Wind and Water
or how I took a left turn at Albuquerque on the way to the Gorge
"Wind and water," Marek said more than once. "The Gorge is all wind and water." When he'd found out that I was planning to spend a week in the Portland/Gorge area in early June, he was kind enough to reach out to me more than a few times with invitations, advice and encouragement. Marek, being smarter than me, doesn't spend all summer whining about the wind but actually spends time in a place where 3 meter sails and 70 liter boards are not only used but used frequently. As Marek predicted, I would find plenty of wind and water on my trip.
Back last fall, a good friend from college had come to Atlanta and met me for breakfast. We began talking and before I realized it, I'd been talked into climbing a really big hill. "It'll be fun," he said. "And, at our age we won't have that many more opportunities to do something like this." This hill is near another hill he'd climbed the previous summer with another close friend of mine. Together with some other friends, they decided it was so much fun, they'd do it again and wanted me to come along.
Where was this hill? Near Portland. So my little brain figured if I can get to Portland, I'll be able to get to the Gorge for some (to borrow Marek's phrase) wind and water.
I'd wanted to sail there for years and it looked like this summer I'd get my chance. Somewhere along the line, Marek heard about my plans to go out and since he spends a good bit of his time out there, as I mentioned earlier, was generous with his assistance. Further, Trey and Michel would be going out about the same time so a bunch of us Atlanta guys could get together.
As the time approached for the trip, I actually read more about the hill I was supposed to climb. As hills out there go, it was pretty tall but people didn't have quite the habit of falling off that they did on some of the others. That was comforting. Nonetheless, the hill was tall enough that it required a bit of preparation if I didn't want the experience to be totally miserable. So I spent the spring doing useful stuff like taking a sailboat trip and almost two glorious weeks in Nags Head. Yes, denial and procrastination are great methods of training.
During one of my extensive training sessions, i.e. trying to get my Formula board to plane on an overly optimistic day (a very useful Alpine skill), a motorboat came up alongside and the driver started shouting at me. "What tha' hel...?"
Of all people, it was Trey. "Hey, I hear you are going to the Gorge." Yep. "You should get together with us and sail." Sounds good. "We'll have a real good time." We continued to exchange pleasantries, vague future plans and then he left me to my optimistic pumping with my 9.5.
However, my trip approached - I'd had eight months to prepare - I actually started to research and read about my little hill. I made the mistake of looking at it on Google Maps. Why are all the contour lines bunched together and why are there so many of them? Panic set in.
To get to the Gorge*, you go through Portland. Portland is rather a singular city which even has its own show: Portlandia. Portland is where hipster meets granola. It's the Mecca of craft beer, bicycles, artisanal doughnuts and ice cream; and VW campers - all with vistas on a clear day of snow-capped volcanoes.
In fact, all you need to know about Portland are in the following two pictures:
It's also the kind of place that makes you question your life choices especially if you are imagine being back home, stuck in traffic on a hot, windless day with only office buildings for scenery.
We set out from Portland for the town of Hood River. Long ago, Hood River was notable for logs, fruit grown on the plain above the Gorge and a local ski hill, Mt. Hood. After I arrived, Marek got in touch with me. "Join us. Yesterday we were on 4.0s." And, he sent me a picture to prove it. From the picture, it was clear it was taken from the Washington side since the wind blows from the west 99.99% of the time.
The next day, I set out for the Washington side myself with my friends. We paid the toll to cross the river and enter Washington. We then turned left and drove a couple of hours with seeing maybe a three cars. Now, totally lost, we got out and climbed a hill. The hill was scattered with boulders and the further we went, the boulders were replaced by sand.
The good news: on top of the hill was wind and water just as Marek said. Unfortunately, we didn't see anyone windsurfing. The place, quite frankly, looked like a mess. We talked to some other people and found out there had been a big fireworks explosion a few years back. That explained a lot. The bad news was the water was white but it was fun if you sat on your butt and slid down on it.
See an animation of the bang
All in all, I'd say it was a disappointing day. I didn't see any windsurfers like I was promised.
The hill took a bit out of me and despite the encouragement of my travelling companions, I was too knackered to windsurf. Further, it seemed that most of the Atlanta crew had headed for home. So, in the morning, I walked around Hood River and went into the windsurfing shops. Anyone who has been to the Outer Banks knows the drill. On your off day, you wonder in and see what new gear is out. This is important because this will most likely be the used gear that you'll be buying ten years hence.
Frankly, this was another disappointment. Almost every board was 100 liters or less. Almost every sail was 5.0 or smaller. I guess only little people windsurf here because, back home, these are ridiculously small sizes. I did see some good deals on 85 liter boards but since my 85 liter board back home hasn't gotten wet in five years, it didn't seem worthwhile to grab another one.
One thing that was not a disappointment were the cinammon rolls at Bettie's, a breakfast/lunch place. For $5, they serve a cinammon roll the size of a cake. And, it's very good. Forget Cinnabon - this one is the king of cinammon rolls. We split one four ways. Unexpectedly, almost everyone who ordered one was pretty fit and likely to burn the calories before they stuck.
That afternoon, I took my friends down to the Event Site so we could watch the wind sports. The place was full of kites and windsurfers - about 50-50. Not only was it the week of July 4th but we had a bunch of immigrants because of Canada Week. I say, if a wall needs to be built, it should be on the Northern Border. Parking was at a premium, not like the good old days. We saw a lot of conventional kites and windsurfers plus a few foils of each variety.
Most impressive was a local kid who was foiling on a 5m while the conventional kiters were on 11 and 12s. He spent a lot of time close to shore and when a giggling pack of high school girls walked by, waved at him and called his name, it confirmed our suspicions why he refused to sail out further.
The next day, inexplicably, we went looking for more wind and water on the Washington side. We paid the toll and drove and drove. There were more cars this time - maybe a handful. Again, it seemed we got lost. So we got out for a look around. I've heard that the Gorge swells are pretty big but the swell I had to climb up was absolutely ridiculous. I'd say it was at least 15 ft Hawaiian**. Maybe it was more. Whatever, I can't say I was really comfortable on it.
At least the wind picked up, though. I guess that was good until clouds moved in and started dumping icy stuff on us. In July. And, I'm from Atlanta. So, we crawled into these really big 3 man sail bags to wait it out.
Next morning, we had lots of wind and lots of water. It's true what they say about the Gorge and 40 mph winds. We trudged onwards trying to sort things out. After about 5 hours, the trail seemed to run out. No windsurfers again. Plenty of wind and water but no windsurfing. Again, I was very disappointed. This trip wasn't turning out anything like Marek's who had been bombing me with pics of windsurfing all week. I really like the guy but it's hard to look at someone windsurfing in a shorty while you are shivering. Did I mention it is July? I guess I did already.
Well, we kind of gave up on trying to find any windsurfing and trudged back the six miles to the car. The water was too icy to slide on our butts this time. Finally, when we made it to the car, we saw the craziest thing: people who were going to hike four to six miles while carrying equipment just to snowboard or ski. I mean, we get bent out of shape if we have to park five spaces away from the water at Van Pugh and carry our gear. These guys were going to walk four or more miles. And they don't get to jibe at the end of a run and do it in the opposite direction like we do. They hike another few miles. Weird.
Well, that was pretty much my Gorge vacation. I found wind. I found water. I'm just a bit disappointed in it all, though. Not what I had envisioned. The views were pretty good, though. Yelp review: water not as advertised. Unexpectedly hard. 1 star.
* For those not familiar with the Gorge, it's on the Columbia River between 70 and 90 miles east of Portland and one of the great places in the world to windsurf. Cooler air in Portland (where it's often cloudy and even sweater weather in the summer) gets sucked by hot rising air in the arid eastern parts of Oregon along the river. The Gorge part of the equation is that during the Ice Ages, catastrophic floods caused by the break up of ice dams scoured out a deep cut in the mountains east of Portland so that the easiest path for all the wind is through a narrow gap. Imagine if the thermal winds of Panama City, Cocoa or Avon were being sucked through a gap a mile wide.
But, as they say on TV: Wait, that's not all! The river has a brisk westward current of 2 mph or more in spots. This current has two wonderful effects. First, it runs upwind so that simple back and forth windsurfing that most of us do is actually sailing off the wind. No pinching to stay upwind and getting on a plane is that much easier. Second, with the long straight stretches of river, it kicks up a swell which in places can be head high or more.
** Hawaiians measure the wave not from the front but from the back. So when a Hawaiian says the surf was 5-8 ft high, that's 10-16 for us mainlanders.
Big thanks to Marek Skupien for the pics and enthusiasm. Next time, buddy.