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A Tale of Two Gorges: The Tennessee River Gorge and The Columbia River Gorge

Paddler’s Paradises: Tennessee River and Columbia River Gorges

Not all river gorges are made alike.

Some are narrow, snake through the mountains in a elegant, sinuous fashion, while other are wide, deep, and less curvy and can look as rough as the ocean.

Two of them, at least in North America, are paddling meccas.

And while they share that, plus a few other similarities, where paddling is concerned they couldn’t be more different.

The Tennessee River Gorge

It might be tempting to think of the Tennessee River as the quintessential Southern river, meandering through Appalachia, and hosting paddlewheel riverboats with a certain gentility that harkens back to another era. But if you paddle Chattajack, you know that impression would be deceiving. Very deceiving.

The Tennessee River Gorge is home to some seriously fierce wind.  Only problem is, you are never quite sure just where that wind might find you.  And, because of the gorge’s curvature, once you round the next bend, you could get a respite, or the wind could shift and either slam you head on or broadside you with hellacious cross chop.  That is what makes paddling in that gorge a challenge. That and the fact you never know how fast the current might be, given that releases from the upriver dam just above Chattanooga are dictated by rainfall and other unpredictable factors.

What is predictable where the Tennessee River Gorge is concerned, is its natural beauty. Whether you are looking at it from water level or from atop Signal Mountain, it is breathtaking.

As a jumping off point to exploring this eastern gorge, Chattanooga is a fantastic, mid-sized city which offers outdoor enthusiasts of any ilk lots of choices when it comes to adventure.  In addition to paddling and being the home of the 32-mile Chattajack race, Chattanooga and its nearby environs offer great places to hike, climb, and cycle (both road and mountain.)

Downtown Chattanooga has a fantastic aquarium that focuses on local freshwater species, great restaurants and coffee hangouts, and of course, you can visit the Moon Pie factory and get your fix of a classic southern snack treat.

The Columbia River Gorge

The Columbia River Gorge shares some similarities with its Southern cousin, especially when it comes to aesthetics and the presence of wind, and even the occasional paddlewheeler.   But that’s where the comparison stops.

This western gorge is a downwinder’s paradise. Because of the contours of the deep ravine, especially in the section near the town of Hood River, the wind whips straight upstream, funneled by the walls of the gorge. And, for the most part, this pattern is pretty consistent.  It sometimes will blow in the opposite direction, and as wind is wont to do, it may slack off from time to time. But, just like the tradewinds off the coast of Maui, the wind patterns in the Columbia River Gorge are consistent enough to make this a downwinder’s dream.

While the prevailing wind pushes up the gorge, the water flows, as one would expect, downstream, in the opposite direction.  That combines to raise bumps that more resemble the downwinding surface conditions on the Kihei side of Maui rather than Maliko on the North Shore.  Shorter intervals between bumps, but fast, oh so fast. It’s crazy to realize when you downwind on the Columbia, you are actually flying upstream, against the current.  The Columbia provides a section of border between Oregon and Washington, and the current is stronger on the Washington side of the Gorge.  Therefore, the bumps on the left side of the gorge as you paddle toward Hood River are usually bigger, and deeper.  On a day when the wind has taken a breather, it may be almost flat on the Oregon side, but bumps are still pumping across the river.  That doesn’t lessen the increased  technical aspect of that part of the run, or the danger, as the current is still flowing fast and strong and without the aid of the wind, you will be slogging it, eventhough there appears to be bumps to ride.

This combination of wind and current makes the Columbia anything but a lazy, quiet, calm river, and locals here will talk to you of developing a respectful relationship with her. Full-sized Type II PFDs are more the norm here as opposed to waistbelt PFDs. And leashes, leashes, leashes.

The gorge is home to several major races, including the Gorge Downwind Champs and the Gorge Paddle Challenge.

The town of Hood River is considerably smaller than Chattanooga but it is not lacking for non-paddling activities.  Hood River has long been a windsurfing mecca, if not THE mecca and it is extremely popular with kite boarders and foilers as well. Hiking, mountain biking, road cycling and skiing/snowboarding are all local options.  With a myriad of local breweries, including ciders and kombuchas, and great restaurants, it’s a great vacation destination.

While the experiences you might have in each of these amazing gorges will likely be vastly different,  if you paddle and love the outdoors, you have to put both on your Must Visit list!

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