Patrick Dole, right, works with Tom Boothby of Montville, lower left, and Mischa Schuler of Portland, upper left, to learn canoe-poling techniques 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 the symbol of their company, and the message inherent in that symbol is intentional.

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

For three decades the Reitzes have taught workshops in ancient skills from their base in Canaan. They’ve also led wilderness camping trips to remote parts of Quebec and northern Maine, traveling in winter on snowshoes while pulling gear in toboggans and traveling in spring and summer by canoes along waterways.

At 76, Ray Reitze is passing his guiding business and the philosophy it teaches on to the next generation: Patrick Dole, a 37-year-old boatbuilder from Belfast, who became Reitze’s apprentice three years ago.

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

Poling has been an integral part of North American canoe travel since the watercrafts were first made. Early settlers maneuvered canoes with poles as well as paddles. The loggers of the river drives that spanned from the 1600 until the 1970s used poles. Some fishing guides in Maine still use them today to move slowly through water, to navigate rapids, or to access shallower areas.


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

Two weeks ago, Reitze and Dole led a canoe poling class on a quiet stretch of the Marsh River off a dirt road in Brooks. The two trailered wooden canoes from Dole’s Belfast boatbuilding warehouse, bringing one for each of them and one for each of three guests, one of whom planned to join them for a trip down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway later in the summer.

In this rural area, the natural, outdoor classroom allowed for the meditation in nature Reitze seeks. But for the students, learning canoe poling was not simple – or quick. Neither Reitze nor Dole promised it would be. The day-long class, which costs $100, was only an introduction to canoe poling covering the basics, Dole said.

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

Once the canoes were loaded in the water, Dole and one of the students filled 5-gallon jugs of water to serve as ballast in the front of each canoe. Then, using a 12-foot-long wooden pole made of spruce, Dole demonstrated while standing in the stern, with one leg behind the other, to steady his balance.

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

At 12 feet long, wooden canoe poles with metal bottoms can become cumbersome to swing around for someone new to poling. And clearly, it’s only affective in shallow water. Eight-foot poles are sometimes used for paddlers sitting in the bow.


Poling requires keen balance while moving the pole from left to right quickly. But even a 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 eddies and slower current found behind obstructions and bends, Dole said.

“Poling canoes goes back to the Native people who first created canoes. The pole lets you put brakes on so you can take a better look at the rapids ahead, ease your way through them and even come to a complete stop to check out a moose or cast your line,” Dole explained.

Mischa Schuler of Portland works on canoe-poling skills she just learned from the guides at Earthways Guide Service on the Marsh River in Brooks. Deirdre Fleming photo

Nimble and confident, Dole made it look easy as he swung the canoe around and moved it swiftly.

But when a spectator stepped into Dole’s canoe and tried to move it down river, the canoe only went to the stream bank, proving Reitze’s point.

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

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


“I’m ready to play,” Schuler boomed.

The two took off, focused and silent as they each worked on poling up and down the narrow stream. For most of two hours they moved slowly, but efficiently covered much ground.

Both 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 in this form of transport.

“You’re using the land to move the boat,” he quipped.

Neither crashed into the bank or got stuck on boulders. They were never in jeopardy of tipping. Yet Schuler confessed after a few hours, it’s not an easy skill to master.


“Oh, yeah, we can sit down,” she reminded herself aloud, and took a break in her canoe.

Reitze waded into the stream after her, stepped into her canoe, and from his seat offered Schuler one-on-one instruction. He didn’t tell Schuler what to do so much as he helped her teach herself. Schuler said he gave her exercises that made her realize her mistakes, so that in a short time, she began poling the canoe up river in a much straighter line. 

Ray Reitze has been guiding remote camping trips on far northern waterways for 34 years. Deirdre Fleming photo

Schuler said the way Reitze guided her on the stream to that ah-ha moment would make the lesson more long-lasting. 

“There’s nothing pragmatic about learning this skill. Nothing in my day-to-day life necessitates me knowing it. I think the old ways compel me and Ray is a holder of these traditions,” said Schuler, an herbalist who has taken other classes from Reitze and will be guided down the Allagash by him and Dole in August.

“My good friends went on Ray’s Poland Pond trip. I wasn’t able 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 feels pretty special.” 

The lessons learned and skills acquired delighted Reitze, though not as much as knowing these ancient lessons he values will be passed on.

“Part of it is making people comfortable in the woods, and part of it is showing them how to understand where they are traveling,” Reitze said. “I had other people helping me, but I didn’t have anyone to take it over. I felt when Patrick showed up, it all came full circle. If you share what you do in life, then the circle continues. It’s a beautiful thing.”

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