Backstory: Greenland or bust

One woman's midlife detour.

Tourists visiting the Masonic Temple on its hilltop overlooking this Washington suburb have sometimes been treated to more than the beautiful view. They've seen a lithe woman running up and down the steep steps holding a kayak over her graying head. This is Alison Sigethy's idea of simulating a portage along the rocky coast of Greenland – just as working out in a commercial walk-in freezer, she hopes, will acclimate her to Arctic water temperatures.

Ostensibly, Ms. Sigethy is training to compete alongside some 200 other kayakers in the Greenland National Kayak Championships next month in Sisimiut, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

In reality, she's fulfilling a commitment made five years ago when she faced an all too common midlife crisis: the realization that professional success does not guarantee happiness. She reacted by listing the things she loved to do: art, theater, and kayaking. Not listed was her well-paid graphic design job. But could she trade it in to pursue a pipe dream?

"We're pretty clever," says Sigethy, "and there are all sorts of ways we convince ourselves that we could or would do what we wanted if it weren't for something in the way. The fact is we're not doing it because we're scared to." Yes, there were bills and a mortgage, but mainly, she says, "It's safe and easy to think 'I can be a great artist,' but once you commit, you lose that cushion. You can fail."

Fear, she resolved, could not win. She quit corporate life and, with her husband's blessing, stitched together a crazy quilt of jobs – kayak teacher and guide, theater light techie, artist, and wilderness medicine expert – and still had time for pleasure kayaking.

Then, at a paddlers' retreat last October, Sigethy tried a style of kayaking developed over the course of 700 years by Greenland's indigenous Inuit. Their boats are narrower, sit low in the water, and are propelled by slim, sharp-edged paddles. "By the end of the weekend we're talking [the] Greenland [championship], and," Sigethy recalls, her inflection rising as though she still can't quite believe it, "I'm telling people I'm going. And I meant it."

Almost immediately, Sigethy determined to compete in all events – races, harpooning, rolling, and ropes. In the still predominantly male competition, this is a rarity, particularly in the 35-years-and-older category, according to Qajaq USA, active supporters of the Greenland Kayak Association.


On a recent morning, the Potomac shimmers with sunlight as Sigethy pulls into the Belle Haven Marina. Over her wet suit, she dons a shapeless, hooded spray skirt that seals her into the cockpit of the kayak. "It's called a tuiliq," she explains, pronouncing the Greenlandic word "too-lick," "and in Greenland it's traditionally made of sealskin." Hers is neoprene, about as warm but more flexible – and a tad less smelly.

Tuiliqs haven't always been in vogue in Greenland. When warmer waters forced seals north in the 1920s, Greenlanders traded in seal-hunting for fishing, and kayaks for boats. Only when the Netherlands loaned the National Museum of Greenland three 400-year-old kayaks in 1983 did many young Greenlanders discover this part of their heritage and begin to form kayak clubs. Soon, the Greenland Kayak Association started staging competitions.

These evolved into National Championships where, by all accounts, the atmosphere is more celebratory than competitive, and the 4- to 6-year-olds get as many cheers as the top-notch athletes. Foreigners have been participating in small but growing numbers since 2000.

"I have loved learning where the sport comes from," Sigethy continues, guiding the kayak into the water. She shoehorns herself into the boat, pulls the tuiliq tight around her face and wrists, andtucks it securely around the wooden rim of the kayak cockpit. This is particularly important today because it is a "rolling day."

Rolls originated as techniques enabling kayakers to survive when capsized if, say, a seal fought back or they got entangled in harpoon lines. But kayakers now seem to devise new rolls just to challenge themselves, hence the "straitjacket roll" (tallit paarlatsillugit timaannarmi) joins "coming up on the other side on one's back," Greenland's standard kinnguffik paarlallugu/nerfallaallugu.

Easier done than said – or so Sigethy makes it seem. Swinging the paddle into position, she takes a deep breath, and disappears to her left as the bottom of the boat swivels into view like a dolphin breaking the surface. Within seconds, she emerges to the right of the kayak and, swinging to the back, rights it and sits up.

After about an hour of rolls, she rigs a target from a hula hoop. "I went into this thinking harpooning was going to be hands down my weakest link," she says. "But it's fun, and I'm actually not bad at it." Whether practicing for distance or precision, she fastens a sharp head to the harpoon and, farther down the shaft, slides a throwing stick onto two pegs. She then paddles, coasts, and, holding the harpoon by the throwing stick, leans back. She snaps her body forward, flicks her wrist, and the harpoon disengages, sailing in a smooth arc.

The prospect of doing all this and more – one event has her paddling upside down – in 30-degrees F water is, well, daunting. The solution? The 10-by-10-foot freezer of The Birchmere, a local dinner theater-cum-music hall. It's minus 4 degrees inside, where shelves brim with boxes of pizza dough, seafood, spring rolls, and meats.

"I brought my jump rope," she says, "but ... " she reaches up and touches the ceiling, her arm not even extended. So for 20 minutes – which will lengthen to an hour a day next week – she improvises, twisting and jumping, but mindful of a tray of frozen French fries behind her.

The day is not over, however, until she climbs to the 11-by-16-foot loft studio in her garage, where two thick black ropes drape like a hammock. These are for calisthenics that indigenous Greenlanders designed to train for rolling.

For the first time, Sigethy's chiseled face looks grim. "The ropes terrify me straight up," she says, then lifts herself onto them, curling her body into prescribed positions, straining every muscle to flip 360 degrees, frowning when the move fails. In minutes, she is flushed and sweaty, but skipping the ropes competition is out of the question.


During a chat in her kitchen, it becomes clear that what's at stake isn't garnering awards. It's all about not letting fear dictate how she lives. And not just in the championships.

After years of singing only in her car – and stopping when she "came to a traffic light because somebody on the street corner might hear" – Sigethy signed up for lessons and will step up to the mike at an artists' cafe later this summer. She beams as she tells it. "Life is so much fuller," she says, "if you dive in."

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