Columbia River Gorge, Questions and Answers

Q: Why is it so windy in the Columbia River Gorge?
A: In short, there is a pressure differential caused by the colder moist air over Portland, OR and the hot, dry air over the desert to the east of the Cascade mountains. The cold air is rushing towards the hot air to equalize that pressure and therefore creating wind. That wind takes the path of least resistance, which happens to be the Columbia River Gorge and is further accelerated by the narrowing of the Columbia River Gorge as it cuts thru the mountains.

Q: Why are the waves so good?
A: Read above regarding the wind. That winds moves over a large straight area (or fetch) of the Columbia River. A large fetch creates waves just like in the ocean. But the wind driven waves are enhanced because the wind is moving upstream against a steady river current creating friction. This causes the waves to stand up.

Q: Concerned the waves will be too big or you don’t have the skills to enjoy it?
A: Don’t worry. The Gorge is about as user friendly as you can get. If the Swell City section is going off on a big day, there are other sections downstream with less action. The Gorge has roads both sides for easy access and you can always pull over if you get in over your head. I can’t think of a better place to learn to downwind surf as there is something for everyone.

Q: Do you need to worry about all those windsurfers and kite boarders?
A: Not really. It’s a little intimidating the first few times you surf thru Swell City surrounded by hundreds of boarders, but they are generally appreciative of what we do and often shout out words of encouragement. They have even helped in a couple of rescues.

Q: What about those huge barges moving up and downstream?
A: You can see them coming from a very long way off. Keep our of their path at all costs.

Q: Are there sharks?
A: No. But the sturgeon are pretty large.

Q: Do I need a leash?
A: Of course you need a leash. You also need to be proficient at remounting in rough water. With the wind going one way and the current going the other, you would immediately be separated from your ski without a leash so always use a tried and tested leash and mount it to something you have confidence in. Being confident in your rough water remounts will also make you more confident and willing to try waves you would otherwise back off from.

Q: What’s your favorite section?
A: The most consistent section of good surfing is Swell City, so consequently the most popular run starts at the mouth of the Little White Salmon River at Drano Lake and ends at the mouth of the White Salmon River 11km downwind. But don’t forget the sections up wind. There can be good surfski conditions anywhere from Stevenson, WA to Bingen, WA. Keep checking your favorite wind forecasting website.

Q: How do you do the shuttles?
A: If there’s waves, someone will be paddling. You can hitch your shuttle along the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Byway / WA-14 or just wait at Drano Lake or the White Salmon for someone to show up. Good surfski paddlers are there all Summer long.

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Q: Best coffee in the area?
A: The North Shore Cafe and the White Salmon Bakery Company, both in White Salmon, WA.

Q: What about all those gillnets?
A: A gillnet is a wall of netting that hangs in the water and is a common form of fishing in the Gorge. They are normally strung between the shore and a buoy or between two buoys. Avoid these nets. You may get your rudder tangled up and you may have to dismount to work the rudder free. Always approach this situation from downstream as you don’t want your legs also getting caught in the gillnet.

Q: Best restaurant in the area?
A: Everybody’s Brewing in White Salmon, WA. Great food. Great house brewed beer.

Q: What happens if the wind takes a day off?
A: Go stern wheeling. A tourist stern wheeler cruise ship leaves from the other side of the river across from Stevenson, WA and does a 2 hour loop of the lower gorge. Surfing the 15 or so perfectly shaped waves behind the stern wheeler is completely legal and even encouraged by the captain and the hundreds of tourists eager to get your picture. Just make sure to follow the crews instructions.

Q: Any great places to stay?
A: Hop online and you’ll find plenty of places to stay or camp to meet every budget. Take a good look at the hostels in White Salmon and Bingen for great value for money and a convenient location.

Q: What races are there in the Gorge?
A: The Gorge Down Festival in late July offers the Wildside Relay and the US Downwind Championships. There are other smaller races too.

Q: What else is there to do in the Gorge other than paddling?
A: My favorite activities include exploring the waterfalls of the Oregon side of the Gorge; hiking up Mt. Hood and checking out the orchards and vineyards on the way home; and checking out Bonneville Dam and the fish hatchery.