In the calm water of Langford Lake, which sits conveniently below his Goldstream Avenue home, James Manke runs through a series of rolls in his kayak.
A practitioner of the traditional Greenland kayaking style and a professional instructor in the discipline, Manke has spent the past few years honing his technique on each of 35 different rolls included on the list for competitors in the sport.
Why the need for so many different types of rolls, one might ask?
“As a hunter, if you went in the water, you were dead,” he said, referring to the frigid sea temperature that even in summer hovers a couple of degrees above freezing.
The ability to escape potentially deadly situations when out on the lonely sea was critical for hunters whose primary task was to bring back food for their families to last through winter, Manke said.
“Because these traditional hunters went out alone, their survival depended on it,” he said.
“They’re hunting who knows what – it could be a seal or it might be a narwhal, which is a big animal that could drag you a long way.”
In North America, Manke is one of relatively few experts in the kayaking style. Last winter he became the first person to kayak the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Greenland style – using the trademark skinny paddles and low-to-the-water kayak.
When he teaches Greenland kayaking at home and elsewhere, he not only instructs people on technique and safety, he gives his students background on the Inuit traditions.
“When I got into this, it inspired me to want to learn more and more about it,” he said. “There was no one around teaching this, so I would find videos of the Inuit doing this kind of stuff, videoing myself and comparing them.
“When I started to teach people, at first I taught them the basic technique of rowing. Later I started sharing the culture of rowing and sharing that passion. Now I see other people get excited about it.”
Manke, a former avid dirt biker who took up kayaking a few years ago as a way to face his fear of the water, appreciates being able to help preserve this part of the heritage of the Inuit people in Greenland.
For Greenlantian organization Qaannat Kattuffiat, that preservation is their main focus and the reason they initiated the National Greenland Kayaking Championships.
Manke and friend James Roberts, who lives in southern Ontario, fly to Greenland in early July to compete in the 2014 championships in the waters off Qaqortoq, on the southern tip of the island.
While other Canadians have competed as individuals in past, Manke and Roberts will compete as the first-ever Team Canada in the event.
All of those entered tackle the various rolls, spear throwing and other challenges while seated in the tight confines of an ocean kayak. The Canadians will compete in handmade skin-on-frame kayaks manufactured specifically for the event. The plan is to turn them over to the local group to help promote Greenland kayaking among young people there, Manke said.
Hunting from kayaks has traditionally been the realm of the most brave souls in the towns that dot the south Greenland coast. “In Greenland there’s a huge fear of the water because of the cold temperature and the frigid waters,” Manke said.
As part of the experience, Manke and Roberts are making a documentary film of the trip and the competition. They’re fundraising to help defray the cost of the documentary and travel to the event, mainly through their website (greenland.qajaq.ca). The duo are more than halfway to their goal of $15,000 with a few weeks to go.
In the meantime, Manke continues to practise his rolls in the quiet of Langford Lake – it’s a kind of meditation, he said – and at the pool at Pearson College in Metchosin.
“I’m good on 33 (of the 35), but I’m still working on my strait jacket roll and behind-the-back sculling. I’m working on my flexibility.”
Neither his lake or pool time will quite prepare him for the icy cold waters of Greenland, so he and Roberts plan to arrive a few days early to acclimatize themselves.
“As soon as you get into that water you start to seize up,” he said.
All the more reason to be up to par on his rolls.