Late on a July afternoon, we began poling up Wisconsin’s Brule River. Four canoes, eight of us in all. We would move upstream a couple of miles, find an appropriate spot and have a little dinner.
Poling, at least in this region, is something of a lost art.
It takes just the right kind of river to make poling practical. The stream must be shallow, with a few gentle riffles and enough current to make paddling upstream just a little too hard. A river like the Brule is perfect.
To pole a canoe, the poler stands in the stern and uses a slender pole about 10 feet long, fitted with a metal cover on its lower tip. The bow paddler sits back and relaxes, letting the poler do the work.
As the poler moves upstream, he or she plants the pole on the stream bottom, then walks his or her hands up the pole while pushing toward the rear of the canoe. In this way, the canoe slides forward a few feet. The poler half lifts, half tosses the pole ahead, plants it again and repeats the process.
In flat water, poling is pretty straightforward. But ascending a shallow set of rapids can be tricky. If the bow gets a little bit to one side, the current will catch it and try to swing it downstream. In that case, there’s nothing to do but let it go and ride it out, starting over at the bottom of the rapids.
If all goes well, the poler nudges the canoe up the rapids a couple of feet at a time, keeping a good line. Rocks might have to be dodged. Overhanging trees can be troublesome. I lost a favorite cap during a recent poling episode, and the current took it under before I could drift downstream to reclaim it.
On our recent evening of poling, we met several canoes headed downstream on their run from Stone’s Bridge to the Winneboujou Landing. Some of them couldn’t figure out exactly what we were up to.
“Defying physics, huh?” one man said.
“Is that easier than paddling?” a woman asked.
I guess the answer to both is “yes.” But when it’s time to come back downstream, we stow the pole and grab our paddles.
I have a good friend who’s a trout fisherman. He regularly poles upstream on the Brule, spends an afternoon or evening fishing, and paddles back down. Poling can be done solo or with a partner. It alleviates the problem of paddling only downstream, then having to find some sort of shuttle back to your car at the put-in.
I understand it’s especially popular on streams in the Northeast, which must be something like the Brule.
Fishing guides on the Brule often use shorter snubbing poles when coming downstream to hold the canoe in position while a fly angler in the bow casts for trout.
On a warm summer day, standing barefooted on the floor of the canoe, poling puts you in touch with your inner Tom Sawyer. I’m not sure Tom ever did any poling. It’s just seems like something he would have done. When you’re poling up the Brule, you feel connected to the river, to the old cedars reaching out from the shore, to the strands of grass waving in the current. The kingfishers loop out over the river, feeding. Upstream, if you’re lucky, you see a whitetail in its summer red standing hock-deep in the river checking you out. The pale blue clumps of forget-me-not cling to mossy logs at the water’s edge.
In the rapids on our way upstream that evening, I had to ask for my bow paddler’s quick correcting stroke just once to compensate for my poor form. But I recovered, cleared the big rock near the top of the run, gave the pole one firm push and reached the quiet water above.
We had a fine dinner and sat on the cedar needles afterward, watching the river slide past. It must not have been too late when we paddled back down. The whippoorwills weren’t calling yet.