By David Brown

For many people, the great outdoors continues to be a source of family gatherings, recreation and much-needed therapy amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Small canoe and kayak outfitting businesses near the Elk River, welcomed many families who were excited to spend a fun day together, enjoy the outdoors by navigating the cool, flowing water and have the opportunity to escape the tensions that many are experiencing in coronavirus restrictions.

Throughout the summer, we saw it on their faces—we’re so thrilled to get out of the house for a great day on the river.

Tennessee is blessed with an abundant system of waterways—rivers, streams, creeks and lakes that provide state residents with a tremendous source of water for drinking, agriculture and recreation. Throughout Middle Tennessee, the Elk, Caney Fork, Harpeth, Shoal Creek, Buffalo, Piney Creek, Red and Duck rivers are a sporting peoples’ dream, accommodating diverse uses that includes canoeing, kayaking, fishing and bird watching.

It’s an asset that is loved by Tennesseans and visitors alike and is a top contributor to the state’s robust tourism economy.

Perhaps at no time in Tennessee’s history has there been a greater attraction to our public waterways and state parks. Throughout the spring, summer and into the fall, closed movie theaters, baseball parks, and other attractions limited so many of the normal options for family outings and summer travel.

In need of a social—and emotionally therapeutic—outlet, it’s clear Tennesseans turned to the water for recreational escape.

It’s a healthy response to conditions that will continue to challenge us for the foreseeable future. The good news is that the doors are almost always open to the Tennessee great outdoors. If individuals follow safe health guidelines, outdoors provide the safest, healthiest environment for social life, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

According to published research, COVID-19 infection indoors is almost 19 times higher than outdoors.

Predictably, activity is up in all outdoor recreation categories. Since COVID-19, all across the country, bicycling, hiking, camping, fishing and hunting license sales are all booming. Sales of all watercraft, including canoes and kayaks, has never been higher.

Outfitter members of the Tennessee Paddlesports Association (TPA), a group of small, locally owned businesses, have hosted an increasingly diverse set of first-time paddlers on Tennessee rivers this season. For Tennesseans, the rivers are within a short drive and provide affordable family fun.

Exploring the Tennessee outdoors and navigating our riverways is both a physical and educational advantage to children and their development. Restrictions on playgrounds, in schools, childcare and playdates among “stay at home” phases have made it more challenging for children to get physical activity and healthy social engagement.

While certainly healthy for the paddling public, the activity is also tremendous for the economies of the rural communities located around Tennessee’s destination waterways. Paddling business generates sales for area barbecue restaurants, convenience stores and other retailers who benefit from our tourists.

For example, on the Watauga River in Carter and Unicoi County, one of our member outfitters is a big seasonal contributor to these counties’ economies, welcoming the majority of its customers from more than an hour away.

Navigating the pandemic continues to be hard on all of us who continue to stay cooped up in the house for long stretches to smartly limit exposure. Access to Tennessee’s public scenic rivers fulfills our need for safe, restorative experiences and helps with mental health.

David Brown is a consultant for the Tennessee Paddlesports Association. He has served as a representative of various outfitter organizations since 1980, including as the Executive Director of America Outdoors, the nation’s leading outfitter organization for 27 years.