Poling a Canoe
By Mark McCollough

Are you up a creek without a paddle? There are no worries if you know how to pole a canoe. There was a time when Maine outdoorsmen would not think of taking their canoe up or down a river without packing their favorite spruce pole. Summer is a good time to learn the basics of poling a canoe, so put on your swimming suit and give it a try.

Poling, either upstream or down, is easier and faster than paddling. It is no wonder that Native Americans preferred poles to paddles especially when traveling hundreds of miles up rivers in their light birchbark craft. Poling can be a fast and expedient way to move up all but the fastest rivers and streams.

Let’s start with making a pole. In Maine, a straight standing dead spruce or tamarack are the trees of choice – about two inches at the butt and 12 to 14 feet tall. A straight-grained 2 X 2 spruce board may also be fashioned into a pole. The bark should be peeled and knots flattened with a drawshave, crook knife or axe leaving a smooth surface. The pole can be shaped to make it lighter and easier to handle. Ideally, it should narrow to about 1 3/8 inches on the bottom third of the pole to about one inch at the top.

Pole length is a matter of personal choice and depends on the depth of the water you are moving through. A canoe pole is most effective in water less than 4 feet deep. You want a pole long enough that once planted on the bottom you can walk “hand-over-hand” to propel the canoe forward. Start with a pole about 12 feet in length and experiment with longer or shorter poles until you find the one that best suits your height, canoe, and water conditions.

Most guides will “shoe” the bottom of the pole with a piece of metal pipe (iron or copper) available at any hardware store. The shoe protects the end of the pole and helps it to grab the slippery rocks on the stream bottom. Commercially available “poling shoes” are also available.

In Boy Scouts I was taught never to stand up in a canoe! You will have to get over this cardinal sin to pole a canoe. For your first try, find some still water about 3 feet deep. Use rubber bottom boots or tennis shoes to get a good grip on the canoe bottom. Stand just to the rear of the center of the canoe keeping your head at the center of the canoe and feet shoulder-width apart. You can place one foot slightly ahead of the other and perhaps brace the rear leg slightly against a thwart.

Now try paddling the canoe with your pole to get the feel of the balance needed. Like a skier, keep your knees and waist flexible to maintain balance. If you use the pole like a kayak paddle you will find that it will quickly move the canoe forward. Now use the pole like the J-stroke of a single-bladed paddle. Anchor the pole beside you and push backward making the J shape to move the canoe forward in a relatively straight line.

After you gain some confidence in your balance and handling the pole, you are ready to learn the power stroke. To start, drop the pole and anchor it on the bottom a foot or two behind where you are standing in the canoe. Slide your hands as high as you can on the pole, grip the pole, and push the pole backward while lowering your upper body as if you were setting in a chair. This movement will rapidly propel the canoe forward. Keep the pole parallel with the centerline of the canoe. Just before you push, your hands should be just outside the gunwales. When your hands swing down to the side you can quickly walk them up the pole to the end to finish the power stroke. To prepare for the next push, in one movement bring your body upright swinging the pole forward with your upper hand and letting it slide through your bottom hand. Drop the pole to the bottom when your body and the pole are near vertical. When the momentum carries the canoe forward until the pole is at the perfect angle (about 2 feet behind you) repeat with another push. Now you are gliding rapidly down the shore of the pond much to the amusement of the local loons and moose.

The canoe will want to turn to the right or left. You can correct this by trailing the pole behind the canoe briefly between strokes to steer as you would a paddle. Or as you gain experience, you can make adjustments by pushing your hands away from gunwales or toward the canoe to keep the canoe in a straight line.

Practice on flatwater then graduate to a light current. Trim the canoe so the bow is light. Pole the canoe forward keeping it straight into the current. Travel up eddies behind rocks, then nose carefully into the current for a few quick power strokes to the next eddy or pool. Inevitably, the current will catch the bow, and the canoe will spin downriver. This is a good experience to practice - time to drop to your knees, grab your paddle and reposition the canoe to try again.

Bucky Owen taught me to pole a 20-foot wood canvas canoe on the West Branch of the Penobscot. After a few days, I was adept at poling my guide, hid dog, and our catch of landlocked salmon home to camp. Once you gain confidence and master a few basic skills you will not leave home without your paddle and a pole.

Mark McCollough is a wildlife biologist and lives in Hampden, Maine. He can be reached at ellmcc25@yahoo.com

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