Leave it to a pandemic to give Brett Foland the push he needed to take up kayaking.
The 68-year-old from Tecumseh, Ont. says he likely would have gravitated to the activity eventually, but the events of the past few months gave him more of a reason to get on the water to escape.
“It’s just amazing,” Foland said. “I’ve always been active outdoors. But with COVID, the gym closed, and I would go to the gym often…I just needed something else to do and kayaking really fit the bill.”
But it wasn’t easy for him to dip his paddle in the water — he had to wait seven weeks for his kayak to arrive because of the large demand.
While many small businesses have struggled to make it through the pandemic, seasonal water sport rental shops and courses are reporting being busier than ever. Many Essex County boat rentals and shops say they saw an uptick in interest from people looking to try something different and get outdoors.
The owner of River Canard Canoe in LaSalle, Ont., Ron LaPointe, says his canoe and kayak rentals were up 20 to 30 per cent compared to 2019.
“I think it was due to the fact that many activities were closed … so they could come here and we were happy to be able to do that for people. It seemed like they needed something,” LaPointe said.
“So they can get out here, they can explore, they can see nature, they can do all that and they can get off the grid for a while. They can forget about all that stuff that they’re dealing with and and just kind of get back to basics … and have a good time.”
Local shops swamped with business
LaPointe, who has owned the shop for 12 years, says he found that a lot of parents were coming out with their kids because they wanted them to be more active and get away from sitting in front of a screen at home.
Other businesses reported a similar surge in interest in water sports, including Pelee Wings Nature Store in Leamington which sells canoes, kayaks and paddle boards, among other things, and trains people how to use them.
Manager Eric Briggs says the season started off slowly because the business was forced to close due to the province-wide pandemic restrictions.
But once they could reopen, Briggs says it was “off the wall.” He says they had to schedule additional training courses just to keep up with the demand.
“[It’s] sort of the ultimate social distancing sport where you can go out with a group of people and still keep your six feet apart usually,” Briggs said of kayaking and paddle boarding, adding that the combination of people having free time, not going on vacation and having some extra money saved helped drive up business.
He says they saw a lot of first-timers looking for something different to do. As a result, the shop got creative by planning sunset and glow paddle board events.
Not smooth sailing for everyone
At the South Port Sailing Club in Tecumseh, Ont., the chair of the sailing school, Jeff Kepran, says the pandemic forced them to make changes to how they operate.
He said while the season was great overall, they did lose a number of months because of provincially-mandated closures, they had to revise some of their programming and because of physical distancing requirements they had to restrict the number of people on board their sailboats.
As a result, they likely weren’t as busy as past years, though they still reached capacity for the classes they did offer and had to create a wait list.
In place of their adult sailing, Kepran says they created something new, which seemed to resonate well with locals: family sailing.
“As soon as we able to open, many people were just happy their kids could get out and do anything. And the fact that it’s outside on the water with the wind, it seemed like a safer activity with COVID and spreading germs and things like that,” Kepran said.
‘We owe it all to the river’
As the end of the water sports season draws near, Ron LaPointe from River Canard Canoe said he’s just happy he could provide his community with an escape.
“It might sound a little corny or whatever, but I’m glad that we were able to provide this for people that, like I say, they could kind of get away from it all,” LaPointe said.
LaPointe says he’s looking forward to resting up before next year.
Rookie kayaker Brett Foland says he’ll likely go for one more outing before stowing the kayak for the winter. And he says he will find some other ways to stay active outdoors, in spite of the encroaching cold weather and the continuing pandemic.