Amanda Iosa of South Portland is one of many Mainers who have taken up paddling during the pandemic. Since buying her own kayak, Iosa has taken many guided paddle trips and lessons. Photo courtesy of Amanda Iosa

While living in Virginia for 20 years, Amanda Iosa promised herself that one day she would learn to kayak on the ocean back home in Maine. Two years ago, she moved back and settled in South Portland. Then the coronavirus outbreak hit.

Iosa, a Type-1 diabetic, needed a way to exercise and keep her disease in check. But walking, biking and running in South Portland proved unsafe because the walkways were crowded. So she signed up for an introductory kayak class at Portland Paddle – and the next day bought her first ocean kayak. Since then she has paid for several more kayak lessons and tours.

“It was always a goal ever since I was little,” said Iosa, 39. “I just thought, now is the time to learn.”

Paddlesport guides from Scarborough to Sebago and up the coast to Somes Sound say Iosa is part of a growing number of Mainers taking up paddlesports during the pandemic. Paddlesport outfitters normally are flooded with non-residents during the summer. Out-of-state business has been down this summer, but more Maine residents than ever are booking trips and lessons in kayaks and on paddleboards. Even the fatal white shark attack in Harpswell in July couldn’t slow rentals for long this year.

As a result, many paddle businesses have remained open through the pandemic, and some even have recorded a spike in business.

Katelyn Allen, co-owner of Sebago Trails Paddling Company in Raymond, said their eighth season has been their best yet. The paddle company Allen started with her father, Bill, has seen a 35-percent increase in traffic this year. The delivery business to rental cottages is up. Sales of kayaks are up. And Allen sees more repeat business from greater Portland.

“We’ve had as many as 90 paddlers a day on the weekends. Last year, that was unheard of,” Allen said.

Emma Pierce, a marketing intern at Sebago Trails Paddling Company, right, explains the basics of paddle boarding to Tia Char before she and her family take off on rented paddle boards in late July. The family was trying paddleboarding for the first time. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Other paddleboard businesses have had to adapt to find customers.

“It’s a very different year. Probably the biggest difference is that the vast majority of our customers are locals, which is something we are really enjoying,” said Zack Anchors, the owner of Portland Paddle at East End Beach. “Another big difference is our lessons are more popular than ever, even though our guided tour bookings are way down. People are excited to take up sea kayaking and paddleboarding as a part of their lifestyle.”

Because of the pandemic, Anchors was forced to take a different approach to keep his 8-year-old business running. He made the decision in early June to offer a pay-what-you-can option, something he had considered in the past. The chancy offer was an instant success – and most paid nearly full price. He may offer the deal again next year.

Anchors received a Paycheck Protection Program loan to bring back all 35 part-time employees. Overall revenue is down about 30 to 40 percent without the influx of summer camps and corporate groups and many more out-of-state tourists. But Anchors said, without a doubt, the local enthusiasm for paddling has helped him weather the pandemic.

“I think for us being able to operate this summer provided us some momentum to come back next year as strong as ever,” Anchors said.

In other tourist destinations in Maine, the loss of out-of-state visitors has been felt more acutely.

Glenn Tucker, owner of Coastal Kayaking Tours in Bar Harbor for 24 years, said the pandemic has been a challenging time to get through. His usual staff of about 50 was cut to 18, and there are no cruise ships or tour buses rolling in from far-flung states. Off-the-street traffic of last-minute rentals is down about 40 to 50 percent – but an important chunk of his business this year is from Mainers on vacation.

Normally, Maine residents constitute only around 10 percent of Tucker’s business. This year, that customer base is closer to 25 percent.

“We have an expression this year – we are COVID busy – not as busy as on a normal year, but we are busy for this season,” Tucker said. “It’s a survive and advance year. We socked away money in case of a disaster. This has been the ultimate disaster.”

Tia Char quickly gets the hang of paddle boarding after being launched in the water at Sebago Trails Paddling Company. Char and her family were visiting from Brooklyn, New York. Out-of-state visitors are down during the pandemic for many paddleboard rental businesses, but the number of Mainers taking up paddleboarding is on the rise.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Farther south along the Maine coast at Castine Kayak Adventures, Karen Francoeur received a PPP loan to bring back all five of her guides, with the expectation that this year they would make improvements to the guiding business. But they’ve been so busy, they haven’t had time.

“I’m quite surprised,” said Francoeur, who has run the business since 1997. “I think it’s provided a nice outlet for lots of people. A lot of families have come together. I think a lot of people found a new way to be with their family.”

One evening, a small group of paddlers came back to shore after an evening paddle to view the night sky and the bioluminescent organisms that light up in the water when paddles swirl around the glow-in-the-dark phytoplankton. After the strange and surreal trip, Francoeur reminded the group to don their masks at the dock. One remarked, “I forgot all about the COVID thing.”

“That’s what we want,” Francoeur said of enjoying the paddling experience.

Closer to Portland, several paddle rental businesses are booming. In Scarborough – home to sandy beaches and the state’s biggest salt marsh – busy is an understatement.

“We usually run out of kayaks every day,” said Linda Woodard, director of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center.

Woodard tells the story of a Maine mom who lives within an hour of the marsh who couldn’t get her teenage son to leave the house because of the virus outbreak. A kayak trip finally got him to venture out.

“This was literally his first time out of the house since March,” Woodard said. “She was able to convince him to come here. It was nice she called me ahead of time to tell me. We all gave him distance. He had a great time.”

Just down the road, Rod Geant, owner of Fun and Sun Rentals, is equally as busy and brought back his entire staff of five. But Geant shifted to a six-day work week, rather than seven, to allow for longer work days to ensure deeper cleaning of equipment. He and his staff now interact with customers as little as possible – and focus on safety more than story telling, to keep the focus on social distancing. The shift has been hard for Geant because he said even Mainers like to learn about the area.

“There are locals who live around here, who have never been out on the marsh before,” Geant said. “But this year, people are dying to be outside – and I’m happy to help. But people also like to know about the area, about the marsh, the fishing. Now we don’t do nearly as much chatting.”

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