1000-1900 — The first kayaks were fashioned out of driftwood and animal skins by the natives of the arctic regions of Asia, North America, and Greenland. These long, narrow, covered boats were ideally suited for hunting seals and walruses across the frigid arctic waters. In fact, the name kayak means “hunter’s boat.”
Over time, the Inuits, Aleuts, and other natives modified the kayaks for the area of the arctic that they lived in. Lashed together with animal sinews, these early boats used seal bladders filled with air to make the them buoyant and nearly unsinkable.
These native hunters would fill the boats with enough supplies for extended hunting expeditions across the inhospitable arctic environment.
Eventually, word of these amazing covered canoes reached the citizens of Europe. Before long people in France and Germany began boating down rivers in kayaks for sport. These countries are filled with mountain ranges, and the rivers that plunge out of the rocky slopes offer challenging rapids.
1905 — A German student borrows an Inuit design to build a collapsible kayak. A tailor named Hans Klepper soon buys the patient from him and launches a business selling these kayaks, which he refers to as “foldboats.” The advantage of this design is that boaters can carry these wood and canvas boats in canvas bags and then assemble them quickly on the shore of a river. These were the ancestors of the modern folding kayaks of today.
1931 — A Vienesse kayaker by the name of Adolf Anderle is the first person to successfully negotiate the Salzachofen Gorge on the Salzach River. His successful run of this dangerous river raised whitewater standards in Europe and elsewhere. A short time later, kayaking organizations developed the Internatinal Scale of River Difficulty, a standard that is still in use today to classify the difficulty of river rapids.
1936 — In time, the Europeans fell in love with these new covered boats, all but abandondoning the large, open boats that they’d previously used for river navigation. Kayaking clubs bagan to spring up in Germany and France. Whitewater competitions followed shortly thereafter. In 1936, “flatwater” racing became an Olympic sport in the Summer Games in Berlin, Germany (the very same Olympics in which Jessie Owens made a mockery of Hitler’s “Master Race” theory).
1928 — True story: on August 1 of this year, Captain Fran Romer is discovered asleep in his kayak in the harbor at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. So what’s the big deal, you ask? Well it seems that Captain Romer had just sailed and paddled his kayak almost 4000 miles, all the way from Lisbon, Portgual. And he survived not one but two hurricanes along the way!
1938 — Genevieve De Colmont becomes the first women to pilot a kayak through the rapids of the Colorado and Green Rivers. Along with her husband Bernard and a friend, Genevieve proved that kayaks were far better suited to running wild water than the heavy wooden boats favored by outdoorsmen and explorers at the time.
1975 — Three men: Tom McEwan, Wick Walker, and Dan Schnurenburger kayak the Great Falls of the Potomac River. This was a stretch of wild water that had been feared and avoided by boaters for centuries. In the years following their historic run, all three paddlers have refused to reveal who was the first man over the Spout, the deadliest drop in the churning Great Falls rapids.
1977 — Three more kayakers make history this year. Jim Snyder, Mike Fentress, and Phil Coleman become the first paddlers to successfully negotiate the notorious Quarry Run, a tributary of the Cheat River in West Virginia. After one especially brutal drop, Coleman nearly died when his slalom kayak became lodged in the river’s gravel bottom. Today, paddlers who descend Quarry Run use inflatable boats that won’t spear the river bottom.
1994 — Another first. Kent Wiggington becomes the first paddler to tame the Class VI rapids of the Tallulah River in northern Georgia. Wiggington’s successful run helped to publicize a government decision to provide more recreational opportunities on the river by releasing water from an upriver dam.
I’m sure there’s much we’ve left out here. Who knows, maybe you’re out there making your own kayaking history right now!