The Joys of Paddling in the Wind

windy-river“What exact­ly do you like about this?” my friend Carl asked as the wind whipped our hats off our heads. He strug­gled to relax amidst the build­ing waves. Most pad­dlers avoid wind. I seek it out. Here’s why.

I’m in the Colum­bia Gorge, the world’s best wind fac­to­ry. My 16-foot sea kayak is bob­bing up and down in swell and break­ing chop that’s reflect­ing off the basalt cliffs, cre­at­ing a con­fused slosh­ing that sea kayak­ers call clapo­tis. Kayak­ers either love or hate clapo­tis, depend­ing on how their adren­a­line is treat­ing them that day. Today I love it. I maneu­ver between rocks, feel­ing like if the water was salty, I could be in the ocean. I’ve spent years lur­ing skilled pad­dlers from white­wa­ter and tour­ing envi­ron­ments into the wind fac­to­ry. There’s always a nerve-wrack­ing ini­ti­a­tion. Carl, despite thou­sands of miles of white­wa­ter under his belt, is hav­ing his today. When we reach the take­out, he lit­er­al­ly kiss­es the ground.

Most of the time, wind dri­ves pad­dlers nuts. Pad­dling into it is a tread­mill. Pad­dling across the wind expos­es you to poten­tial­ly cap­siz­ing waves. Pad­dling down­wind means waves approach you from astern, where you can’t see them. Direc­tion­al con­trol becomes dif­fi­cult. Most pad­dlers seek pro­tect­ed routes, or avoid windy after­noons the way urban cyclists avoid busy streets.

But there are rea­sons to pad­dle in wind, and the Colum­bia Gorge is one of the best pad­dling envi­ron­ments I’ve ever found. Here are a few rea­sons why:

Skill Devel­op­ment
There’s no way to learn to han­dle wind—except by pad­dling in wind. Every sea kayak­er should know how to man­age wind because soon­er or lat­er every pad­dler gets hit by it, planned or not. Man­ag­ing a kayak in wind is most­ly mental—understanding and technique—not strength. That means it’s with­in the abil­i­ty of vir­tu­al­ly every pad­dler. Left unman­aged, strong winds can cap­size pad­dlers, split a group, and be exhaust­ing. But there’s no rea­son for it to be that way.

Just like wind­surfers, sea kayaks are ide­al for surf­ing big wind waves. In many ways, it’s far, far eas­i­er than ocean surf­ing, where after every surf ride comes the unen­vi­able task of fight­ing back out back out through pound­ing waves. And wind waves are plen­ti­ful: they come one after each oth­er, reg­u­lar­ly, and skilled pad­dlers can surf from one wave onto the next. Need a break? Just stop pad­dling and let the waves wash under you while you catch your breath.

And unlike ocean surf­ing the Ore­gon Coast’s bone-chill­ing sea, surf­ing in the Gorge can be quite pleas­ant. Sum­mer down­wind runs usu­al­ly hap­pen in shorts and a light­weight pad­dling top, in 70-degree water and 80-degree air.

Rock and Roll
The com­bi­na­tion of wind, waves, and rock for­ma­tions cre­ate great train­ing sit­u­a­tions for ocean rock gar­den­ing. The Gorge’s intri­cate envi­ron­ment is per­fect for maneu­ver­ing close to rocks, through nar­row chan­nels, get­ting from shel­ter to exposed areas and back to shel­ter, and hon­ing the boat-con­trol strokes for the sea. In fact, on some days, the sea state in the Gorge is larg­er than it is on the Coast.

Com­fort Amidst Chaos
And the wind builds the abil­i­ty to relax in a dynam­ic envi­ron­ment. We learn to relax in our kayaks as waves roll under us, use sub­tle shifts in weight to con­trol our boat. These skills—in addi­tion to giv­ing us the access to a dynam­ic body of water few oth­ers have—serve pad­dlers well in any kind of rough water. Carl’s intro­duc­tion was sim­ply the shock of going from a white­wa­ter environment—where the waves are predictable—to an open water world, where the waves move con­tin­u­ous­ly and chaotically.

Raw Beau­ty
Last but not least, the Gorge in wind is stun­ning and raw. Oth­er than a few ded­i­cat­ed wind­surfers, you’ll prob­a­bly have it to your­self. It’s expo­sure to the blunt forces of nature, like being high in the moun­tains or feel­ing the speed of first tracks down a slope.

Wind, the Gorge, and Sea Kayaks
While the Gorge is pop­u­lar with wind­surfers and kite­board­ers, kayak­ers have over­looked it, despite the near­by pad­dling towns of Port­land and Hood Riv­er. In six­teen years of sea kayak­ing in the North­west, I’ve encoun­tered exact­ly 5 oth­er pad­dlers in the Gorge.

On sun­ny days in late spring and sum­mer, East­ern Oregon’s desert warms up more than damp west­ern Ore­gon. Air flows from the high-pres­sure cool­er zone to the warm desert. The Gorge is the cor­ri­dor. West winds build through­out the day, and the fur­ther east you go in the Gorge, the stronger the wind and the big­ger the waves will be.

In the win­ter and much of fall, when the high desert is cool­er than the most and humid west, the pat­tern revers­es. Air moves from the desert to the west. An East wind zips through the Gorge. In win­ter, it can be quite cold, but in late sum­mer or fall an east wind can come with 80-degree air. Wind and waves will be strongest at the West­ern end of the Gorge.

Wind Safe­ty
Obvi­ous­ly, kayak­ers in con­di­tions should have a reli­able roll. Wind is no excep­tion. If a roll fails, try it on the oth­er side of the kayak—rolling is much eas­i­er on the upwind side of the boat. If you do swim, it’s crit­i­cal to grab onto the boat quick­ly, before the wind whips it away. Res­cues should hap­pen quickly.

Group Aware­ness
Wind can split a group quick­ly. Surfers com­fort­able in the con­di­tions will quick­ly zoom ahead of the more ten­ta­tive pad­dlers. Be sure to look behind you, keep track and wait. Skilled pad­dlers should posi­tion them­selves on the down­wind and upwind sides of less expe­ri­enced pad­dlers. The down­wind pad­dler can “catch” a cap­sized kayak, and the upwind pad­dler can mon­i­tor the group and move quick­ly toward the rescue.

Share the Riv­er
Play­ing in the wind involves shar­ing the water with wind­surfers and kite­board­ers. Wind­surfers are far more maneu­ver­able than kayak­ers, and can gen­er­al­ly avoid obsta­cles. Because they tend to go across the wind, they will be look­ing at the long sides of kayaks, which will make you easy to spot. Kite­board­ers pose more risk because of their cable: give them a wide berth.

But most of all, embrace the wind. It’s a dynam­ic part of kayak­ing, and it can be friend of foe. Make it your friend.