HOOD RIVER, Oregon--The best surfers in the world go to the North Shore of Oahu each winter. The best climbers in the world rope up in the jagged Himalayas. And the best windsurfers and kite boarders--along with beginners--swarm into Hood River, Oregon every summer.
"Windsurfing made Hood River visible--it turned Hood River into a recreation town," said Bard Vervloet, manager of The Gorge Surf Shop and a windsurfer for 30 years. "Now we also have great kayaking, biking, hiking. We get the fun-seekers."
Hood River, once a sleepy town in the best pear orchard country in the world, hit the adventure travel map in the mid-1980s when people addicted to the new sport of windsurfing discovered the Columbia River Gorge turns into a giant wind tunnel during the summer. It didn't take long for Hood River to become the Mecca of the windsurfing world, and now it also is the spot for the newer sport of kite boarding.
Many Puget Sound windsurfers and kite boarders make the 2 1/2-hour trip south to Hood River almost every weekend of the summer.
Vervloet, who grew up in Seattle, used to be one of those weekend commuters--until he stopped fighting fate and moved to Hood River years ago.
"I started in 1977 in Seattle," Vervloet said with a huge smile. "It ruined my life--I could have been a doctor, but I couldn't stay inside when the wind started blowing."
Not Just for Experts
Hood River also is a great place to learn windsurfing or kite boarding.
With windsurfing--also known as boardsailing--surfers use a surfboard-sized board powered by a single sail. The rig is connected to the board by a free-rotating flexible joint, and the windsurfer steers by tilting and rotating the mast and sail as well as tilting and carving the board.
With kite boarding, sailors harness themselves to a large kite and strap themselves onto a board that resembles a wakeboard. Experienced kite boarders use the kite's lines to steer themselves all over the river--and to launch into the air.
All of this sounds intimidating, but Hood River is the best place around for beginners.
Several businesses--all employing world-class windsurfers--have staked out special spots where the wind isn't too high. Students learn to harness the wind and turn the board.
The local vibe is casual, and veteran windsurfers and kite boarders always are willing to give newbies a few tips, said Jerry Adameke and Amanda Neale, Calgary sailboarders who spend two weeks each summer in Hood River.
"This is the third year we've come down here for two weeks, and it's a great spot," Amanda Neale said.
"Yes," added Jerry Adameke. "People are always willing to give you tips to improve, and it's very friendly."
It's a Weather Thing
Bruce Williams, who lives in Richland, has windsurfed in Hood River since 1982.
"You're pretty much guaranteed high winds, and most windsurfers like high winds," Williams said. "The wind also usually blows up the Columbia River and kicks up a swell, which we like, too."
Experienced windsurfers and kite boarders zip along in the high winds and then catch air off the top of a wave.
"It is awesome," Williams said.
The Columbia River Gorge--a narrow, deep, tree-studded canyon--becomes a wind tunnel on summer days because the hot desert of eastern Oregon causes air to rise. The cool air at the mouth of the Columbia River then rushes up the gorge to fill the vacuum. The narrow gorge focuses the wind's energy, and locals grab their gear and head for the "Nukin'" river. Now wind addicts from around the world blow into Hood River all summer long.
Phil Jerry, of Newcastle, England, learned about Hood River from windsurfing magazines. Then he boarded a plane. "It is just beautiful here," he said. "It's great sailboarding."
Learning to Board
Buying a new sailboard and sail will cost beginners about $1,200, but used gear is about half that amount, Vervloet said. Add in the needed wetsuit and car board rack and lessons, and you're riding the wind.
"People come here to learn," Vervloet said. "And they keep coming from mid-May through the end of September.
"People who are addicted to high winds come here--you can wake up in Olympia, see the wind report and be here by noon."
Check it out: The Gorge Surf Shop, at 13 Oak St. in Hood River, is a good place to get rigged up and hooked up with lessons. Call 541-386-1699 or go to www.gorgesurfshop.com.
There are many windsurfing and kite boarding schools in Hood River. One of the best is Brian's Windsurfing and Kite Boarding. Call 541-386-1423 or go to www.brianwindsurfing.com.
For information on Hood River hotels and motels, check out www.hoodriver.org.
Windsurfing Safety Tips
- If you haven't windsurfed before, take lessons from a qualified instructor.
- Windsurfing requires good physical strength. It also goes without saying that a windsurfer should know how to swim.
- Always wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket when windsurfing. A wet suit also is a good idea, to prevent hypothermia in cold water.
- Make sure the water and weather conditions are safe before setting sail. Learn how to read and detect changes in weather conditions. Stop windsurfing when a storm approaches--espe cially a thunderstorm. Water conducts electricity, and a storm can pose a serious threat to not only windsurfers, but swimmers and boaters as well.
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Copyright (c) 2007, The Olympian, Olympia, Wash.
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