Most Memphians have grown up being told to stay away from the Mississippi—and with good reason. It’s fast flowing and the currents can hide treacherous eddies and carry huge pieces of driftwood, not to speak of the 200-ton barges that regularly pass by. However, the Memphis Harbor is an unrealized asset in our own backyard. The two-mile area provides calm water and a safe opportunity for even first-time kayakers to get out on the water safely.

In 2018, Memphis River Parks Partnership piloted kayak rentals in the harbor for the first time. With Kayak Memphis, revelers on July Fourth were able to watch fireworks from the water! After a sold-out night, there was clearly demand for more. 

By next summer, daily kayak rentals launched from the new River Garden. People could explore the harbor and see Memphis from a new perspective. To draw even more people to this new experienced, they introduced Full Moon Kayaking. Every month when the full moon rises, a DJ spins tunes from a boat in the middle of the harbor, and 30-minute kayak and paddleboard rentals are free for all. Kids are welcome (tandem kayaks are available for younger children). Even dogs have joined their owners on the water!

In September 2019, more than 300 people participated, with many bringing their own boats. It’s recommended to get there early because the free kayaks are incredibly popular. However, you can still enjoy the experience from the shore. The program was inspired by a similar effort at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia.

This year, it’s been the summer of the kayak. It checks all the boxes: outdoors, socially distant, and family friendly. Kayak Memphis has even expanded to do sunset tours on the Mississippi River proper, where they take you over to the Loosahatchie Bar to explore the beach and riparian forest. 

Full Moon Kayaking is back this month with COVID-19 safety measures in place for the sparse time you’re not out on the water. This season introduces New Moon Kayaking, for new paddlers. 

The river’s poor reputation can shift by changing how we talk about it and how we use it. Creating a relationship with the water and learning to enjoy it allows us to fully enjoy the beauty of being in the Mid South. (And when you love something, you’re less likely to pollute it.) Especially now, harnessing the outdoor potential of the downtown area can create a more livable city for all of us.  

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Helen Hope is a Program Associate at the Memphis River Parks Partnership. She began as an Urban Forestry Fellow with Rhodes College and Overton Park Conservancy. She continued her work with the National Park Service, learning about the Partnership Wild and Scenic Rivers designation model in New England to be packaged and shared with other communities. The opportunity to work in the parks next to the Mississippi River and cultivate meaningful experiences on the riverfront brought her back to Memphis.