2 kids in a canoe on a lake

Paddling: Social Distancing & Serenity In One

HealthPlans of NC

Joe Miller

The racks at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. store in Chapel Hill are typically stocked with canoes and kayaks. They were threadbare late last week. Of the few boats remaining, all but three had “sold” tags on them. Since late March, keeping enough boats in stock has been near impossible. More and more people are turning to one of the most social-distancing-friendly forms of outdoor recreation: paddling.“

Folks are (re)-discovering the joy of paddle sports,” says Chuck Millsaps, president of Great Outdoor Provision Co., with seven stores in North Carolina. “It has been encouraging to see folks take to the water for a bit of peace and perspective.”

Part of the beauty of paddling in these pandemic times is that keeping your distance from fellow paddlers is easy. You may see another paddler or two at the boat ramp. But out on the water it’s easy to keep your distance. And as escapes go, in the eyes of Jim Poling Sr., author of “The Canoe: An Illustrated History,” you’d be hard pressed to find a better alternative.“

The serenity of canoeing strips us of all but the essentials and encourages us to consider our place in the universe,” he says. “Mind clutter drains away, like water dripping from a paddle blade, and makes space for clarity of thought.”

If you already have a boat, you’re likely familiar with this sentiment. And if not? Well, you have two options.



This option is tricky right now. Most places where it’s easiest and cheapest to rent a kayak — municipal and state parks — currently aren’t renting. There are, however, private outfitters throughout the state who are.

Haw River Canoe & Kayak on its namesake river in Saxapahaw reopened recently. Currently, to avoid running shuttles and putting customers in close proximity, they’re only putting boats on the water at their shop.“ We’re putting folks on the water about every 15 minutes,” says Operations Manager Jacob Matheny. This helps spread paddlers out on the four-mile-long lake. It’s beginner friendly flatwater created by the Saxapahaw dam. Boat rental ($35 for a single kayak or stand-up paddle-board) covers a half day. Reservations are required. When paddlers return, they’re required to dip their paddles and PFDs (personal flotation devises) in a barrel of soapy water. PFDs are then quarantined for 3 days before being used again, says Matheny.“ It’s probably overkill,” Matheny notes. “We’re trying to do the best we can.” Weekends are booked solid, he adds. Midweek is your best option for getting out.



As the situation at Great Outdoor Provision illustrates, boats are currently in short supply. Big box stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart carry entry-level kayaks. Local stores may have a few ready to ship. Entry-level boats can be purchased for around $300. You’ll also need a paddle and a PFD. (North Carolina law requires boaters under the age of 13 to wear a PFD. Paddlers 13 or older must at least have one in their boat). If you do buy a boat, you’ll need to find a place to paddle. The good news is that while many of the state and municipal parks aren’t renting boats, most boat accesses are open. In addition, the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission operates more than 200 boat access points statewide.“ The pandemic has popularized time outside,” says Millsaps. “And fortunately, North Carolina has plenty of places to roam. Lakes and rivers are within easy reach.” 


Renting a canoe or kayak. Outfitters that rent canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards in North Carolina range from well-established operations such as Haw River Canoe & Kayak to local mom and pops. Some have websites, some have a Facebook presence, some operate by word of mouth. Your best bet for finding a rental near you (or near where you want to paddle) is to Google “kayak rental” and your preferred destination. You can also find rentals through Yelp. Be sure to follow up by phone, email or on their social media to make sure they’re currently operating. Most require reservations. Buying a kayak. Kayaks come in all types, from sit-on-tops to sit-ins to fishing kayaks to inflatables. Research the type of boat that best fits your needs and interests before shopping. This guide from REI will help you narrow the options.

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