While the San Antonio River is well known for restaurants, riverboat barges and a good time, few people know that you can actually paddle down certain stretches of the river south of downtown. In the past, a permit was required to paddle on the river, but it's now open water for anyone with a kayak and a life jacket.
There are three designated stretches of the river within the city limits, and two longer stretches on the river south of the Mission Reach:
The King William Paddling Trail runs from Nueva Street south to South Alamo Street, and is a great beginner's run. The put-in point is on East Guenther Street near the San Antonio River Authority headquarters.
One mile farther south is the Eagleland Zone, which is not connected to the King William Trail, which means you'll need to reload your kayak in a vehicle and put in below South Alamo Street, or near Brackenridge High School between Eagleland and the Lone Star railroad trellis.
The sooner you graduate to the Mission Reach, the better. This is where you will experience urban nature. Paddling the placid waters, enjoying the waterfowl, birds and the wildflowers, you've left the city behind. Access points are marked with blue poles visible at a distance.
The trail starts where the River crosses Mission Road. The San Antonio River between Lone Star and Mission Road needs some of the aquatic structures altered before it will be accessible to paddlers, according to a SARA official, who said the closest landmark to the Mission Road street connection where the paddling trail starts would be Riverside Golf Course.
SARA announced Friday afternoon that the paddling trail from Mission Road to Espada Dam Park, which was closed due to damage caused by the record May 25 rains and floods, was reopened Saturday morning. Workers with SARA's Watershed and Parks Operations Department and with Zachry Corporation have been visible seven days a week, repairing the damage, re-engineering sections to avert future occurrences and re-vegetating the steep banks and river frontage.
“I’m pleased with the pace at which the River Authority and Zachry are moving to get the Mission Reach back in shape after the damaging flood in May,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff stated in the release. “The paddling trail is truly one of the great recreational features of this project.”
The trail south to Mission Espada remains closed, but will be open by the Oct. 5 all-day Mission Reach celebration party. That ribboncutting and opening ceremony begins at 10 a.m. near Padre Park at river level with various events at different locales on the Missions Reach and ending at Mission County Park. There will be up to four miles of river open for kayakers.
For those of us who don’t have a boat, there is an option of going on a guided tour with Stacey Banta of Texas Pack and Paddle. Banta has more than 30 kayaks and offers trips along the San Antonio River and other rivers surrounding the city.
“I do all the hard work: I load and unload. All you have to do is show up,” Banta said.
In 1999, she was hired to help manage a fly-fishing shop here in San Antonio that also had kayaks, which led her into guiding fishing trips. In 2006, she opened her own kayaking retail shop, but closed it in 2010.
“I decided that sitting behind a counter all day, six days a week wasn't what I wanted to do, so I decided to close the shop and guide full time,” Banta explained.
She has led paddling trips for the past three summers. Out of 90 days of the summer last year, Banta logged 72 in a boat and she is on pace to break that record this year. Banta is the only person that the City of San Antonio has issued a permit to guide paddlers along the San Antonio River. The program is relatively new and Banta believes city officials are moving slowly to find safety-minded guides who are conscientious about the the Mission Reach's still-fragile environment.
“Any time I go from one river to the next I pressure wash all the boats so I am not bringing foreign materials or invasive species of plants,” Banta said.
I recently stopped by Roosevelt Park for the District Five Fit Family Finale where Banta was loading person after person into her kayaks. In the span of a couple of hours, nearly 200 kayakers participated in the event.
Having not paddled in many years, it was enjoyable to be out on the water again. The vantage point makes everything look different. You glide on the water, mostly undetected by pedestrians and bikers on the trails. In fact, the only people who spot you tend to be those people on the bridges. On our trip, one of those people caught a perch and reeled it right on up to the top of the bridge right in front of us.
The San Antonio River is a great place for beginners, Banta said, because it is “flat water” and the stretch is not overly long. In the Texas summer heat, this is definitely an advantage. A greater bonus for all residents is that it is close – instead of having to travel hours, you get to experience paddling in your own backyard.
I spoke with another participant, Christina Rivera, who brought her son Evan to the event (see previous picture). This was the first time kayaking for both of them, and both seemed to really enjoy it.
“This was definitely fun, we went twice!” Rivera said. “Our city is very cool and very unique and I think it’s good that San Antonio is doing a lot more to encourage a healthy lifestyle and fitness."
Rivera had said that kayaking on the river was one of the hidden gems of our city, and I couldn’t agree more. A two-hour guided tour along the San Antonio River will cost you $50, but if you join the Texas Pack and Paddle Meetup Group, you get a substantial discount on the trips as well as access to future trips Banta is guiding.
Garrett Heath blogs for Rackspace and is the Average Joe that started SAFlavor. He loves San Antonio, especially eating at mom and pop Mexican food restaurants. Find him onTwitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Google+.