A lazy canoe or kayak float on an August river or large stream has everything to recommend it to average canoeists — sense of adventure, exercise, scenery, fishing, wildlife sightings and far more. River trips often inconvenience paddlers, though, because paddling from a put-in to take-out spot may require putting one vehicle at the beginning of the river stretch and another at the end — the old two-vehicle shuffle.
In short, folks often travel to a river in separate trucks or cars, and leave one at the take-out and the other at the launch site. After floating downstream to the second vehicle, they store the watercraft and equipment, and drive back to the first vehicle — very tedious before the trippers drive home separately after a long day on the water.
One highly recommended solution involves leaving a bicycle at the take-out, which eliminates one vehicle. After the float, one canoeist pedals back to the launch spot to pick up the vehicle before returning to the take-out spot, saving gas and eliminating friends from traveling apart.
A solo or pair of canoeists can try a third approach that works for me. I put a canoe into a river and always travel upstream, until poling or paddling for propulsion tires me out. Then I drift back downstream with the current to the parked vehicle, eliminating the dreaded vehicle shuffle.
I’ve done this all of my life, which allows me to fool around solo on rivers like the Sheepscot, Sandy or Medomak with a modicum of preparation and planning — just a simple drive to the launch spot, head upstream and float back to the vehicle later. More folks should adopt this plan.
When my daughters, now 24 and 27 years old, were preteens, we often canoed on the Sandy River above Strong, launching at Devils Elbow to be exact. In August, when the water proved warm enough for comfortable swimming, I’d always pole our canoe upstream. (The Sandy is a cold river all right, so early July or September can mean 60-degree water.)
My daughters are superb swimmers, even in rapids, so I poled up this gravel-bottomed river with pellucid water until coming to a fun-looking spot to swim — and stop. Over the gunwale the girls went like two little otters.
Because of the current, I’d ask them to swim upstream and I’d stay below to catch them if the flow flushed them downstream. The Sandy was never too much for them. In really high water, I’d put them in safe, slack pools.
My daughters would try to get me to say that they would get no blood suckers on them, a promise I could not make. I did tell them I was quite certain leeches would be no problem in such clean, weedless water with a gravel bottom, and they never did get a sucker on them.
Children take so much for granted, too. I remember many days when poling tough rapids would get me panting and sweating, and both girls would be eager to get around the next bend to swim.
“Can you pole faster, dad?” would be a common comment that one or the other would make.
A lot of upstream poling need not be hard work, though. Savvy polers stick close to shore in much slacker currents and also get behind large rocks that often create eddies, pulling the flow upstream. Only in narrow, shallow places on rivers do polers need to work.
Which reminds me — strangely — of bicycling. It’s sometimes easier to push a bicycle up a steep hill than pedal it — cross-training so to speak. When poling, it’s sometimes much less work to pull the canoe up a steep chute than pole it. However, our pride keeps many of us on a bicycle or in a canoe rather than get off the bicycle or out of the canoe to walk or pull.
One morning on busy Route 27 several years ago, my bicycle was whizzing me down a steep hill and I dropped my cell phone, which bounced into the grass beyond the pavement. I started pushing the bicycle back up the hill (on the wrong side of the road), looking for the phone, and it seemed as if half of Belgrade saw my ignominious trek. I still hear about it.
On these Sandy River outings with my daughters, we’d often have a picnic, an elaborate one with baked chicken, Brie, French bread, fresh fruit and iced sports drinks. What a treat in a shady spot on a hot August afternoon. Amenities like that create lifetime memories.
The beauty of poling upstream is obvious. This plan gets the hard work out of the way early and then the trip back to the vehicle uses the current to propel the canoe — a leisurely business.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: