Saturday night, May 2, downtown San Antonio. It’s hot, humid, and thanks to COVID-19, crowds and tourist barges are absent from the San Antonio River. The upside: The pandemic’s closure of San Antonio’s primary waterway offers a unique opportunity to paddle the downtown River Walk.

Our band of guerilla paddlers put in three kayaks north of the commercial district, and off we went.

The early evening outing was magical. Ducks and cormorants joined the expedition, and others peered from the banks. Yellow-crowned night herons perched en masse in bald cypress trees near the Market Street pump station. A few locals enjoying a downtown stroll marveled at our access and asked to take a photograph. “Can you do that?” several asked. The water was so clear, the scales of tilapia and carp pacing our boats were visible.

Restaurant staff hawked margaritas from the sidewalk, interrupting the mostly quiet evening. And the views from the water – of the Tower Life building, Selena’s Bridge, and the Friendship Torch – held amplified meaning in the absence of crowds, the hum of barges, and the loud, often comic narratives delivered by Go Rio cruise tour guides.

The paddle south from St. Mary’s Street, past Main Plaza and the Ben Milam Bald Cypress tree, into the River Walk loop and back took a bit more than one hour. Great workout. Great experience.

So why aren’t we doing this more often?

Because paddling the public park that constitutes the River Walk is prohibited by the City. Currently, recreational paddling on the San Antonio River includes two defined zones. Paddlers can enjoy the Eagleland segment that starts at Alamo Street near Blue Star and extends south to the Mission Reach. They can also paddle the South Channel in King William, which goes from the Nueva Street bridge to Alamo Street.

The River Walk is off limits. Barge traffic, and its potential for collisions with kayakers, is cited as the main reason paddling on the Paseo del Rio is prohibited.

But no barges are running right now, so why not open the River Walk to paddlers?

The author enjoys a peaceful paddle along a mostly deserted River Walk. Credit: Courtesy Monika Maeckle

Recent events organized by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) suggest high demand for urban kayaking. Last May, the river authority organized a pilot outing on the Museum Reach that offered 50 kayaks to willing paddlers for free. The event was not promoted, and yet 50 boats were reserved, with 45 paddlers showing up.

Based on that positive response, SARA organized a night paddle on the Museum Reach a few months later. The event was announced on Facebook, and the 50 free kayaks were reserved within two hours. The evening of the paddle, an additional 50 to 60 kayakers showed up with their own gear, according to Steven Schauer of SARA.

Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, stated in a recent commentary that COVID-19 has spurred a new appreciation for San Antonio’s unique beauty. Matej acknowledged the challenges of our local tourism industry, which employs 1 in every 7 working residents. She spoke of rehabilitating our economy, encouraging close-to-home experiences and how “Texans confined over these past few weeks will seek fresh air, companionship, and the familiar locations that speak to normalcy.”

Sounds like a prescription for opening the River Walk to paddlers.

Imagine canoes and kayaks keeping their social distance while taking in our historic sites. Bankside margaritas, and beers-to-go. Locals and tourists burning 200-plus calories per hour, learning about nature, and seeing San Antonio from a point of view that provides a unique sense of belonging and ownership. Go Rio tour guides could lead kayak tours. It happens in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. Town Lake in Austin also offers inner city paddling.

Síclovía shuts one of the city’s main thoroughfares to car traffic twice a year and hands over the streets to cyclists, walkers, and runners. Why not do the same for paddlers and the River Walk, but more often?

Paddles on the Paseo del Rio could take place once a week. Or once a month. Or once a quarter. But they should take place, opening the River Walk to paddling for locals and others.    

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...