Before the logging roads were built, the inland waterways of the Northeast were like the highways of today—main arteries of human transport. And the canoe may well have been the original SUV, says Tim Smith, who runs Jack Mountain Bushcraft in Wolfeboro Falls, N.H. “You’d load it up, put the family in, and hit the river.”
Canoeists, often going long distances, were a common sight on the region’s broad and voluminous flows and they didn’t just use a paddle. Boaters would stand erect at the stern of their vessels clutching a black cedar shaft often plucked from a bog.
Canoe poling may be a lost art, but there are certain advantages to having the skill (and the pole). You can easily push your boat upstream and then steer down, which eliminates the need for a shuttle. You can stop on a proverbial dime in the middle of the river to scout an upcoming rapid. “In the old days when everyone had birch bark canoes, you didn’t want to hit anything too hard,” Smith says. Plus, you can see more of what’s ahead.
And come summer, as water levels get low, the pole, typically 12 feet long, will take you places the paddle can’t. “You’re not able to get much bight off your paddle if you’re in two inches of water in a 60-yard-long sandbar,” Smith says. In places without road access, going upstream could mean venturing into stretches of rivers and lakes hardly ever visited.
|DID YOU KNOW?|
|Canoe poling is most effective when traveling in water four feet deep or less.|
STAND YOUR GRAND One of the advantages of poling is your ability to move in the boat to adjust the overall weight distribution by taking a step forward or back. “Regardless of which way you’re going, you want to be downstream heavy,” says Smith, who has his students put a six-gallon jug full of water in the boat as ballast that simulates a boat full of gear.
As for stance, there are two schools of thought. There is modern “sport” poling, which involves using both ends of a light aluminum pole to push off. For this style, polers take a wide, squared-off stance, so that a perpendicular line could be drawn from their feet to the wall of the canoe. More traditional polers, who plan to carry gear long distances and use only one end of the pole, stand in a more diagonal formation with their foot farther back on the side from which they are poling while facing forward.
STEER CLEAR Once the pole is planted, the angle and direction at which you push off determine where you will go. While headed upstream, if you want to go left, push off to the left once the pole is planted. And vice versa if you want to go right. “It’s very similar to the J stroke or sweep stroke used while paddling, only you’re doing it while pushing off from the river bottom,” says Smith. And for a power stroke, walk your hands up the pole while pushing down with the full weight of your body.
WHAT GOES UP, GOES DOWN While poling upstream, the key is to move from the protection of one eddy to another so that the current of the river doesn’t carry you downstream during rest periods. Also, Smith says, “When you come to a bend in the river, remember that the water is always the slowest on the inside of the turn.” While headed downstream, which is called “snubbing,” a slightly different technique is employed. With the pole, push off toward the front of the boat to keep the bow of your boat pointed in the right direction while never holding the pole across your body. “If it gets stuck on a rock, then you’re probably going for a swim,” says Smith.
POLE MART “A pole is a very low-tech piece of equipment,” Smith says. “It’s literally a stick.” You can make one by going to Home Depot and asking for a rounded handrail. Consider a length of 12-15 feet and ask for ash wood, which is typically the lightest. Or you can look into buying one from an artisan like Donald Merchant in Limerick, Maine, who owns Pole and Paddle (www.poleandpaddle.com; $75).