Articles - How to Pole an Open Canoe

James Weir poling up the rapids on the wye
James Weir poling up the rapids on the wye
Canoe and kayak - Posted on 31 Jan 2011

Poling is almost certainly the oldest form of canoe propulsion; early man would sit astride a log and propel it along by means of long pole used to push off the bed of the river. As time progressed, the water to be journeyed along became deeper and the early poles became shorter and shorter until one end of the pole was widened and you ended up as what we now know to be, a canoe paddle. Poling is still commonly used in many third world countries as the primary method of propelling the long wooden dug out canoes up and downstream; Chinese fishermen also use poles to manoeuvre their fishing junks about in shallow water. In this article I’d like to shed a little light on this useful skill and hopefully help you to get more out of your canoe and have some fun in to the bargain.

Many people cry out, ‘Just what is the point of poling!’ And until recently, I too was of these cynics. Poling allows the canoeist to travel upstream and up rapids, which would be impossible to paddle up with a conventional canoe paddle. Once you have experienced the thrill of travelling back up the river, something it would have been impossible to achieve normally, it is hard to pass a harsh judgment on poling, it’s fun, it’s useful and in my opinion, it rocks! The advantages that it offers the canoeist are useful in the extreme, especially on long journeys on unknown rivers. Poling can eliminate the need to portage around a rapid and can enable the canoeist to explore waterways, which would be inaccessible with a normal paddle.Poling on Symonds yat
Early canoe poles were nothing more than lengths of wood trimmed to an appropriate length and, although a little heavy, these worked, and still continue to work, perfectly adequately, even today. The basic pole was constructed from a length of wood between three and three and a half metres long, traditionally made from Spruce or Ash as these types of wood had proved themselves to be ideal for the purpose of poling. Over time poles have evolved to become more refined, poles are now stripped of bark and a metal shoe, fabricated from brass or steel, is fitted to the bottom of the pole to increase grip on a rocky river bed and to increase to life of the pole. The shoe prevents the wood splitting and the end being damaged by repeated impact on the riverbed. Poles are not commonly commercially available and most canoeists tend to make their own poles from lumber sourced in timber yards and fabricate the shoe from plumbing spares. A self-made pole does enable a personal touch to be added, lighter and thinner for a smaller poler or sturdier for a giant poler.

More modern materials are also now used in pole construction, notably Aluminium and composite materials, such as carbon. Composite materials, although aesthetically beautiful and light, are not the ideal for poling; carbon tends to flex and not really provide efficient energy transfer from the poler through the pole to the riverbed.
The other disadvantage is that carbon is not the most durable of materials and when pinned between two rocks will crack or snap. However, carbon poles are readily available in Great Britain from most good canoe outfitters. And although unsuitable for high performance poling they are ideal for the needs of the recreational canoe poler, the lightweight construction also makes them extremely easy to handle, which is great for when you’re learning your pole dancing skills.

The material of choice for competitive polers in North America currently is Aluminium. An Aluminium pole is stiff, light and incredibly robust, any bend or damage can be easily repaired. Aluminium tube of about the diameter of a paddle shaft, but with much thicker sidewalls, is used and is plugged at each end to increase the flotation of the pole and increase the durability of the ends. A shoe similar to the type added to a wooden pole can also be added to create the ideal pole. Aluminium is not all advantage though; metal can be very cold to the touch on winter days and is naturally slippery when wet. However several tricks can be employed to improve grip on an Aluminium pole, waxing or sanding the shaft can increase grip, as can adding duct tape to the areas where you grip the pole, duct tape can also help to insulate your hands from the cold when poling in winter.

Top Tip
Aluminium is the choice for polers on the North American competition circuit; so take a top tip from the professionals, “Going poling? Get an Aluminium pole!”

The choice of canoe is also crucial for successful poling, a stable canoe with minimal rocker and good tracking is recommended, a Prospector design is ideal, as it is also of the optimum length, 16-feet. If the canoe is too long it can be heavy and difficult to manoeuvre in tight rapids. Too short and it will not have sufficient speed to travel upstream efficiently. The wider the canoe is in the middle the more stable platform it will provide for the poler. The more rocker the canoe has the less contact with the water the hull has at any one time, this creates a shorter waterline and thus reduces the potential top speed of the canoe. The reduced speed ultimately affects the performance of the canoe when poling up rapids. The design of the hull is also a factor; a V shaped hull will improve tracking and aid the beginner in maintaining straight-line travel. A flat hull will make straight-line tracking trickier, but will improve the manoeuvrability of the canoe and make it easier for an advanced poler to negotiate complex rapids on the journey upstream. Any construction of canoe will be more than suitable for poling, however the lighter the canoe, the easier it is to move over the water. For poling competitions composite canoes are used, as they are lightweight and responsive.

Top Tip
As the only contact the poler has with the canoe is through their feet I recommend the application of skateboard grip tape to the hull of the canoe where it meets the sidewalls on each side to improve friction between the canoeists feet and the hull of the canoe.Getting momentum to drive up the rapid

The idea of standing up and even moving around in a canoe in whitewater is normally discouraged; standing up of course makes the canoe far less stable, however practice and balance exercises can quickly build sufficient skills to stand up and balance in a canoe with ease. Good positioning of the feet in the canoe will assist balance; the power poling stance is a good example of how to stand. The poler stands with the widest stance feasible, both feet parallel and pushed onto the hull and the sidewalls of the canoe, just behind the centre thwart.
This stance enables the poler to switch poling sides with ease and without the need for a change of foot position; this will increase the ability to make quick changes of direction by poling on both sides of the canoe, especially useful when travelling up a rapid!

Correctly trimming the canoe will also improve the experience of poling, by standing behind the centre thwart the canoe is trimmed slightly back heavy. The light front is now able to climb over the oncoming water; a heavy front would dig into the water and resist forward travel. Trim is a subtle art and a very small change in weight distribution can have a massive effect on the performance of the canoe.
The correct way to hold a pole, when standing in the power poling stance, is to hold the pole using a technique called the batters grip. The onside hand, the hand on the same side as the pole, is placed on the pole first as high up as is comfortable, and grips the pole with the thumb pointing upwards towards the top of the pole. The second, offside, hand is placed above the first on the pole, also with the thumb pointing upwards. Try to reach as high up the pole as possible to maximise each poling action, the further up the poler places their hands the further up the rapid they can travel with each poling motion.
In deeper water it is also possible to grip the pole as you would a kayak paddle and treat the pole as a normal double bladed paddle. Standing up and alternately pulling the pole through the water on each side can create a surprising amount of friction and will propel the canoe through the water with surprising speed. This technique is particularly suitable for accelerating onto a wave from below, the sight of a poler standing up in a canoe and surfing a wave is quite a head turning sight!

A slight bend in the knees improves the balance of the poler and the bent legs act in a similar way to suspension and enable the poler to absorb and react to any movement of the canoe. Bending the knees will also help during the power transfer phase of poling, once the pole has been placed into the water at an angle of approximately 45degrees, the power poling stance really comes into its own, a firm placement can be made on the riverbed and the poler can dynamically push the canoe upstream. It is important to keep the pole at the 45degree angle for the duration of the movement; this will maintain the friction of the pole on the riverbed and thus the effectiveness of the action.

For a dynamic and efficient poling action transfer as much weight as possible onto the pole during the action and lean back onto the pole. The action is similar to how poles are used in cross-country skiing, each pole is placed alternately at 45degrees behind the skier and then forward acceleration is gained from pushing on the pole. The more weight that is transferred to the pole the less resistance the hull of the canoe faces as it glides over the oncoming current.Using water features to climb the rivers
Side slipping is a technique used to move the canoe sideways with the pole in order to manoeuvre around obstacles. Similar to a pry stroke with a canoe paddle the pole is placed on the riverbed at right angles to the direction of travel and the canoe is pushed away from the pole. Side slipping is trickier when performed on a rapid, as the flow of the rapid will try and push the canoe back downstream as the poler pushes the canoe sideways.
Slide slipping is a superb technique to use when manoeuvring in to eddies or on slow flowing water.

Top Tip
When side slipping, angle the canoe so the water flows under the hull and not into the side of the canoe, lift the weight off the foot on the leading side and increase pressure on the foot closest to the pole.

There are several techniques that can be used to recover the pole when the stroke has reached its end. A technique to try is the windmill recovery. The pole is rotated vertically around the pivot point of the bottom hand and each end is used to propel the canoe along alternately. The windmill recovery is an ideal technique to use when learning to pole as it is easier to keep the canoe tracking in a straight line. The technique is not entirely dissimilar to the way a dancer would twirl a baton or a ninja would spin a stick. The windmill recovery is a more suitable technique to use on flat water, than when going up rapids, as it takes too long to replant the pole on the riverbed and it is not easily possible to replant the pole at the optimum 45degree angle on the riverbed.

The most effective recovery method to use when poling up rapids is to thrust the pole upwards with the bottom hand, out of the water and place it in again at the correct angle of 45-degrees. The top hand acts as a guide for the pole as it travels up out of the water propelled by the thrusting action of the bottom hand, once the pole is out of the water it can be replaced ready for the next poling action. The action of thrusting the pole up and out of the water can be compared to the action of a snooker player taking a shot, the forward, offside, hand is used to guide the direction and the onside hand used to apply the power.

Finally when poling up a rapid the poler must read the water and understand where the easiest path up the rapid lies, leapfrogging from eddy to eddy and using the weaker current on the inside of bends and near to the side of the river. A suitable line would be scouted and decided upon before descending a complex rapid the same must be applied to poling up a rapid, look for the slowest moving water instead of trying to pole against the strongest flow.
It would be impossible to write about poling without mentioning snubbing; snubbing is the skill of travelling down a rapid using a pole. The pole is used forward of the canoe with the canoe trimmed slightly front heavy, the poler stands just in front of the centre thwart. The pole in placed in the water in front of the canoe and used to ‘snub’ off the riverbed with an aim to slow the canoe down and change its direction when necessary. Over enthusiastic efforts when snubbing can be confused with canoe pole vaulting, as occasionally the pole can become wedged or jammed in an underwater obstruction and the poler’s first reaction is to hold on tight. Unfortunately because the poler is connected to the canoe by nothing more than gravity the canoe will continue to travel down the rapid oblivious to the fact it has lost its occupant, leaving the unfortunate poler floundering in the rapid!Upper rotation helps planting of the pole

There are many other techniques and tricks to poling, these are just a few ideas, intended to motivate and encourage you to get out and have a go. If you’ve ever had a doubt or have rubbished poling as a pointless pastime,
I implore you to equip yourself with a pole and get out on the river in your canoe and challenge yourself to climb a rapid. It is both testing and rewarding, and to be able to take your canoe where others cannot is truly a superb feeling. Remember to choose a suitable location, a shallow fast flowing rapid with rocks creating many eddies is an ideal rapid. A short rapid can be worked and explored for far longer when armed with a pole than with a paddle. So no excuses, beg, borrow and steal a pole and a canoe and get out and have a go, I guarantee you will be hooked and
become a pole dancer for life.

Some helpful Canoe Poling Top Tips Videos HERE

If you're not ready to be poling around just yet then have a look at some of our basic How To videos including J-Stroke, Turning on the Move and Trim

This photo shoot with James Weir was conducted on Symonds Yat Rapids on the River Wye

Interesting YT video on poling

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