Pandemic paddling: Edmonton canoe rental companies flooded by demand

If you’re looking to rent a canoe or kayak to paddle the North Saskatchewan River on a weekend this summer, it won’t be easy.

Edmontonians flocking to North Saskatchewan River

Paddling the North Saskatchewan River has been a popular activity this summer. Canoe rental companies in Edmonton say this summer has been especially busy, as Edmontonians look for activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Stefan Voelker/Edmonton Canoe)

If you're looking to rent a canoe or kayak to paddle the North Saskatchewan River on a weekend this summer, it won't be easy.

Traffic on the river is higher than normal as Edmontonians find ways to stay active in a COVID-19 pandemic summer. 

Jason Hayes, owner of Canoeheads, has been renting canoes for trips on the river since 1996. He said this season has been especially busy. 

"People are realizing now that summer is halfway done," Hayes said during an interview on CBC Edmonton's Radio Active this week. "The folk fest was cancelled and the heritage days were cancelled and it's caused my phones to just blow up. I've been very, very busy."

Hayes said the week before the August long weekend was the busiest he has ever seen.

"All methods of contact were ringing off the hook," he said. 

The pandemic has certainly helped increase demand Hayes said, but not just because people are looking for something to do. Rental companies weren't able to operate in the early season, until the province launched Stage 2 of reopening.

Hayes said he also wasn't able to run for three weeks when the North Saskatchewan River had high water levels. Canoeheads is also running with a reduced fleet this year. 

To further drive demand, not all rental companies are operating. Mountain Equipment Co-op, which rented canoe and kayaks and equipment, is not renting this year. Haskin Canoe, which offered rentals at Elk Island as well as some trips on the North Saskatchewan River, is also not operating.

"The access to rentals in the city has been significantly reduced," said Hayes.

​Stefan Voelker, owner of Edmonton Canoe, said his company is also seeing high demand. Though it's not uncommon for them to be booked up on weekends in August, he said the difference this year is that more people are booking on weekdays. 

"This year it seems that lots of Edmontonians are doing staycations, more than in years before, for obvious reasons," said Voelker.

Voelker said in previous years, his company would sometimes accommodate trips to Genesee, outside of the normal Edmonton and Devon-to-Edmonton routes, but this year they are too busy to accept those bookings.

Both Edmonton Canoe and Canoeheads have to take a few extra precautions due to the pandemic, including reduced capacity during transportation, wearing masks in some settings, and sanitizing the equipment.

Voelker said with so many businesses struggling, he's happy to see people embracing the outdoors — especially since 90 per cent of the bookings this year are from locals.

"We are happy that Edmontonians think, 'Hey, let's get the kids out and go paddling,' And we are happy that we are doing what we are doing this summer."


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