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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Getting Around

When It's Time to Punt

By Tamia Nelson

September 10, 2002

Sometimes you gotta go against the flow. And sometimes the water's so thin that a paddle just won't bite. That's when you'll want to punt.

I'm not talking football here. Punting's another way of saying poling. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat, and punting is propelling a punt by shoving a pole against the bottom of a river or canal. Newsflash! Your boat doesn't have to be a punt. You can punt a canoe, too.

Confused? I'm not surprised. Punting is one of those physical things that's easier to do than to talk about. Words just get in the way. But while most canoeists have heard of it, how many have given punting a try? Not enough, that's for sure. Whether you call it punting or poling, it's a technique well worth having in your bag of tricks. Just ask any voyageur or Maine guide.

Punting's especially useful during the low-water months of late summer and early fall. One of my favorite rivers flows clear and cold out of Vermont's Green Mountains, slices through a water gap in the hills, and then meanders through a broad, pastoral New York valley. For much of its course, the 'Kill is a classic pool-and-riffle stream. There's one problem, though: in dry years it gets mighty "bony." Your canoe will float in a lot less water than your paddle blade needs. So if you don't want to stay home on low-water days—and that means missing some of the best weather of the season—you simply gotta punt.

Is that all? No. If you live where paddling clubs are few and far between, or if you get time off from your job only when everyone else is working, then you'll probably find it hard to organize a car shuttle. Of course you won't want to run Class III-IV water alone—not if you're sane, at any rate—but there are a lot of easy Class I-II rivers just waiting to be explored by solo boaters and tandem teams. (It's never safe to boat alone, but many experienced boaters bend the rules from time to time, and most of them live to tell the tale. It's a judgement call.) That's what Farwell and I did on the river of my youth. And because we were usually on our own, we'd head upstream from our put-in, planning to drift back down to our car at the end of the day. More often than not, this meant punting.

Upstream travel isn't a free ride, but it's not as hard as you might think, particularly in low water. By working the eddies and keeping as near to the inside of bends as you can, it's possible to paddle upriver almost as easily as drifting down. But the riffles—the easy rapids that break up the straights between pools—are stinkers: the water's thin, the current's fast, and the paddle blade stubbornly refuses to bite. It's time to punt (or track, but that's another story).

The basics of punting are easy, though they're best learned in warm, shallow (1-1½ feet deep) water, someplace where the bottom's hard and the current's slow. It's also best to practice solo at first. Stand forward of the stern seat. (If you're not comfortable standing in your canoe, you're not ready to learn to punt—or maybe you need a more stable boat!) You want your canoe to be trimmed down by the stern when you're headed upstream. Make a quarter turn toward the upstream gunwale—your boat should be at a slight angle to the current—and grip your pole near the middle with your hands about shoulder-width apart, as if it were a rope you were getting ready to climb. Both thumbs should point up.

Now place the working end of the pole in the water near the gunwale, a comfortable distance ahead of you. How far ahead will depend on the length of your arms, the length of your pole, and your forward speed. When you're moving out from a standing start, you'll need to place the pole further back, next to your rear foot or even slightly behind you. As you pick up speed, you'll be able to stretch out and plant your pole forward. In either case, once the pole "feels the bottom," just climb it hand-over-hand till you get to the top. Then recover—cautious types will do this hand-over-hand; the devil-may-care will risk a single toss—and plant the pole once more. And start climbing again.

Congratulations! You're punting.

It won't be this easy in real life, of course. At first, your boat will swing from side to side. (The remedy? A bit of lateral pressure on the pole.) And you'll probably walk your hands right off the end of the pole at least once. You didn't forget to bring a paddle, did you? You don't want to be up the creek without one! And be sure to wear your life-jacket. (A helmet might not be a bad idea, either. The "bones" in bony rivers are rocks, after all. What's your head worth to you?)

You'll notice that I've left something important out. It's a little like that famous recipe for jugged hare in a celebrated Victorian cookbook. "First," the recipe began, "catch your hare." After that bit, everything is simple. Well, before you can punt, you'll need a pole: 10-12 feet of something light, straight, and strong. Ash was the material of choice back when punting was a workaday way to get around on the water, but just try finding a 12-foot ash pole today, let alone the tapered iron shoe you'll need to keep the working end from "brooming." Good luck! For a while during the '70s, a small company made a break-down aluminum pole. It was light and strong, but it was also noisy and cold (in cold water). The junction was fiddly, too. It depended on tiny, easy-to-lose screws. Still, the "Sylvester pole" worked well, and the makers wrote the best guide to the art of punting I've ever seen, Canoe Poling, by Al, Syl, and Frank Beletz. The book is a campy classic. It's too bad that both it and the Sylvester pole are now history.

But they are. So I'm afraid you're on your own when you go looking for a pole. Maybe a local sawmill, metal-shop, or cabinet-maker can help you. Or maybe bamboo is the answer. (I'm going to try a bamboo pole next year.) Look hard enough, though, and something's bound to turn up. If you keep the most important criteria in mind, you can't go wrong. A good pole is light, straight, long, and strong. It has to be easy to grip, too, with no annoying splinters.

There's one more hare to catch: your canoe. Short pack canoes don't pole well, and neither do lean, mean racing machines. The best boat for poling is arguably the best boat for tripping: a beamy all-rounder in the 16-18 foot range. Unlike poles, however, such boats aren't hard to find. The Chestnut Prospector, Mad River Explorer, Marathon (formerly Grumman) "Tin Tank," Old Town Tripper—all of these will fill the bill, as will dozens of other, less well-known models.

In any event, once you've caught your hare…sorry, found a pole…and gotten your feet wet, the rest is just a matter of practice. Play the river. Experiment with drag stops and pivot turns, and try some downstream work, too. If you move forward till your boat is a little bit down by the bow, you'll find you can "snub" your way downriver, holding your canoe steady with your pole while the river rushes past you. It's quite a change from the sometimes frantic pace of paddling. And then there's tandem poling: two people punting in the same boat. At first it's more like a fencing match than anything else, but once the stern paddler learns to watch what the bowman is doing and then matches her moves to his, it's like getting a supercharger for the pickup truck. All that extra horsepower….

Practice makes perfect, as always. Just don't forget the essentials. Stay on easy water while you're learning. Keep your pole on the upstream side of the boat. (If your canoe drifts down over your pole, and if you insist on holding on, you may find yourself making an unscheduled flight right over the gunwale.) And hang loose. Whatever you're doing, if you're feeling tight, it can't be right.

Punting. It takes a little while to learn, but there's no better way to spend a warm September day than climbing a river, pole in hand. So the next time the water gets too thin to paddle, or you need to go upstream, don't forfeit the game. Punt, instead. You won't regret it.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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