A Guide to the Naish Gorge Paddle Challenge
The Naish Gorge Paddle Challenge (GPC) by far is one of my favorite races – not just because it’s downwind-centric but because of the location – Hood River, Oregon – and the people who live there. I am so glad, given my current situation – that I was able to get out there earlier this summer for some training, because come Saturday, race day, I will really be missing being out there. Oh okay, I admit it, I already am.
But, although I can’t go, I can at least write about it! So here’s a primer on where to eat, what to do and a little “beta” on the Columbia River.
The Town of Hood River
I tell folks here in North Carolina that Hood River has the watersports vibe of Wrightsville Beach combined with the foodie/craft beer-y feel of our mountain city Asheville, with the small town atmosphere of another of our mountain jewels, Brevard. If you don’t know those places, then take my word for it, Hood River is just plain cool. With the iconic Mount Hood to one side and Mount Adams to the other, and the Columbia River in the middle, it is breathtakingly beautiful. The same wind that draws downwind addicts attracts the kiteboarders and it was a windsurfing mecca way back when windsurfing was as popular as paddleboarding is now. In fact, it still is. Only one place you’ll see more rigs and that’s Maui. If you have ever wanted to learn how to windsurf, this is the place, in the calm, protect cove called The Hook. Get in touch with the folks at Big Winds – either at the store or at it’s rental location at the Event Site. They can set you up with lessons.
Other activities around Hood River include hiking, mountain biking and whitewater paddling.
The Event Site
The main riverfront area – where you will find rentals, put ins and take outs, practice coves, and the grassy park that is the staging area for events like the Gorge Paddle Challenge is known as The Event Site. It’s owned by the city and is permanent infrastructure for all manner of races and festivals. There you will find parking, both paid and some free, gear rentals and tours, and food options like The Sandbar which offers a couple of different food options including some Hawaiian BBQ favorites. This is where you will likely pick up your board if you’ve rented one, and where you will catch shuttles to Viento State Park, where the famed Viento Run begins. The event site is the terminus for the Viento Run and the GPC downwind race.
The Pacific Northwest is known as a coffee lover’s paradise and Hood River does not disappoint in this department. My favorite place for coffee is Doppio, in the heart of downtown Hood River. It’s open, friendly and the coffee is superb. I also enjoyed Dog River Coffee just up the street from Doppio. Ground is not far from Big Winds and is a favorite of local pro Hannah Hill’s. Down at the event site, you will find the aptly named Stoked Roasters which is a great place to stop in and chill after you’ve picked up your race packet. Can’t beat that name!
Oh where do I start??? At the event site, not far from Stoked is Solstice Wood Fired Cafe which has great pizza, salads and really nice outdoor seating. This is a great spot for a post-paddle nosh. It will likely be quite crowded on race day.
If you are SUPER hungry after downwinding, then you must go to Kickstand. The burgers and fries are amazing, the outdoor patio rocks and there’s all manner of local brews, including kombuchas and ciders on tap.
Want tacos? Hood River Taqueria is authentic, has a great outdoor patio and the tacos are sublime.
If you are looking for a good lunch or grab and go option, you absolutely cannot beat the sandwiches at Pine Street Bakery.
For something sweet, there is a great gelato stand adjacent to Solstice and the place for ice cream is Mike’s, back on Oak Street downtown.
Shops and Services
Big Winds is a Hood River institution. If you need something, chances are they have it. And they have a great rental fleet and offer fantastic, Hood River specific paddling classes. Staff is super friendly, they know their stuff and they are a great resources. If you need something non-paddle related, then check out Shortt Supply Co. on Oak Street.
Need to hone up on your downwinding skills? Want a local expert to guide you on a practice run or two? Then you want Stoke on the Water to take you out. The dynamic duo of Joel Yang and Russel Peart have Viento dialed in. You will have fun, learn lots and you’ll be with folks who know this river inside and out. And oh yeah, full disclosure, Joel’s the dad of the Distressed Mullet’s PNW Correspondent Coli Yang!
The Viento Run
This eight-mile run begins at the state park that gives it its name and concludes at the event site. What makes this downwind run somewhat unusual is that you are actually paddling UPSTREAM, against the current. The force of the wind funneling up through the Columbia River Gorge, combined with the force of the water flowing downstream creates the bumps. You won’t get the big swells characteristic of a Maliko Run on Maui, but if you have ever done the Kihei downwinder on the other side of Maui, you’ll note some similarities. But make no mistake, the Viento can nuke!
Parking on race day will be tough so plan way ahead. Take advantage of shuttles or make arrangements to car pool. The walk from the parking lot to the water will be tough on the feet, so plan accordingly with either booties or cheap flip flops you can tuck in your hydration pack. If you go barefoot, just be careful. The river bank where you will enter the water is extremely rocky. You will enter the water in a very rocky area. Be careful. Be mindful of those around you. Do not set your board down perpendicular to the wind, least it roll like a tumbleweed onto the river boulders and have you in tears.
Hopefully you will be able to do some practice runs before race day so you know what to expect. Know that the Washington side of the river, the left side as you move upstream towards the Event Site, always flows faster and is more technical. That’s where folks can get into trouble, so know your limits and your skills and stay within them. Absolutely, positively wear a PFD and in the Columbia, it is highly recommended that PFD be a full on, Type III PFD. There are rocks, submerged trees, and the combined upwind and downwind current can make for tremendously dangerous conditions. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES do the Viento without a leash. Check that leash and make sure it is in good condition – no dry rot, no fraying, etc. I fell twice last year during this race and both times my board tumbleweed rolled by me. So, leashes are key. Oh and when you fall, WATCH YOUR HEAD AND WATCH FOR FINS!!! Bright paddle clothing for visibility is advisable and consider putting some high viz tape on your paddle. You’d be surprised how quickly it can blend in with the water.
Usually the best line is more toward the center of the river but sometimes the wind might push you more toward the right. Don’t get too close to the side of the riverbank or the reverb will be heck. Hone those “tacking” skills and know how to use the bumps to get you back toward the middle with as little energy expenditure as possible. Otherwise, you might be doing a lot of paddling on the right side. Learn the river landmarks, like Mitchell Point and Split Rocks – once you get passed Split Rocks on the right, start watching out for debris, especially what Joel Yang calls “Thor’s Hammer”- it’s a huge submerged log in the center of the channel that can appear out of nowhere. You do not want it to surprise you!!!!
The Viento is fun, it’s an experience of a lifetime – have fun but just remember, this river is no joke! Respect her.
Hood River folks, let us know if we missed anything in the comments!