“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:
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.
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.
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.
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.