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Windsurfing makes Columbia River Gorge into a 'play zone'
HOOD RIVER, Ore. -- They are returning now, the wind worshippers who swarm into this scenic Columbia River town every year from all corners of the world to squirm into their wetsuits, hop onto their windsurfing boards and go tearing across the whitecaps at 30 mph and more.
Some will stay the weekend. Some will stay the summer. Others may stay forever. There are plenty who do.
Sitting on a bench in front of a popular downtown coffee shop is local windsurfer Bart Vervloet, a 43-year-old who came here nearly two decades ago in search of the perfect wind, found it, and made Hood River his home.
Vervloet is fond of pointing out that the first three digits of Hood River phone numbers -- 386 -- spell "FUN" on telephone keypads.
"This is a play zone," says Vervloet, the voice of "Bart's Best Bet," a local radio program that broadcasts the day's expected wind speed, weather forecast and other data crucial in a town known as the windsurfing capital of the world.
"You do whatever it takes to stay here," Vervloet says.
Everyone knows Vervloet, who also manages Windwing, a downtown shop that sells sails of its own design and other gear. Vervloet is a strapping man with a puckish smile. Windsurfers stopping at the coffee shop give Vervloet a hearty "Hey Bart!" as they wander by. One of them asks Vervloet, who got hitched last year, how he likes married life.
"She's still there!" he replies triumphantly.
Among the windsurfers who pull up in front of the coffee shop are a businessman from Michigan who spends summers here chasing the wind, a twenty-something who sells Toyotas at a Bend car dealership, and a man who tends bar at night and windsurfs during the day.
There are more coming -- many, many more. By the height of summer, this town of just under 6,000 will be swelling with throngs of athletic visitors.
Ensconced in a majestic cleft of the North American continent called the Columbia River Gorge, Hood River has an embarrassment of recreational riches.
Windsurfers began coming here about two decades ago, drawn by winds of 25 mph and higher that persistently blast down a natural wind tunnel created by towering basalt bluffs framing both sides of the Columbia River Gorge.
The windsurfers have been followed by legions of outdoors enthusiasts pursuing other sports: kayakers and rafters who plummet down tributaries feeding into the mighty Columbia, mountain bikers who race through foothills of the Cascade mountain range, road cyclists who speed along backroads that wind past pear and apple orchards.
There's also salmon fishing and golf.
During the winter and part of spring, local resorts, hotels and inns cater to skiers and snowboarders who hit the slopes of 11,240-foot Mount Hood, which looms in the near distance.
"On a perfect day you can ski in the morning, squeeze in a kayak run and finish your day with a bike ride," says Vervloet.
The latest craze in Hood River is kiteboarding, which is similar to windsurfing. The whole point of kiteboarding is not so much speed, as becoming airborne. A large kite captures the wind, propels the surfer across the water and plucks him as much as 40 feet into the air, depending on wind gusts.
You don't have to be an outdoors enthusiast to appreciate Hood River. Downtown buildings, some more than a century old, have been renovated. New restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts have opened in the past several years, catering not just to the sports set but also to tourists who are traveling through the Columbia River Gorge.
Leaving from a 1911 train station, the Mount Hood Railroad takes visitors on a four-hour journey along the bosky Hood River Valley and over hills lying in the shadow of Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest summit.
Scattered along the Hood River Valley are more than 300 fruit farms. Motorists follow what's called the Fruit Loop -- a tour of fruit orchards, country markets, wineries and roadside stands.
Windsurfing and recreation have totally changed Hood River, which in the 1980s was struggling because of the decline of the timber industry.
Now lining Hood River's streets are businesses with names like Big Winds, Windance, Kayak Shed, Storm Warning and Renegade River Rafters, as well as boutiques and galleries.
Many of the largest designers of windsurfing gear are located here, making Hood River a hub of innovation for windsurfing technology.
"There are other small towns around America that are shriveling. Hood River isn't," says Peter Jubitz, who was born and raised here and owns Franz Hardware store.
"It's gone way beyond windsurfing. Cars go by with a canoe on the top and golf clubs in the trunk," says the 61-year-old Jubitz.
A 1990 study by community planning specialist David Povey found that windsurfers brought an infusion of about $16.4 million into Hood River during the summer and projected that would grow to $30 million in 1995.
Hood River's attraction as a place for all kinds of outdoor activities has grown over the past decade, and Povey figures the summer economic impact from visitors may have reached about $50 million.
"More people are coming, staying longer and engaging in more activities," says Povey, who taught community and regional planning at the University of Oregon.
There are locals who get annoyed with downtown traffic jams during the summer, he says. Some avoid downtown altogether during summer because parking places are hard to find.
You can also hear grumbling about housing costs becoming far less affordable.
But barriers are falling between locals and the sports-minded newcomers, Jubitz says. Many of the newcomers have become locals themselves, buying homes and starting businesses related to the windsurfing industry. Also among the permanent residents are some of the nation's top competitive windsurfers.
Peg Lalor, a Canadian, started coming to Hood River for windsurfing in 1982 and moved here 10 years later. She is the founder of the Gorge Games, an annual summer sports extravaganza with events that have included windsurfing, kiteboarding, kayaking, climbing, mountain biking and sailing. The games, which started in 1996, have attracted top athletes from all over the world.
The games have been canceled this summer because of troubles arranging sponsors. It's a loss for Hood River. But Lalor is determined to get them back.
"We have something nobody has in the rest of the country. We have the best venues for all of these sports in a very short circumference of the river," said Lalor, who is putting together a coalition that would coordinate and organize athletic events in Hood River.
It's too early to say how much of a financial impact the absence of the Gorge Games will have on Hood River.
There's still a full schedule of events over the next three months -- a windsurfing race series called the Gorge Cup, a marathon, an annual equestrian competition, golf tournaments, sailboat races and a cycling road race.
The town can also rely on the thousands who come here each year not to compete, but to pursue windsurfing and other sports on a recreational level -- and to soak up the natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge.
It's like Bart Vervloet says. This is a play zone.
IF YOU GO ...
GETTING THERE: Hood River is easily reached by driving east from Portland, Ore. on Interstate 84, following the Columbia River. Hood River is about an hour's drive from Portland.
THINGS TO DO: Just about anything, if you're a devotee of outdoor recreation. There's windsurfing on the Columbia, mountain biking, road cycling, fishing, golfing, skiing on nearby Mount Hood, kayaking and rafting. For those who are less sports-minded, there are attractions such as the Mount Hood Railroad, which takes travelers from Hood River east into fruit-growing country, and the International Museum of Carousel.
EVEN MORE THINGS TO DO: The Columbia River Gorge, extending from the Portland suburb of Troutdale to the Deschutes River, is rich with scenic sights. The Historic Columbia River Scenic Highway takes travelers along basalt bluffs overlooking the Columbia -- offering breathtaking views. The road also leads past the 620-foot Multnomah Falls. There's great hiking on trails that lead from the gorge into the foothills of the Cascade Range.
Also worth a visit are the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, the Hood River Historical Museum, the Bridge of the Gods in the town of Cascade Locks, and the Bonneville Dam, where you can watch salmon swimming upstream to spawn.
LODGING: Take your pick. You can stay at a luxury hotel, a bed-and-breakfast or a motel in Hood River, or move into a rental home for the summer. If Hood River is booked up, there are ample lodgings up and down the river.
For a list of lodgings, and other travel information, see the Web site for the Columbia River Gorge Visitor's Association: www.crgva.org/member.htm.
WHEN TO VISIT: Summer months west of the Cascade Range can be very pleasant, with sunny days, low humidity and temperatures in the 80s. The climate makes summer a good time to visit Hood River and the Columbia River Gorge. The better-known attractions can become crowded during the summer. So don't rule out visiting the area when the crowds leave, even in western Oregon's rainy winter months. The scenery's still spectacular.