This story is featured in the May 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine.
By Matthew Sturdevant
That's right: canoe poling. As in, the act of standing in a canoe and propelling oneself upstream using a long stick.
Cochrane, 51, has been first in almost all skill and age divisions of competitive poling for 20 years. His current undefeated run spans six years and both categories, wildwater and slalom. His rare second-place finishes have been the result of age-related handicapping used when competing against older paddlers—namely, Harry Rock.
Rock, author of The Basic Essentials of Canoe Poling (1992), and star of a DVD on the subject, is Cochrane's closest competitor. He reigned over the sport during the 1980s, claiming 16 national titles—a streak that Cochrane ended in 1991, less than a year after starting to pole competitively.
"Harry is the master of finesse and efficiency," Cochrane says. "I'm a power poler, and that's my advantage over him."
Cochrane began poling as an 11-year-old apprentice in the family outfitting business, Allagash Canoe Trips. He still muscles a 20-foot wood-canvas canoe around the lakes and rivers of Northern Maine, continuing a method of navigation used all over the world since the advent of the dugout. In Maine, the art passed from Native Americans to voyageurs and guides who traveled waterways like highways. Canoe poling faded in the 20th century, when roads began offering access to remote lakes and streams.
"Canoeing is sort of a small niche, and then poling is a smaller niche," Cochrane admits. The nationals attract about 20 competitors, mostly men, in late May each year. (This year's competition in Fredericksburg, Va., May 26-27). The wildwater races measure a poler's speed upstream and down; the slalom races use buoys that require loops, turns, and backwards maneuvers. Most racers use an aluminum pole about 12 feet long with "shoes" on each end. Some tape their poles for better grip and, more recently, add skateboard deck grip in the boat for solid footing.
It's not as easy as it appears. Novices are regularly vaulted out of the canoe, or simply lose ground to the relentless force of the river. Done well, poling is a natural, fluid ballet of repeated squatting-meets-butter-churning maneuvers. The technique takes time and practice to master.
"There's not too many young whippersnappers coming up," Cochrane says. "A few people here and there dabble in it, but they just don't stick with it. It takes time to do it well."