My Experience with Canoe Poling

If you are interested in poling and why, read the Bull Moose Patrol article by Scott Oeth Canoe Poling: What's it all about. Then enjoy Adam Evans's video Canoe Poling Skills from the Outdoorinstruction channel.
Balance Practice

I recently (2013 so not so recent now) started to more formally familiarize myself with canoe poling techniques. My past experience was somewhat limited and the learning process was adhoc - mostly I poled around marshes and up some 'swift' water mostly using brute strength and luck. I used what ever I could find for a pole. This web page provides my experience turning back the clock and working on poling more methodically.

I rekindled my interest by going on a solo trip down the Pinawa Channel back in 2013. Before I got going I realized I would have to come back through the shallow swifts so I spent a good bit of time looking for a suitable tree on my way down. I spotted a downed willow that was long enough with a reasonably straight trunk and few branches. Going back up stream was much easier than I anticipated and I was hooked.

Not wanting to jump in 'whole-hog' I looked around for a cheap alternative for a canoe pole (more than just a convenient stick). I found some instructions for using a closet rod on the web and made myself a 12 foot pole. The wood is hemlock which peels (or flakes) more than ash or spruce but so far it has worked reasonably well, it is just a trial. If my interest continues next summer I will look at getting or making another pole. (by 2021 - I now have 10 poles of various flavours and materials)

Over the summer of 2014 I travelled to the east coast (New Brunswick) and spent time with three excellent poling instructors (Rory Matchett, Kevin Silliker, and Tim Humes). It was well worth the time to get some proper instruction and then go and have fun. Since then I have been running poling workshops for others and doing a fair bit on my own.

I have discovered there is actually very little material available for learning how to pole on your own. I have a significant pile of books on canoeing techniques - most are quite good resources for the strokes and mechanics of moving a canoe with a paddle, but if poling is mentioned at all it is more of an afterthought and there is little on the techniques required. Ray Goodwin's Canoeing has a few pages of useful information and the American Red Cross Canoeing (my copy is from 1977) has a whole chapter. There are a couple of books that have good reviews unfortunately they are either out of print or hard to get. The Basic Essentials of Canoe Poling and Canoe Poling by Harry Rock, and Beyond the Paddle: A Canoeist's Guide to Expedition Skills-Polling, Lining, Portaging, and Manoeuvring Through Ice by Garrett Conover, have both been recommended (I have since picked up all three). Rock cover poling more from a competition perspective and Conover goes into more tripping or expedition techniques.

The Web has become a useful resource of information but even 'on the Net' I could not find a lot on techniques. I did find a few text based descriptions and some YouTube videos that where useful. I went to take a course from the best in Canada, they are on the coast and I am in the middle so it was a commitment - it was one of the most worthwhile experiences that I have had though.

In the end I started off just mucking around - try out things mentioned or shown in books and on the web. I started off on a local river that I knew would be shallow but was reminded quickly that we live on the bottom of an ancient lake and floodplain. The river was shallow, almost perfect depth, but the mud was another meter or more deep. I would need a duck or marsh foot if I was going to do any more in that location. The other river in Winnipeg that I know has some suitable sections (Assiniboine) was been running very high - too deep for my purposes (2013/2014, 2015 Aug-Oct great sections, all of 2021 summer has been great).

I had done some work in the past in southern Manitoba near the Pembina River. I knew that it had potential so I checked the water levels on line both in Manitoba and North Dakota - it was higher than usual for August but apparently too low for paddling, it was about the perfect depth and current to do some learning. I spent a whole day going up and down stream near the MB/ND border (I didn't cross into ND, I figured the US border patrol would take a dim view of me poling across the border). Just to convince myself that poling was actually useful I did try to paddle against the current several times - it was not deep enough for a full paddle stroke and the current was too strong to make reasonable headway. I also went back to the Pinawa Channel with some additional weight, it makes a big difference, and played around some more in the current. I have gone up the Whitemouth river (south of the Trans Canada); it is quite good for poling when the river is low. There are many other rivers, I have discovered, that are quite nice to pole in Southern Manitoba.

I have a duck or marsh foot that works quite well in the mud that we have around the city. This means that I can go up and down the Seine and La Salle rivers, as well as the smaller creeks around the city. I purchased a foot that folds when it is being retrieved and spreads out quite a bit when being pushed. I have seen simple T or Y feed but I didn't think they would work well with the soft mud.

I expect there will be other rivers that have suitable current, swifts/rapids, and rocky/gravel bottom. The Birch (east of Prawda) and Brokenhead (see Dusty's book) come to mind immediately. The Assiniboine River, Souris, Roseau, and Little Saskatchewan are also possibilities.

Over the last few years the Brokenhead, near Beausejour, and the Roseau from the old ford have become regular spots to go poling. I have spent time on the Little Saskatchewan as well which is just awesome but a little far for a day trip. The Souris river was a gem as well to explore between Wawaensa and Hwy 10.

Although I am not going to write a 'how-to' manual (I am still too green) I have learned a bunch of little things that may be helpful.

Self video - showing some of what I have learned - I am still very green.


Homemade Pole

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Last modified: October 20, 2021