SSTIKS: A kayak symposium with a touch of Greenland

SSTIKS June 15-17,  2012 SSTIKS logoSouth Sound Traditional Inuit  Kayaking Symposium (SSTIKS) is a wonderful event held every year in the early summer at Twanoh State Park in Washington; it is the largest kayaking event on the West Coast devoted to paddling with traditional Inuit1 paddles, skin-on-frame boats, rolling and rope gymnastics.  It is an event sponsored by Qajaq USA, the American arm of  Qaannat Kattuffiat (The Greenland Kayaking Association).  If any of these interest you, it will be worth your while to attend.

So what is it that makes this event wonderful?

SSTIKS has a family feel.  2012 was my third year attending.  As in previous years, when I pulled in the Twanoh parking lot on Friday for the first of three days of continuous kayaking (or qajaqing) activities, I felt that I was coming home. Some of the family feel comes from the closeness engendered by shared passion for skills and technology at the fringe of the sea kayaking movement – “Aren’t these Greenland sticks just so much better than euro-paddles?”  (Safe answer at SSTIKS -“Yes!”).

Isabella at SSTIKS

Isabella at SSTIKS 2011. Photo by Andrew Elizega

Of course, the thriving kid’s track can’t help but generate a familial culture because, well, the event is full of actual families.  This is truly wonderful.  As usual, I brought my now ten-year old daughter, Isabella, and she had a great time, running around with the other kids, finding crabs, learning Greenland rope techniques from Dave Sides and Dubside himself (How cool is that?!)  and even doing a bit of kayaking.

SSTIKS Kid’s track. Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

All the folks leading the kid’s track, deserves high praise.  Having a kid’s program is something that organizers at other kayak events should seriously consider.

Many SSTIKS people have a true love for Inuit culture.  This is reflected in the many beautifully crafted skin boats, the careful following of rolling traditions and harpoon skills as well as the respectful use of Inuit terms for rolls and rope maneuvers. Respect for tradition often leads to respect for each other and so it is at SSTIKS .

Yummy Salmon BBQ at SSTIKS.

SSTIKS meals are communal at lunch and dinner and many are potluck. I forget every year and have to scramble to the local convenience start to find some eggs for a quick devilled egg contribution. Beyond all this, the closeness and affection of the folks who put on SSTIKS is apparent and rubs off on all participants.

All right. Reading the above paragraphs again, I realize that it makes SSTIKS sound a bit like a 1970’s sensitivity training session.  It is not.  It is all about kayaking with a stress put on high quality education from some of the greatest instructors out there.  I’ve mentioned a few of these instructors above, but there were also quite a few more this year — Helen Wilson, Mark Tozer,  Mark Whittaker and a host of others.  See here for the full roster.

Mark Tozer looking elegant at SSTIKS 2012

Over three days, I attended forward strokes with Tim Mattson and Pat Welle, maneuvering with Mark Tozer and Ginny Callahan and rolling from Helen Wilson, Dubside and a host of others.  In the past, Maligiaq Padilla, has taught rolling and other Greenlandic arts.  He wasn’t present this year which is a shame.

So do you have to be a Greenland fanatic to attend?  Not at all.  SSTIKS is a great way to get acquainted with traditional paddling.  There are introductory classes and an arsenal of paddles and even boats to borrow.  You’ll find that while Greenland strokes do differ, it is still, after all,  just paddling;  learning to wield the blade properly is not so arduous a task.  There are more similarities between strokes done with Greenland paddle and those done with a Euro paddle, but there are real differences.  At the risk of being shot down by paddling gurus, some of the major points of difference are paddle angle, a lower (but not low) angle stroke is the norm in Greenland, especially for long-distance touring, and the stroke can continue a bit farther back at the hips before the release. Also important in Greenland paddling is the paddle cant at the attack. If the paddle is drawn through the water at the wrong angle, the stroke generates more bubbles than thrust.  Mastering the basics is easy, developing a beautiful stroke is a many year endeavor.

Helen Wilson demos a beautiful balance brace. Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

 I have always said that my roll sucks, and it is still true, but in a different way.  At this point in my kayaking career, I can pretty much roll up whenever I need to in real conditions. This has not always been the case, as those (paltry few) who have been following my blog can attest. But the art and discipline of Greenland rolling is so much more than just rolling up. Greenland rolling was developed by the traditional people of the polar regions as a basic survival technique.  Hunters in frigid arctic waters had no choice; it was roll or die.  Moreover, the capsize that necessitated the roll usually occurred during hunting expeditions.  More often than not, the hunter was encumbered by lines, harpoons and lances.  In such situations,  you had to learn to roll with one hand, with your arms crossed or with no arms at all.  You had to be able to roll up from various constrained positions and across both your front and rear decks.

Last year, I came out of SSTIKS with what I hoped was a bombproof  Kinnguffikpaarlallugu on both sides.  I hit respectable Siukkut pallortillugu , and managed  to learn Paatip kallua tuermillugu illuinnarmik, as well as numerous Innaqatsineq, and Tallitpaarlatsillugitpaateqarluni.

This year, I worked on solidifying my Kingumut naatillugu.  I even tried to get a start on the elusive Assammik masikkut.  I actually managed to pull the roll off once, but only under the active tutelage of Adriam Worah and Roy Nakano, who taught me the progression through a paddleless static brace to a prayer roll .  My thanks to both of them.  It never came again , but at least I know I can do it!

Translations here 😉

Of course in any large event such as SSTIKS, there are many excellent classes that you just cannot take.  Don Beal led a number of folks in paddle carving, there were courses introducing skin on frame kayaks as well as paddling with traditional paddles.  There were courses on harpoon throwing by Henry Romer, towing and rescues as well a lots and lots of rolling.

The Great Wedding of Palo Race. at SSTIKS

The Great Wedding of Palo Race. Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

A clever host always saves the best treat for last. So have I . For nothing can top the thrill of the Wedding of Palo relay race, the last formal SSTIKS event. Modeled after the action of the movie of the same name shot in the arctic in the 30’s by explorer Knud Rasmussen, the race has four legs -the forward sprint, the backward sprint, the seal tow, and the escape with the bride

Isabella and I formed part of the Killer Penguins team, along with Emily Balthazar, Sean Dillon, Warren Stevens and Deborah Swartz. We had stiff competition from the seemingly infinite number of kids of the Doornink clan, whose Dad, John Doornink, was the 2012 Chair of STIKKS. And of course there was a motley crew of other kayakers including Tim Mattson, Pat Welle, Joanne Barta and other neer-do-wells, but they were no threat to the Penguins.

The forward and backward sprint are pretty self-explanatory. The seal tow consists of a “seal,” on our team Isabella, who hangs on the bak of the kayak imitating a dead seal to be brought to the bride’s house. The last leg, the bride carry, sees a bride, hopefully the lightest member of the team, carried sitting back to back behind the paddler/groom

The 2012 race was dramatic – Isabella was the perfect penguin, Emily Balthazar decided that the bride would be best represented by screaming shrilly for the entirety of her ride.  Poor Sean was a bit deaf for few days but was gallant groom none-the-less.

But without doubt, the most beautiful and moving moment of the race was when the elfin and delicate figure of Tim Mattson sailed by on the back of groom Joanne’s kayak.  Such grace and poetry were truly something to behold. It was a special moment.

Tim Mattson and Pat Welle at SSTIKS

Tim Mattson. A beautiful blushing bride!          Photo by Melissa Bienvenue Woods

After a last SSTIKS lunch I collected a reluctant Isabella and we headed back to Portland. On the drive back home, I felt energized. I had learned a great deal and solidified core skills.  The event was well run and a pleasure to attend.  I sometmes end my musings on our paddling sport with a statement as to how lucky we are.  I cannot think of a better way to end this piece either.  Not only do we in the Northwest have  some of the best kayakers in the world as our companions, we also have a series of great events to choose from — OOPTIKS, SSTIKS, Lumpy Waters, GGSKS to name just a few.  Paddle on!


  1. A note on nomenclature. The term Inuit used in the SSTIKS acronym and throughout this article can be confusing.  It is often understood as referring specifically to the native people s of Greenland.  While that may have once been the case, the word is now the preferred term to describe the distinct, but culturally and geographically linked native cultures throughout the circumpolar region.  For more on this follow this link. []

4 Responses

  1. Joanne barta says:

    Nice article, Paul! One of the things I like best at sstiks is the opportunity to meet and paddle with guests from across the country. We missed Alison Sigethy this year, but had the special treat of hosting Peter Gengler, boat builder and rolling coach.
    While Maligiaq has attended several qajaq events, I don’t think he has ever attended SSTIKS, though he has been invited.
    SSTIKS has a website and a FB page.

    • psteinb says:

      Thanks Joanne – The first full mention of SSTIKS is actually a clickable link to the website. I’ll add the Facebook site as well. I wish Alison had been present again. She is great teacher and I learned a lot from her last year. I thought Maligiaq had attended in the past. My mistake.

      Thanks for your comment! I love feedback.

  2. Virginia Huang says:

    Hi Paul, Great post! I have never heard of SSTIKS! Sounds like something both my husband and I will have to do next year (he has a skin on frame Greenland kayak he built with Brian Schultz) and I have an F1.

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