Driving east on Interstate 84 through the Columbia River Gorge, you can feel the wind before you step out of the car. Each curve in the road feels exaggerated until the mountain slopes gradually move apart to reveal Hood River, the unofficial wind capitol of the world.
In recent years, the small town has become a darling of outdoor and recreation magazines that tout its access to activities including skiing, mountain biking, hiking and, of course, water sports.
The Columbia River Gorge acts as a funnel for wind that barrels down along the river throughout the summer. Where the wind blows, thousands of people follow, looking to surf and ride the waves of the river.
Cascade Kiteboarding’s Tonia Forman said people from outside the area often don’t believe her when she talks about catching air at the Gorge. The quality of wind can be so magical and rare that some have nicknamed perfect gusts “unicorns,” she said, gesturing to her company’s hat, which features the mythical creature next to a wave.
Foreman hated wind when she first moved to the Hood River area, she said. But it wasn’t long before she picked up the sport and started teaching her friends.
Today, Cascade Kiteboarding boasts 13 instructors and offers 15 to 20 lessons daily during peak season, which lasts into September. Employees have started turning would-be students away as the season starts to wrap up.
At the business next door, Big Winds, employee Ford Huntington rents stand-up paddle boards.
Though a love of windsurfing has taken him all over the world, he said it’s hard to beat Hood River.
“It’s a feeling,” Huntington said. “Once you do it once, you kind of get the bug. After that, it really just takes you from there.”
Huntington said wind sports attract two different types: there’s the laid-back enthusiast, more typical of the surfer mentality, and then there are the “wind kooks” — people who overthink their sport.
In mid-August, a few dozen people scattered around the water for the annual King of the Hook, a humorous celebration of windsurfing that has marked the tail end of the season since 2001. Some were in costumes to match team names such as the 60s Chicks, the Wicked Witch and Minions of the Gorge.
One by one, and for some heats two by two, contestants took their boards into the water to attempt tricks that they may or may not have mastered yet.
“We try to bring all the fun we can back into windsurfing and have a super goofy time, keep it really low key and take all the serious competition out of it,” said Greg Stiegel, the executive director of Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association, which organizes the event. “Bribing the judges is good, the older the windsurfing gear the better, the crazier the costumes the better.”
As the wind started to die down and the water glistened in the sinking sun, the crowd seemed to just be warming. Some contestants attempted to throw their competition into the river.
“Anything goes,” Stiegel said.