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Hood River, Oregon: A community in transition

Alta States

My first encounter with Hood River and the Columbia Gorge happened way back in 1979. And it was a totally haphazard act. I was coaching at a ski camp at Mount Hood that summer, and while exploring the local country one afternoon, I came across this sleepy little riverside burg that struck me as more than just a little breezy. Indeed — the stretch of Columbia River running right by the town was frothing with wind-churned foam. I couldn’t believe my eyes….

Being a keen windsurfer in those days, I worked my way down to the water in an attempt to find a launch spot for my 12-foot long beast of a board (the short board revolution had yet to hit). No luck anywhere. I was getting frantic. Throwing caution to the wind (nearly literally), I rigged up my “storm” sail at the local marina, taped up my dagger board well and launched myself into the watery maelstrom. I don’t know how I survived the next two hours. I was young. I was strong. I was very stupid. Never before had I experienced a wind so ferocious. Never before had I been so badly pummelled.

I finally dragged myself out of the river like a half-drowned rat just as the sun was beginning to set. I was so elated, I felt like kissing the beach. But I should have known. When I got back to camp, nobody believed my story…

Sailing a 12-foot windsurfer on the Columbia River in mid-summer? Yeah right…

Fast-forward four years. It’s now the summer of 1983. The sport has exploded. Inspired by the high-flying antics of a tribe of daring Hawaiians, board shapers are designing new, high-performance windsurfers ideal for the kind of winds found in places like Oahu, Maui — or Hood River. Think of the snowboard revolution a few years later. For water-sports enthusiasts, 1983 is it.

And now, it seems, le tout-Whistler has heard about this magical wind place called “The Gorge”. In fact, between the Vancouver and Victoria crews and the Whistler posse, the Columbia River is definitely awash in Canadian colours. And the Canuckleheads are certainly setting the performance bar on the water. From Ross Harrington to Bruce Peterson, from Pat Correll to Betty Birrell (to name just a handful), the high-wind sailors from north-of-the-border are pushing sailsurfing boundaries at every turn. And they’re doing it with an easy-going boldness — on or off the water — that their American counterparts are hard-pressed to emulate.

Suddenly the Gorge is the place to be in July and August. And the lifestyle there is definitely appealing. Camping at Home Valley. Surfing your buns off at various sites from Swell City to Maryhill. And of course, driving into the still-sleepy little town of Hood River to gorge on bad pizza and quaff cheap beer at Pietro’s. There’s a buzz going around that summer that you just can’t ignore. It’s much like the feeling I had during my first season at Whistler. We all feel so darn smart for being here first…

The local folk — fruit farmers, rail yard mechanics, factory workers, quiet retired couples — really don’t know how to deal with this influx of twenty- and thirtysomething funhogs who actually like all this wind. After all, there’s never been any reason to like wind before — except that it kept the summers a wee bit cooler.

“Heck”, I remember one old timer telling me, “this dang summer wind has been the bane of our existence since my grandparents moved here at the turn-of-the-century. And now you guys arrive and tell us we have the best windsurfing destination spot in the country. The world sure is a funny place…”

Being the 1980s, Hood River soon becomes a public stage for all sorts of high jinks perpetrated by these over-testosteroned boardheads. Slowly but surely the town is colonized by sporty newcomers — many from winter resort destinations — who become enamoured both by the solidly-built farm homes and the cheap prices they can be had for. “Before the windsurfing boom,” remembers local Billy Farwhig, “Hood River could have easily been used as the model for the movie American Graffiti . I mean, to the point where on Friday nights people actually cruised the main drag just like in the film. When I was growing up, this was a place that most young kids dreamt of leaving.”

Not anymore. While Canadian sailors would continue to dominate the Hood River scene well into the early 1990s, a combination of high American dollar and high windsurfing costs would drastically alter the demographic mix in Hood River. But it would barely slow down the town’s transformation. For other factors were beginning to have a much bigger impact.

With the steady gentrification of the town (after all even twentysomething windsurfers eventually grow up and spend their inheritances), and the growing American diaspora from big urban centres, Hood River would become a much more popular option for all sorts of upper middle-class outdoor enthusiasts. And who could blame them? Portland is barely an hour down the road. The family ski destination, Mt Hood Meadows, is little more than 45 minutes away. And the surrounding region offers an outdoor playground with an amazing range of activities — from mountain biking to rock climbing, from river kayaking and fly-fishing to road cycling. More importantly, the town itself still exudes something of that American Graffiti charm that so many Boomers and X’ers are inexorably drawn to.

The result? Today, Hood River boasts one of the most appealing lifestyles in the Pacific Northwest. Lovingly restored old Victorian and Queen Anne homes grace tree-lined streets above the river. Lawns are carefully trimmed and gardens are meticulously cared for. Every house seems to feature either a four-wheel drive Subaru or a late-model SUV — and most have some fancy new car-top carrier rigged to carry just about any sports toy, real or imagined.

You can tell who the newcomers are too. They’re the ones who boast year-round tans and fit bodies. They’re the ones you see at the fine dining establishments that keep springing up around town — places like Celillo’s or Abruzzo’s or the Brasserie.

What’s most striking to a Whistler visitor, however, is the cornucopia of owner-operated stores in the downtown core. There are no Starbucks, no Gaps and no Eddie Bauers — in fact there are no nationally-branded franchises of any kind. And it certainly makes for a much more pleasant — and interesting — shopping experience for the casual visitor.

“We’re still known around the country as a windsurfing destination,” says ex-pat Canadian Bruce Peterson, “but Hood River is much, much bigger than that today. You see, windsurfing used to be pretty much the only game in town. But now it’s just one reason among many for living here.”

Take Peterson’s case. The president and principal owner of Sailworks, a legendary windsurf sailmaking firm, Bruce was encouraged to move his company to a more centrally located spot some years ago. After considering all aspects of the decision, the father of two teenaged girls decided to stay in Hood River. “I could have gone anywhere,” he says. “But when I started looking at all of the reasons for staying put, it was really no contest. This is an incredible family-friendly place. It’s safe, convenient and members of the community are highly supportive of each other. I mean, half the cars parked downtown still have their keys in the ignition…”

That’s not to say there are no issues in Hood River. Take the simmering rivalry between the old-school windsurfers and kiteboarding newcomers. Reminiscent of the skier/snowboarder turf wars of 10 years ago (and with just about the same demographic gap), the simmering surfer/kiter conflict — how to segregate users on the water to avoid collisions and other nasty incidents — has been exacerbated by last winter’s global storming. “We had these huge storms in November,” explains Peterson. “Incredible flooding on the Hood River — like I’ve never seen before. And all that debris washed down the river and ended up forming a sizeable bench where it empties into the Columbia.”

Unfortunately, this newly created bench of dry land just about eliminated the kiteboarders’ access to the river on the Oregon side. Now they want access to the windsurfers’ grass-covered, bathroom-equipped Events Site next door. And that, says Peterson, is never going to happen. “There’s a conflict, that’s for sure,” he says. He pauses. Smiles a bit thinly. “It’s strictly a safety matter, you know,” he adds. “It’s not like we’re anti-kiteboarding here. But there are significant liability issues involved…”

Perhaps the most telling comment I heard during my recent visit there concerned the changing sporting tastes of many long-time Hood River residents “It’s pretty funny,” Sailworks’ loft manager, Jim Mudry told me. “You guys from Whistler can’t wait until spring arrives so you can come down here and sail your butts off on our river. Meanwhile, we can’t wait for spring to arrive so we can drive up to Whistler and ride our buns off in your terrain park. And by the way — I heard you guys got a lot of snow up there this winter. Will the Park be ready to go off by Memorial Day?”

I assured him it would be…