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Canoe Poling: Not for Downeasters Anymore
September 30, 2010

[BUMP FROM 2005. It was in my Backlist of Boating articles. But It had a bad link! UGH! I thought I'd purged all those. Rats!]

CANOE POLING: Not for downeasters anymore.

For jetting the shallows, great views and an allbody workout!

by Jeff Potter

[originally published in "Messing About in Boats" magazine]

If you've always thought of canoe-poling as meant for expeditioners going up rapids or for goofy whitewater stunt action, think again. There's a new way to pole in town. It's a great way to go for shallow flatwater action, upstream and down. I'd never seen or heard of it done here in Michigan but I tell ya, it's a great way to go.

If you're tired of bogging down in shallow water and want to go faster than you can paddle... if you pine for a better VIEW of the river...try poling! It's fast and scenic: two aspects I'd never heard bragged about it anywhere else. -Both these aspects are best for water that's two feet deep or less, which is what we have a lot of in Michigan.

With poling, since you're standing, you get a better view of the river bottom all around you than any way else. I was amazed at the fish and aquatic life that I never saw in my previous paddling. What a new perspective. It was like floating in air down the river. The sky reflection on the water seemed a lot more crisp.

But don't forget to wear Polaroid glasses! (These should be a 'must have' item for all canoeists. I don't know what I'd only used them for fishing before.)

See, I'd been paddling a few times on our sucky local river last fall. The water was VERY low. But our local tree color was GREAT. I was underwhelmed by the view of the horizon. Our river runs in a woodsy ditch. So, sitting down low for paddling, I just plain felt trapped. Who'd put up with that? I stood up!

Now, I paddle a tippy, narrow, flatwater kelvar racing canoe. -A beat up old Wenonah Advantage, 16'6", I think. Not the latest item, but a sporty 30-pounder anyway. I had no idea how poling would work out, but what the hey. I stood up. I could balance! So I rode my bike home and whittled a 12-foot maple sapling from the stand in my yard (about one inch diameter) and rode back to the river. I hopped in and took off like a rocket.

Poling is like riding a bike. When you're moving, it's very stable even in a race boat. Actually, I found that it was like lots of sports. I found it to be like skateboarding, snowboarding and windsurfing-with the footwork and body English that I do. You can lean and bank and cut a small, light canoe around obstacles nicely when you're standing up, braced. I also found it to be like cross country ski skating. I can get my whole body into it.

Sure, I got wet a lot at first, but pretty soon balancing was easy and very stable. And mostly I just got my feet wet. (When you tip over in paddling, you often get a MORE wet.)

What had me so worked up was that the view of the scenery was so much improved! Standing in the boat and working my way up and down the river made me feel like I was WALKING on top of the water. The woodsy canopy was much lower. It was very interesting having my head now halfway between the scenery and the water, rather than so close to the water. When poling a race boat, furthermore, you don't stop to look in the boat much. You look up the river and that helps you stay oriented for best balancing. Well, it's just so unusual. I guess when you're standing, you simply get a much wider view of your surroundings. A casual glance lets you see so much more of a river. It was delightful and I was hooked.

When you're poling in shallow water, you don't get very wet when you fall out. When I'd hit a log and get tossed, really I was just stepping out of the boat. OK, I was thrown, but it felt like just stepping out. I'd get hardly any water in the boat. And I could step right back in. It's amazing how much easier the whole operation is than getting seated every time you get in and out of a canoe.

When I encountered VERY shallow stretches, I could step and out and walk the boat through them with the bowline. It was an easy, casual affair. Walking an empty race boat is like walking air. Plus, just having the chance to WALK up a shallow river is a great thing (that fishermen usually only get). In rough paddling where there's blowdowns, you're in and out of the boat a lot. I call it BoatoCross or Cross Country Paddling. Now it's easy to treat those obstacles like simple hurdles. Much easier than working from the seated position.

Amazingly, when you find shallow obstacles, you can stay in the boat most of the time. You put your weight on the pole, unweight your feet and hop the boat over that washed-log with ease in one shove.

It's surprising how warm the river water was all through October. I never got chilled. It really extended my 'fun time in the water' season. It was very nice to get a little wet every day.

So here's the technique: I position my legs feet akimbo, snowboarder style. I make sure that I have a bow-light trim. To do this I stand behind my seat. I brace my shin against the seat thwart. (A foam pad is essential.) I mostly use a strong right side, with left foot forward, but actually I can switch just fine for long distance workload balancing. When poling 'strongside' on the right, I grasp the pole with right hand at its balance point. Left hand about 3 feet higher, maybe 2 feet down from the end. I stand up tall and reach forward and plant the pole. When I'm really going for it, I shift all weight to my forward left foot and get the weight out there. Then I collapse on the pole, drop my butt and shove to the rear. I don't let go of either hand. Then I recover and do it again. When I'm going gonzo, I push through with my right foot to get more distance and shift all weight to it off the left foot. (I've also squirted the boat out from under me in doing this.)

To get proper tracking control, I stand in the right side of the hull for strong rightside poling. This lets the curve of the tumblehome offset the overpowered rightside nicely. Combined with a light bow, a poleshove pushes you quite straight down the river.

You will have to often switch to leftside anyway. To do this, I leave my feet and hands where they are and just whip the pole over the front of the boat. As I drop and shove, I let go of the 'trapped' right hand and finish poling with left hand alone (much of the time).

I find that this method, done smoothly with minimal bounce, goes VERY FAST in shallow water up and down stream. Sadly, I haven't timed a comparison to race paddling yet, but I've done enough to feel that it's faster.

When I hit deep water areas, I can still use the pole, unless it gets over 5 feet deep. I can always use the pole as a very effective paddle. There's no need to lose way or balance due to surprises on the bottom.

If I hit a sucky, mucky bottom, I push more gently, but if I get heavy polesuck, it's easy to jerk out once you get used to it.

I've read, of course, of the various New England fancy pole resources, so I suppose I'll be buying a 'duck foot' from those ax-equipment people. 'Real' poles often have 'duck feet' on them that spread to keep a pole from sinking into mud as far. Then they collapse on recovery. The other end of a 'real' pole usually has a short rock stud for purchase on rocky bottoms. We Michiganders mainly have an 'average' riverbottom. Not too mucky, not too rocky. My maple sapling has held up fine 'naked.'

I tried all kinds of tricks, including some I'd read about. Double overhand shoves, going on down the pole. I tried some cartwheeling and baton-twirler handling. Each style has its place.

I notice that I don't do much of what I believe is the Harry Rock racing method. Harry is Mr. Poling, I've heard. But I just haven't been able to find anything in print on sport poling. We may have to have a Michigan-New England tourney. On the river of MY choice. : ) Harry, I gather, recommends a cross-hull stance (feet side by side) and a cartwheeling pole action for his top speed. Well, I find the cross-hull to be lousy for balance. When I hit a rock I go on my face inside my hull. Yuck. I see that cartwheeling, with a quick pole plant and weight-drop on each side, works quickly, but I really can't get much Umph into it. I think that those New Englanders mainly use big heavy boats. I plan on trying even faster, tippier hulls for my Michigan Style. May the best win! : )

In rocky areas, it's great fun shifting my weight around from foot to foot or scootching back some, to dance the boat on through. It's like strolling down a nice shady lane. Stream-hiking: I heard the Japanese call it 'shwanboring,' anyone ever hear of this?

I found I could really work the old arms, legs and torso! One shove sends me maybe 12 feet down the river. I could get much more body power by poling than I do by paddling. I could real dyno-shove the hull around with my feet just like a snowboard. Catch that rail! As a paddler, I tell you it is SO nice to stand up, stretch and work the legs when you're on the water!

What a new perspective!

Oh, and bring your paddle along. When you do want to sit down in a deep section, a 10-to-12-foot pole will tuck into the bow area of a solo flatwater canoe just fine without getting in the way of normal sit'n'switch paddling or your legs.

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