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

While this pertains to our area, specifically the playground/gym we know as the Willamette River, it pretty much applies anywhere a river or large body of water are being utilized.

I’ve entered the Willamette River on worse days than I’ve ever thought I would this winter. I think it has to do with my paddle addiction being worse than past years and also a growing group of winter condition paddlers who have joined me this year. We’ve gone out in inclement weather to say the least (there’s been more snow in Portland than ever on record this year) and we’ve gone out in what I would consider questionable flow rate levels. I’ve enjoyed pushing the limits and broadening what I’ve considered to be acceptable paddle conditions! There’s still things I want to remind everyone to also consider before entering the river this time of year: Know the flow, know the content, and mind the entry location.

Even on sunny winter days, check those conditions!

Even on sunny winter days, check those conditions!

Know the Flow

Once the Willamette River is flowing above 2ft/sec, you have a couple decisions to make. First, can I get back to my starting point if I paddle downriver in these conditions? At 2ft/sec, you will have noticeable, sustained resistance when paddling back up river. This is a very important consideration especially when entering up river like many of us do at Willamette Park or Sellwood Park. If you are a beginner, or a beginner to paddling in winter conditions, paddle over to the south tip of Ross Island from Willamette Park on a day with stronger current, then paddle back or try to get to Sellwood Park. You will know rather quickly how comfortable you’d be and if you have the strength for a Ross Island loop.

Know the Content

Poop factor is very real as Portland’s antiquated water systems were intentionally designed to overflow and release raw sewage during heavy rains. Check The Oregonian or Facebook paddle sites for updates as to the sewage content currently in the Willamette. Yes, this sounds like medieval black plague kind of technology, and yes, it’s rather embarrassing as a city to have a sewer system that does this by design, but there you have it. The city’s inner structure is aging and outdated, welcome to Portland. So yes, raw sewage is a risk factor that needs to be considered before deciding where to put in. If it’s a day or two after a particularly large span of rain, consider trekking to Vancouver Lake or Hagg Lake as an alternative to poop paddling.

Mind the Entry Location

Winter paddling is great with the right equipment and conditions!

Winter paddling is great with the right equipment and conditions!

If the flow rate suggests you’re going to get a bigger workout than anticipated, consider putting in downstream and head directly into the current for starters. This way, when your back is urging you to call it quits, you just turn around and take a leisurely paddle back to the starting point. There are quite a few paddlers starting at the OMSI dock just for this reason this winter season.

Have fun out there! It’s cold and wet but there’s a growing group of us with smiles on our faces beneath our floppy brimmed hats and face covers, please feel free to join in!