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Where Did Kayaking Originate and How Did It Get Here?

a person standing in front of a body of water

When you live in Ohio and spend time on the Mahoning and Cuyahoga Rivers, a thought might strike you. You might wonder where these strange names come from. And since we all have smartphones with the answers to any and every question imaginable, you might find yourself googling what these names mean.


If you looked up these queries, you would find some interesting answers. For example, “Ohio” comes from a Seneca word for “good river” or “great river.” The word “Cuyahoga” comes from the Mohawk language and means “crooked river.” And “Mahoning” is derived from a Lenape word meaning “at the [salt] lick.”

Our place names show how important these rivers were to our Native American ancestors, most of whom would have used canoes to travel them. But what about kayaks? That’s a strange word to English speakers. It harkens back more than 4,000 years to our Native American neighbors to the north in Greenland and Alaska.

The word kayak comes from an Inuit word meaning “man-boat” or “hunting boat.” The Inuits, you might know as “Eskimos,” lived around Greenland and used kayaks made from animal skins stretched over wooden or whale-bone frames for transportation, hunting, and fishing. The covered top and a coating of whale fat helped keep icy water outside the boat. And here’s a fun fact! To improve buoyancy, Inuit kayakers would lodge seal bladders filled with air in the front and back of the kayak.


Over the centuries, the kayak made its way to Europe and caught on in Germany. In fact, a museum in Munich, Germany, holds the oldest surviving kayak from 1577. Not quite 4,000 years old, but still pretty old! It wasn’t until the mid-to-late-1800s that people began using kayaks recreationally. And in 1936, kayaking became an Olympic sport. Still, kayaks weren’t widely available until the mid-1980s. Now, you can find a reasonably-priced kayak at most big box stores.

Even though kayaks didn’t originate in the US, it’s fascinating to paddle down the U-shaped Cuyahoga or the Mahoning in a kayak and know that you’re floating down the same waterways that carried a number of Native American tribes. They traveled, hunted, and fished from these very rivers.

The amount of history surrounding us in Northeast Ohio is breathtaking and well-worth reading up on. We’ve found that it deepens our appreciation of the natural beauty we can experience in our backyards.

If you’re itching to get out on one of these rivers and experience our deep, Ohio-rich history, book one of our tours on the Mahoning River, or on the Cuyahoga River through Burning River Adventures or Cuyahoga Valley Adventures. Our tours range from approximately one hour to six hours and offer a variety of difficulty levels for beginners to seasoned veterans.

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