanding their viewpoints. 

Written records point heavily to Kajak use around ice. Our Footprints are Everywhere (1977), Labrador Eskimo Settlement of the Early Contact Period (1974), and Online Periodical Accounts from the Moravian Missionaries all give many examples and stories of Kajak use in the spring and winter months. Periodical Accounts are referred to in this paper as PA. 

Getting onto water from ice edge has similarities to launching in summer. One must do seal launches by pointing the bow over water, putting the cockpit or tipping point near the ice edge, wiggling forward and pushing, then paddling forward in the water. Bearded sealskin is the most appropriate sealskin to withstand this wear. Exiting the Kajak is slightly trickier. One way, with a long bow, is to paddle forward and up over the ice while leaning backward to angle the bow up higher. The Kajak can also be dismounted by bringing the Kajak parallel to the ice edge and crawling outward on top of the ice while keeping a heel hooked into the cockpit, and then a hand so that the boat can be pulled up onto the ice.

Nunatsiavut Kajak Program 


Build up

Inuit sat both in and on Kajait since their early childhood. Being immersed in Kajak use gave people the expertise and confidence to approach using Kajait in more trying circumstances. Tom Angnatok, born in 1946 near Kuujjuaq and of Nain since 1962, recalls, “I remember my Daddy’s Kajak… and I used to be on with him.” They continually honed their paddling skills throughout teenage years. Lucas Ittulak, was born near Kangiqsualujjuaq in 1940, lived in Killinik, but was primarily raised in Hebron. When asked about when people started paddling Lucas comments, “sugusiunituamit KajaliutauKattalautut omatsusiutualigami omanesiutuilimata” (young people would use Kajak more after they developed land hunting skills). As they became better paddlers they became junior hunting partners as young adults. Tivi Etok, who was born in Nachvak Fiord in 1928 and hunted extensively with Kajak, was asked through interpreter Sandy Etok, “ikajuksamataga omajunialimata maleksutet…?” (did you use to help out hunting animals and follow by Kajak?). Tivi responded, “taima kisiani sugusita” (it was the way to hunt as you grew). 

Inuit engaged in more dangerous activities beyond paddling in cold temperatures. Numerous quotes and written text support this. Examples include hunting very dangerous prey: “a great white bear took to the water immediately and was killed by the Eskimos [Inuit], after much trouble" (Taylor, 1974, p. 49). Paul Nochasak was born in 1937 and grew up between Napaktok Bay near Hebron and Ramah Bay, within the Torngat Mountains. In an orally recorded interview Paul Nochasak was asked, “atatait nanunniasimajuk Kajakogoni?” (did your dad hunt polar bear from Kajak?) through interpreter Eva Nochasak. Paul replied, “yeah taima pinaKatluni Kajakut nanuk, puijek” (my dad hunted polar bear and seals from Kajak). Willie Etok, born around Nachvak Fiord in 1937, talk about uses of Kajak. When asked, “ilane nanungu supatalugumajuit?” (did they sometimes hunt polar bears?) and responded “nanuknutauKattasimanijut.” (they would hunt polar bears) [by kayak].


Walrus hunting was dangerous, as can be inferred from the following Okak account. In the spring of 1844 Inuit caught 10 walrus and several had their kayaks upset and torn by the walruses (Taylor 1974, p. 47). In the same interview Paul Nochasak was asked, “Kajaku aiviKattalaukisi?” (did your dad hunt walrus from Kajak?) Paul Nochasak replied, “Atata pinniaKattalauta Kilalugak, aivik” (my dad hunted beluga and walrus from Kajak). So one can see that the Kajak use from young age led to a very broad range of capability beyond paddling in cold temperatures. 

Inuit paddled from Nain to Hopedale, 185 km, considered a normal two day trip in summer. This tells us Inuit sustainably paddled Kajait at 10 km/hr, and likely faster in shorter bursts. When Paul Nochasak was asked about Kajaktravel, “atatait, atatsiak, asingiKajaKalauktong” (did your dad and grandfather travel by Kajak)? Paul Nochasak: “yah, all day Ramah-imi, Hebronilauktuk Kajakkut uivak” (in one day he would travel from Ramah to Hebron, around the capes). The distance from Hebron to Ramah in today’s terms is 100 kilometers, nearly all exposed ocean. This showed they had power to navigate moving water and familiarity with rougher water. 

In spite of cold temperatures, sea ice does not freeze at most of the polynyas in northern Labrador which have currents of four nautical miles per hour (1 knot means 1.85 kilometers) or faster. Some of the more notable and stronger tidal current areas run at five to six nautical miles per hour. Tidal currents move in cycles of roughly six hours for most of the world. The current begins as slack, generally (not always) rises to full speed in three hours, and spends the next three hours decreasing to slack before switching directions (Marleau et al. 2010). 

With patience and/or a deeper understanding of the environment, hunting at slack is relatively easy. Killinek Island, at the northern end of Labrador, has currents moving up to 11 nautical miles an hour. Except for Rigolet, this sets the pinnacle of understanding tidal current movements in Labrador. Tidal currents are generated by huge areas of water funneled through constrictions created by land masses. This funneling accelerates the water. Minnie Annanack remembers hunters using Kajait. Minnie Annanack was born in Killinek in 1940. When asked through interpreter Maggie Annanack, Minnie responded, “Kajaktutuit taunna sikuni Kukipaulaujamata amisualu Kakava aitsuti takunniasutik tauna sikunut alliatsutualukKattasimavit… Kattasimavunga.” (we, I, used to be so happy when we heard gun shot from people hunting by Kajak at the ice edge).

Familiarity and comfort with ice, wind, and tidal current comes from being taught and through analysis of personal experiences. Ice edge, sina, is wind dependent. Sina ranges from offshore to protected coves. Large waves from the open ocean can shatter kilometers of ice off, within a day. Though ice may be rebuilt in a few days with cold temperatures. Jerry Tuglavina, born in 1945 and raised in Hebron also remembers sina use: “upingâmi tupaitamisi sikuk aullatuamat Kajatâtlunikua” (in the springtime they would take by and hunt by the ice edge by Kajak).

Them Days Photo Archive

Our Footprints are Everywhere gives an example of catching food. “The hunters still stalked basking seals on the ice and hunted them with kayaks in open water at the sina (Brice Bennett, p. 53). Though in a different language, the written record corresponds to the oral recollection. John Jararuse, born 1947, in Silupâk, north of Hebron was also asked about Kajak knowledge in Nunatsiavut’s Division of Culture collection. Interpreter Ernestina Ittulak: “taKali tusaumaungapit Kajait Kangatuinak atautsuklaungamalatta?” (have you heard if people use Kajait all the time?). John responded, “kisiani atuluKu ukiumit sinaliatuama atlunatana” (at winter time they would use the Kajak to go seal hunting by the ice edge). Again, the Kajak was a useful tool in three to four seasons, not just two. 


Sometimes hunting around ice provided an abundance of food, which is why it was worth doing despite added risks. A key example comes from Taylor’s thesis: “In Okak Harbour in early December, men left their kayaks at Nauyasiorvik to go seal hunting. Within three days they caught 30 seals” (Taylor, 1974, p. 35). Another source taken from the Moravian archives: “in Hebron, using the sina in late spring, Inuit would place kayaks on a sledge and go out until open sea. While they were hunting from kayaks a boy would take care of the dogs.” (Weiler et al. 1881, p. 588). When there were no stores and no money it was especially important to hunt year round with all the hunting tools. 


A Kajak combined with a Kamutik increased traveling ability over different surfaces. An example comes from Okak diaries on July 1st 1885. The passage reads: “ice closed the entrance for several days. Inuit wanting to return to the settlement fastened a sledge to the bottom of their kayak. They rowed up to the frozen ice, pushed their sledge and kayak over it and began paddling again.” (PA Vol. 33, p. 478) Again this corresponds to the oral record, a record seeped into Inuit land. Lucas comments on Kajak and winter use when asked by Noah Nochasak through Ernestina Ittulak: “taKali ikKaumaungapit upingâsami ukiatsamaluni Kajak atutauKattalaungini?” (did those people, do you remember in the spring and fall, did they have their Kajak accessible)? Lucas Ittulak comments “sinami, sinak pinasualimat. Ukiumigumalumat sinaKataumat Kamuti Kânganitlugu Kajak.” (by the sina they would hunt. In the winter they would put their Kajak on top of their Kamutik, to bring with them hunting). The ability to switch between capabilities on the surfaces of ice to the surface of water was important. 

Kajait blend into the water and are much less noticeable than a boat. This may have been why in the pre-settlement period, Inuit usually hunted seals from Kajait in patches of open water or while they were basking on the ice. Tivi Etok was asked through interpreter Mary Matthew Annanack: “siku Kangatilugu attutauKattasimajut Kajak?” (when did they use Kajak around sea ice?). He responded: “â, sikuKatlamatai siku Kaummaju imait imakkotu una aullatamat” (yes, they would use Kajak by sea ice where there is water).

Avataq Cultural Insitute Archives. Ungava Bay, 1950s 

The Nain Diary once reported that thin ice was forming in different places and "when the men go hunting, thin ice forms on their pautik [kayak paddle] blades and their kayaks" (N.D. 26.11.81 ). The Okak Diary once mentioned that while Okak Harbour had frozen over, men left their kayaks at Nauyasiorvik because there was still open water for sealing in Kivalekh Bay (Okak Diary 3.12.81; p. 51). When asked by translator Matthew Etok: “Kajataimaunga atuktauvalamimat sila pitsiatigitsigu tanna Kajak nuitainasuapalaut ufaluni ukiumimaungalamat nuituinnak satualami angutet?” (did Inuit use Kajak year in all the seasons?) Willie Etok replied, “ukiukulu atumaitaimi imapvik pingasaluk sinanut” (they would hunt in the ocean at the ice edge in winter too). 

Inuit used tactics similar to hunting caribou at lakes in summer to occasionally herd caribou off sea ice edges and overtake them in the water. “Two caribou were seen on the ice on our bay. Pualo went after them with his kayak, the ice being broken in places, and hunted from one piece of ice to another until they were weary” (Turner, 1974, P. 48). It was especially valuable to hunt caribou this way before guns as caribou could be overtaken by water but were difficult to get close enough to by land. 

Spring was a good time for hunting caribou. Occasionally small bands of them came out of the interior to feed near the salt water and in the islands. They could be herded from the ice into open water and easily killed from Kajait. Once the ice started to break up they could be frightened off the floating ice-pans and pursued in Kajait, just as in the open-water season (Taylor, 1974 p. 56).

Avataq Cultural Institute Archives. Ungava Bay, 1950s


Close calls have three similarities: ice fields chunks, new ice forming and cutting off Kajait from land, and strong winds that blew Kajattet (kayakers, ha-yat-teet) offshore. These similarities also came in combinations.

            Sometimes hunting occurred with fields of ice chunks in the water. This held special risk as ice is a heavy solid substance that can be readily moved in the water by wind and current. Missionaries who were a Kajaktik (kayaker, ha-ya-tik) may have been at greater risk as their lack of childhood training tended to leave them with much less Kajak experience. A story from Hopedale, in early May, recounts a missionary going out into a field of ice chunks during calm weather. A wind rose from the north, crowding ice around his kayak. He was stuck out in violent rain and wound up sleeping in his kayak in the drifting ice (Extracts of the Diary of Hopedale, 1842-1843 p. 82). A similar story happened in the month of December in 1849 to a young Inuk man named Jonathan. “Lots of ice rapidly covered the coast and carried Jonathan away. Jonathan was caught in a storm in the ice and was in every moment during the night in danger of being crushed. His paddle had broken” (PA 1849, Vol. 19, p. 121-122). Missionaries and young Inuit men were not as likely to be familiar with environment which worked against them. 


            These times were also marred by dangers that exist around ice. A story of intense survival captures this. 

“In Hebron in early December [1880], Simeon’s path home was blocked by fields of ice and he spent the night out in Kajak. In poor clothes, and for three days he tried to make it back home. On the fourth day he came close, however he was carried out to open sea and managed to survive the strong swells that night. On the fifth day he made it back to everyone’s amazement.” (PA 1878-1881, Vol. 31, p. 447)


Another story about a man who spent even longer at sea was an Inuk man, Christian, who survived a very remarkable eight days. This story of survival is often unseen. Here is the excerpt:


“Hebron: By Nov 30th [1888] the bay was completely frozen over. Dog teams and also a person dragging sleds had kayaks strapped on them. One of the hunters towed a large dead seal by kayak back to ice only to go back out to get more seals. Everyone present was happy. However, at 2pm that afternoon a driving snow storm sprang up and the kayakers could barely paddle against it. All the paddlers gained firm ice [reached safety] except for one, Christian. By that night the community thought Christian was drowned or frozen to death and they mourned him. On the eight day he returned to the community and told us his story.

I was driven out by the great storm to sea despite my efforts to gain the ice. I got very cold, wet, and numb with the snow and spray. After drifting before the wind for a long time I reached an island, and tried to land on the west side. But the wind and waves made it impossible. I landed on the east side of an island and dragged my kayak up the rocks. I ate part of a leftover hare, killed by another animal and was able to hunt two more hares. I found some drinking water and waited out the storm. I put my Kajak back on the water, where some current kept the ice from freezing back to shore” (PA 1887-1889 Vol. 34 p. 229-230).


This story would be among the pinnacles of Kajak survival in modern day’s times and a movie would likely be made.


Another story which throws benefit against risks comes out of Nain. 

“Several men, who had drawn their kayaks on sledges, suddenly perceived that their ice had broken loose, and was driving out to sea. They hit an iceberg which stopped their ice and then they kayaked back to shore [shore being an island or more ice].” (PA p. 105 1856-1858 Vol. 22)

“Nain: November. Young man went to retrieve a seal through thin ice, current and wind drove him to open sea and got re-caught in thin ice. This would be an example of one of the worst things that could happen with ice. Man was very scared about this.” (PA 1851 Vol. 20 P. 287)


One personal ice story from this author happened on December 5th, 2018. Jonathan Tuglavina and Noah Nochasak went seal hunting. Due to northwest 80 km winds the two ranged as far as Meter Harbour, five kilometers from Nain. On the way back, an hour and a half later they were blocked by a slushy film of ice greatly slowing their speed. At the same time ice chunks the size of refrigerators were converging on them from strong whitecaps. For the first time Noah decided it would be better if his paddling partner walked and he walked behind John the remaining three kilometers.


The Rooms Photo Archives



A big drawback to this piece is that Inuit themselves are not the writers of history, until very recently. Today Labrador Inuit themselves rarely get to create the narrative around the Labrador Kajak. Without an Inuit voice much detail is lost. It should also be noted that survival stories have the most impression on archival recordings. 

For several decades Labrador and Canadian Inuit have stopped hunting with kayaks. With close calls or death over the centuries why would Inuit use this tool around ice? The reward of food, skins and fuel must have outweighed the hazards associated with ice. The familiarity and comfort with paddling from a young age, their physical and technical paddling ability, their ability to understand outdoor conditions all allowed them to access a water environment where their prey lived. 

It has been said, in modern expert level Kajak courses, that novices and experts are the most at danger. Missionaries fitted more into the paddling novice and Inuit the expert portion, which is very likely why Inuit were willing to go out, weighing risks against benefits. 

            Kajaktuk (kayaking, ha-ya-tok) provided an individual with one of the lightest, most maneuverable crafts available for a single person to this day in the world. It allowed accessibility to the water, which was otherwise impossible, except for umiagak, giving a hunter much more diversity. Kajaktuk originated as a tool of necessity. The oral interviews independently agree that Kajait were used in different seasons and records are too extensive for an informed person to believe otherwise. The various reasoning why Inuit do so is solid. Over the centuries, some of the most intense Kajak stories that ever happened took place on this land now called Labrador.





References Cited

Brice-Bennett, C. (1977). Our Footprints are everywhere: Inuit Land Use and Occupancy in Labrador. Nain: Labrador Inuit Association.


Extracts of the Diary of Hopedale, 1842-1843. (1844) Periodical Accounts Relating to Missions of the Church of the United Brethen Established Among the Heath Vol. 17. London.


Freitag, A. (1851) Periodical Accounts Relating Missions of the Church of the United Brethen established among the Heathen Vol. 20. London.

“Kajak Interviews.” Nunatsiavut Stories, Nunatsiavut Government, Sept. 2019, http://nunatsiavutstories.ca/stories/kajak-interviews/

Marleau J, Woodford A, Harris P, Pardy M. (2010). Navigation, Sea State & Weather. SKILS.


Taylor, G. (1974). Labrador Eskimo Settlements of the Early Contact Period. Ottawa: National Museum of Man.


Weiler, F., Drexter J., Meili H. (1881). Periodical Accounts Relating Missions of the Church of the United Brethen established among the Heathen Vol. 32. London.