Just back to Bellingham, WA from five days of seriously fun surfing at the Columbia Gorge with conditions starting big & mixed giving way to moderate surf throughout the trip. Current was a BIG factor and downwinders (going up river) took much longer than usual. Here’s some reflections on the conditions:
The Big Days….
The first two days were big due to strong winds pushing waves upstream against the significant current. The classic Gorge style long glassy waves were few and far between. Waves were big, choppy, and very steep. Longer skis were having trouble keeping the nose above water and wider boats seemed to handle the mixed conditions best. Swims (yes, there were a few in our group) tended to take several remount attempts, and a quality leash system was a must for all. There was a lot of discussion on leash systems after the big days that saw a variety of snapped leashes and lost gear, more on that to come….
I paddled a Fenn Mako XT for the majority of the big days though I did two sessions in big wind conditions in the Elite. I’m a big fan of both boats, but in big, steep, mixed conditions paddling in a group, the XT was the ticket. When we had to ‘circle the wagons’ to regroup or help folks out, I felt the XT gave the ability to better assist the group and safely navigate the waves. To be honest, in the sloppy mixed conditions of the Columbia River, the XT truly excelled. We brought down two XTs and in almost all paddling sessions, both boats were in use. The Elite was fun and challenging in the bigger conditions, but it didn’t offer much support to the group as compared to the XT. At the end of a ripping downwinder at the takeout in Bingen, a kiteboarder was stranded forty feet off shore unable to get back in due to currents and a swift back eddy. After several failed attempts of the group towing him and yelling encouragement to swim harder, I finally had him climb aboard spread eagle fashion on the back of the XT and was able to ferry him to shore. (This was only after he conceded to letting go of his gear, which was one of the main reasons he couldn’t get in in the first place) Morris towed his kite and board to shore which was a challenge in itself. Though we didn’t score any beer from this save (or even much of a thanks), we hopefully earned some Karma points. Experiences like this made us realize that practicing rescues is an important part of training both for the rescuer and the rescuee.
The Medium Days….
The last two days settled down to around 15-20mph winds, and in classic Bellingham surfski paddler fashion, we did loops both days at Swell City. Usually going to the Gorge is all about setting shuttle for the downwinders, but we opted to spend some quality time doing some park & play. The conditions at Swell City couldn’t have been better for loops due to the swift currents and consistent 3-5ft waves, with a few rogue 6-7 ft mixed in. By skirting the eddy line on the on the way back upwind, it was easy to maintain 7-8mph with only moderate paddling effort. The downwind sections provided ample practice at connecting mixed rollers, though my GPS never went above 12mph at top steep thanks to the opposing river current. Morris continued his practice of gear water rescues and was
able to fish out a kite board that had separated from it’s owner upstream in Hood River. When the happy owner arrived to retrieve her gear we scored some beer money and much thanks. (Morris: “I’ll say no to beer money once, but it’s just rude to say no if they keep insisting”). Another lesson of the trip: Make sure to write your name and number on your gear in case you ever get separated from it, a six pack is a lot cheaper than a new paddler (or new boat).
Overall, our first Gorge trip of the summer was action packed and fun. Looking forward to getting back down there at the end of next week for some more surfing and warming up for the Wildside Relay and US Champs in San Francisco.