On March 7, the start line of the Buffalo Bayou Regatta was crowded with a motley assortment of boats from plastic sit-on-top kayaks to sleek Kevlar-lined C2 racing canoes to hand-built, cedar-plank masterpieces to a friend’s hand-me-down Grummond beast. While we waited for the countdown for the biggest canoe race in Texas to begin, with 800 paddlers in all, the team next to us grabbed the gunwales to help sturdy our battered aluminum boat in the river’s sluggish but steady current.
“Thanks, man,” I said blithely, working to steady my pre-race jitters. “I figure after this race, there’s no way that coronavirus deal is going to infect this crowd.”
“What would happen if we were to take a hospital bed a coronavirus victim needs?” – Ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich
Just two weeks ago, it was easy enough for US-based adventurers and outdoor athletes to consider communicable diseases as merely one risk among many. Sure, coronavirus in Seattle was making headlines, but us folks in Houston we felt safe, smug even. The paddling event, which in recent years has been canceled due to major floods, runs down its namesake stream, the Buffalo Bayou, which is notorious for pathogens like e-coli and other nasty bacteria in its murky waters. Lifejackets are mandatory. We wrapped up our 15-mile paddle, and cracked cold beers at the finish while a zydeco band played.
Of course, if the same regatta was to take next week, it would certainly have been canceled or at least postponed – the same with events as varied as the Kentucky Derby, the Boston Marathon, and the NBA, MLB, and NHL seasons. Maybe even the Olympics. Moreover, all Colorado ski resorts closed on the governor’s say-so, nationwide running clubs have suspended group activities despite usually meeting outdoors, and most gyms have shuttered.
“The number one thing is to continue being physically active,” says Dr. Cordelia W. Carter, director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center with the New York University Langone Health program. “It’s good for both our physical and mental health. Exercise builds muscle and skeletal strength, improves cardiovascular performance, and produces endorphins which help us feel better.”
Announced as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, and a national emergency by the White House two days later, COVID-19 has dire consequences for many vulnerable populations, especially the elderly. While questions remain about the spread of the disease and how bad things are going to get, “social distancing” has become the coin of the realm, shorthand essentially for staying home as much as you can, avoiding groups, and maintaining personal space.
For recreationalists, including weekend warriors and professional brand ambassadors, alongside calls to hunker down and wash your hands remain some quandaries. With ski resorts closed, can one skin to their backcountry stash in good conscience? If you live near a place where you can set a Fastest Known Time record, should you double down and go for it, as Gear Junkie advocated recently? How do active, outdoor risk-takers calculate what’s acceptable?
A good rule of thumb is that staying near home in a time of crisis is best. Dr. Carter offers the informed prediction that the impact of the pandemic will require months of social distancing – though she prefers to call it “physical distancing” because people still need contact with friends and family for peace of mind – not merely weeks as some optimists still continue to insist. She adds that she and her colleagues expect that COVID-19 will peak in different regions in the country at different times. “This is not a time to push yourself to extremes, or to try something new,” she continues. “It is not a time when you can really afford an injury. This is a time when hospitals and doctors are going to face a lot of questions about resource allocation.”
With schools closed and travel severely curtailed, the single silver lining may be that public-health experts are still advising Americans to get outside and get some fresh air. A dose of Vitamin D, moreover, is a proven mood enhancer, and can boost immunological function – including crucial responses to respiratory infection, a key coronavirus symptom – and sunlight’s ultraviolet rays act as a natural disinfectant. That’s something to keep in mind in the best of times.
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Social distancing is unnatural for us. We are social creatures who thrive off of togetherness. In these stressful times, it's an added challenge that we don't have access to the emotional and physical benefits that we get from hugs and touch. What we are being asked to do now is contrary to what we’ve learned over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. To help wrap my head around social distancing, I put together a blog post about responsible outdoor recreation in the time of coronavirus. It has some info about why we need social distancing now. Some of the information is from a chat I had with @lindsay.troy, an epidemiologist from the University of Utah. Some of it is my own thoughts about compassionate social media messaging. Check it out via the link below or in my profile and let me know what you think. Thanks to @backcountry for supporting this messaging. I’m really grateful to work with brands who are willing to be flexible when content plans change. Photo: @andrew_burr https://carolinegleich.com/responsible-outdoor-recreation-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/
Looking for additional perspectives, I reached out to author David Quammen, a longtime contributor to Outside magazine and National Geographic, whose 2012 bestseller Spillover about animal infections making the leap to humans should be a primer for anybody looking to understand COVID-19. “What we need to do is flatten the curve,” he said, discussing what it will take to slow the spread of the virus. “Don’t do things like an ultra-marathon and then go back to a house full of kids. You could end up run down, and end up vulnerable to a cough, and you don’t want to pass that along.“ Whether inside or outside the home.
“Just maintain, get some fresh air, but don’t worry so much about your muscles,” he says. “You’re not training for an event two weeks from now, because there are no events going to happen two weeks from now. They’ve been canceled.”
Cycling, cross-country skiing, hiking, and running are good sports, in part, because they can be done in isolation, abiding social-distancing protocols. In addition, Quammen notes with hospitals “under-prepared and over-stretched” it remains critical that outdoor athletes don’t land in emergency rooms. “Look, I’m 72 years old, and after a lifetime of adventures my knees are shot,” he confides, without making a big deal about the fact that the virus is most deadly for seniors like him. “I was supposed to have knee-replacement in April, and now that’s not happening.”
Patagonia-sponsored ski mountaineer and backcountry adventurer Caroline Gleich saw her spring travel plans dry up when the company suspended all non-essential employee travel. Upon returning home to Utah, she then suffered the ire of social-media scolds who objected to posts of her triggering small avalanches with her niece near her home in the Wasatch Mountains.
Thanks to a number of relatives in the health-care industry, she was already clocking COVID-19 back in December, but the blowback shifted Gleich’s understanding of risk calculation in a pandemic.
“I saw it as a small thing. We skied off a cornice, and triggered like a 6-inch avalanche,” she says. “But that made me think about how we use resources, and what would happen if we were to take a hospital bed a coronavirus victim needs.”
Gleich continues: “Sure it sucks that we can’t go skiing, but really we should take the time to appreciate our privilege, and figure out how we can help those in need.” Naturally, there are close to home activities for would-be explorers that don’t carry much risk at all, nor do they carry strenuous physical demands.
The National Audubon Society and the American Birding Association both have taken to the internet to remind wildlife watchers that open spaces offer a chance to catch the spring migration as songbirds return to the Northern Hemisphere. “I think this is a great way to relieve stress, and should present little or no threat of exposure,” Robyn Gershon, an epidemiology professor at New York University’s School of Public Health told Audubon. Fishing and forest bathing are other safer alternatives.
“We know our blood pressure goes down when we are in the forest,” says Dr. Carter. “There is real fear, too, and exercise can also really help us manage that.”
These prescriptions should bring us all a modicum of relief. As I completed my reporting, I learned the 100-km gravel grind scheduled for April I had been training for in the Texas Hill Country has been postponed till October. I’m bummed to miss seeing good friends in what would have been our third Castell Grind. Untold months from now, though, I will have the chance to stack heavy-duty miles. For now, though, trundling through the neighborhood with my kid seems the right speed.
Photo: Joshua Ness