The coronavirus pandemic has left San Antonio’s downtown looking frequently deserted, but one new initiative has left the downtown River Walk filled with colorful kayaks over the past two weekends.

For the rest of this month, paddlers can peruse the downtown sections of the River Walk typically dominated by tourist traffic. The San Antonio River Authority and the San Antonio River Walk Association are offering morning access – and rentals for those who don’t have their own kayaks – Friday through Sunday until Nov. 1.

It marks the first time the San Antonio River has been open to kayak traffic in 30 years. Maggie Thompson, the River Walk association’s executive director, said the pandemic has led to the cancellation of many downtown events and a delayed start time of noon for barge traffic.

That’s left the river open in the mornings for kayaking, an activity that pairs well with social distancing, she said.

The river authority “already promotes kayaking down in the King William district and southern part of the river,” Thompson said. “They were thrilled to be able to sponsor it on the business portion of the River Walk during this rare time.”

The kayaking series offers a chance to explore 4 miles of what’s not really a river anymore, but a long, flat lake, surrounded by hotels, restaurants, and offices.

During dry periods like the one currently affecting San Antonio, water in this stretch of the river mainly comes from an underground tunnel drilled 150 feet deep and 3 miles long to protect downtown from flooding. Stormwater engineers are able to pump that water back to the surface and fill the channel when there’s no rain.

The kayaking event is meant for those interesting in exploring the River Walk on their own, not as a guided tour. Participants will launch and return to the river from behind the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts at 100 Auditorium Circle. Participants can sign up for launches that take place every 15 minutes from 8 to 9:15 a.m.

For those who don’t have their own equipment, two-hour rentals are available via Mission Adventure Tours for $50 per person. Children ages 12 to 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, and children under 12 must ride in a boat with a parent. There are no rental options for children under 12.

Those who intend to launch their own kayaks will pay a $15 “launch fee.” Only plastic kayaks are allowed, with paddleboards and inflatable kayaks not permitted.

The event is open to up to 50 renters and 50 people with their own boats, for a total of 100 paddlers per day. Paddlers must be off the water by 11 a.m.

The first weekends proved so popular that slots sold out, Thompson said. Organizers have since added more reservation slots for the upcoming three weekends.

“The participants have loved it and overwhelmingly wish we could make it permanent,” Thompson said.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.