I wrote earlier today about my midwinter canoe adventure. Most of my canoe trips don’t involve shuttles. I don’t like to rely on other folks, don’t have access to two cars and I look to my time on the water as my “alone” time.
When I canoe rivers and streams (My preferred environment) I have to get the boat and myself both upstream and downstream.
This seems to be a strange notion to Midwestern paddlers, but it’s not unusual in upstate New York and in New England. A good part of the Northern forest Canoe Trail (Number 1 on my bucket list) is upstream. If you consider the traditions of canoeing — Voyageurs, Maine Guides, native Americans, early trappers and traders — it’s pretty clear that no one drove these folks to the headwaters for a gentle downstream paddle.
In 1930 and right out of high school, Eric Sevareid (future CBS newscaster) and Walter Port paddled up the 300 mile Minnesota River from Minneapolis to begin a 2,250 mile trip to Hudson’s Bay — a trip that most didn’t think could be done. The story is told in Sevareid’s Paddling with the Cree.
There is no question that getting a loaded canoe upstream is more difficult than a downstream float. It has its rewards. The process of working a boat upstream has its rewards.
It’s physical. I hate working out for the sake of keeping fit. It may serve a purpose, but it seems to be wasted time and wasted effort. I love physical exertion with purpose. I’m never going to hop onto a stationary bike and ride twenty miles while reading a good book, but I’ll spend hours in a cold rain pushing a canoe five miles upstream (or hiking or rowing ).
It’s mental. Every stretch of a stream presents the paddlers with a different set of situations that must be interpreted and plans that must be executed to move the canoe to the next stretch.
There are four choices: paddle, pole, portage or line.
Paddling is the best option in slow moving water with enough depth to get a powerful paddle stroke. Keep your eyes open and read the stream to find the slowest moving water. Move from one slow moving pocket to another. It’s not unusual for me to stand and use a very long otter tail paddle in this situation. Load the canoe so that the stern is deeper than the bow. This will make it simpler to keep the bow aligned with the current. Getting knocked backwards and sideways can put you in the drink.
Poling is the secret to successful upstream work. Essentially the paddler stand and pushed the boat upstream with a long thin pole. There is a technique that is described here. It takes practice, but isn’t too difficult. Like any upstream work it’s essential to read the current and travel from one slow moving spot to another. The pole is planted and the paddler (poler?) pushes the boat forward. With a sweeping motion the pole is pulled from the streambed and swung forward. The canoe travels forward past the pole and the action is repeated. It’s a wonderful rhythm that I can maintain for quite some time.
When the canoe no longer moves past the pole and the boat is moving backward it’s time to consider lining or portage.
Lining is simply towing an empty canoe through the tough patches while walking along the shore. This technique is not only good when waster is too fast, but when water is too shallow. An empty canoe needs much less water to float. Lines attached fore and aft give the paddler (liner?) more control. This works well when there is space to walk along the stream. More often than not lining involves walking through knee deep water, mud and slippery rocks. (I found an article on lining here.)
Portage simply means taking the boat from the water and carrying it. This is the only option at dams, extreme rapids and waterfalls. It’s just as effective in water too shallow to carry the canoe. Traditionally the canoe is carried on the shoulders using a built in yoke. It’s becoming more common folks on extended trips to carry a small cart with bicycle wheels. (The Northern Forest Canoe Trail includes over 75 miles of portage.)
Once you’ve reached your goal there is another reward — the trip downstream!