An Illustrated History of Canoe and Kayaks

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Canoes and Kayaks Have Come a Long Way

Kayaking at the Teva Mountain Games in Colorado.
Kayaking at the Teva Mountain Games in Colorado. © Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

The history of canoeing and kayaking is no simple tale. Everything about the sports  has changed and evolved. Boats are shorter (and longer). They are lighter and faster. They can do neat tricks. They can be paddled on just about any body of water in just about every environmental condition. Yes, paddling has had a long and evolving history.

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The Early Days of Canoe/Kayak

Ancient Canoe Found in Florida
This ancient canoe was found in Florida's Lake Trafford and is estimated to be 1000 years old. © by Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

For as long as there have been people those people have paddled canoes. Almost every civilization on this planet has early archaeological evidence of canoes serving a significant role in civilizations and cultures. reports that the earliest archaeological find of a canoe was dug up near the Euphrates River and is dated to approximately 6000 years old. There is also evidence in China’s recent finds that suggest they have found a canoe that dates to 8000 years old. Any way you slice it, the history of canoe/kayak has its roots in paddling canoes and kayaks as a means of transportation, hunting, fishing, and even in rituals such as burial rights is as old as mankind itself.

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How Native People Made Canoes and Kayaks

Tribal Canoe in Foxwoods Casino
This model tribal canoe is on display in the Mashantucket Pequot Museum at the Foxwoods Casino. © by Mario Tama / Getty Images

Early canoes were made of wood and hollowed out trees. The earliest kayaks were composed of frames made from the bones of whales and from pieces of wood. Animal skin was stretched around the frame of the kayak and was treated with fat to keep the kayak waterproof. Most of what we know today about ancient canoe and kayak design comes from the native tribes still in existence around the world.

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Recreational Canoeing and Kayaking Debuts in the 1800s

Recreational Canoeing in Germany
A father and his three sons canoe in Berlin, Germany. © by Sean Gallup / Getty Images

In the 1800s people began to study the early canoes and kayaks of native peoples and started to develop their own designs. This led to a whole new use for canoes and kayaks, one of pure recreation. Canoe clubs began to form and in 1866 the Royal Canoe Club held its first regatta.

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Canoe/Kayak Debuts as an Olympic Sport

C-2 Olympic Flatwater Canoe/Kayak event at 2004 Athens Olympics
C-2 Olympic Flatwater Canoe/Kayak event at 2004 Athens Olympics. © by Stuart Franklin / Getty Images

Canoe/kayak was first introduced at an Olympic Games in 1924 with the Flatwater Racing exhibition. Flatwater Racing was introduced as an official Olympic event 12 years later, in the 1936 Games. The first Slalom Racing events to be held in the Olympics occurred in Munich in 1972.

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The Big Jump: Canoe/Kayak Benefits From Advances in Materials & Design

State of The Art Canoe/Kayak
New Zealand's Steven Ferguson lifts his K-1 kayak out of the water with ease at the March 15, 2008 Olympic canoe/kayak team trials. © by Sandra Mu / Getty Images

Over the years canoes and kayaks have evolved with the differentiation in the sports and the advent of new materials and manufacturing processes. Today’s canoes and kayaks are so perfectly designed that you can buy a very specific boat for your size, paddling style, type of paddling, and budget. Canoes and kayaks are more aerodynamic, lighter, and more durable than ever before. Additionally, the use of plastic in kayaks and canoes has changed the sport of paddling. 

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And Yet Very Little's Changed For Some

Myanmar Woman in a Canoe
A woman in Myanmar paddles a canoe as a means of transportation. © by Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

True, in many first world countries people canoe and kayak for purely recreational purposes such as relaxation, exploration, adventure, fishing, and camping. And still, others canoe and kayak solely for competitive purposes. But for much of the world, paddling a canoe or kayak is still a matter of necessity. Many cultures are still reliant on canoes for transportation, for fishing, and even for farming.

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Into The Future! Where Canoe/Kayak is Now & Where It's Going

Kayaks Travel on a Conveyor Belt
Kayakers travel on a conveyor belt en route to the water of the Schinias Canoe/Kayak Park of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. © by Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

It's hard to predict what is next for the sports known as canoeing and kayaking. There are man-made rivers, conveyor belt transport systems, and canoes and kayaks that hardly look like they could hold a human, let alone float. And still, at the core of it all, the goal stays the same. Paddlers of canoes and kayaks and the designers of both strive to find new ways to be close to nature, be one with water, and enjoy all the riches that paddling has to offer.