Ready, Set, Gorge!
It’s 11a.m., the blazing sun has broken through the overcast skies, and the air is buzzing with nervous excitement as race time draws near. A blinding sea of 400 paddlers dressed in neon short-sleeved jerseys (safety orange for the men, hot pink for the women) are duct-taping race numbers to their watercraft and applying sunscreen. Haphazard rows of Hawai‘i’s most popular solo-powered, ocean-crossing vessels—surfskis (sleek ocean kayaks, the fastest man-powered ocean craft), one-person outrigger canoes, or OC1s, and stand-up paddleboards, aka SUPs—cover every square foot of grass surrounding the park pavilion where everyone is gathered.
Present are some of the biggest names in one-man outrigger paddling—Pat Dolan, Danny Ching, Kai Bartlett, and Jimmy Austin—all previous winners and record holders of the “Molo solo,” the 32-mile race across the Molokai Channel that is considered the sport’s world championship. Among the international contingent is twelve-time surf ski world champion South African Oscar Chalupsky. Maui up-and-comer Bernd Roediger, fresh from a win in the prestigious Maui-to-Molokai race, is the favorite in the stand-up division. At the pre-race meeting, everyone clasps hands, and O‘ahu paddler Kaihe Chong delivers a pule (blessing) to pray for a safe journey up the river.
It’s the scene you’d expect before the start of any major paddling race in Hawai‘i. Except we’re not in Hawai‘i. We’re 2,600 miles away—in Oregon. And we’re not paddling in the ocean. We’re paddling up a 13.5-mile stretch of the Columbia River Gorge (known simply as “The Gorge”). With more than 500 registered participants, this is the world’s largest multi-day, multi-discipline paddling event. The field is a mix of weekend warriors, conditioned athletes, world champions, and Olympic medalists, ranging from 13 to 75 years old, and everyone is here for the same reason: the love of paddling downwind.
Seven million years ago, the Cascade Mountains rose to create a majestic snowcapped range that stretches from British Columbia to California. It has one natural breach, compliments of the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River, which chiseled a spectacular path right through it. This breathtaking, 80-mile-long corridor—the Columbia River Gorge—splits Washington and Oregon and is bound by temperate rain forest on the west and dry grasslands on the east. For the Native Americans who settled here, and later for Lewis and Clark and other pioneers, the Gorge offered rich resources and passage to the Pacific. Boasting 75 waterfalls and 800 species of wildflowers, it is federally protected as the country’s largest National Scenic Area.
In the summertime, the cool maritime air on the Pacific coast hastens toward the hot, desert-like continental climate zone inland. The Gorge is the path of least resistance, a phenomenal wind tunnel that delivers the consistently strong winds that make it a Mecca for windsurfers and kiteboarders.
As it rushes toward the Pacific Ocean, the river’s unrelenting current also plays a critical role. Where the opposing wind and water meet, waves stack up—the stronger the wind, the steeper the bump. Multiply this effect over distance, and you get the ultimate downwind surfing run.
“Most people think, ‘A river? You gotta be kidding me,’” says Maui paddler and owner of Kai Wa‘a Hawaiian Ocean Canoes, Kai Bartlett. “But when the Gorge is good, it’s good.”
Bartlett, a five-time OC1 world champion known for his prowess in surfing open ocean swells, was seduced by the Gorge in 2014, when, during his wife’s business trip, he borrowed a boat from local paddling guru JD Davies.
“I did one run, and I couldn’t believe it. I flew home and booked another ticket to come up three weeks later,” he recalls, and he has returned every year since.
Surfing in a canoe or surfski provides the same addictive feeling of inertia as riding a surfboard, but it also affords tremendous freedom, explains Bartlett, who took up one-man paddling when surf lineups started to get crowded.
“It’s another avenue to express your surfing. Nobody’s out there jockeying for a spot. It’s wide open,” he says. “And the challenge of connecting waves? It’s fun. That feeling of riding is what always brings you back.”
Compared to downwinders in Hawai‘i, renowned paddling coach and canoe builder John Puakea—who has been coming to the Gorge for 20 years—describes the typical Gorge run as a “vacation run.” Ocean swells, he points out, move faster and in various directions, so surfing them requires a certain technical proficiency.
“Here the waves are moving more slowly since the current’s against you, and they’re very organized,” he explains. “So it’s easier to catch them and stay on them. It’s almost a no-brainer.”
Still, he cautions, winds can exceed 35 mph in the Gorge, which can create some hairy conditions. “You go into the wave in front of you and you can easily pearl, lose control, and get sideways pretty quick,” he says. “Since ocean swells are wider apart, in a way they’re a little more forgiving. Out here, if you flip over, there’s so much wind, it’s kind of a hassle. You definitely need a leash and a life preserver.”
Puakea travels around the globe teaching paddling, but he finds himself in the Gorge at least three times a year—not just for the recreation, but also to partake in the zestful lifestyle.
“When you come up, you get this really good feeling. You go hiking, and everyone’s enjoying, and the nature—it’s just so beautiful,” he gushes. “I lived on the North Shore [of O‘ahu] for a long time, and you get the same vibe, because everyone out here is doing something extreme. You meet somebody and he’s a phenomenal mountain biker. And this guy does mountain climbing. And this guy’s a rescue guy. This guy’s a professional downhill skier. Everyone’s having a good time. I like it.”
Surrounded by white oak and Ponderosa pines, Kamanu Composites’ Justin Watts and Alika Guillaume are also enjoying the change of scenery. They’re camping at Viento State Park, the drop-in point for a breezy, eight-mile glide to Hood River, where the Gorge race finishes. (That “viento” is Spanish for wind is a neat coincidence—the park is named for the railroad tycoons who laid the area’s first tracks: Villard, Endicott, and Tollman.)
“After you do every race in Hawai‘i a few years in a row, it starts to get a little monotonous. So to discover a new race like this gives you a bit of a jolt in your stoke for the sport,” Justin offers.
They marvel at the scenery and laugh about not being salty after their session, and they’re especially thrilled to see fellow Hawai‘i paddlers.
“It’s awesome,” Alika enthuses. “All you want to do is have a beer with them and chill in a new place.”
The night Justin and Alika arrived, canoe strapped to the top of the rental car with pink pool noodles as makeshift racks, they stopped at the Hood River Safeway to get PB&J and other provisions. As they were pushing their cart out, a family of four paddlers from California stopped them. “Hey, we know you guys!” the dad exclaimed, recognizing the duo from Kamanu’s online paddling videos.
“That set the tone for the rest of the trip,” Justin says. “Even though we didn’t know many people, we all had quite a lot in common through the sport of paddling.”
“We’ve had solid wind here for a month. It’s been the longest stretch I can remember in a long time,” says JD Davies, who has been making the rounds by the billowing sponsor tents that have been staked to the ground and reinforced with five-gallon buckets of water. It’s after 6pm, and daylight lingers over the event site at the Hood River Waterfront Park.
Paddlers are still coming in from their runs—for many, their second or even third of the day. Besides the race and $2 Full Sail microbrews at sunset, the $170 entry fee for the Maui Jim Gorge Downwind Champs includes six days of shuttles that drop off paddlers and their watercraft at various locations downriver—a mobile ski lift of sorts—so that they can enjoy as many downwind runs as their bodies can handle.
His hair pulled back in a ponytail under his visor, Davies’s relaxed countenance boasts the signature smile lines of someone who’s enjoyed decades of gratifying water time—clocked through countless windsurfing and paddling sessions. When he moved to the Gorge in the mid-‘90s from Kailua, where he paddled for Lanikai Canoe Club, he brought his love for the outrigger canoe—and early model OC1s—with him. With the rights to produce the Viper and the two-man Viper Duo, he introduced the sport of one-man paddling to the Pacific Northwest.
Each summer Davies organizes the massively popular Gorge Outrigger Race for six-man canoes, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, hosting 91 crews (546 paddlers) for a weekend of clinics and camping. In tandem with this six-man race, he also established an annual OC1/surfski race called the Wildside Relay.
“It started off as a gathering of friends. At the first meeting I said, ‘Okay, no insurance, no safety boats, we’re all going to watch out for each other and let’s go try this,” Davies reminisces. “I think we had 10 or 12 teams. A lot of the boats were boats that I had built.”
Over the years, the Wildside became a favorite for downwind junkies and paved the way for the Gorge Downwind Champs, which Davies helped launch in 2015. “We always laugh about it from that side of the river,” chuckles Davies, who lives in nearby Carson on the Washington side. “When you’re on that side, you look over and say, ‘That’s Oregon. That’s the Oregon side. This is the Wild Side.’”
As we talk, a colorful array of parabolic kites hovers against the bluebird sky. The kiteboarders they’re tethered to criss-cross the river alongside a flock of windsurfers. Many of these boards rise out of the water, propelled by a space-age hydrofoil, the latest sailing trend.
Davies reflects on the days he’d be the lone paddler charging downwind through a playground dominated by windsurfers. “Years ago, I’d come flying through [a section called] the Hatchery on a big day, and there’d be all these sailors. People would be like, ‘That’s cool,’ but they didn’t really want to get into it. Now with events like this, the local people are looking at paddlers and going, ‘Hey, wait. That looks fun!’”
All day long, race director Carter Johnson bounces around the event site in a long-sleeved jersey with “STAFF” emblazoned across the chest. With a phone to his ear, he’s hooking up speakers, carrying ice, greeting old friends, and putting out fires left and right—a bus’s transmission failure, no change in the cash box, and, heaven forbid, empty kegs. Every few minutes, someone interrupts him with, “I know you’re busy, but…”
The logistics to accommodate 550 paddlers, along with their boats and boards are, in his words, “a nightmare.” For one day. “Over six days, it’s just stupid.” Yet in spite of the stress, his over-the-top enthusiasm wins, and he embraces the chaos.
Not a race organizer by profession, Johnson lives on a boat in Sausalito, California. By day he runs a global team of software developers for a bank. As a seasoned competitive surfskier, he quickly recognized the Gorge’s potential as the ultimate paddling event destination. Recently he bought a home in White Salmon, a quiet community perched above the river.
In its third year, the Gorge Downwind Champs has more than tripled in size since its inception. There are 283 surfskis—with an impressive showing from South Africa, home to surfski’s most dominant athletes, and Australia, where the sport has its roots in lifesaving. There are 198 outriggers—far more than in most Hawai‘i races—and 69 standups registered. With a purse of $40,000, the cash payouts are among paddling’s largest. This year the event is also a fundraiser for Rivers For Change, a nonprofit that promotes conservation through river-borne adventures from source to sea.
“I did not want to keep it small,” Johnson professes. “I came here ten years ago, and I fell in love with this area. I’m the kind of person who loves the stoke—the stoke is my life! To share the stoke feeds the stoke. I wanted the world to know what we had here.”
“Usually you go to a race, you do it, and it’s over with. I wanted something with more impact,” Johnson continues. “For 80 percent of the people, this is their big trip for the year. They focus all their training for this event. They bring their families. Six people that I know of bought vans to road trip here.”
Throughout the day, tired and happy paddlers in hats and sunglasses trickle out of the river, boat hoisted on one shoulder. They congregate near the dedicated racks and trailers that are storing a million dollars’ worth of watercraft. Kids tear around the playground near the cordoned-off swimming beach, and adults suck up cold IPAs at the on-site microbrewery.
The Gorge event is part-convention and part-all star game. Participants mingle with vendors, test the latest equipment, get advice from the pros, and meet fellow enthusiasts—and everyone who enters is in the starting line-up.
“If people come here and they don’t have the time of their life, I take it personally,” Johnson says, owning the high expectations. “I want them to come back. I want them to fall in love with the Gorge as I have. I want the Hawaiians, I want the Americans, I want the internationals—I want all of them—to realize that the reason they love their culture at home is also here.”
The vast majority of OC1s on the water today are models by Kai Wa‘a, Kamanu, and Puakea Designs. Races like this present a valuable opportunity for these companies to showcase their lightest, strongest, and fastest prototypes. With the best of the best paddling them, the competition is stacked.
But these guys are deeply familiar with their competition. In fact, most of them have raced together—in the same six-man crew, as members of the US junior national kayak team (for which John Puakea was also a coach), and as relay partners. And since different paddling disciplines share similar stroke mechanics, many of them are also accomplished SUP and surfski paddlers.
“All of the top racers have tremendous respect for each other,” offers Puakea team rider Danny Ching. “I believe this comes from the dedication to training each of us has had to go through.”
Hailing from Redondo Beach, where his father and former Hawai‘i resident Al Ching helped establish the formidable Lanakila Canoe Club, Ching has parlayed his success as a champion standup paddler into a business. His company, 404, gives a nod to Hawai‘i’s 808 area code (“half”-808, or “hapa-Hawaiian,” Danny explains) and is a keen example of how paddling culture is spreading far beyond Polynesia.
In fact, of the 267 SUP/OC1 competitors here, only 26 are from Hawai‘i. How did the other 90 percent come to engage in these Hawaiian sports from so far away—Hong Kong, Brazil, Poland?! With this question in mind, I head over to the Puakea team house.
With few accommodations left in Hood River, marketing operations manager and “team mom” Maddie Spoto found a rustic house in the woods for the Puakea crew 15 miles downstream near Stevenson. To get to the front door, you have to cut across railroad tracks and walk over a footbridge, but the remote location on the river is ideal for relaxing and doing practice runs.
When I arrive, the gang is just finishing breakfast. Maddie is texting away, coordinating airport pickups, leashes, and life jackets. Two-time defending Gorge champion Jimmy Austin lounges in the recliner, while first-timers Kaihe Chong and Jennifer Fratzke kick back on the couch. Their mentor and company founder John Puakea sits by the fireplace.
“Standup is the gateway drug. It gets people into the water,” Puakea offers. Later when SUP paddlers see OC1s, he says, it piques their curiosity.
I remember Maui Jim’s Matt Dubrule mentioning why SUP has been the planet’s fastest growing sport in the last five years: “A person just needs a board and a paddle and they are living Hawaiian ocean culture in any body of water across the world.”
“A lot of SUP people would say OC1 is going to the ‘other side,’ but once they try, they’re hooked,” adds Fratzke, a pro standup paddler herself. “It's so much easier on the body.”
Further boosting exposure for one-mans is wider distribution, Puakea continues. While Kamanu makes all their canoes in Hawai‘i, Puakea Designs and Kai Wa‘a have started manufacturing their boats in China through a company called Outrigger Zone. “Ozone’s” mass production capabilities and worldwide distribution channels make it possible and more cost-effective for someone in, say, Wilmington, North Carolina (which happens to be home to the country’s largest SUP race) to buy a Hawaiian canoe from a local dealer. Last year Puakea’s production increased four-fold.
“It’s funny, I do clinics all over the world and people in other places sometimes embrace the culture of canoe paddling more than we do,” says Puakea, telling us about a group of Hawaiian families that brought home-cooked kalbi and rice to his paddling clinic in Seattle. “There are mainland clubs that hold blessings for the canoe before they put it in the water. They’ll call and talk to me about the names of the canoes. In Hawai‘i, we almost take it for granted.”
“The whole sport of outrigger is growing right now. It’s nice to see after being in it for so long,” continues Puakea, whose father Bobby and grandfather Robert are master koa canoe builders. “I mean, paddling’s a great sport—you can do it ‘til you’re 80 years old!”
When I wake up at 7am on race day, the leaves outside are already fluttering, and I start fidgeting with anticipation. After watching three days of epic runs, I’ve been amping to do a downwinder, and thank my lucky stars, Maddie has secured a boat for me.
Hydrate. Breakfast. Caffeinate in Hood River, the laidback, dog-friendly community that embraces perfectly brewed, fair-trade organic coffee, craft IPAs, and, most of all, the great outdoors. Buy snacks at the convenience store, because the race is still hours away, and then head to the start at Home Valley.
Around 10:30am after checking in, I scope out the narrow beach where everyone will launch. The marine layer keeps the air temperature at a comfortable 72 degrees. A surfskier crosses his fingers that it will soon burn off and the wind will roar in behind it. I’m giddy as the Puakea trailer pulls up carrying the Ehukai pro model (weighing in at a scant 16 lbs) they’re lending me. I finish attaching the ‘iako (spars) to the ama (outrigger) just as Carter takes to the megaphone.
First, he reminds everyone that a life jacket is mandatory. “The wind’s going one way. The river’s going the other. Your separation is twice as fast.” He pats his head with one hand to demonstrate the universal signal for “I’m okay.” If a paddler is in distress, he requests we stop and help.
He warns us about hazards: There are white buoys that mark the location of gillnets and a big log that has been dubbed “Thor’s Hammer” for the damage it could inflict in an untimely meeting with your boat. After fielding questions, he sets the race start at 2pm.
Over the next hour, in an astonishingly orderly fashion, 400-something paddlers push out against the wind to an imaginary start line that extends from the shore to an escort boat. It will be a rolling start in four heats, one every five minutes.
Suddenly I realize this is the first time all week I’ve been free of phone and pen. Taking a deep breath, I inhale the stunning beauty of the Gorge and splash myself with the cool, invigorating freshwater. This is what it’s all about.
Most of the boats cluster in the lee of a little island near the Washington shore. Kai Waa’s Pat Dolan strokes through the pack with earbuds in, game face on. Danny Ching does a few laps upwind in his signature green boat. An endless stream of surfskis makes its way to the holding area.
A siren sounds, signaling the start of the standup race. My heat—all the females and mixed crews on two-mans—is next (surprisingly, more than half of the OC field and one-quarter of the surfski field is female), followed by the male surfskis and then the male outriggers. The start boat paces the pack until the siren goes off and we’re unleashed like horses out of the gate.
A few miles into the race, the waves are so lined up, it’s ridiculous. Kaihe Chong calls this a “stairwell”—because you descend straight from one wave to another, to another, to another, without having to hustle left or right for the next drop. I’m so stoked that it hardly fazes me when Ching blazes past, literally running over the bumps and jumping his way up the river. He finishes fifth overall. Kai Bartlett wins, followed by Chong two boat lengths behind. In the SUP and OC1 divisions, Hawai‘i paddlers dominate the leaderboard. Two pairs of brothers from South Africa—Sean and Kenny Rice, and David and Jasper Mocke—are four of the top five surfski finishers.
On the right in the flats, I see the girl in the blue boat I’ve been battling gaining ground. There’s less current closer to shore—but there’s also less surf. I frantically debate whether to change my line. Nah. I’m staying right here in the middle where the waves are stacking up. The surfing is irresistible, and at the end of the day if it doesn’t put me ahead, at least I had fun all the way.
The next trough begins to form in front of me, and I sprint for it, dropping in for another free ride. This goes on for mile after blissful mile. Before I know it, the yellow buoy set outside Wells Island near the finish appears, and for an insane moment, I wish the race was longer. The pack of boats veers right toward the beach, and the river keeps on running.
A version of this story appeared in Hana Hou!, Vol. 20, No. 6.