While downwinding is still a niche activity in the SUP world, it’s popularity is growing and this year will be busier and more exciting than ever on the Columbia River. For those who haven’t downwinded on the Columbia before, it can be a very stressful experience. You really don’t realize just how big that river is until you’re paddling down the heart of it with 35mph winds pushing you through wind swell after wind swell! It’s exhilarating, fun, and extremely tiring!

It's a big river out there, bring safety equipment! Photo: Karen Parkkonen

It’s a big river out there, bring safety equipment! Photo: Karen Parkkonen

Which is why you should take a lesson.

Big Winds has downwind lessons to help prepare you for one of the most exciting areas of SUP. It’s a 90 minute class, all equipment included, and will help prepare you for your first downwinding adventure. While many of us just jumped in and made it up as we went along, there just weren’t lessons back then; now there’s an opportunity to learn before you take your first plunge (and second, and third…).

For those who have never downwinded but are not interested in classes from qualified, experience individuals, I would recommend you start on the Oregon side at Viento State Park (The Viento Run). Start on a day under 25mph, which will force a little more effort out of you but also provide you with easier bumps to train on while you develop your sea legs. Don’t forget, it’s a one way journey, have a vehicle, or friend (or friend with a vehicle) at the event site to get you back to your vehicle at Viento. BTW, Viento is $5/day for parking.

Downwind checklist:

  • SUP (preferable a downwind-style board) and paddle
  • PFD or Life Jacket
  • Whistle (it’s the law in Oregon, and it can save a life!)
  • LEASH!!!
  • I bring hydration (camelback), others wait for the destination before drinking again
  • Sunscreen and hat (it’s a long afternoon in the summer sun)
  • I wear water shoes, or stow them under my camelback for the exit and walking after we arrive at our destination

The annual Naish Paddle Challenge is happening in Hood River this weekend! The biggest names in SUP will converge on our once-sleepy town for a shot at big SUP money and a chance to ride one of the top three downwind locations in the world. One of the coolest parts of this event is that while there is definitely an elite class of riders who will undoubtedly take the front in these races and events, anyone can enter, which means practically any serious paddler can compete head-to-head with folks like Kai Lenny and Connor Baxter! How many sports do that???

Even if you aren’t planning on being in the water, the race course has become a well modified spectator friendly race with plenty of pivot turns and water traffic to enjoy. Check it out, it’s a well run event with the biggest names in SUP in attendance!


It’s true and I’m not ashamed. By the way, exostosis is a bony growth in your ear canal that eventually surrounds your ear drum until you go deaf. Yes, I have hearing loss so please don’t blame me ignoring you on my state of sobriety, I may not have actually heard you but for real. I know, it’s every man’s dream excuse!

Anyway, exostosis is usually caused by cool or cold water entering the ear canal, which the human body despises. In an effort to prevent water from entering the ear, the body creates bone around the outer ear canal in a vain effort to stop the inner ear from being drenched by the incoming tide. And then you go deaf.

So I went to Kauai with my family a couple weeks ago. There was a lot of water associated with our visit; much of it went into my ears. The same ears that have not enjoyed sea water entering them for the past 30 years while I’ve surfed the more frigid waters of the west coast. Wouldn’t you know it, my ears shut down. Well, they actually got infected by bacteria in the warm sea water that got trapped BEHIND the exostosis rather than just staying the hell out. Good job body, got any other great bony ideas???

So I went deaf in a matter of days. First it was deaf like I could kind of hear but everyone sounded like they were talking normally but in the next room. Then it sounded like everyone was talking in the next room but talking through cheese cloth in front of their mouths. Then my left ear just completely shut down and refused any incoming messages at all. This was in the course of a few odd and depressing days of vacation. So I bought some swimmers ear plugs and kept on playing; and going deaf.

Segue to last week, the first week I was home from paradise. My hearing wasn’t improving even though I was using the prescribed drops even more than prescribed as I really, really wanted to hear again, like 30% more than the doctor wanted me to hear based on the added frequency I was medicating my ears. Still, no go. By this past Saturday morning I was 100% deaf. I woke up and surprisingly couldn’t hear a single sound. Not my wife snoring (she doesn’t snore, strike that, she’s an angel when she sleeps), not the cats scratching the bed in early morning hunger protest, not the air conditioner, which is loud as shit. Nothing.

I got out of bed, slogged downstairs, made coffee, then got on YouTube and started watching American Sign Language tutorials. Yes, I was that deaf. I actually learned quite a few words in the past week and I’m going to continue on, I really actually enjoyed learning sign language, although I thankfully don’t need it personally, at least yet!

Little did I know my wife had come downstairs and was standing directly behind me. Here I was in my office chair learning how to say “What is your name?”, and she was genuinely concerned I had realized my hearing would never come back. I greeted her a good morning and she did her best to mask her concern because she knew I couldn’t hear a thing. I assured her I was only preparing for the worst and I was confident my hearing would return soon enough. She feigned confidence and then fetched us some more coffee. Other than my lack of hearing, the morning went fairly smooth after our cup of Joe.

I plodded about for awhile and then decided I was going to go paddleboarding with or without my hearing. I think I declared out loud my intentions and Beverly gave me the yeah-ok-stupid-man shrug, but she didn’t contest my desire to paddle. So I gathered my gear and headed to the river.

I didn’t yet realize that Saturday morning was the first morning I’d forgotten to inject my prescribed ear drops as I had been doing for the past 8 days, but there you have it, I absently went against my doctor’s orders. Freakin rebel activity, that’s what that is.

Aside from the lack of hearing, the paddle started like most of my paddles start. Upright and with a paddling motion. Things were going smoothly overall, no boats were mowing me down and I hadn’t hit a single person or vessel yet. It wasn’t for another twenty minutes or so before I noticed a sound. It was Kim Reuter paddling the other direction and wishing me a good morning. She sounded muffled and a little distant, although she was a little distant, but I expressly heard her greet me a good morning and ask if I could hear her, and I could! I paddled another ten minutes or so and then realized I was hearing the passing of two motor boats. I was hearing again! I heard birds and homeless boaters and their dogs, I heard traffic passing overhead on the Ross Island Bridge, it was coming back! By the time I got back to the dock it felt like my hearing was nearly back to normal. It felt like a miracle had occurred. I called Beverly on the phone and told her to say something, anything. I could sense the relief when I repeated back her words, which I believe were “I love you”. Yes, I was nearly in tears.

When I got home Beverly demanded to look in my ears, which she has been diligently examining for the past week. She surprisingly declared the white, infected capsules covering my ear drums had fractured in both ears, which was why my hearing was finally improving. It wasn’t the medication that was healing me, it was paddleboarding in fresh air. Paddling along at a moderate clip apparently allowed enough of a breeze into my ears (never mind the headwind!) to dry out the moisture from the infected masses and more or less kill it off. While I love modern western medicine, this time it didn’t do the trick. Paddleboarding in the summer breeze gave me back my ability to hear.


4th of July Paddle

Where: Departing Willamette Park for a relaxing paddle around the No Wake side of Ross Island

Time: Departure time no later than 7:20pm

Level of Effort: Low – Low/Medium. It’s an easy paddle and we take it slow! Expect some possible knee paddling when we depart the fireworks area due to boat chop. We stay plenty far away from the boats though near the north side of the river (the boats all head south when it’s over).

What to expect: It’s going to be a cooler than expected evening so be prepared for a chill in the air after the sun sets. Bring a couple extra layers in a waterproof bag (wind breakers are ideal). We will leave as a group from Willamette Park, paddle en masse across the main channel, then take our sweet time paddling the northeast side of Ross Island. We’ll stop for happy hour on the north tip of the island, look out for stragglers, then depart again together and paddle nearer the north (the right side) riverbank where there are typically less boats.

Things to bring:

  • State law requires you have a PFD on your or your craft
  • State law also requires you have a light on your board. Can you improvise a light? You bet! LED flashlights in ziplock bags are not uncommon!
  • Leash. This is good because you don’t want your board floating away in the middle of 200 boats and we also use them to tether up together once we’re at the destination.
  • Extra rope, bungees, etc. for tethering purposes
  • Beverages and snacks. Bring what you want, we’re not judging you =) A flask of something warming? Mmmm…
  • Bug spray wouldn’t hurt. I don’t recall getting eaten last year but we’ll probably spray ourselves ahead of time just in case.
  • A sense of adventure.

The route:

Screen-Shot 2016-07-04 at 9.44.43 AM

Ditching my journey for safety

Ditching my journey for safety

This morning I set out from Sellwood and headed upstream with the intention of upwinding my way to George Rogers Park. The round trip is nearly 9.5 miles, it’s a scenic stretch of river but with a couple narrow sections that speed the current up a bit. It’s a great workout too, especially when the south winds are blowing and you expend far more than 50% of your energy on the first half of the paddle just maintaining a decent pace. I knew rain was on the way but when I left it was a mildly cloudy sky with sun peaking through enough to warm the air. I was a little over 3 miles in when I could spot George Rogers Park in the final stretch of the river. What I saw behind it though was a little more concerning. Black clouds with the distinct, familiar vertical blur indicating a sheet of rain was not far off. Still, being wet on the river is kind of standard. What was not standard were the sudden flashes of light followed several seconds later by thunderous booms. I mentally timed the distance to lightning at 7 miles and realized by George Rogers trip just got cut short by a couple miles. I did an instant 180 and dug into that water like I was in the final sprint at a race. Not three minutes later the flash and boom was 5 seconds, followed by another flash and boom at 2 seconds. I hauled ass to the nearest dock, still a couple minutes away, bent over to grab my board when I heard a crack overhead and a thundering boom not even a second behind. And then the heavens opened up with a deluge of water. I left my board on the dock and quickly ducked beneath the wing of a sea plane. I honestly don’t know if that was a smart move or not, there just wasn’t anything else to duck under. If the plane wasn’t the highest point around, I was. I wish I had taken more shots while the storm blew past but I was on the phone with a very concerned wife asking how she can come get me. I was nowhere near an accessible road though so we both had to patiently wait it out and hope for the best. About 10 minutes later the first front had passed and the sun attempted to once again assure me life was good. I put in and paddled with the effort of a professional race in it’s final minutes and managed to average 5.7mph for the last two miles, not bad!

If you’re ever stuck in a similar situation, get out of the water immediately! Stay low and stay away from trees and other tall metal structures (like planes!). I guarantee while I was on the river today I was 6′ higher than any other object around, which is not a good place with lightning in the vicinity. I was in a bad place today as the storm hit when I was nowhere near a safe area to quickly exit, which has taught me to check and recheck weather forecasts before I commit to a multi-hour paddle.

The Sternwheeler coming at me from an unexpected direction.

The Sternwheeler coming at me from an unexpected direction.

This was my perspective while waiting for the sternwheeler to pass me by today. It was waaaayyy earlier than the schedule indicated today as the Portland Cruises website indicated a departure of noon, which would have had the sternwheeler passing me from the northwest instead of southeast at this point. By the time it had mysteriously showed up from the opposite direction I already had 4 miles under my belt in a full 4/3 wetsuit, so I was a little tuckered to say the least! Yes, a 4/3. I was expecting to fall in at least a couple times while tailgating the boat and the Willamette is currently 48 degrees fahrenheit in direct sunlight. So you know, shut up =) I did manage to tuck behind the boat, hold onto the first swell for a few seconds, back off for the sake of comfort to the second swell, ride that one for a few seconds before completely screwing up my footing and nearly falling off. I got back up and jumped on the 5th or 6th swell, which with ongoing effort was enough to keep me going for awhile longer. It was playful fun and became a helluva workout today!

If there’s a sternwheeler on the Sellwood, river paddles just got a lot more interesting! It’s time to park the Bark race board and break out the Naish Glide! Hopefully this is a regularly scheduled route so I can make it a regularly scheduled paddle!

Picture grabbed from the river cam at richmorgan.com

Sternwheeler surfing anyone?

Sternwheeler surfing anyone?

It’s time to burn a few calories before devouring many, many more. Tasks of the morning: Drink coffee, go paddle, eat! It’s 30 degrees outside but the river looks amazing so Farmer John and I will just have to team up for this mission! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Glassy and cold. It's no Hawaii water but it'll do!

Glassy and cold. It’s no Hawaii water but it’ll do!

I love panoramic images. I’m not sure if it’s the breadth of detail in them or the distortion caused by taking in far more horizontal detail than the human eye can physically see, but I dig ’em. Thankfully smart phone technology includes really cool panoramic built-in features and I take my phone on almost every SUP paddle. Below is a collection of my favorite panoramas from this past summer. Please click on the ones you like to see the larger version, there’s some great detail captured in there!


A panorama of the Willamette River

Soaking in the city from the pier at the OMSI

Tilikum and Marquam Bridges

I’m sitting next to a submarine while this gorgeous morning unfolds on the river

My favorite new bridge, Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Oregon

My favorite new bridge, Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Oregon

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