CONCORD — The Contoocook River Canoe Co. was doing a steady rental business Sunday despite the cool and cloudy conditions.
Kayaking and canoeing are among the outdoor activities that have seen a surge in popularity as New Hampshire gradually lifts stay-at-home restrictions put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been busy. I think people want to get outside,” said Pat Malfait, who owns the family-run business on the banks of the Contoocook River north of downtown Concord.
Malfait said rentals have been solid since the state allowed businesses like his to begin renting to customers again May 18 in the second phase of the state’s reopening plan. Even Sunday, when temperatures hovered in the 60s and clouds blocked the sun through the morning and early afternoon, he said about 25 to 30 canoes and kayaks from his fleet were being rented.
It was actually a bit of a drop-off from the previous few days, when the heat and sunny weather had many Granite Staters seeking relief on the water.
“I bet we had 100 to 150 people here Thursday. A good day brings a lot of people out,” Malfait said. “With kids not in school right now, parents want things to do so they’re coming out during the week. We wouldn’t usually see that until kids are out of school.”
Jennifer Maynard, a nurse practitioner from Contoocook, surprised her 7-year-old daughter, Evelynn, with a day on the river in a two-person kayak.
Maynard said she and Evelynn have been doing a lot of hiking through the spring months and waiting for the weather to warm up before taking Evelynn on her first kayaking venture. After monitoring the Contoocook River Canoe Co. on Facebook for the past few weeks, she decided Sunday was the right time.
“We’ve been looking forward to doing this. We’re really excited that we can do it safely now with a little bit different restrictions,” she said. “We just wanted to get out, get some fresh air and exercise — get out of the house!”
Maynard and Evelynn were geared up with life jackets and paddles before launching off in the tandem kayak. Malfait said all rental gear is being cleaned after each use in order to meet the state health protocols. A Plexiglas shield has also been installed at the rental counter, where masks and hand sanitizer are also available and staff at Contoocook River are also wearing masks.
Malfait has had to make some other changes because of the health guidelines. He’s not operating the shuttle buses that during a typical summer run groups of up to 15 people up river so they can paddle back down to Concord. He said he’s hopeful the state health guidelines will allow him to start running the shuttles, but at the moment keeping people 6 feet apart on a small bus is impractical.
Another effect the pandemic has had is on the inventory. While sales have been strong, Malfait said he and other shops are having a difficult time restocking because many manufacturers shut down for a couple of months early in the pandemic.
The Contoocook River Canoe Co. was also getting some business from Massachusetts, which is in a different stage in the reopening process.
Laura Daniels and her husband, Chris Cheng, drove up for the day from Waltham, Mass., to rent a canoe. The couple was equipped with their own disinfectant wipes and masks and said they were being careful to follow safety protocols.
“We go on walks every day just around the neighborhood. Today we wanted to do something a little bit more exciting and we thought this was a good, minimum-contact activity,” Daniels said.
Further to the north, rentals at Plymouth Ski and Sports have not been so brisk. Owner Daniel Masera estimated that his overall business for April and much of May was down substantially and he worried about how the pandemic will affect the summer tourist season.
“We are a pretty seasonal shop because we depend on 70 percent of our sales from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, meaning right now, we basically are dealing with the local population,” Masera said Sunday. “Some days we’re doing fairly decent. Some days we don’t do anything. This is a roller coaster, basically.”
Masera said he saw a bit of a surge around Memorial Day, which is typical, but businesses in the Lakes Region depend on visitors from neighboring states each summer.
Masera said he was able to keep the shop open throughout the spring as an essential business. He said one bright spot has been bicycles, which he can’t keep enough of in stock to meet the demand as people look for outdoor activities after months of being on lockdown. He’s also been able to sell some hiking gear and tennis equipment, but kayaks, canoes and other summer items will depend on tourism.
“If we get some of those tourists, we might do something decent but it’s impossible to make any projections,” Masera said.