A while back, I read a blog post that urged those of us with small boats to explore the shallows and marshes by poling our craft where the water’s too shallow for motors, and the grass and reeds are so tall that you can’t see much more than 20′ through them if you’re sitting down to paddle or row. The post concluded that we should all head to the lumberyard, grab a piece of closet rod, and start poling. If that seems a bit simplistic, it is, but if there are marshes or thin water in your area that you’d like to explore, poling is well worth considering.
Protected shallow waters such as narrow estuaries and wetlands, where grass blocks the wind and breaks up the waves, are good poling country, but you can pole almost any shallow, protected water that is flat and calm with depths from about 8″ to 3′. A pole isn’t very effective in water much deeper than that, and it’s easy to decide when it’s time to row or paddle because you’ll be working frantically to reach bottom, only to travel a yard or two.
I’ve picked up a lot of tips from guides, hunters, and naturalists from the Maurice River in southern New Jersey, the Susquehanna Flats in Maryland, and the Patuxtent River marshes near Washington, D.C. With a pole you will always travel very slowly, at less than a walking pace, leaving the environment relatively undisturbed. You see a lot more wildlife, and it’s a relaxing way to travel.
Boats designed to be poled have some special attributes. In general there is no rocker to the bottom, as upward-curving ends tend to make steering squirrelly. Low freeboard reduces both windage and visual impact, which is useful for hunting. A little outward flare in the topsides adds a touch of secondary stability, but only a touch. The beam on most boats runs 36″ to 44″. Double-ended boats work well moving through grass and reeds; the bottom should be flat and smooth, with no external stringers or battens. Traditional push boats are quite slender and consequently they’re not very stable; poling one of them is a pretty refined skill. These boats are unmanageable without a person or equivalent ballast in the bow. With the boat we call a gun punt or railbird boat in the upper Chesapeake, known as a pirogue in most other places, the pusher stands on a platform mounted at or slightly below the stern gunwale, sort of like a seat or a large breasthook.
One doesn’t need a particular boat to ply thin waters; larger, more stable boats can be poled. Flats boats in Florida are outboard skiffs that reach fishing grounds under power, then are poled once they reach the shallows. Your boat may fall somewhere in between a push boat and a flat boat; poling may be a new way for you to go exploring, take photographs, and go messin’ around in waters you’d previously steered away from.
Though a wooden boat is paired nicely with a wooden pole, I wouldn’t blame anyone for choosing a lightweight fiberglass or carbon-fiber pole. Weight makes a difference—think logger boots versus sneakers. Preferred woods for poles are spruce, red cedar, or sassafras. Of those, spruce has the best strength-to-weight ratio. The Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland, has about a dozen very old push poles, all between 2″ and 2-1/4″ in diameter. They are not light but remarkably straight, all about 14′ long and perhaps made from old lifeboat oars. It’s important to choose a pole that’s appropriate for your boat’s length. As for diameter, railbird guides in the Chesapeake Bay area seem to prefer 1 1/2″ for wooden poles.
What matters most is what you put on the bottom end of the pole. Poles with pointy ends are good for a hard or rocky bottom. If a pole gets stuck and won’t pull out, don’t hang on to it. A stuck pole can pull you off the boat (as a very capable friend of mine proved), so let go before you lose your balance.
Poles with folding feet have been commercially available for a hundred years to prevent, in theory, a stuck pole, but in the Chesapeake they are considered useless except you’re collecting grass samples. Most pushers simply give the pole a twist to break any suction when they retrieve it. A few will do the twist as they set the pole. You move the boat forward by walking your hands to the dry end of the pole, not by pushing with both hands fixed on the pole and putting your weight into the push.
In most cases, you’d lift the pole over your head and switch it to the other side to change direction. One characteristic of a pirogue is the narrow beam of its sharp stern, which eliminates the need to for the over-the-head maneuver: you can keep the pole on one side and steer both directions from the same side. Push a little left and the boat goes left, a little right and it goes that way. You can also steer by edging the boat like a kayak: Put your weight on your right foot, and the boat goes left, and vice versa.
The Susquehanna Flats—near my home in Havre de Grace at the north end of Chesapeake Bay—are about 5 miles wide and 9 miles long. The flats may look like the Great Lakes, but in most places they’re only 6″ deep at low tide. The silt there is 2′ deep; propellers get mired in it and oars and paddles merely paw at it. Poles don’t mind it at all, and there are lots of waters like the Flats you can have to all yourself if you have a boat you can pole.
Charlie Gerhardt lives in Havre de Grace, Maryland, on the Susqehanna Flats. His interest in wooden boats and classic small craft evolved through disappointment with the characteristics of “market driven” fiberglass designs. He currently serves on the board of the Upper Bay Museum in the nearby town of North East, and restores historic small craft at the Chesapeake Bay Wooden Boat Builders School.
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