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Most of my memories of the San Antonio River Walk are colorful, like the umbrellas on Casa Rio’s patio, and hazy, like the IPAs I’ve sipped while watching tourists trudge along the water’s edge. On a cool morning in October, I got a new perspective from inches above the waterline, where I sat in my canoe. 

Gone were the noisy crowds packed onto barges and shuffling along sidewalks—only a few cigarette smokers and dog walkers looked on with amusement at the unusual sight of our boats. For my travel companion, veteran Texas paddler John Mark Harras, paddling the River Walk meant fulfilling a longtime dream. He tried in vain for years to plan a race along the San Antonio River that would mirror the Texas Water Safari, which wends 260 miles along the San Marcos River to the Guadalupe and, eventually, into San Antonio Bay. The San Antonio River is narrow and navigable only at certain water levels, but Harras’s main obstacle was always the downtown section of the river. Though the stretch that runs through the city center is no stranger to tour boats, tossed beer cans, and an occasional drunk swimmer, it has been off-limits to paddlers for years. But with depleted river traffic because of COVID-19, the San Antonio River Walk Association (SARWA) received permission from the city to give a limited number of canoers and kayakers the rare opportunity to paddle the 3.2-mile downtown section on weekends in October and November. 

The initial idea came from Maggie Thompson, SARWA’s executive director, who was looking for a way to bring business back to the River Walk’s struggling shops and restaurants. She found her solution when she called Sarah Neal, who owns Mission Adventure Tours, the sole paddling outfitter with an active permit to operate on the San Antonio River. After arranging permissions with GO RIO Cruises, the city, and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, which owns one of only two boat launches on the stretch, Neal was given six weekends to help paddlers hit the water. She says her hours of operation, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., successfully lured hungry visitors to eat lunch at the River Walk’s restaurants after their excursions. “Most of them have outdoor seating anyway—it’s been that way forever,” she says. To adhere to social distancing guidelines, Neal could allow only one hundred people on the water per day—fifty on her boats and fifty who brought their own gear. Each day sold out, with participants traveling from Austin, Houston, and Corpus Christi. 

John Chadwell, who paddled the downtown section in October, says it had been the only stretch of the river he had not yet canoed. “It’s a rarity,” he says. “It’s fun to see something we haven’t been able to get on in a while.” 

During our visit, we spent about two hours orbiting the River Walk’s loop between San Fernando Cathedral and the Alamo. Beneath our boats, the deep green water was clearer than I’d expected. Occasionally, a fish broke the surface with a splash. According to Neal, diminished traffic on the river has let sediment fall back to the bottom; on a particularly sunny day, she’s even paddled a section where she could see through to the bottom. Although the river has a reputation for being filthy, it’s probably as clean as it’s ever been. That’s thanks in part to reduced trash and pollution during the pandemic, but largely to the San Antonio River Authority’s many years of work to improve water quality. The authority’s last few River Health Indexes have shown improvement, and a 2018 evaluation found that the authority is on track to make all segments of the San Antonio River clean enough to swim in by the end of this year.

Seven two-seater canoes lined up in the San Antonio River.
The start line at the 2017 Alamo Area Boy Scouts of America’s annual canoe race.Morgan O'Hanlon

Despite the popularity of these paddling trips, their chances of continuing in the future may be slim. San Antonio–based GO RIO Cruises, which won a contract with the City of San Antonio in 2017 to operate the barges, has primary discretion over who uses the river downtown and when. GO RIO did not respond to a request for comment, but San Antonio city councilman Roberto Treviño says there are two obstacles. First, barges could endanger recreational users. On a busy day pre-pandemic, he says, as many as thirty boats could be running at any given time on the River Walk. Second, there’s the matter of helping GO RIO fulfill its contractual obligations. “Our focus is making sure we’re giving the operator as much opportunity to fulfill their business model,” Treviño says. Per its contract, the city pulls in at least $6.5 million each year, revenue that goes toward upkeep for the city-owned barges and contributions to the city’s downtown fund. Treviño says the tour boats help the River Walk retain its status as one of the state’s top-ranked tourist attractions; they also give a boost to the local economy. A 2014 study valued the impact of River Walk tourism at more than $3 billion per year. Treviño, who represents downtown San Antonio, says his office has received dozens of calls in the past few weeks requesting that the city allow paddling to continue. “We will all work together to find the best solution for everybody,” he says.

This wasn’t the first time paddlers have been allowed on the River Walk. When kayaking opened up in October, local media said the river had been off-limits to boaters for thirty years. That isn’t quite true—in 2017, Alamo Area Boy Scouts of America held its 49th annual race on the downtown section of the river; financial and logistical challenges have stood in the way since, according to former event coordinator Kevin Jetton. Alamo Area Council’s PR director, Angel Zuniga Martinez, says he’d love to see the canoe race be revived. “Part of scouting’s values is teaching youth leadership through outdoor adventures,” he says. “We’d love to get back onto that river.” 

Neal, the outfitting company owner, describes paddling as “a mental health thing, especially during this crisis.” A former military IT security engineer, she started kayaking as a way to cope after leaving the Air Force in 2010. “I needed something,” she says. She looked to the outdoors, but a spinal injury rendered many of her previous activities more difficult. Paddling was the perfect solution. In 2016, she googled “kayaking jobs in San Antonio” and found an opening at Mission Kayaks, which she bought from the owner the next year. She now owns a fleet of 58 boats. For years, she’s dreamed of being able to paddle the downtown stretch. “It’s been great to see this finally come to fruition,” Neal says. “I just want to keep it going.” She’s begun a social media and email campaign to put pressure on local leaders to keep paddling open. Neal says it isn’t her goal to eliminate the barges, “but when the barges aren’t running, let the locals have their river back.”

After our second loop, we started paddling back toward our cars, only to be pulled once more by the fear of leaving a single sight left unseen during this once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity. We charged past the clunky orange and green sit-on-top kayaks in sleek race boats, drawing impressed looks from pedestrians, but our eyes were trained on the details of the cityscape above. 

Harras pointed out his favorite architectural feature: the curve of the historic Clifford Building, built in 1891. I liked the drape of cypress branches over limestone bridges, but found myself more captivated by things I’d been too distracted to notice on previous visits. Paddling more slowly, I appreciated a full view of the mosaics that dot the concrete walls, and I watched a landscaper maneuver a barge full of purple and yellow perennial flowers through the narrow channel. As we finished our last lap, I looked up at the iconic Tower Life Building, now framed in blue by sky and water, and realized I was among the lucky few to see the city from a completely new perspective.