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SOI Educator Q&A with Eric McNair-Landry

Eric McNair-Landry will be joining his second SOI expedition this summer. He will be working alongside students to create three traditional Inuit qajaqs onboard the expedition.

 

Tell me a bit about yourself and how you became interested in this qajaq renaissance movement.

I grew up in Iqaluit, but recently have moved with my partner Kate (the ship’s doctor) to Yellowknife where we live on the shores of Great Slave lake. Through my youth I learnt many important ‘on the land skills’ including dog sledding, kite-skiing, and cold weather survival, which gave me the tools to pursue a life of arctic adventure. These adventures include kite skiing the Northwest Passage with my sister, kite buggying across the Gobi Desert, to trips to the South Pole, and some six Greenland Icecap expeditions.

During my kite skiing expeditions in Greenland I observed how vibrant the sport of kayaking was and questioned why the same was not true in Nunavut. This and a passion for woodworking lead me to build my first kayak and instantly I realized how incredible this watercraft was. In an effort to raise awareness regarding the loss of kayaking traditions in the north the Pittarak team (Sarah, Boomer, Kate and myself, all on this years SOI expedition) chose to embark on a two month expedition using traditional kayaks.

 

Why do you believe people should be proud of the Qajaq.

Traditional kayak building and paddling has largely disappeared from the Canadian High Arctic. Despite this, the kayak still appears prominently in Inuit art, folklore, oral history and as a symbol of Inuit ingenuity. Inuit people have a large vocabulary dedicated to kayaks—their construction, their use and their maintenance.

Greenland, however, has seen a recent surge in traditional kayak building and paddling. In the near future, McNair-Landry and his team hope to help integrate kayak knowledge into school curricula in Canada’s North and to return the kayak to its integral role in competitions, recreation, art, fishing and hunting.

 

How are traditional qajaqs made and how are these different from other types of kayaks?

Kayaks were used from IMG_6359-cropAlaska to Greenland, and the material used in their construction varied with local availability. Kayaks generally had a frame of wood covered in animal skins, with the frame consisting of soft wood gunwales and deck beams made of driftwood. The kayak’s ribs were often made of hard wood, although at times the branches of small willow shrubs would be used. Occasionally a caribou antler or other bone would add to its construction.

Today’s modern kayaks are largely made of injection molded plastics, and sometimes fiberglass. The qajaqs that we will be building with SOI are cedar framed covered in a flexible ballistic nylon that mimics natural skin.

 

How were qajaqs traditionally used in the Arctic?

Primarily qajaqs were hunting vehicles used to pursue prey during the summer months. Generally Inuit hunted seals, walrus, arctic char, whales and a variety of seabirds from their qajaqs, and in certain areas they would hunt swimming caribou. Occasionally the kayak were used to move camp; however, the larger Umiak carried the bulk of the family’s goods, personal and dogs.

 

Tell me about the qajaq building workshops planned for the Arctic 2015 expedition. How will students be involved?

During the expedition students will assemble the kayaks while learning about traditional lash and peg woodworking techniques developed by Inuit. When the qajaq frames are completed the students will sew the skins over the frames and apply a waterproof coating of polyurethane. After a day of curing the boats will be ready for students to paddle in the Northwest Passage.

 

What are you looking forward to about engaging youth, elders, educators etc in qajaq building on SOI Arctic 2015?

Paddling something that you built with your bare hands is a massive accomplishment, and I hope that this experience will inspire students to try qajaq building at home.

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