Chris LeBlanc paddles past Casa Rio on the San Antonio Riverwalk on Sunday, Nov. 8. Pam LeBlanc photo


Until now, all of my forays to the San Antonio Riverwalk have been on foot – walking the winding sidewalk past shops, taking in the view from atop a stone bridge arching over the urban flow, and stopping for a cocktail or snack.
But last weekend, I pushed my yellow plastic kayak into the shallow waters of the San Antonio River early Sunday morning and paddled my way through the famous Texas tourist destination.
I spent about two hours on the river, making two leisurely circuits of the famous horseshoe. I glided alongside Casa Rio, where visitors have been eating enchiladas and sipping margaritas since 1946; I slid past hotels and beneath stone archways; I watched a duck lead her string of ducklings; and I saw bars and restaurants – from the water – that I’ve visited over the years.

Paddlers launch their kayaks on the San Antonio Riverwalk. Pam LeBlanc photo

Chris LeBlanc paddles his kayak along the San Antonio Riverwalk during a pilot program on Nov. 8, 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo

My kayak trip was part of a pilot program by Mission Kayak, which rents kayaks and offers kayak instruction on other parts of the San Antonio River. Since the 1970s, the Riverwalk has been off limits to paddlers. Mission Kayak owner Sarah Neal worked with the San Antonio Riverwalk Association to allow paddlers to use the Riverwalk for six weeks this October and November. She’s now working with city officials to continue the program – either on special occasions or as a continuing program.
We put our boat in at a launch site (not normally open to the public) at Auditorium Circle and Fourth Street. We brought our own kayaks and paid $15 to launch, but rental kayaks were also available for $50. We were allowed to paddle between 8-11:15 a.m., before tourist barge traffic began. (Because of Covid, the barges are operating on a more limited schedule.)
My good luck charm apparently was working, too, because San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg was out for a test paddle while we were there. Nirenberg says he likes the idea of opening the river to paddling on occasion, because it encourages locals, who sometimes consider the Riverwalk a destination for out-of-town tourists, to see their own city.
As I wheeled around another corner, I heard a holler from shore. Chet Garner, host of the PBS Series “The Day Tripper,” was visiting San Antonio with his wife and daughter, and spotted me. (I happened to be wearing a cowboy hat he gave me!)
By water, it’s about a mile from the put-in point to the start of the horseshoe. The entire circuit, from the put-in, around the horseshoe, and back to the start, is about 3.25 miles.
Paddlers must wear a life jacket, and must stay in their boats while they’re on the Riverwalk. Booze is not allowed on the water.
Neal hopes she can add some late night paddling sessions during the upcoming holiday season, so paddlers can experience the Riverwalk while it’s bedecked in thousands of lights. Stay tuned to find out about that.
“Everything just looks larger than life because you’re sitting 4 feet lower and on the water,” Neal says. “It’s an intimate way to see the city. You can feel the water each time you take a paddle stroke or someone goes by you.”
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