The Columbia Gorge
It has been said experiences are better than possessions and I think that is mostly true. I have to admit though, I’m always lusting after some new equipment and coming up with elaborate reasons to justify the purchase to my wife. My take is that you “need” that shiny, new piece of gear to truly enjoy the above mentioned experience. My wife then hides the credit cards.
So it was with the “experiences are better” mantra that I came up with the idea of the Mini Solo Columbia Gorge SUP Downwinder Vacation or “MSCGSUPDV”. It was late July and the catalyst was a trip to drop off my 13-year-old son at a Boy Scout camp in southwest Oregon 4 days before I was going to lead him (and a group of Scouts) on a backpacking trip. I had four whole days to play with and my options were to either hang out at the Boy Scout camp with institutional food and no beer or head out on my own. I love being a Scout leader, but this was not a difficult decision to make.
I quickly fired up Google Maps, located Oregon, and zoomed in on the town of Hood River at the famous Columbia Gorge. I had found my mini solo vacation. This trip would require me to drive my rented Ford Focus almost 5 hours back up to Portland then 1 hour east to Hood River and then return in 4 days. It was a bold plan and the logistics were tricky but I was determined to make it happen.
My first port of call was at the SIC Glide Center of Big Winds in Hood River to get the low down on renting a downwind specific SUP and where to stay. From researching their site, I knew Big Winds was serious about kite board, windsurf and SUP at the Gorge. The Big Winds staff was very informative and assured me that I would have a SUP reserved for my stay. He also told me about their 1:00 downwind shuttle service that transports you and your SUP down the river 8 miles (the prevailing wind blows against the current) to Viento State Park.
Two Red Bull’s and a jumbo bag of trail mix later, I arrived at the town of Hood River in the late afternoon. I decided not to check into the hotel first but head straight for the Columbia River to check out the action. Driving on the main road through town it seemed like everyone was either driving a Subaru with kayaks and boards on top or some kind of Mercedes Sprinter camper style van towing a homemade board trailer. The wind was blowing pretty hard and the town had the energy of California surf town during a south swell. A sign informed me that I was not just entering the main riverfront parking lot, but the “Hood River Event Site”.
I have to say this was a little intimidating thinking that I would be paddling the next day in front of the “Event Site”. As I sat on the grassy embankment that creates a natural grandstand for viewing the action on the river, I saw what looked like over 30 kite boarders whizzing past each other at insane speeds. It was hard to figure out how these people hang on to the kites as they fly in the wind bobbing up and down at extreme angles all while standing on a plank the size of a snowboard. I asked a guy from Spain who was getting ready to go out what the rules are and how head-on collisions are prevented. He laughed and said they just know how to stay out of each other’s way.
Watching the kite boarders on the river was mesmerizing and I totally want to try it next time. I also enjoyed watching all the dogs catching Frisbee’s on the grass or fetching balls thrown far into the river. These are the best trained and most athletic group of dogs that I’ve ever seen. If there is ever a Dog Olympics the Hood River dogs would win gold hands down. Back in town I found a funky pub and stopped for a hamburger and a micro brew. I capped off day one of my“MSCGSUPDV” in my hotel room by watching the Pierce Brosnan action movie The November Man on cable. Nice!
For day two I planned on arriving at the Event Site early and getting out on the water for a paddle. I had purchased a two day SUP rental and I wanted to get my money’s worth. The wind was blowing, but not really strong as the day before. Unlike the afternoon before, the parking lot was pretty empty and there were no kite boarders out on the river. Brian from Big Winds informed me that everyone comes down later in the day when the wind really picks up.
Just as surfers scour Surfline for swell, tide and wind conditions, water sports enthusiasts in Hood River look at Windfinder or Windguru to track the predicted wind. I grabbed the SIC Bullet 14 and headed out from the beach. I didn’t get far. Although the wind wasn’t blowing enough for the kites it was plenty strong to keep me from making any forward progress down river. (Remember the wind blows up river through the Gorge.) I was directly in front of the grassy hill “Event Site” and I could see people watching. No doubt some were wondering what the hell I was doing. I was unable to turn around after 20 feet so I paddled as hard as I could into the wind. After a half hour of frantic paddling I made it to Wells Island. I rested and headed back out. The wind was at my back now and I flew effortlessly across the water. I could feel the river swell catch the board and take it along for a ride. After this little downwinder I understood what everyone was talking about and could not wait for the 1 pm shuttle later that day.
After an excellent fish taco lunch in town, I piled into the shuttle van with six other paddlers. Everyone was chatting about their past Gorge downwind runs and what gear is best. I kept quiet with the knowledge the closest I’ve ever come to a downwinder was paddling towards shore on a windy afternoon in Santa Monica. After an 8 mile drive down river we arrive at Viento State Park and take our boards off the trailer. The wind is blowing really strong and it’s hard to hold on to a 14′ SUP and walk the trail to the river.
I followed a guy from Portland through the trees to a rocky little beach. Directly in front of us lay the mighty Columbia river. It looked like the middle of the ocean during a storm. The Portland guy puts on his leash and takes off. A couple of things go through my head: 1) I should go with this guy because he’s clearly done this before and it will be safer. 2) There is a guy in front of me and I must race him. (I know, I have competitive issues).
Without hesitating I get on my board and took off after him. This was good because I didn’t have time to think how insane it was to paddle into a huge river with a 25 knot wind. Thank God for YouTube where I was able to pick up some tip on paddling downwind. After a few hesitant strokes I was out in the river and moving fast.
It was tricky at first, but I started to get the rhythm of feeling the tail of the board rise and paddling hard, then backing off when you caught the swell. The most challenging part was when the swell you are riding inevitably passes and your board comes to a sudden stop and the nose tips up. It’s like you fall backwards into a hole in the river. After catching some bumps I thought that I was doing pretty well until the nose of my board pearled and I went flying forward. This was total operator error. I quickly learned that you need to be very active with your feet and get to the back of the board once you pick up a bump.
I was thrilled when I finally was able to connect riding one bump then picking up the next without stopping. Speaking of boards, the SIC Bullet worked amazingly well. As I was paddling it down the river I was thinking that this is what this board was made for. It’s no coincidence that you see so many of these boards at the Gorge.
I caught up to the Portland guy and try to follow his path up the river. After mile 7 I can see the “Event Site” area and began to feel I was home free. Suddenly out of nowhere, a kiteboarder flew in front of me then another passed behind me.
After some initial concern that I would be run down I realized these guys are in total control and having a great time. Some of the kite boarders are hooting and hollering as they whizzed past. After an hour and a half of paddling, I surfed a little river wave into the Event Site beach. I was tired, but thrilled I had made it.
Day Three of the Gorge
I woke up on day three to similar conditions as the previous day; sunny, warm and windy. I wanted to try out some different SUP’s so I paddled around in the little protected basin next to the river. I had a good time practicing sprints and buoy turns on the Starboard All-Star and an Infinity Blackfish. Still, the SIC Bullet was my choice for that afternoon’s downwind run. I usually don’t listen to music when I run or paddle but I needed some motivation to beat my previous day’s time of 1:28. (See previous mention of competitive issues above.) So, I put my iPhone in my CamelBak, turned my “Kick Ass Rock” playlist to full volume and did the run in 1:25. So much for a relaxing “MSCGSUPDV”.
Driving back to Portland on Route 84 I could see the kite boarders, surf skis and SUPs playing on the Columbia river. I knew how fortunate I was to experience this special place when the conditions were perfect. So, was the money, 12 hours of driving and hassle to make my Mini Solo Columbia Gorge SUP Downwinder Vacation really worth it?
The action photography accompanying this story was shot by Bob Stawicki, a White Salmon, Washington-based action photographer. Contact Bob directly to shoot your next paddling adventure on the Gorge at: email@example.com, phone: 503-320-4413. You can view his portfolio online at: www.iwasphotographed.com.