It's a "gathering" not a "symposium" and they spell "kayak" "qajaq," the Greenlanders' word for their specific skin-on-frame design. These "skin boats" are propelled using stick like paddles. And as I discovered, you probably can not find more enthusiastic paddlers than these devotees of Greenland or traditional style kayaking.
Last year in late August I visited the Qatar Training Camp's tenth annual gathering at Camp Lookout near Frankfort, Michigan. The site is both unique and scenic. Unique in that everyone parks on the lakeshore and paddles a half mile down Lower Herring Lake to the camp. There really is no road to the camp; logistically creating a challenge for those operating the facility but a delight for visitors.
Two hundred yards from the lakefront landing, up and over a hill past the camp buildings, is Lake Michigan. The camp is a crazy quilt of rustic cabins, a classic wood frame lodge and an activity building perched on the wooded hillside with most structures not looking different from when the camp originated in 1917. While many attendees stayed in the cabins, others brought their own tents for sleeping accommodations.
The smallness of the site necessitates limiting group size to 48 participants plus a staff of 18. Registration opens on April 1 and by April 3, 2011, all slots were filled. Paddlers came from 10 states to attend last year's gathering.
I paddled down the lake to join the group on the third day of their four-day gathering to find almost everyone engaged in a rolling session. Mentors, as staff are called, stood beside kayaks guiding and coaching paddlers through 360-degree rolls and static braces, wherein a participant rolls the kayak up on its side so they can lay in the water. Working in teams of three, the mentor helped one paddler while the other watched and participated in the learning by offering critiques of the maneuvers.
Whereas recreational paddlers learn rolling as a skill, in Greenland, failing to execute a successful roll can mean death within a few minutes in the freezing water. In that Arctic latitude, Greenlanders' lives depend on obtaining fish and seals from the ocean. The design of the slender paddle allows strokes to slip quietly into the water so as not spook wary seals. Roy Martin, an instructor from Poplar, Wisconsin, described the stroke motion with a traditional paddle as "slipping silk into water." This year's gathering featured a workshop on paddle making conducted by Don Beadle of Beadle Paddles in Oregon.
The low volume and narrow kayak used in Greenland is made from sealskin wrapped and stitched onto a light wooden frame. Although some participants brought sea kayaks and Betsie Bay Kayaks (a Greenland style design manufactured in nearby Frankfort), most brought skin boats. However, with sealskin unavailable, ballistic nylon is used to form the outer covering of these craft. A few manufacturers, mostly in Europe, are beginning to produce boats for traditional paddlers. However, the majority of boats are still built by hand. Chuck Smith from Detroit talked about a workshop he facilitates that has built more than a dozen skin boats.
Malignant Padilla, who won four consecutive Greenland National Kayak Championships beginning at age 16, was the featured guest. In a session on the water, he demonstrated his complete mastery of rolling techniques and rescue maneuvers.
By 4:30 p.m., the boats are on shore and the social hour begins, continuing until the dinner bell rings. Meal times are way beyond burgers and brats on the grill. Michael Gray, a kayak trip guide and certified instructor in kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and fly fishing, acts as head chef. Renowned for his culinary skills, the author of Hey, I'd Eat This at Home! A Fresh and Fearless Approach to Wilderness and Home Cooking, Gray does some amazing stuff in Camp Lookout's kitchen.
Friday's dinner menu featured your choice of Baked lemon chicken breast filet, Sukiyaki baked local wild trout and red wine peppercorn beefsteak with roasted pesto encrusted new potatoes and, for dessert, cherry pie. The gourmet entrees kept coming throughout the weekend.
After dinner the festivities continued with programs, slide shows, a silent auction and a raffle. The evening ended with a campfire on the dunes beside Lake Michigan.
Interest in the Greenland traditional paddling is growing. Clinics, in addition to the one in Michigan, are found in Minnesota, New York, Delaware and Washington State. More information is available at www.qajaqusa.org.
Dave Foley admires the paddlers of Greenland-style boats who easily do 360-degree rolls. For him, in his sea kayak, the first 180 degrees is easy. How to get back upright remains a mystery to him.