Windsurfing the Columbia River Gorge

Pete SherwoodContributor IFebruary 2, 2009

Dave Arts leaned over his 12-foot, fiberglass coated board as he aggressively secured and re-tightened the pulley system attached to the bright neon green sail. 

“Every time I get ready like this,” the un-shaven man in his mid-forties started abruptly, “I get the same excited feeling, and by the time I’m out there, I don’t ever want to come back” 

A former Corvallis resident and 12-year windsurfing veteran, Arts picked up his sail, braced the mast, and slid the board gently across the coarse sand down to the water’s edge.  He placed a bare foot on the board, secured the sail’s harness around his waist and gracefully pushed off the shore with his other foot. 

Arts jerked his shoulders, set the bright green sail into the wind and began to pick up speed, as the board seemed to hover above water.  Arts scooted swiftly along the surface of the choppy water, barely audible, Arts yelled over his shoulder “Wow!  Only in the Gorge is it like this!” 

The Columbia River Gorge is often over-looked as a destination for weekend getaways, but students and local residents alike can have an adventurous, fun and inexpensive trip by visiting Hood River and the surrounding areas on the Columbia River.

While the Gorge has popular hiking trails and the nearby Deschutes River offers tremendous fly-fishing, the main attraction to the city of Hood River are the world renown windsurfing locations up and down the Columbia River Gorge. 

“Both beginners and professionals fall in love with this area, simply due to the consistent wind,” said Steve Gates, windsurfer instructor and owner of Big Winds, a windsurfing supply shop in Hood River. 

According to Gates and Arts, the three best windsurfing in the world is found in Maui, Western Australia, and on a hundred mile stretch on the Columbia between from Cascade Locks to Arlington. 

The peak time to windsurf the Columbia is quickly approaching, according to Gates.  “The month of May is sometimes iffy, but the summer months here are perfect for this sport.”  Although the winds are strong all year, the water is cold and the weather can be rough in the winter. 

Gates suggests that novice windsurfers take advantage of the questionable weather in April and May to take a few lessons in order to be prepared for the season.  Big Winds, 2nd Wind and Northwest Custom Sails, are shops in downtown Hood River that offer lessons as well as rentals. 

Three one-hour lesson packages at these shops, with rental equipment included, costs about $175. 

Although there are many slower sections on Columbia to learn, Gates prefers teaching in a spot on the east side of the Hood River Bridge called “the hook.”  “The hook offers an easy pool with little current so beginners can get a feel for setting the sail and shifting their weight,” If beginners are interested in pursuing the sport, a complete setup with board, riggings, polyester sail, booms, and a wet/dry-suit will range in cost between $1500 and $3000," Gates said with a smile.

“People complain that one-hour on the water isn’t enough, but when they get out there and see how much strength it requires, they’re ready to come in after an hour.” 

Windsurfing lessons are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to activities in Hood River. After climbing out of the water and having lunch and a beer at Full Sail, a Hood River brewery, visitors can head out to one of the many scenic hiking trails along the river.  Angels Rest is a five- mile trail that has many spectacular views of waterfalls and wildflower fields. 

Eagle Creek Trail is a longer and more dangerous hike.  At nearly nine miles long, this hike features many punch bowls and waterfalls, including one in which where the trail passes behind the shower of falling water.  However, sections of Eagle Creek Trail have sheer cliffs with no guard rails, so hike with caution. 

Both of these trails can be found off I-84—Angels Rest is at Exit 28, follow the hike signs to the trail marker.  Eagle Creek is farther up at Exit 41, the Bonneville Dam exit; signs point hikers to the trail marker. 

Hood River also offers its own brand of hometown nightlife feel, according to resident and windsurfer Katie Elms. “Once the windsurfers start coming into town in late May and into June, Hood River becomes a much livelier place,” Elms said.

“Live music is playing frequently in downtown Hood River every night during the summer.”  The wide variety of restaurants and live entertainment during the summer is complemented by the home town appeal of the local bars and coffee shops. 

Hood River and the Columbia River Gorge offer a rare experience to Oregonians who are sick of the usual weekend trips to the Coast, Mt. Hood, or the local golf course.  The ordinary weekend getaway is blown away in the strong wind gusts of the Gorge. 

Experiencing the Hood River atmosphere and many outdoor activities of the Gorge will leave you saying “Wow!  Only in the Gorge is it like this!”