2016 Gorge Downwind Champs, a fundraiser for Rivers for Change.

The Columbia River Gorge. Event sponsor Epic Kayaks rep Kenny Howell said it best: “It’s like God’s gift.” I agreed best: “Exactly.”

The Columbia River drains more than a quarter million square miles of earth. It’s the third largest river in the United States. It flows a length of more than 1200 miles, and touches ground in seven states and a Canadian province. The river entertains enthusiasts from every inch of the globe.

Admittedly, none of that was the first on our minds for why we were going to converge upon Hood River for the second annual 2016 Gorge Downwind Championships. On our mind was the clockwork wind for which Hood River is known. When we did all show up, it was obvious who was in charge. Scads of surf skis filled the lawn at the Hood River Marina park from Monday, July 19 throughout the week. The athletes arriving were people who were doing amazing things like Maggie Hogan heading next to the 31st olympiad in Rio de Janeiro this summer to compete for the US in sprint kayak, or Jimmy Austin representing massive status in outrigger canoe, or others getting off the plane from South Africa and Australia to compete here in Oregon. Dawid Mocke himself. And more. Epic stuff!

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The relatively few stand up paddlers arrived as well, from all over the place. Race day, when the wind said “please hold”, the discrepancy in speed between the surf skis and outrigger paddlers, and the standup paddleboarders- and one prone paddler- became very clear. Staggered starts didn’t reduce the feeling of being overtaken as I powered along, paddling upriver and striving for a glide on my 14’ SIC Bullet. I was one of a total of 30 SUP finishers including both the short and long course, the latter of which was about 14 miles from Home Valley, Washington back to Hood River, Oregon. I am not complaining. There was wind for the first third of the race, and there was wind all week, but you need to know the sinking feeling of the wind dying on you when you are pumped up and racing, and you have been trained to expect unfailing wind in The Gorge.

A big thanks to Carter Johnson for his commitment to bringing prize money to the people. Though the field for SUP was minimally stacked this year, in time, smart paddlers will get “wind” of it and will show up. With close to $40,000 of prize money and swag divided amongst the winners, why would you miss it? More, we had a week of shuttles driven by the world’s coolest raft guides. This isn’t hyperbolic social media status update drivel in my assigning the superlative. I have known hundreds of raft guides and have been one myself. Paul, Alex, and Shayla, of Wild and Scenic River Tours, took the cake in terms of service and personality. They untangled the knots that angsty paddlers tied in their downwind anticipation, and they made sure that the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of boat and board bounty was kept safe throughout the week. I was so lucky to hang evenings with them for the daily download from their gritty, wild perspectives.

Unplugged from much of the real world during this dream week, I found myself having little more to do than to compare the downwind jewel of the Columbia River Gorge to Maui’s Maliko run that I touched on for a couple of weeks in May. With accessibility via a freeway on both sides of the expansive river, by my own car and boards, with equally warm environs and water, and plenty of aloha, I am so down with the Oregon I’ve seen. Not comparing, though, as it is the thief of joy according to Teddy Roosevelt and the Hood River resident sporting a sign in their front yard reminding us of this. Everyone in Oregon has been so hospitable that I find myself in a slightly apologetic mindset for bringing a California license plate into the state. As an absolute non-native of California, I have now been there long enough to have learned to apologize for it. Sadly.
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Approximately eight mile Viento runs, from the Baker Bus shuttles back to the race site, were immediate and easy. They were repeated many times throughout the week: Pick blackberries while you wait for your friends to secure their water bladders around their chests and go pee. A quick jaunt down a trail through the berries and a thin slice of cover from Alder trees and poison oak, to the beach where the wind throws your board back at you, and then you stick it and Go. I’m floored. Stoked.

The Gorge Downwind Champs is a fundraiser for Rivers for Change, whose mission is simple: We connect people to rivers. This year’s sell out event raised $6000 to develop programming for source to sea education. Thank you, Gorge Champs!

Race results here.

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Women’s SUP winners 1st, 2nd, 3rd: Hannah Hill, Alyson Fromm, Teresa Rogerson.

Men’s SUP 1st, 2nd, 3rd: Jarkko Simonen, Jan Boersma, Eric Starnes.

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