The Economic Development team recently sat down with Napa Valley Paddle (NVP) owner Drew Dickson to discuss the outdoor recreational opportunities on the Napa River and why it remains a hidden gem in the Bay Area.
Can you give background on the history of Napa Valley Paddle and what led you to the industry?
The history of Napa Valley Paddle (NVP) started right here in Napa with—you guessed it—wine! My father, Dave Dickson, partnered with Rex Geitner, a known Napa vineyard manager, to establish a ‘garagiste’ winery. In less than five years, the winery was crafting award-winning wines. He named the winery after his two sons, Andrew (Drew) and Lane. In 2002, Andrew Lane Winery was established as a fully-licensed commercial winery at the base of Howell Mountain. Sadly, the winery was lost in the recent 2020 Glass Fire.
NVP really began as a curated experience for our family winery. My father and I invited club members to join us on the Napa River, riding the tide on paddle boards from Kennedy Park through Downtown Napa and into the freshwater forest above The Oxbow, finishing in the Oak Knoll AVA. Paddle boarding was a new sport at the time and most folks (and Napa locals for that matter) hadn't yet experienced the restored Napa River. Guests would disembark in the Oak Knoll AVA at Trancas Crossing Park where our river guide (the winemaker) would barbeque oysters and pour Andrew Lane Napa Gamay Beaujolais, riverside under an old walnut tree. It was a big hit. Not only did they discover the Napa River for the first time, but they also learned how to paddle board—and Beaujolais and oysters were the perfect pairing. Napa Gamay, the working man’s pinot noir, represents the early years in the Napa Valley and the wine of hot tubs and peacock feathers in the early ‘80s, and the oyster represented the contribution of river restoration to the health of the broader Bay Area and Pacific Ocean at large. We started simple, with just a paddle board and a few saw horses for a table. The experience was such a success, which led to me offering the tour for the broader public.
After my father passed away, I went commercial with the business, and Napa Valley Paddle was officially established in 2012.
How does Napa Valley Paddle contribute to the success of the RiverLine Project?
The Napa River is a showpiece for the resilience of nature: a hopeful story of environmental resurgence in a world with so much negative news. Although several other rivers in the Bay Area enjoy this level of biodiversity, only the Napa River has been restored to date. Bird species have more than doubled, and otters, beavers, sea lions and even the occasional harbor porpoise have returned. Our community is fortunate to have watched this river come back to life, and we should be proud of our efforts and continue to share the experience with our guests. Napa Valley Paddle has played host to tens of thousands of visitors, and we will continue to bring this story to life with the hope that the work done here will inspire similar projects. I look forward to telling the story of the Napa (River) Valley and helping people connect viscerally to nature, wildlife and the ebb and flow of the tide.
What makes the Napa River the ideal place for outdoor recreation?
Freshwater and saltwater meet in the Oxbow. Paddlers can experience the full transition from saltwater wetlands south of town, the renaissance of downtown Napa and the fresh water forest above the Oxbow in just four miles (a 2-hour paddle). The diversity of this estuary keeps paddlers engaged, and it is constantly changing. With a surprise around every bend, it remains a family-friendly paddle experience. We enjoy a morning high tide and relaxed current every other week. The water is also warm.
On alternating weeks, a slightly larger (and still very manageable) tidal flow allows paddlers to ride the tide one way with the San Pablo breeze at your back. Thanks to the living River restoration, paddlers can always find slower-moving water toward the inside of the bends, or faster-moving water toward the middle or outside bends. Mind you, “fast” on the Napa River is about the pace of walking. Finally, the more established river banks in the Oxbow provide wind protection during the afternoon hours, when often, the Bay Area at large is blown out.
What are Napa Valley Paddle’s most popular programs?
The Downtown-Oxbow rental launching from the Main Street dock is our most popular offering. Once the leaves have returned to the riparian (forest) corridor above, the Oxbow, our preferred route, leads paddlers up through the Oxbow Preserve to the Lincoln Bridge and back. The route is a little shy of four miles, approximately 1.5 to 2-hour paddle.
Our one-way trips riding the tide from Kennedy Park or Los Carneros into Downtown Napa are also very popular. We offer this route every other week during the larger tidal events (new moon and full moon). Early afternoon is ideal when the breeze begins to blow up from San Pablo Bay.
What are some of the big plans and ideas you have for programs on the river?
Handcrafted, wooden whale boat tours. This guided tour is currently offered in Los Carneros by appointment, and we hope to introduce the tour to downtown Napa soon. The whale boat tours are steeped in local history. Many of the early settlers and explorers arrived to Napa riding the tide from Vallejo/Yerba Buena Island in whale boat tenders salvaged by Hawaiin Islanders who created ferry business moving people, provisions and information through the San Francisco Bay and up to Sacramento. Many other early settlers rode the tide, including George Yount, General Vallejo and John Sutter.
Self service rental systems. NVP has been working with Surf It Locker for several years leading up to the pandemic, recognizing that the best paddling is often early morning or evening after the afternoon wind lays down (and, of course, to enjoy sunset). Birds, otters, fish and beavers are all more active during these times. However, for outfitters and rental companies, these times fall outside of normal business hours. An automated system would allow seamless access during these times. The system also addresses staffing issues during the slower weekdays, and, of course, mitigates the need for customers to store, load and unload equipment. These automated systems will excel in nature, providing access to the Napa River that’s as easy as stepping into a gym.