A Paddler’s View of COVID-19

(Written for the Paddler newsletter of the Rhode Island Canoe/Kayak Association)

For many of us, paddling is more than a hobby and the people that we paddle with are more than friends. We are part of an amazing community, and in the face of the coronavirus and COVID-19, we are all adapting to a new reality that will reshape our community for months to come.

This is usually the time of year when we all come out of our winter hibernation and begin the planning for the upcoming year. For me, the whitewater season should be in full swing and flatwater trips should be starting. Not this year!

A few weeks ago the term “social distancing was just coming into our vocabulary. Initially we thought padding would be unaffected since we are pretty much always 6-feet apart anyway. As the outbreak grew, though, we began to realize that social distancing isn’t just about paddling. We had to think about shuttles, surface spread on gear, and socializing before and after the trip. As our understanding of the virus grew, “social distancing” morphed into “self-isolating” and paddling ground to a halt.

All of this is based on the hope of “flattening the curve” . The science of what’s happening with COVID-19 shows us that we all need to take these extraordinary measures to slow the spread of the virus and to protect vulnerable members of the community. Flattening the curve will keep us from overwhelming our healthcare systems and reduce fatalities.

Like many, my thinking on this has evolved over time as I have gone from ignorance to skepticism to the realization that we have no other choice. As we look at the risks from coronavirus, it is clear that they are catastrophic. To use a paddling metaphor, there is no gear that can protect us (vaccine) and no rescue that can save us (treatment) from this deadly virus.

Of course the ramifications of self-isolating are also enormous – layoffs, school and church closings, and event cancellations. Most of us are now under “stay at home” orders and our sphere of travel has narrowed to the radius of our homes. Stress and social isolation are high. Getting outside can help relieve our stress and increase our physical and mental health.

So how do we walk the fine line between safety, social responsibility, and not going crazy by staying in the house? The best choice is to stay close to home and enjoy fresh air and sunshine in our own neighborhoods. With travel across state lines prohibited and most state and town parks closed our choices are limited anyway.

What about paddling? Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and for our community that is going to mean less paddling. Many of us will find that difficult, but with the continued spread of COVID-19 there is really no option. The water will wait for us. One of the best justifications that I have seen for this approach came from Doug Welch, Executive Director at the Maine Island Trail:

“Beyond the surface-level isolation, the act of social distancing is actually:

  • · a powerful, widespread act of love for friends, family, colleagues, and strangers
  • · an epic collective action to protect the weakest among us
  • · an opportunity to think differently for a while
  • · a chance to help people who really need it now
  • · an invitation to get outside and breathe the spring air
  • · a break in which to plan new adventures”

Leave it to a Mainer to get that right.

Will I be getting out to paddle anytime soon? We’ll see. Will I be seeing any of you at the put-in? Not until things settle down. Now is the time to do whatever we can to help flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread. Until then, stay safe and maybe I will see you online sometime.


The question is, how long will I be able to live up to my own words - it will be tough…

You might pick venues more carefully… ie places you know well that are safe and you can get yourself out of trouble by your self. I hope we don’t have to give up paddling! . The two of us in our house are going out tomorrow on our home lake. We launch from a hand carry place that is not very popular.

Probably wise to give up ocean paddling for now!

Stay safe stay sane!

I am most concerned about what I think kayamedic alludes to, that we are coming into the time where people who are clueless about risk will go out and get themselves in trouble in cold water or unexpected conditions. Many of these folks that survive do so because someone else who was out sees them soon enough to get help. With quarantines and altogether restricted car travel - the streets in my small city are a heck of a lot quieter than usual - someone who does decide to take a risk on going out from a remote launch is really on their own.

Maybe everyone gets lucky and the fact that the big box stores are not essential businesses will help? So people can’t go out and buy what they think is a perfect boat? Except if they also sell guns, which many states have declared essential. Then the only thing stopping someone is having to find out of the way launches that local authorities are not monitoring.

I assume most places are like around me. Sneaking onto a river or a lake from less visible spots is pretty easy.

But any risk right now draws away resources that should be saved for handling Covid19 impacts. From helping to restock grocery shelves to delivering food to shut-ins to transporting people in medical emergencies. There are many more important things that local resources need to be doing right now than getting an unprepared paddler out of the water.

Or even having to assess whether that is the case. If I got out on a local river clothed and prepared to the teeth but that causes a ranger, local firefighters or other authority to come out and confirm that I am OK, I am still wrong.

Shutting down launches, where that has happened, will reduce the issue. There are states that have reopened them for fishing and it is only a matter of time before we read of the first paddler or fisherman that went over in cold water and occupied local authorities for a while trying to rescue them.

I cannot imagine any other time in my life when I would have said this. But right now, I can’t support most people doing more with their boat than washing and rigging it. Unless the water is pretty much at your doorstep and very low risk.


A colleague/friend of mine reframed the term, “social distancing”, because she rightly pinpoints that it can lead to the 'social isolating" that we cannot afford as largely “social beings.” Instead, she used the term, “physical distancing”, as a protective need that comes from a place with deep social concern, commitment and love for others.

I think she is spot on.


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I’m looking forward to getting out on the water. My usual favorite lake lets me stay plenty far from everybody else anyway, and I won’t go out until the water’s warm, simply because I don’t like paddling in the cold. That won’t be until June sometime, likely. Maybe the pandemic will be on the decline by then.

It was normal for me to go there on weekdays and have the place pretty much to myself. That may change with people being out of work, but even on weekends when it was busy, I rarely got closer than shouting distance to anyone, even at the put-in.

That won’t stop mail-order, unless deliveries get curtailed over fear of transporting contaminated products. I’ve gotten two boats by mail-order. We’ll see what happens; maybe non-essential items that have to be signed for will get slowed or stopped.

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls
Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothing at all
But I think you’re moving too fast…”
-TLC, pop song.

“It is the bliss of ignorance that tempts the fool,
but it is he who sees the wonders of the earth.”
-Frederic Fenger, 1917
Ocean-going Canoeist

Okay, I guess I’m back to weighing-in on this–If only for the sake of “community.” Ethically, I s’pose one could make the argument do we as paddlers have any business at all being on the water at this time?(Either solo or “socially distanced” from others). I mean, infection from surfaces and potential transmission risks aside…Is it right to be out having an enjoyable time while so many are either cooped-up with no available outlet(or worse, they/their loved ones are outright suffering from the disease?)

And then there is the concern, as pointed out above, what if an incident occurs while on the water–Is it right to be in such a predicament where emergency services might be put upon with a call for help? Even if one had an auto break down, could calling for a tow truck at this time be considered a public nuisance?

As long as there is no substantial proof that transmission occurs from contact with the water itself – I say, yes. Life is short.
Many a lifeguard-free beach bears a “Swim at your own risk sign.” (And this is truly fair, as long as one is aware, it is only your own risk–But somebody would eventually have to remove a drowned body.).

Gather those rosebuds, while you’re still in the pink.

Glad you’re back spiritboat. I turned down two trips yesterday - one whitewater, one quickwater. Both would have involved shuttles and travel out of state that our governor has banned. Instead I spent the afternoon working in the yard, and thinking about paddling.

I did get my WW boat out today for some flatwater practice on a pond - spent about an hour carving circles. Doesn’t look bad when you speed it up 20x, but I need practice. I guess I’ll have plenty of time for that.



I give it two paddles up–Way up! Fast or slow, something is better than nothing. Lucky you.

I don’t have a proper ww canoe in the fleet( I’d love to give a Shaman a go) but have taken the seats out of my Dagger Reflection and installed a center foam saddle with float bags (Radical, I know.). I use this canoe on quick water/anything up to Cl. 2 give-or-take. (Yeah, it don’t exactly pivot on a dime in “technical” ww, but it does get me downriver without shipping too many drops.) Also use it for poling and solo canoe sailing (which I will be doing tomorrow on a nearby res, if’n there’rs enough of a breeze.)
Still have one hardshell ww yak and one duckie for the Cl. III-IV big stuff. (Admitedly, I use the duckie a lot more these days on my “home” runs–the Esopus and Catskill Creeks. I must be getting old.
–Here’s how we safely “social distanced-shuttled” a week and a half ago: Very local remote spot: Three guys, three cars, three “significant other-shuttle bunnies,” from each of our own respective households. The key here, is cajole somebody at home who’ve you already been in prolonged “isolation” with. My own good wife dropped me off at the Put In then met me at the Take Out afterwards. (Using our own sanitized beforehand family vehicle, of course.) (I’d post pics of this trip, but I already put up with enough crap from others living here in the state that is the Corona virus epicenter of the entire country. :sweat_smile: Stay well, Bro!


Nice pics, I also never think about having a spousal option for stuff like shuttles since it has been a few years w/o one here. It does solve a lot of issues.

As to the risk thing, you and friends were in a place unlikely to grab attention and did all the safeties that are common for moving water. And you know what you are doing.

A bit further north here we are up to our elbows in easily accessed spots to paddle that bring out lots of people in Tupperware, or canoes up on Lake George, who get into trouble. There are too many miles of river and of lake shoreline to stop the launches, but plenty of spots where an overturned boat is likely to be spotted.

I honestly think that most of NY state will be on the other side of this thing before a couple of adjoining states. If I am correct we will have our season in time for the warmer months.

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There are definitely some local runs (more flatwater than whitewater) where my wife would help with the shuttle if I asked nice. Maybe when things settle down…

p.s. - Esopus is on my list. To date, it has just been a little to far, but I’ll get there.

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I hope you are right, but this virus is going to continue to move across the country - subsiding in one spot and peaking in another. Until there is a vaccine or a substantial portion of the population develops immunity, there is nothing to stop if from returning to places that it previously infected once people go back to a normal life.


I am only talking about the initial wave, where we have a trifecta of presymptomatic transmission, lack of community testing and a real risk of completely overwhelming health care resources. I am assuming that long time immunity is only likely for a portion of those who get it and that a lot of the protective rules will have to be continued in moderation for a very long time. I would be impressed if it was only a year to broadly distributing a vaccine, given the lack of coordinated response from the top governmental levels that we had with the swine flu.

What they are seeing in some places in Asia is that, with people able to make a sound assessment about whether they are a carrier, they can return to more activity if not fully normal life without a second
explosion that gets out of control. The big solution is not going to happen in time to save this summer’s season. Hence the hard economic choices that places like Maine with a lot of tourist income have to make. They still need to be able to maintain their public works like water and sewer systems and somehow restart schooling this fall.

Right now my risk assessment is about those initial curves. When I see a projection that parts of CT won’t peak until sometime in later May, it means if I can make it to Maine I take a more northerly route that gets me thru states whose curves peak sooner. If the CDC in Maine does something which so far they apparently refuse to, which is to release those projections, it will tell me a lot of about how I manage my time there. Do I hug to the cabin for the entire time or do I go into a coffee shop in Rockland with a bandanna on to grab some fancy coffee and a sandwich to eat overlooking the harbor?.

I am making a personal decision that I have to try and get outta here and by the ocean this summer if I can, for the sake of my sanity. Judging the if I can part, unless the state, town or owners shut down rentals where I go, has some choices.

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I dunno. Some pretty good used Tupperware can be picked up after a “yard sale”;-(Note-Picture is intentionally blurred to protect identity of the clueless…)

Love Mongaup - only been there once. Another one that just a little too far for me.

We have a cottage rented for two weeks in July at the beach in RI. Don’t even have to travel out of state, so we are going!

Positively one of my most favorite places to be on a hot summer day, especially when there is a double barreled release! Nice easy-peasy cl. 2 and 3 with tree lined banks all the way down to the Delaware.
mongaup%20012 mongaup%20019

Only been there once - drove through five states to get there (RI, MA, CT, NY, NJ and paddled across the Delaware to step into PA), we got one run in when thunderstorms moved in, but it was still worth the trip.


Hate to say it, but the realization is sinking in that there is going to be no whitewater paddling this year :frowning:

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I would have high hopes for some spots that rely on water releases, by later in the season. Most of them are probably a long drive for you, but the ones in NY state may be clear for use by mid summer and into fall…

But true springtime runoffs… probably going to be light on paddlers at least in the northeast.

I hope you are right, but you will still have the problem with asymptomatic people and shuttles.