SCHENECTADY — Free kayak and bike rentals are being offered this summer along the Erie Canal in Schenectady and Niskayuna.
It's a loop, paddling from Mohawk Harbor to the Rexford Bridge and pedaling back. Similar excursions are being offered elsewhere on the canal system to let people enjoy the outdoors without journeying too far from home amid a public health crisis.
The demand is there — kayaks are in short supply at some retailers and new bicycles are even harder to find. After months cooped up because of winter, and several weeks inside due to COVID-19 precautions, people want to get outside.
The New York State Canal Corp. is promoting excursions at six places along the canal system as staycation opportunities. Schenectady/Niskayuna and three other hubs feature free rentals; Saratoga/Schuylerville and one other do not.
In Schenectady County, anyone can reserve a kayak through the website of Upstate Kayak Rentals, which operates a rental fleet at Mohawk Harbor. Boats are available at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday to Sunday through Sept. 7. Participants can explore the three-mile stretch of Mohawk River/Erie Canal between Mohawk Harbor and the Rexford Bridge at their leisure, then ride back on one of the bike-share bicycles sponsored by CDPHP and maintained by CDTA. There is normally a fee to ride the bikes but they are free for the kayakers who need to return to Mohawk Harbor.
The Saratoga Springs and Schuylerville staycation follows a do-it-yourself model — bring your own bike and/or kayak and tour a cluster of sites including the Saratoga National Historical Park, Saratoga Spa State Park, Hudson Crossing Park and Saratoga Lake. Kayak or paddleboard rentals are available at the mouth of Fish Creek and CDPHP bikes are available at multiple racks in Saratoga Springs.
The idea behind the Canal Corporation's staycation initiative is to promote the state canals and surrounding areas as a recreational resource with numerous nearby opportunities for sightseeing, dining and other diversions.
Until very recently, it has been a lost season on the waterways — it was impossible to open the canals to navigation until repair projects that were halted for weeks were resumed and completed.
At the same time, limited rainfall made water levels low and prevented rapid refill of the navigation channels.
Locks E7 through E11 didn't begin operation until Friday, about two months later than normal. Locks E12 through E18 won't start until next week.
Work at Lock E19 will continue for a while longer, and it may be August before continuous navigation is possible from Albany to Buffalo.
On top of that, many people are unable to travel great distances for vacations due to travel restrictions, so they may be looking for something closer to home.
The other hubs for the Canal Corp. staycation program are in the areas of Buffalo, Rochester, Seneca Falls and Chittenango.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has similar goals with its "Adventure at Home" initiative, while the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is encouraging New Yorkers to "Recreate Local."
The Canal Corp. is relying on Upstate Kayak Rentals and CDTA to make the pedal-paddle loop work.
Upstate Kayak owner Donna Larkin said participants in the staycation program still get the full rundown on kayak safety and the boats are sanitized. Once they're out on the water, they get to see the river at their own pace and from a new perspective, if they are novice paddlers. More than half of her customers are first-timers.
"It's filling up, booking quickly," Larkin said. "So I think a lot of people are taking advantage of it.
"After months of staying home, it's a great opportunity for everyone to get out."
Renting a boat is a good way to learn about kayaking and try different styles before committing to buying one, or a good occasional diversion for those who don't want to buy one.
Borrowing a boat for free is that much better.
Larkin has 32 boats at Mohawk Harbor this summer, a dozen of them reserved for the staycation program.
CDTA didn't roll out the bikes out of winter storage this year until June 22, and that was only a partial rollout, to gauge how willing people would be to ride a bike someone else had recently sweated on. Each bike is cleaned nightly and is equipped with hand sanitizer; bikeshare members seem to be comfortable with that, said CDTA's Allie Schreffler.
The bikes are getting used, especially in the more popular locations, so CDTA is putting out more.
The transit agency partnered with the Canal Corp. on the staycation program for some of the same reasons it and CDPHP run the bikeshare program: To be engaged with the community and to give people a chance to be healthy and active.
"We want to take part in a way that people can participate in," said Schreffler.