If you only paddle a canoe, you have yet to unlock its full potential.

Paddling does allow you to sluice through torrid rapids, but you can’t paddle up those rapids. Poling a canoe not only allows you to go down those rapids but stop, hold your ground, swivel and head back.

Despite its versatility, poling a canoe remains somewhat of a fringe culture in the paddling world. Yet back when Maine’s rivers and streams were the state’s primary thoroughfares, poling was a necessary skill.

Loggers, trappers, outfitters and others had to travel both upstream and downstream to do their job, and poling a canoe provided a quick, efficient method to get places.

Poling is a skill that most experienced canoers can master with practice, and even faster with a skilled teacher.

A canoe pole is generally 11-12 feet in length and 1-2 inches in diameter. Traditional wooden poles are crafted from wood such as spruce or ash and tipped with a metal “pole shoe.” Today’s polers often use aluminum poles, which are lighter and stronger.

The foundation for successfully poling starts with your stance. It doesn’t matter if you are headed upstream or downstream, you want your weight distributed so the heavier end of the canoe is downstream. This allows for easier travel.

I plant myself in front of the stern seat, just aft of the stern thwart. Feet are spread about shoulder width apart so that the outside of your feet are nearly touching the port and starboard sides of the canoe, and knees are bent.

The key is finding your balance and keeping it. Rocking the canoe by shifting your weight, bending one knee and then the other, can give you a better feel for the canoe, its stability and tipping point.

Get used to your pole, using it as a paddle at first. It may seem awkward using a thin pole for a paddle but it works, and the skill will be useful in deeper river pools when poling. Try a j-stroke or using it like a kayak paddle.

Next, try pushing with the pole. Grasp the pole with hands close together, thumbs up, with your offside hand higher. Plant the pole tip two to three feet behind you at roughly a 30-degree angle close to the side of the canoe, and by holding tightly and bending your knees like you are about to sit, you will propel the canoe forward.

Keep your pole close to the side of the canoe with the push and parallel to the center line of the boat. This will allow you to keep a straighter line. If you start to stray, alternate pushes from each side, or use the pole as a tiller at the end of your push.

By straightening your knees and pulling up, you ready yourself for the next push.

The farther the pole is from the center of the canoe, the more likely you are to turn it. Hold the pole close to the canoe and you will be nearly straight.

There are some nuances, and here’s where an experienced canoer will have an edge. Reading the river and its currents can make poling easier.

Keep your bow light and stern heavier as you go upriver. That allows the bow to glide over the current instead of catching. While headed downstream, more weight is needed in the bow because the current will grab the bow and guide it. Using your pole as tiller, you can guide the canoe through the current. You can also temper your speed by snubbing, the act of slowing down or stopping by using your pole to touch rocks or stream bottom ahead of you.

If you want to learn more, seek out a poling clinic. Usually there are a few each year in different parts of the state. YouTube also has some helpful videos. Poles and supplies can be found at places such as poleandpaddle.com and haydencanoepole.com.

With river and stream levels low this time of year, poling over sand bars and up rapids will allow you access to areas other traditional paddlers cannot access.

Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide and the outreach coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

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