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  • Kenny Howell

Epic at the Gorge

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

The Totally Epic 2023 Gorge Downwind Champs

Lining up for the men’s surfski start. Photo courtesy of Gorge Downwind Champs

Imagine surfing upstream on the largest river in North America west of the Mississippi. Strong, winds howl through the deep, thickly forested river canyon, pushing against massive currents, creating waves so large that you swear they must have traveled all the way from the Pacific Ocean, over 100 miles downstream. Powerful gusts blast spray into the air as your surfski slides across the heaving swells. Majestic waterfalls line the steep walls of the gorge, and icy volcanic peaks loom in the distance. The river is warm, the air hot, and a beer garden overflowing with all your best paddling mates awaits at the end of your 3rd downwind run of the day. Imagine sharing this adventure with hundreds of downwind-crazed surfski and outrigger paddlers!

Is this a dream, or is it real? Welcome to the Columbia River Gorge in the Pacific Northwest, and the Gorge Downwind Paddling Champs - a dream come true, and quite possibly the happiest place for a downwind paddler in the mainland USA. The Gorge has long been a magnet for wind sports, thanks to the extremely reliable conditions all summer long. Cool marine air situated at the mouth of the Columbia River rushes inland through the Gorge corridor, pulled by intense pressure gradients formed from the hot, dry desert region just east of the Cascade Range. Add constriction to the airflow, and the wind goes mad. Gale force wind speeds are not uncommon during typical Gorge summer afternoons. Batten down the hatches!

In its relatively short existence, the Downwind Champs has become the largest all-downwind paddle race in the world. 2023 brought us the 9th annual iteration of this phenomenal paddle party, bigger and better than ever. 829 paddlers (surfski, outrigger, SUP) registered for the week, with over 650 entering the race on July 13. If measured by sheer participation numbers, the Gorge Champs is an overwhelming success. So much so that several years ago, the Port of Hood River ceased issuing permits for the event within their jurisdiction, forcing the Downwind Village and race headquarters to move out of the city of Hood River and to the county fairgrounds in Stevenson, Washington, where the crowd could spread its wings without ruffling the feathers of the locals in Hood River.

Several hundred participants camp at the fairgrounds for the week, ready to roll out of their tents and RVs each morning for the daily downwind fix, with the launch site conveniently located a stone’s throw from their campsites. Shuttle buses pick up paddlers and their craft 6 miles upriver at Home Valley and bring them right back to the fairgrounds for another run if desired. This year the festive beer garden was managed by the industrious and creative people of the Gorge Canoe Club, complete with nightly entertainment, including live music, a pig roast, and “Sponsor Spotlight” presentations. For those needing more diversions, one could wander into an outdoor yoga session every morning, get a professional massage, or take a skills clinic with a pro paddler. Food vendors on site included a gourmet coffee kiosk and an authentic Mexican taco truck, with both doing a brisk business.

If camping isn’t your cup of tea, a myriad of vacation rental properties spread across the area provide creature comforts and ample opportunities for outdoor adventure of many stripes, such as mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and even summer snowboarding on nearby Mount Hood. A little something for everyone. Come for the downwind and stay for the scenery! Hood River, known primarily as a mecca for wind sports, also hosts a plethora of craft breweries, fine dining, and shopping. Wineries and orchards nearby add to the pastoral wonder of the region.

Epic scenery deep in the Gorge. Photo by Epic Kayaks

The Gorge Fire, July 2023 Photo courtesy Carter Johnson

A forest fire that began on July 1 near “Tunnel 5” along Highway 14 on the Washington side of the Gorge, close to the oddly named “Swell City” section of the river (big swells, but no city), cast an ominous cloud over the event. Among the hundreds of residents ordered to evacuate their homes in the fire zone was Carter Johnson, Gorge Downwind Champs founder and race director. On July 5, before he was allowed to return home, Carter bravely announced on the Gorge Facebook page that the event would take place regardless of what the fire might do to his beloved property near White Salmon, Washington.

My house can burn down, but our awesome memories of waves and friends this year will live on forever. We loaded up everything required to run the champs and moved it safely and are ready to rumble.”

Miraculously, the winds were favorable to fighting the fire and it was largely contained by July 10 for the start of the event, with 600 acres burned. Because of fire damage to infrastructure and continuing hot spots, parts of the highway on the Washington side remained closed to through traffic, and travel from the race headquarters in Stevenson to Hood River became a snarled summer traffic jam on the Oregon side due to road work. Despite these inconveniences, paddlers continued to do what they do best – get on the water and surf downwind. The shuttle buses were able to operate normally all week, hauling paddlers and their boats back to the Downwind Village all day from the Home Valley take out site so they could do another run before retiring to the beer garden each afternoon!

Local press clipping during the Gorge Champs week.

Epic friends, family and teammates.

Epic Kayaks has been a major participant as a sponsor and vendor at the Gorge Downwind Champs since the event’s inception in 2015, providing rental surfskis to travelers from around the world, as well as fielding a team of international athletes vying for a podium spot. Our staff were busy at the Epic tent every day, mingling with customers from faraway lands such as Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, Israel, and US states including Hawaii, Michigan, South Carolina and Florida. We provided demo opportunities, hauled the rental skis to the race start and picked them up at the finish. It’s a huge logistical operation, and our staff are thrilled to have the opportunity every year to be part of the action – on and off the water.

Epic trailers ready to roll.

Cameron Thacker models some hot merch.

Incredibly, for the 3rd consecutive year, the fabled wind gods opted to take a vacation on race day, proving once again that if you want the wind to drop, all you have to do it seems is schedule a race. The Champs organizers followed the advice of professional Gorge wind forecaster and local blogger, Temira Amira Lital of to hold the race on Thursday, with the winds predicted to drop further on the following days. Luckily for the hundreds of adrenaline junkies that arrived at the Gorge earlier in the week, the strong reliable westerlies blew through the Corridor daily, whipping the Columbia River into a frenzy of whitecaps and steep wind waves surfable for miles. Many got their downwind fix before the competition even started.

Racing in the fun zone. Photo by Epic Kayaks

Nevertheless, downwind conditions prevailed on race day, albeit without as much punch as one would wish for - along with a “normal” river flow for a hot summer day (200,000 cubic feet/second!) released from the John Day dam, some 50 miles upriver. Multiple waves of paddlers numbering in the hundreds launched from the small beach at Home Valley. Starting with a brisk tailwind which would soon fade to light breeze, the course traversed 13.3 miles of the Columbia River to the Hood River Waterfront Park.

The Epic fleet lined up on Race Day.

Running the gauntlet through Swell City. Photo by Epic Kayaks

Check out the start of the Men’s Surfski Race here; go to the 2 minute mark to see the actual start:

Someone once said, “Paddling is fun, and racing is hard”. That applied to most everyone in this race. It’s still fun if you love competition, and don’t mind pushing your body to the limit. So it goes for the elite paddlers and non-elites alike. Everyone wants to do their best, and some are happy just to finish. With so many fit and experienced paddlers in the field, it’s easy to find a “race within the race”. You’re competing within your gender, age class, boat class, or just against yourself. You might be gunning for that guy that beat you last year, but he wants to drop you just as badly. Regardless of the race itself, people come to the Gorge Champs to paddle with their friends and bask in the natural beauty of the place. Come for the downwind action, stay for the camaraderie!

Epic founder Greg Barton - forever stoked, and still winning.

Interview with 2nd place Overall Mark Keeling

Congratulations to the winners of all the categories. Full results here:

Download PDF • 165KB

A special shout out to Epic team members and family for their great results:

Mark Keeling, Cape Town, South Africa - 2nd Overall (Gen 3 V12)

Simon McTavish, Toronto, Canada – 3rd Male Surfski Open (9th Overall) (Gen 3 V12)

Montannah Murray, Sydney, AUS – 3rd Female Surfski Open (V11)

Alessia Faverio, Erwin, TN – 5th Female Surfski Open (V11)

Tracy Landboe, Seattle, WA - 2nd Female Surfski 50-59 (V11)

Rob Pelky, Dana Point, CA - 2nd Male Surfski 50-59 (Gen 3 V12)

Greg Barton, Seattle, WA – 1st Male 60-69 (Gen 3 V12)

Chris Barlow, San Diego, CA – 2nd Male 60-69 (Gen 3 V12)

Dean Bumstead, Bellingham, WA - 1s male 70+ (V9)

Justin & Sienna Schaay, Charleston, SC – 1st Mixed Surfski Double (V8 Double)

Epic winners and their trophies. Photo credit Alessia Faverio

Kenny Howell and Tim Lawson dicing for 10th place in the over-60s

Start training and making plans now for 2024 – July 8th to 13th. Registration goes live January 14. Consider coming early and staying late to take advantage of more downwind paddling, and all the amazing adventures available at the Gorge. More info here:

Hail To the Volunteers!

People love going to races, but few want to help organize one. Dozens of volunteers – many of them also race participants – gave hours of their time to make the Gorge Champs go off without a hitch. A race of this magnitude, six days in duration, with several locations operating in two states separated by a colossal river and road closures due to a wildfire, cannot happen without the devotion of people who care deeply about paddlesports and the community it fosters. Hail to the army of volunteers and the fine staff Carter Johnson gathers around him each year! It’s truly a labor of love, and yet you can feel their stoke as they put on this magnificent show that so many have come to love. As a testimonial to this feat, folks keep coming back for more. Thank you, Carter Johnson, for your full-throated passion for our sport, as well as the herculean task you accomplished seemingly with style and grace.

The army of volunteers made it all run like clockwork.

Greg Barton tests the Gen 4 V10 in Swell City – post-race day "recovery" session. Photo by Epic Kayaks

Greg shreds Swell City on the Gen 4 V10

See y’all next year!

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