That pole summons in my mind a simpler time

Arriving Down East along U.S. 70, I was crossing the North River toward Bettie and Otway on our way to Harkers Island one sunny, yet crisp, winter day in January. As I’m prone to do on a whim, I pulled off along the causeway past the bridge, turned off the ignition, and got out of the car to go exploring.

My wife Arlene was content to stay in the car, the cold North River wind not much to her liking. The sun beating through the windshield was more than enough furnace to keep her warm. Plus, her favorite show, “Sunday on the Beach,” was playing on the radio.

The strong winds had pushed coffee-colored foam all along the water’s edge. Little waves pushed by the wind lapped the shoreline. I could see little until I put my sunglasses back on. The winter sun — it always seems so much brighter in the winter — made them a must if I was to realize my hope of finding a treasure blown up the river from the Atlantic and ashore against the causeway. I wasn’t disappointed.

What I thought at first was a row boat paddle, its handle sticking up from the scrub just a few feet from the shoreline, wasn’t a paddle at all when I pulled on the handle and extracted it from the scrub’s grip.

What I had discovered was an old, once broken and repaired, weatherworn pole used for “polling a skiff.” The shallow waters along eastern North Carolina, especially Down East, don’t allow for traditional paddling or rowing. This 7 1/2-foot long, handmade tool — a real treasure — was used for shoving a skiff through the trifling waters that define Down East.

The paddle part of my found pole, such as it is, isn’t really much of a paddle. It’s only 4 1/2 inches at its widest and worn down from years of pushing it into the sandy shallows.

As I’ve gotten older, a bit of rheumatism has set into my shoulders. When I work my arms hard, I pay for it with my sleep — or rather lack of sleep. My arms do the “sleeping,” falling asleep and tingling, and my shoulders ache no matter what position in bed I put myself.

Contemplating polling a skiff, standing astern and pushing the pole into the soft bottom, shoving the skiff for hours toward my destination — well just thinking about it makes my arms tingle and shoulders ache.

I’d guess we came from tougher stock in the polling days.

Down East writer Joel Hancock who writes a blog called “The Education of an Island Boy — Growing up on Harkers Island in the mid-20th Century” explains it far better than I can.

“Oaring, or ‘poling’ the skiff was another art that was much refined by those who used skiffs on a regular basis. Working from the leeward stern, the oarsman could move a skiff fast enough to throw a real wake. Two oarsmen working together could raise a ‘cattail’.

“Before gasoline powered boats became more common, local watermen poled their skiffs everywhere along the Island shore. Some even ‘shoved’ as far as Beaufort or Davis’ Island. Luther Willis became renowned for his oaring skills and speed. It was said that he could pole to Beaufort faster than others could go in a sailskiff.

“Most Island boys, including me, got their first real exposure to boating in a skiff. The skiff became their training ground for setting nets and raking for clams as well as for polling itself. Being able to shove a skiff in four different directions without ever changing places was very much a right of passage for any youngster who hoped one day to be real waterman.” (Joel Hancock, June 7, 2011)

My found treasure, conjured up thoughts of working up a sweat even on cold, winter days polling the Down East shallows with a load of clams. Down East chowder sure to follow.

Looking at it invokes skilled watermen who can shove a skiff with a pole making it go in a straight line instead of all caliwampus — and a hardy people who made do with what they had, the frugality of the previous owner of this pole being a good example. It had broken mid-way one time in the past and was notched and fitted together with screws to retain its worth.

And that pole summons in my mind a simpler time when Sunday afternoon probably wouldn’t find one exploring the North River shore, given Sunday was the only day of rest. Sunday was a respite from polling a skiff six days a week, sometimes as far as from Harkers Island to Beaufort.

Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at fetzerab@ec.rr.com.