On August 20, 2016, if you look out on the Columbia River from Viento State Park, you’re likely to see a dramatic scene — 200 stand up paddleboarders jockeying for position at the starting line of the Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge.
Their destination: the Hood River Event site 8 miles down river.
In winds gusting to the high 30s and waves sometimes reaching overhead, the racers will sprint downwind, their bright shirts dotting the river with color as the field spreads. Dodging kiteboarders, windsurfers, barges and boats, the winners are expected to finish in just over an hour.
“It’s a monster start line,” said Steve Gates, owner of Big Winds in Hood River and race founder. “You are standing in knee deep water next to your board packed tighter than a can of sardines. The horn goes off and people are banging boards and falling and charging out into the river.”
This might not sound like the more placid version of stand up paddle boarding (SUP) that you’ve seen marketed as a mellow flat-water endeavor undertaken by fit families with young kids and cute dogs. Those folks are out there too. But in the Columbia River Gorge SUP, like so many other activities in this adventure-loving playground, can go to extremes.
“It is a high-adrenaline, super fun thing to do. And when you add in a competition to the atmosphere it just escalates things even more,” Gates said.
Downwind Races, Whitewater, and Ocean Waves
SUP dates back at least as far as the 18th century in Hawaii. Many credit the modern day SUP movement to the early 2000s as an outgrowth of surfing that became competitive and got a big boost from the star power of Laird Hamilton.
SUP came to the Gorge in 2006 at Big Winds, the first to offer rentals and sales. The ensuing 10 years have shown an immense evolution in the sport in the Gorge and beyond, and Big Winds has kept pace.
“In 2006 you had one choice — an oversized surfboard,” said T.J. Gulizia, manager for the kite and SUP department at Big Winds. “Now there are so many different avenues you can take with SUP. In the Gorge you have everything from flat water to downwinders to white water to surfing behind the Sternwheeler.”
A stroll through the Big Winds retail shop offers insight into the various applications of SUP and a map to how the industry has developed: high performance downwind and race boards, like the ones used in the paddle challenge; round-nosed surf boards destined for the coast, pointy-nosed touring boards for exploring and convenient inflatable boards that compress down into packable duffel bags.
Gulizia uses industry shorthand, which likens SUP boards to bicycles, to explain how they differ: The fast downwind or race board with a displacement hull is like a high-end road bike. Think of the touring board, with a planing hull, as a solid mountain bike. The surfboard works like a fun, playful BMX, and the inflatable board is akin to a fold-up bike — convenient but not high performance.
Gulizia said inflatables make up the biggest percentage of sales at Big Winds, 29 percent, followed closely by touring SUPs at 23 percent, mostly because they are good entry levels boards. Easy surf/crossover boards (20 %), Raceboards (12%), Downwind boards (11%) and Surf boards (5%) make up the remainder of sales.
Inflatables function as entry level boards, but since this is the Gorge we area talking about, those inflatables are seeing applications beyond placid flat-water paddling; for many, it’s the perfect alternative to kayaking on white water rivers around the area.
“I can go out on a class II rapid on a SUP board and get the same excitement I did kayaking class III or class IV water,” Gulizia said.
Another growing trend involves taking SUP boards out into the ocean to combine paddling with surfing. But the real magic of the Gorge is the downwind access. “There are not many downwind places like we have in the Gorge,” said Gulizia. “The Gorge just funnels the wind straight down the river. You have escape routes on either side of you with Oregon and Washington. You are not way out in the middle of the ocean. And there are no sharks.”
Big Winds’ rental shop at the Hood River Event Site carries 100 different boards so you can try before you buy. They offer a daily shuttle service to Viento State Park so SUPers can enjoy the 8-mile down-winder without driving. They also have introductory lessons, private lessons and clinics as well as guided tours from Viento.
In Portland, Next Adventure’s Paddle Sports Center sells paddle boards for $450 and up with $50-a-day rentals. In addition to guided tours on the Willamette River, they offer quick-start packages that include beginner lessons and all the necessary gear to learn the SUP basics, as well as lessons focused on taking paddle boards down through whitewater river rapids.
Downstream on the Columbia, Next Adventure also runs the Scappoose Bay Paddling Center, which is located right on the water for easy rentals and excursions. The water in the bay tends to be fairly calm, with excellent wildlife including nesting bald eagles. Tidal adventures are to be had an hour downstream in the vicinity of the Columbia River Bar – provided you have the skills and knowledge to explore an area that can turn hazardous in strong weather.
SUP with all these options?
Gulizia, who has 20 years of white water kayaking experience and 14 years of kiting on his outdoor resume, is a full-on SUP convert.
“When I go to the coast, I usually take my SUP board and bring my kites as backup,” he said, almost sheepishly.
A hot still day in the Gorge finds him surfing the rapids of the White Salmon River, and when he’s got a couple of hours to burn, he’ll downwind from Viento. He said he’s drawn to SUP for the adventure, the camaraderie and the physical challenge.
“You push yourself to be faster every year,” he said.
Not everyone, however, is looking for extremes in SUP. For as exciting as the Gorge Paddle Challenge is, its numbers pale in comparison to the number of people paddling the flat water at the Hood River Event Site, on the Willamette River in Portland and on Oregon alpine lakes over the course of the summer.
Pepi Gerald, co-owner of 2nd Wind Sports in Hood River, said that the majority of his SUP customers are local residents who just want to get out on the water and have fun.
“The Gorge is an epicenter for elite athletes, but the majority of people who are paddle boarding are doing it for fun. They just want something to get out on the water,” he said.
Gerald described the rigid board with a foam deck as “an oversized Nerf Ball.” He said it’s great for people paddling with kids and dogs and holds up well to accidental drops in the parking lot. “You can’t hurt yourself it with it,” he said.
Gerald said Big Winds does a great job supplying the high-end boards to visiting racers and hard-core amateurs while 2nd Wind tries to cater more to locals. He said personally, he finds the mellower kind of paddling to be a nice break from the high intensity activities like kiteboarding and mountain biking and a great way to socialize with friends and family.
“We like to take the sailboat out on the river and paddle away from everyone else,” he said. “Lawrence Lake, Lost Lake and Trillium Lake are great places to go too.”
A high-end race board can cost more than $3,000 whereas an affordable soft-top or inflatable can be had for as little as $500 at 2nd Wind. Next Adventure staffers also report that inflatables have been selling particularly well this summer in Portland.
Whatever your level, all parties agree that the fun factor carries the day. Gates, who coaches kids SUP racing teams in addition to organizing the annual downwind race, said fun is what inspired him to found the Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge.
The paddle challenge is in its sixth year, drawing competitors from around the world for the downwind and course races. It is expected to draw 300 participants this year and is currently regarded as one of the top three most competitive events in the world for SUP racing. For more info about the race, or to register, click here.
If you are looking to watch the elite men and women racing in the downwind course, you’ll have a couple of chances on August 20th. As part of the Downwind Double Down that started last year, those elite paddlers will finish the 8-mile race, fuel up, get shuttled back up to Viento and do it all over again. Proving that fun is relative, it seems.
SUP lessons, rentals and sales
In Hood River:
In the Lower Columbia:
Eileen Garvin lives and writes in Hood River, Oregon. When she’s not hunched over her keyboard or digging in the garden, you can find her mountain biking, kiteboarding, hiking, skiing or camping somewhere.
Thanks to Jeff Albright of Shred Hood sponsor Advantage Orthopedic and Sports Medicine for the lead photo above.
Last modified: June 30, 2016