Go up the river without a paddle? A canoe pole might do the trick

Patrick Dole, right, works with Tom Boothby of Montville, bottom left, and Mischa Schuler of Portland, top left, to learn paddling skills on the Marsh River in Brooks. Deirdre Fleming photo

BROOKS – At Earthways Guide Service, Ray and Nancy Reitze use a turtle with a backpack as their company symbol, and the message inherent in this symbol is intentional.

“People need to slow down and connect with the Earth,” said Ray Reitze.

For three decades, the Reitzs taught ancient skill workshops from their base in Canaan. They also led wild camping ttear to remote areas of Quebec and northern Maine, traveling in the winter on snowshoes while pulling gear down toboggans, and traveling in the spring and summer by canoe along the waterways.

At 76, Ray Reitze passes on his job as a guide and the philosophy he teaches to the next generation: Patrick Dole, a 37-year-old boat builder from Belfast, who became Reitze’s apprentice three years ago.

Together, the two Maine-registered guides teach classes in primitive skills that were first mastered thousands of years ago, such as how to weave baskets, build primitive shelters, forage medicinal plants and pole canoes up the river.

Rod and line fishing has been an integral part of canoe travel in North America since the manufacture of canoes. Early settlers maneuvered canoes with poles and paddles. River levee loggers that spanned from the 1600s through the 1970s used poles. Some Maine fishing guides still use them today for moving slowly through the water, navigating rapids, or accessing shallower areas.

“Once you have it in your mind, you don’t have to rush, pole vault really opens up a whole new world,” Ray Reitze said.

Two weeks ago, Reitze and Dole led a canoeing lesson on a quiet stretch of the Marsh River on a dirt road in Brooks. The two wooden canoes being towed from Dole’s boat building warehouse in Belfast, bringing one for each of them and one for each of the three guests, one of whom planned to join them for a trip on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway later in the summer.

In this rural area, the natural outdoor classroom enabled the meditation in nature sought by Reitze. But for the students, learning to paddle wasn’t easy – or fast. Neither Reitze nor Dole promised that would be the case. The one-day course, which costs $100, was just an introduction to pole canoeing covering the basics, Dole said.

Patrick Dole, front, and Ray Reitze, back left, of the Earthways Guide Service, carry a canoe with help from Mischa Schuler of Portland, back right, during a canoeing demonstration in the Marsh River at Brooks on June 26. Deirdre Fleming photo

After the canoes were loaded into the water, Dole and one of the students filled 5-gallon jugs with water to act as ballast at the front of each canoe. Then, using a 12-foot-long spruce pole, Dole demonstrated by standing in the back, one leg behind the other, to stabilize his balance.

To move the canoe, the pole is held parallel to the keel (or center), and placed just ahead. Then, by “walking” the hands up the pole, the paddler can move the canoe across a shallow, slow-moving river or stream. To turn, the pole is placed just behind, at a precise angle. To stop the canoe, the pole is struck just in front of the canoe one or more times, a technique called “snubbing”.

At 12 feet long, wooden canoe poles with metal bottoms can get cumbersome to swing for someone new to pole vaulting. And clearly, it’s only affective in shallow water. Eight-foot poles are sometimes used for front-seated paddlers.

The pole requires a sharp balance while quickly moving the pole side to side. But theven one The canoe packed for a trip and weighing 400 to 500 pounds can be moved up river, once a paddler learns to use the pole and take advantage of the swirls and slower current found behind obstacles and bends , Dole said.

“Angling canoes date back to the aboriginal people who created the first canoes. The post allows you to brake so you can better see the rapids ahead of you, make your way through them, and even come to a complete stop to check for a moose or cast your line,” Dole explained.

Portland’s Mischa Schuler works on paddling skills she just learned from Earthways Guide Service guides on the Marsh River in Brooks. Deirdre Fleming photo

Nimble and confident, Dole made it look easy by pivoting the canoe and moving it around quickly.

But when a spectator got into Dole’s canoe and tried to take it down the river, the canoe only went to the bank of the creek, proving Reitze’s point.

“When you go to the side, I call it banking. Except there’s no money there — just twigs and bushes,” Reitze joked.

Mischa Schuler from Portland and Tom Boothby from Montville, who is Dole’s father-in-law and an avid kayaker, climbed and stood in wide wooden canoes, Schuler is a Reitze-designed 17ft and Boothby is a longer and wider 18ft classic.

“I’m ready to play,” Schuler said.

The two took off, focused and silent as they each worked their way up and down the narrow stream. For the better part of two hours, they moved slowly, but effectively covered a lot of ground.

The two stood with their feet parallel, although Dole explained that ultimately they would want to adopt a stance with one foot behind the other, to make them more stable.

Boothby pointed out the irony of this form of transportation.

“You use the earth to move the boat,” he joked.

Neither crashed into the bank or got stuck on rocks. They were never in danger of tipping. Yet SChuler admitted after a few hours, it’s not an easy skill to master.

“Oh, yes, we can sit down,” she reminded herself aloud, and paused in her canoe.

Reitze waded into the creek after her, got into his canoe, and from his seat offered Schuler one-on-one instruction. He didn’t tell Schuler what to do so long as he helped her learn on her own. Schuler said he gave her drills that made her realize her mistakes, so within a short time she was starting to pole pole up the river in a much straighter line.

Ray Reitze has been guiding remote camping trips on the Far North waterways for 34 years. Deirdre Fleming photo

Schuler said the way Reitze guided her on the flow to that ah-ha moment would make the lesson more enduring.

“There is nothing pragmatic about learning this skill. Nothing in my everyday life requires me to know that. I think the old ways compel me and Ray is a bearer of those traditions,” said Schuler, an herbalist who has taken other courses at Reitze and will be guided on the Allagash by him and Dole in August.

“My good friends went on the Ray’s Poland Pond trip. I was unable to attend. And I keep hearing stories from that trip. It had a powerful influence on their lives. I think spending a week on a river is pretty special.

The lessons learned and the skills acquired delighted Reitze, but not as much as the knowledge of those old lessons that he appreciates will be passed on.

“Part of it is making people feel comfortable in the woods, and part of it is showing them how to understand where they’re traveling,” Reitze said. “I had other people helping me, but I had no one to take over. I felt that when Patrick showed up, things came full circle. If you share what you do for a living, then the circle continues. It’s a beautiful thing.


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