Adam van Koeverden built a career paddling a kayak faster than everyone else. He’s a world champion. He’s won Olympic gold and smashed world records. But when he retired after two decades of competition in 2016, he began to reflect on his life. “It was all a process of letting go of my sport, of my daily livelihood and my passion, and everything I cared about,” he says.
Van Koeverden has often spoken about how grateful he is for the Inuit invention, but he’d never before paddled a real qajaq. That is, until last summer, when he met Ross Flowers while in Hopedale, Labrador. Flowers showed van Koeverden the sealskin qajaq he’d made in the fashion of his ancestors. He’d hunted the nine seals that make up the qajaq and did the painstaking waterproof stitching with the help of his wife and aunt. Flowers asked the sprint paddler if he’d like to take the qajaq out for a spin.
“It was the first time I experienced kayaking with all of my senses,” says van Koeverden. “I smelled the boat, I heard the boat, tasted the saltwater dripping off my face. I felt the scratchy sealskin on the hull of the boat and literally every sense of my being was engulfed by this experience.”
It was a marked difference from the sleek racing kayaks he’s used to piloting. “You’re in this very aggressive position and it’s not comfortable to sit in unless you’re moving forward—like a bike,” he says. “In the sealskin qajaq, I was sitting on a caribou hide, my legs were straight, I had my rainboots underneath my legs.
“I was excited to paddle it not because I wanted to go fast or race, but I was excited to paddle to connect with it and the craft.”