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
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
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.
A 12 foot pole is not always long enough. A 12 foot pole can
be too long.
The canoe can be moved around by 'kayak' paddling
with the pole. This includes going forward & reverse, turns, etc....
The 'Home Depot' pole works well, it is a little heavy, and they will break with nasty pointy ends.
Get your whole body involved!, bend your legs, lean onto the pole (but not too much)
In Winnipeg, at least, having a shoe for the mud opens up possibilities.
Heeling the canoe when poling is just as important as when paddling.
A heeled canoe is narrower and can sometimes go between
Keep the down-stream end weighted (if you are going down
stream faster than the current this is not the case - but also not really recommended when poling)
Most things that apply to moving water/whitewater paddling apply to poling,
but there are unique things as well - like going upstream and stopping mid stream.
Learn to carve (just like moving water paddling)
Keep the pole tip behind you when pushing upstream - you can't
pull yourself up through the current. This is particularly tricky when
you 'miss' and start going backward.
The pole can be used as a
rudder for doing things like a river-J
Practise balance, heeling,
turns, on flatwater then moving water (remember adjustments will have
to be made).
The pole helps with balance.
Use your body weight and/or torso (body rotation) to push
I switch between diagonal and square stance positions. I don't know which I
liked better, one or the other just felt right at different times.
Diagonal stance provides more power, but less opportunity for switching. Set your angle and head upstream.
Square stance provides access to both side of the boat but might have less power
Use square stance when snubbing
Stowing spare poles - Side: Tip down to the front of the canoe and over the
yoke. Middle: tip down to the back of the canoe,
over the yoke, best for 'square' stance. My instructors all stored spares in a different way, the key is the ability to get the spare out quickly.
Recently I noticed a friend with the pole inside the gunwales but on top of the thwarts (I added a QR paddle holder to stop rolling).
A duck (or marsh) foot really works in our red river muck (mud,
Window shades happen to polers as well (tilt/heel down stream).
Poles do break - a spare is useful.
Poles get stuck - a spare is useful.
Aluminium poles are cold, noisy, and give you black aluma-hands (unless covered) - but light and fast, I haven't broken one yet. They bend!
Two piece [Aluminium] poles are easier to store.
Any old skinny tree can make a pole in a pinch - look for ones that beavers have trimmed, and de-barked.
Wood poles need to be oiled regularly.
Pins wear out! Poles wear out. Aluminium poles are hollow and can fill with water.
Start by going up stream!
Subbing works really well, lots of control going down stream. My time in NB
convinced me that taking a pole any time the water might be low is
worth a lot.
When snubbing (or accidentally going backward) keep the pole on the upstream side (this is a hard lesson for solo moving water padders)
Don't cross your body when heading down stream (snubbing) - you will get wet eventually by why tempt fate?
The pole is a pushing tool - also a hard lesson for moving water paddlers
Use the current, hide in eddies, heeling turns the boat
Kayak stroke and sweeps work (when it is deep - or shallow)
Work the end of the pole
Switched working sides - yet another reminder to moving water paddlers - there is rarely an offside, just switch
Poles have two ends - windmill - use them.
Eddy turns work but remember you can just push sideways
Heat Shrink Tubing - yep large enough to cover that cold aluminium - warmer, quieter, and no aluma-hand.
Shallow (shoals) can be harder because of drag from hull displacement (wave) - a little deeper may be easier even if current is faster.
You can surf too
Dragging the pole when going down stream - control direction, speed, and 'third' point for balance tripod
Self video - showing some of what I have learned - I am still very green.