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Why we didn’t go canoeing today

We paused. Something felt wrong. We sat on the kitchen floor, surrounded by all our canoeing gear, and asked ourselves whether even this plan was appropriate in the time of coronavirus. 

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin and her husband, Alec, were tempted to go canoeing this week but ultimately decided against it, in the spirit of supporting physical distancing efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo by Bruce Starcher

This morning, my husband, Alec, and I pulled together everything we needed to go for a short canoe paddle on the Des Plaines River.

Our preference would have been to go sea kayaking on Lake Michigan, but with all the beaches and harbors closed, we didn’t have access to any Chicago put-ins, and it felt inappropriate to launch in Indiana and paddle the Chicago shoreline. With so many people suffering and sheltering in place, it seemed wrong to recreate in such a public fashion, so we settled for canoeing on a quiet stretch of river where, we reasoned, few people would see us.

But after assembling all our gear, we paused. Something felt wrong. We sat on the kitchen floor, surrounded by our gear, and asked ourselves whether even this plan was appropriate in the time of coronavirus.

How was it different, we asked, than going out for a walk, a run or a bike ride? After all, paddling is exercise, and for us it’s also essential for our mental health.

We spend most of our summers paddling and teaching other people how to paddle. We’ve invested an enormous amount of our time, money and energy into becoming high-level coaches and paddlers. But above all, paddling is what makes Chicago livable for outdoorsy people like us. Lake Michigan helps us appreciate the place we live, and we never feel more happy, healthy and whole than when we are out in little boats on big water.

So how was this different?

We paused our preparations and tried to answer our question analytically. Could we possibly put ourselves at any risk, requiring assistance from an overwhelmed emergency response system? Highly unlikely. Might we inspire people with less skill and experience to get out in their boats, who might need assistance? Possibly. But could we be seen by first-responders who might wonder whether we’d need their services and resent the idea that we might add to their existing burden? Yes, because they have no way to know that we won’t need them.

But perhaps most important, might we be seen by many people as we drove to and from the river with canoes on our car — people who’ve been told to stay home, people who’ve lost jobs, who can’t see friends and family, who maybe are ill, who maybe are fearing the loss of someone they love, people who would rightly think, “Why are you out there at a time like this?”

Yes, we decided. We would be doing that, and that was wrong.

So we put away our paddles and PFDs — personal flotation devices. Everyone is making sacrifices. Some are huge. Ours, honestly, are small. But we must do our part, we decided, to not only practice physical distancing, but to support the general appearance of physical distancing that normalizes this abnormal behavior and helps keep everyone safe.

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago. She and her husband, Alec, are the owners of Have Kayaks Will Travel, a paddlesport coaching business.

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