|Most people will canoe for years with just their paddle but there is a whole other side of canoeing that is mostly unknown.
It is the skill of canoe poling. Instead of a paddle, you stand in your canoe and use a long pole to travel up rivers, down
rivers, quiet back waters, and marshes. You can go just about anywhere your paddle can not take you. It will open up a
whole new world to explore and discover. You will find hidden spots that no one else can reach. Once you have gained
confidence and mastered the basic skills, you will not leave the house without your paddle or your pole. Let’s take a look
at some of the basics to get you started.
As far as equipment goes, you will need a canoe, a well fitted PFD, and a pole. The longer your canoe is, the easier it will
be to track through the water, as well as maintain balance. A basic guide for boat size would be 16 - 18 feet long, with a
32 – 36 inch beam, and 13 - 15 inches in depth. If your boat falls shy of these dimensions, use it anyway. What is
important is to get out there and get started. Keep in mind that a longer boat will be easier to pole.
Canoe poles are traditionally made of wood and about 11 - 12 feet long with a 1 - 2 inch diameter. Spruce, Ash,
Tamarack, and Maple all work well for canoe poles. If you don’t have time to make one, you can pick up a 12 foot closet
rod from the local lumber store. I wouldn’t push up heavy currents with it, but it’s good enough to get you started. I like to
add a metal shoe to one end of the pole to save it from getting chewed up. It also helps to grab the bottom and sinks the
end of the pole faster. I also add a copper pipe cap on the other end. There are situations when I have to use both ends
of the pole. A more modern material and very popular is aluminum aircraft tubing in a 1 ¼” diameter. Most competitive
poler’s prefer aluminum over wood for its light weight and strength.
The other side of canoeing
Now it is time to apply your new skills to moving water. The techniques that you practiced on flat water will be the same in
a current. The trim of your canoe becomes very important when traveling up river; you must maintain a light bow. You
don’t want the current to grab the bow, but rather to flow underneath it freely. With a light bow and a heavy stern, the
canoe will act like a weather vane helping to maintain a straight course. Using the river to your advantage is the name of
the game when traveling against it. Use eddies, stay to the inside bend of the river, and use the current to ferry you from
one side to the other. Beware of the direction of the current to the relation of your bow. Currents will not always flow
straight down a river, but wash to the side or be redirected by a log. Keep your bow straight into the current at all times.
The more your bow is out of alignment with the current the harder it will be to correct. If your bow gets more then just a
few degrees off in strong current your boat will start to spin. Drop to your knees, grab your paddle that you have at the
ready, and reposition yourself for another try.
Going down river in moderate current with few obstacles, you can really move using the pole. When traveling down
through a rock garden or other obstructions you will switch to a technique call snubbing. Instead of applying power to the
pole, you will use it as a brake to slow or even stop your descent. Again, trim is important and you will want a light stern
when snubbing. With the pole out in front, you will move the pole from side to side, using your arm as shock absorbers.
As the current rushes pasts, you will be moving slowly with precise control round the rocks.
Get Out There
Practice, Practice, Practice! Poling can be hard work and a little frustrating at first but before you know it, poling will
become second nature. You will develop your own style and learn subtle techniques that can only be learned with time on
the water. Once you get the hang of it, a great way to challenge yourself is to plan a trip where you travel up river for a
couple of days and on the last day turn around and come back down. You will learn a great deal about rivers and notice
things that you would ordinarily miss.
Poling does not only work for rivers but is just as effective on shallow lakes, marshes, swamps, or estuaries. There is
nothing more pleasant then poling through calm waters. It is relaxing, and something that everyone can enjoy. So get out
there, grab a pole, and discover the other side of canoeing.
Find a flat water spot that is 3 or 4 feet deep where you can get the feel of standing in your canoe. You will want to start
with an empty boat and stand just aft of center. Keep your head over the center of the canoe and feet shoulder width
apart. Use your legs as shock absorbers, bending at the knees and hips as you rock your canoe back and forth. Try to
touch the gunwales to the water and hold it. Once you feel comfortable with your balance it is time to start on your forward
movement. The easiest skill to learn is using the pole as a paddle. You will always encounter deep pools where you can’
t reach the bottom and you will need to paddle to reach shallow water again. There are two ways of doing this. The first
way is using the pole like a kayak paddle. This will give you the fastest speed and the most power when you are going
against a current. Grip the pole in the center with both hands and alternate paddling from side to side. The second way
and the driest, is to use the pole exactly like a single blade paddle, use a heavy “J” stroke at the end to keep the boat
going straight. Even though the end of your pole doesn’t have nearly the same surface area as a paddle, the leverage
that is gained with the longer pole will make up for it. Next, practice turning the canoe with forward and reverse sweeps on
both sides of the canoe. At this point you will feel your confidence start to grow. It is time to move to shallower water and
start to push.
Staying in quiet water, find a spot 1 - 2 feet deep with a good solid bottom. Remain standing just aft of center, with your
feet shoulder width apart and one foot ahead of the other. Drop the pole so it is firmly planted on the bottom, a few feet
behind where you are standing. This will put the pole between a 30 – 45 degree angle from vertical. With your offside
hand on top, slide your hands up as high as you can on the pole. Then begin to lower your body weigh as if you where
going to sit in a chair, at the same time start pushing your pole straight back. You want to use more of your body weight
against the pole and less muscle strength. You will also need to keep the pole parallel with the centerline of the canoe.
Just before you start to put your weight against the pole your hands should be just outside of the gunwales, with the pole
planted as close the canoe as possible. You will feel the canoe shot forward with good speed. When your hands start to
reach your side you can end the push or continue by quickly walking your hands up the pole to the end. To recover the
pole for another push, throw the pole forward with your top hand and let it slide through your bottom hand. Get the pole
vertical, and then drop it to the bottom. As you get ready to push against the pole again, the momentum of the boat will
carry you forward, positioning your pole at the perfect angle.
To keep your canoe going straight most people find it easier in the beginning to use the pole like a rudder at the end of
each push until they are back on course. If you keep the pole parallel to the canoe during the whole execution of the
push you will need very little correction. As you gain experience, you will learn to feel the canoe start to turn slightly under
your feet and correct it at the same time that you are pushing. You do this by pushing your hands out away from the
gunwales or pulling them in towards the canoe. To turn the boat, plant the pole a couple of feet from the boat or slightly
under the canoe. Switch to the other side if needed. Also, practice moving the canoe laterally by planting the pole on the
side of the canoe and pushing at a 90 degree angle. This will come in very handy to move the canoe out of the way of
any obstacles that may be in your way.
|Grip high up the pole
|Push strait back, parallel with the canoe
|Throw pole forward with your top hand
|Get comfortable with your balance