King River

Having long held a siren song for all manner of water (and bike) sport enthusiasts, the Columbia River Gorge is at once as versatile as it is beautiful. But no-one could have predicted that this river would come to hold an attraction even to those from the home of wave riding itself…

Words: Matt Elsasser & Jack Ho
Photos: Matty Leong (unless stated)
Feature photo: Chase Viken

Matt: Hood River has been a Mecca for windsurfing, and then kitesurfing since the 70’s, when it was first discovered as a wind lover’s heaven. Enthusiasts from all over the world flock to the Columbia River Gorge during the summer months to enjoy the strong winds and rolling river swells. Windsurfing and kitesurfing allow you to ride these swells with the assistance of the wind in your sail, but we’ve never been able to freely surf the swells without a kite or a sail. It was simply a pipe dream… until now. With the advent of high aspect foils, the Gorge has taken on a new light as one of the most unique surf spots in the world. 

Sure, the surf purists will scoff at that last sentence. They’ll tell you that there is no such thing as real surf in a river. They’ll also tell you foiling isn’t surfing. What I’ll tell you is I’ve heard more Hawaiian pidgeon on the banks of the Columbia River this year than I have heard at most surf spots around the world. Typically, Hood River is flooded with summer visitors from Canada, Europe, and all over the US. The Hawaiians traditionally had it better at home though. 

Growing up in Oregon, I always looked at Hawaii as the home of ocean sports. It was a dream come true when my parents decided to move our family to Maui when I was 16. I was so excited to live in Hawaii that I could not sleep for months in advance. I loved where I grew up, but Hawaii seemed so much more “real”. And it was, the power of the ocean in Hawaii is on a different level to anything you will feel on the Columbia River Gorge. Coming home to the Gorge in the summer after living in Hawaii, the river had lost its luster to me. There were no lips to hit or barrels to hunt. You couldn’t purely harness the power of the waves like you could in Hawaii while surfing. 

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And then foiling came along. The first foils in the Gorge were for kiting, I immediately bummed one off the beach to try. The feeling was incredible, but it felt quite limiting with a kite in your hand. The efficiency of the foil felt overpowered by the tug of the kite. When the first surf foils came out, a small group of early adopters learned how to SUP foil, some of us also experimented with paddling in prone, towing in with a kite, etc. It piqued my interest and I thought I was having about as much fun as I could on the river.

In the summer of 2020, Nick Leason shipped me one of the first Lift 200 High Aspect wings to test in the river. This was the “ah-ha” moment. My friend from California, Patrick Rebstock, was visiting town. We got off the water one afternoon after trying the new wing for the first time. Patrick looked at me and said “The Gorge sure feels a lot more surfy”. Patrick is a diehard surfer, he wasn’t in town because he wanted to experience riding in the river. He was in town to visit his in-laws. But his ear-to-ear grin and referencing the word “surfy” in the same sentence as the Gorge made me think: Patrick was right. The Gorge just became a lot more fun with one new piece of equipment. It also might have become one of the longest waves in the world… 

Over the past few years, a handful of Hawaiians had made the trip to the Gorge to downwind foil. The sport of downwinding was still relatively small in Hawaii, as was their pilgrimage to the Gorge. Come spring of 2021, things changed as more and more photos and videos of foiling in the Gorge surfaced. Every foiler I know in Hawaii was asking when to come, where to stay, what to bring, and what to expect. 16-year-old Hawaiian foiling prodigy Jack Ho reached out to me looking to come visit. “I don’t care what we do, I just have to come see it…” Jack told me. It felt a bit like déjà vu to me, but in reverse. At 16 all I wanted to do was surf in Hawaii, but with the invention of foiling, Jack was now frothing to come surf my hometown river in Oregon.Unfortunately for Jack the first few days of his trip were windless. Luckily the Gorge also offers one of the most unique foiling wave machines on the planet. The Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler is a 120ft triple deck river boat. But what makes surfing behind this boat different than any other is it’s powered by a 17 x 18ft paddle wheel. One of the only true paddle wheel powered stern wheelers left on Earth. The paddle wheel creates more of a wave than a wake. Instead of the wake being created by the hull of the boat slicing through the water like a traditional boat, the Sternwheeler’s paddle creates dozens and dozens of waves for a quarter mile behind the boat. These waves run perpendicular to the boat, and you can do full cutbacks, pump from wake to wake, and ride for miles at a time. It really is the ultimate novelty wave. 

Jack didn’t come here just to ride the Sternwheeler, he came to ride the truly endless wind swells the Gorge has to offer. So what’s the set up? Well, 120 miles to the west of Hood River is the cold and rugged Oregon Coast. To the east lies hot and dry desert. The massive walls of the Columbia River Gorge act as a funnel for this pressure gradient between temperatures. The wind gets sucked straight through the Gorge from west to east in the summer months. The river current runs towards the Pacific Ocean, while the wind blows to the desert. This combination of opposing wind and river current creates the phenomenon locals like to call “River Swell”. On a big day, when the wind blows 35mph+, the swells can be the size of a school bus. If you surf foil, downwind foil, and/or wing foil this is something you have to experience at least once in your life. These endless rollers provide more power than you could ever imagine. On a nuking day you can foil downwind for a mile at a time without pumping once. With downwind runs varying from a quarter mile to thirty miles, there is truly fun for any level of foiler on any given day. 

Jack wasn’t super lucky on his trip, and flew home with just a taste of what the Gorge has to offer. Moderate winds plagued his stay, but I have no doubt that he will be back. The Gorge is not a place you come just once. Famous for kitesurfing, windsurfing, mountain biking, dirt biking, and kayaking, it just so happens to also be one of the best foiling spots in the world with wind or no wind. But don’t take my word for it, ask your friend that was here this summer. They’ll tell you the
same thing… 

Jack Ho s POV

The gorge has become a novelty downwind run that is getting a ton of attention through social media! It wasn’t until the release of performance high aspect wings that the idea of downwind foiling came into play. The Gorge is a kiter’s dream destination, therefore the idea of foiling in the Columbia River was a no brainer. There are two ways of foiling the river… SUP foiling downwind is one of the more popular and practical ways of flying. With the paddle, you can paddle into a swell and get up on the foil. Some guys prefer the smaller prone board feeling but this means finding a rock to jump off to start. You can go off a ski but not everyone has access to one. This is why the SUP comes in clutch! If you fall, all it takes to get going again is to stroke into a bump. The way the river flows and the way the wind blows is super perfect. With the wind blowing from the west and the river flowing west, it creates a conveyer belt of bumps that stack super hard. The water is rushing against the wind and this causes the water to come alive! Coming to the Gorge, I had no idea what to expect. I was really psyched to see so many people downwind foiling and winging. It is great when you see another local community of foilers so stoked on the sport. No bad vibes and an amazing group of athletes is what made my trip!


The Sternwheeler

The Sternwheeler is basically a glassy downwind run! The boat creates about 5-10 big lumpy wakes back-to-back of each other and at the perfect speed for the foil. Around 6pm, the boat launches from the dock and starts its dinner cruise. With perfect timing, you can dock start from inside this little harbor and attempt the 200-yard flat water pump to reach the wake. Once you’re flying on the wake, the smoothest carves and most stylish turns are being thrown down, along with a ton of hoots and hollers to your friends on the other wakes. When the wind is still and the river is sheet glass, this is the most fun and satisfying activity in the gorge. While the kiters and wingers sulk in sadness on the banks of the river, you’re basically doing the equivalent of huge S turns on an 8ft open wall on the North Shore of Oahu! 

Foiling Under a Waterfall

Punchbowl Falls is a beautiful waterfall about 2-3 miles into the forest. After a 30-minute drive west of Hood River, you hike through the dry and hot summertime Oregon forest. We were told that it was a casual 15-minute walk but that was not the case! That casual walk ended up being an hour hike along the ridge of a burnt valley. We made the trek into the mountain with only sandals, a foil, and camera gear. By the time we reached the waterfall, our moods were sour, feet sore, bodies dripping in sweat, and a few scratches were marked on a brand-new foil. Looking around, all we could see was a few rocks in the shallows and a huge log. I wondered if a log start could get me up and flying so I gave it a try. Luckily on my second attempt, I was able to get enough speed to lift my 1095cm wing. The sour moods were quickly flipped upside down and smiles grew across our faces. The five other people on the side watched in shock as they were essentially seeing a hoverboard fly across the pool of water at the base of the waterfall. After a few more circles of pumping, we called it a day and hiked back down the ridge. As the bright orange sun was setting behind the valley, we felt accomplished and successful. The outcome was worth the struggle at the beginning and I was so stoked to experience that afternoon. 

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