Story and Photos By Luke McNair
“Every canoe party on a journey needs the pole”
Frank G. Speck, Penobscot Man
The art of poling a canoe, an essential technique for native canoeists, now seems to be far less well known. The ability to easily travel upstream through rapids without resorting to tracking or portaging is an incredibly useful skill, and when travelling downstream, the pole allows an effective and safe means of running rapids. The standing position provides a superior view of the rapid, and with the pole, the canoe can be slowed, and even stopped without having to catch an eddy. If necessary you can even stop, turn around in the canoe, and return upstream! Poling provides an efficient means of navigating in extremely shallow water where paddling would be impossible. As an end in itself, poling is a fantastic way of enjoying whitewater; the challenge of upstream poling and its emphasis on river reading skills is my favourite aspect of river canoeing.
Traditional poling uses the diagonal stance where each leg is in the opposite chine of the canoe and the offside leg is forward. The pole is used on one side, as it is difficult to change sides without changing foot positions. This style of poling is ideal for poling a loaded canoe from the stern, I also use it for long distance poling on flatwater, as it is a comfortable and powerful position to pole from.
The modern square stance is used by competition polers. The poler has a foot in each chine but the feet are parallel. The squared off stance allows the pole to be used on either side without changing footing, and gives very precise control of edge, which for me is its greatest advantage; when you are ascending a difficult rapid and steering using edge, guiding the canoe upstream by altering the amount of water friction on different parts of the hull, it can feel almost as if the canoe becomes a part of you.
I use both styles, but for whitewater in a lightly loaded or empty boat, I use the square stance.
Pole plants and strokes
For poling off the bottom, the pole needs to be at an angle of about 45 degrees when power is applied, and as close to the gunwale as possible. The pole is grasped with both hands high up on the pole, the offside hand is above the onside hand, and both thumbs should be uppermost. Power is applied using a combination of arm and back muscles, torso rotation, and by lowering the body into almost a sitting position by bending at the knees while leaning your weight on the pole.
Pole recovery has to be as fast as possible. At the end of the pole thrust, pull the pole up with your offside hand, leaving the onside hand at your hip, bring your onside hand up to meet the other hand, then let the pole drop through your hands to the bottom; it is planted almost vertically but the forward motion of the canoe brings it to 45 degrees.
The hand over hand technique, where you essentially ‘climb’ the pole, is also very useful. The windmill style uses the opposite end of the pole for each plant, and the crossover windmill is similar but the plants alternate from one side of the canoe to the other.
The modern style of poling uses many of the same strokes as paddling, such as forward and reverse sweeps, and cross bow draws. In deep water, the pole is very effective when used like a kayak paddle.
The ability to move up through rapids against the flow is what really sets poling apart from paddling. For upstream travel the canoe needs a stern heavy trim so the bow doesn’t get caught by the current; standing about one or two feet behind the centre thwart works well. With practice it’s possible to ascend surprisingly difficult water including drops.
Tips for upstream travel
When planning a route up a rapid, aim to make use of as many eddies as possible; this may involve quite a bit of ferrying, but moving from eddy to eddy limits the amount of time spent poling in the full force of the current.
•Use edge to steer.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in poling that I had was when I realised that most minor course correction can be accomplished by leaning the canoe; if you are poling against strong flow and the bow starts veering to the left, for instance, edging the canoe to the left by weighting your left leg will make the bow turn to the right and re-align with the current. Edging is also critical for manoeuvres such as eddy turns, peel outs, and ferries. If you find yourself accidentally broadside to the current, leaning the canoe downstream almost to the gunwale, while applying leverage with the pole on the downstream side, will bring the canoe back into alignment with the flow.
•Don’t always stay in the main flow.
Where possible, staying in the slower, shallower water near to shore makes ascending a rapid easier. Sometimes it is possible to find a small side chute to pole up if the main drop is too challenging.
•Make use of waves.
When poling upstream, I will often surf waves to get a slight respite from the oncoming current; in very strong flow it is sometimes possible to surf successive standing waves, using powerful pole plants to climb over one wave and onto the next. Waves can also be used to assist in ferrying.
Snubbing, the traditional technique where (in an empty canoe) the canoeist stands ahead of the centre thwart to create a stern light trim, and uses quick jabs or snubs of the pole to slow the canoe, is very effective for slowly negotiating technical rapids. With the method often used by racers, the canoeist stands directly behind the thwart and moves faster or at the same speed as the current, using sideways thrusts of the pole to avoid rocks and change course. The square stance is used so the poler can quickly change sides.
Some useful techniques for downstream work:
Doing an eddy turn with the pole is similar to doing it with a paddle; approach the eddy at the correct angle with the pole on the downstream side of the canoe, a thrust of the pole powers the canoe into the eddy. As the bow crosses the eddy line, do a short sweep stroke starting at the bow, then change to a cross bow draw to tighten the turn.
•‘Rock hops’ and ‘Rock-a-copters’
Two very useful and fun manoeuvres, named after the incomparable Harry Rock. It is sometimes necessary to change the trim from stern heavy to stern light, for instance if the canoe needs to be slowed by snubbing. For the more adventurous poler, an effective method of doing this is to jump over the centre thwart, (hopefully) landing on the other side in position for snubbing. With the ‘Rock-a-copter’, you jump over the thwart and spin in mid air, landing on the other side facing the opposite way. Practice on shallow flatwater first, and, if there are any onlookers, make sure they don’t have cameras.
•Downstream in reverse
It is a very useful and important skill to be able to descend rapids backwards; although this may sound strange, it has saved me from innumerable mishaps. When climbing upstream, a momentary loss of control in very strong flow can send the canoe shooting downstream backwards; being able to confidently control the canoe with reverse snubbing makes recovery easy. Conversely, it is also useful to be able to pole upstream in reverse. It’s a good idea to practice both on an easy rapid.
If you canoe on the sea, or on very large lakes, poling can be an excellent way of breaking out through surf. It is much easier than with a paddle because you can get a firm plant on the bottom, and hold the canoe in place as it rises over the wave, rather than powering into it.
The fun really begins when you try surfing back in; standing gives good control of edge, and also allows you to leap clear of the canoe if, or rather when, you capsize. Catching waves is easy with a pole, as long as the water is shallow enough to push off the bottom; one pole thrust just before the wave reaches the stern, and you’ll be surfing. If the water is too deep to plant the pole on the bottom, use kayak strokes. Control the canoe with stern rudders, kayak strokes, and edge. Trim needs to be bow light for poling out and surfing in. Unless you want to be convicted on a charge of manslaughter, pole surf away from swimmers!
Choosing a pole
There are various options for choosing a pole; the traditional choice is to go and find a suitable sapling (I use ash or spruce) 11ft to 12ft long, and fit a metal pole shoe to one or both ends. I make my pole shoes from the ferrules of wooden handled garden forks and spades. The saplings need to be debarked and smoothed; for this I use a mocotaugan/ crooked knife, a traditional Native American tool. Be sure that the sapling is thick enough at the narrow end; it is normally necessary to thin the base of the sapling down a bit, especially if both ends of the pole are used. Poles can also be shaved down from sawn lumber.
Competition polers mainly seem to use one piece aluminium poles, which are light and efficient. The ends need to be plugged to stop the pole from sinking. It’s also possible to buy two piece aluminium poles.
Additionally, there are poles made from fibreglass and carbon fibre, but apart from being (for me) horrifyingly expensive, they tend to be very bendy.
I would encourage any canoeist to try poling. I always find it bizarre how little known poling is compared to paddling; I enjoy both, but I never go canoeing without a pole in the boat. It adds so much to the already superb versatility of the open canoe, whether on river, lake, or sea.
And as a final thought, remember, don’t go with the flow!
Canoe Poling, Harry Rock
Little Dancer Limited 2005
Beyond the Paddle, Garret Conover
Old Bridge Press 1991
Canoeing, Ray Goodwin
Pesda Press 2011
Pole, Paddle and Portage, Bill Riviere
Van Nostrand Reinhold 1969