The Inland Paddler: Reflections on the Gorge
Places known for their epic downwind conditions are special. They are usually breathtakingly beautiful, and they seem to be alive with an electricity you can actually feel on your skin. They vibrate with a cosmic resonance, the kind more commonly associated with new agey, red rock desert locales.
The vortexes of Sedona, Arizona have got nothing on the Columbia River Gorge.
Sedona, that quintessential metaphysical mecca, boasts a myriad of locations where the earth is supposed to be especially alive with energy. According to experts, “a vortex is the funnel shape created by a whirling fluid or by the motion of spiraling energy. Familiar examples of vortex shapes are whirlwinds, tornadoes, and water going down a drain. A vortex can be made up of anything that flows, such as wind, water, or electricity.”
Well, then, there you go.
A gorge is kind of like a big drain. where wind is funneled up it and the river courses down it – creating a yin and yang of conditions that produce bumps of cosmic proportions. And that, my paddle friends, is truly electrifying.
No small wonder that the Gorge, and the town of Hood River, Oregon attracts windsurfers, kiteboarders and paddlers like Sedona tourists to a sale on crystals.
I have been oh so fortunate enough to paddle the Gorge multiple times on two trips this year. After my first visit in June, I knew I would be back. I had to come back. I would be pulled and drawn back by the energy.
The magnetism extends beyond the water and into the community that is Hood River. The town is like a combination of North Carolina’s own crunchy granola new agey enclave, Asheville, with the laid back, surfer vibe of Wrightsville Beach, and the small town quaintness of Brevard – the gateway to the Pisgah National Forest, itself a Mecca for mountain bikers, backpackers and waterfall seekers. Hood River boasts great restaurants, excellent microbreweries, and one of the best shops for all your water needs, Big Winds.
The water culture is seriously engrained into the community.
The waterfront of Hood River is nearly custom-made for events like the Gorge Paddle Challenge, with a large park and adjacent beach which makes staging a big event the the GPC easy. It’s a fantastic venue for spectators, too, providing plenty of space and vantages to watch the all the action – whether it’s the strategy and technical prowess exhibited on the course race or the finish of the 8-mile Viento Run downwind race. Next to the waterfront park is the Event Site, where shops like Big Winds and other outfitters have permanent rental and demo facilities. There is a protected area where beginners can try out sup and other water board sports and get instruction without having to venture too far out into the bumps.
But let’s face it. Those bumps are what it’s all about.
To catch them, most folks venture down to Viento State Park, about eight miles downriver from Hood River. Access to the river is via a dusty path that will take you to a river stone covered shoreline. It is not the most idea place for boards made of glass and carbon, or feet make of soft flesh. And, you’d better be careful where and how you set your board down, if you have to leave it for any reason. Once you are this close to the water, you are at the mercy of the wind, which can gust well over 25 miles per hour. A mislaid board can go flying, and when it comes down, it’s going to be on those rocks.
Getting into the water, especially on a day when the wind is whipping, is tricky. The river stones are slick and unstable. I have to say, the Gorge Paddle Challenge start was one of the squirreliest starts I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of last year’s ChuckTown Showdown in Charleston, where two guys on all-around boards decided to paddle into each other by going over the top of my race board. Having paddled out of Viento before was a huge help on race day, no doubt.
Looking out over a river thick with white caps, with the wind whipping through your hair, you feel that electricity. You cannot help but be excited, as well as a little bit intimidated. It looks rough, after all. That is the magic of downwinding though. When you are going with the wind and the waves, as opposed to fighting against them, you have the opportunity to ride with that power. Standing there at Viento the first time, I remembered what Jeremy Riggs told me the first time he took me out for a lesson at Kanaha Beach Park on Maui.
“Jeremy, I don’t mind telling you, I am intimidated, ” I confessed, stalling, and watching the huge, rough water just on the other side of the reef.
“I think once you get on the board, and start paddling with it, you’ll notice it’s not nearly as bad as it looks, You’ll get comfortable in no time.”
And of course, he was right.
After my first run on Viento, I thought that the quality of the bumps, because of the hydrodynamics of the Gorge, made the downwinder more like conditions on the Kiehi side of Maui when it is firing. After talking with Jeremy followingthe Gorge Paddle Challenge downwinder, he confirmed my observation. Shorter waves, not the big swells that Maliko on Maui’s North Shore is famous for.
But nevertheless just as charged.
On race day, before the racers’ meeting, hommage was paid to Andres Pombo, the pro paddler who died in the Gorge last year. I could not help but think about him almost the entire time I was paddling that day. I am sure I was not the only one. This year’s race went off very safely, with everyone wearing leashes and PFDs. I got a first hand feel for what it’s like to fall off into the Gorge waters and have your board do sommersaults over your head. It happened to me twice, toward the end of the race. When I rebounded from that inital TUG of the leash around my ankle, my feet found the soft river bottom and I realized I was standing up in waist deep water. Were that Andres had only been that fortunate last year the day before the race.
Just like it is anywhere you paddle, local knowledge is invaluable.
I had good intel for the race. Stay away from the right shoreline- otherwise it will be hard to get back out into the main channel and string together good glides. I am just learning how to “tack” across the bumps and not being proficient in that technique, I spent a lot of time right side paddling and not catching as many bumps as I could have, for fear I’d glide in too close. If I could do it over again, I would have tried harder to cut across the bumps to get out back into the the channel so I could glide more. Next year, I’ll know.
I went to the Gorge Paddle Challenge because I have become totally addicted to downwinding. I raced for the physical and mental challenge, and to feel that energy, combined with the energy of my fellow paddlers and to be recharged by it. While the race attracts the best paddlers in the world, it also attracts the Joe and Jane Paddlers like myself who just want to feel the power of this beautiful place and to be a part of it. That’s one of the things I love so much about this sport. We all get stoked and stoke each other up on the challenge and the experience. When the Joes and Janes are no longer welcomed because they don’t want to be the fastest, then that’s when I’ll retire my race board.
And the Gorge, in all it’s amazing glory, will still be there and will still beckon me to tap into the energy and ride the bumps.
And ride I most certainly will.