Watch this detailed video to see the obstacles and safety information you should be aware of for your Viento to Hood River downwinder. If you don’t want to watch all 20 minutes, it’s still worth skipping through to see the submerged tree trunks and other obstacles. Below is a brief outline for those who would rather read about this amazing Columbia River Gorge downwinder.
1.) Dropping Cars
Downwind logistics can get tricky if you think too hard about it. Those attending the Gorge Downwind Championships don’t need to worry about this as there will be shuttles running all week. Outside of this event you can reserve the Big Winds downwind shuttle that departs from the event site at 11 AM and 1 PM daily.
If you are dropping cars, leave one car either at the Event Site or the Waterfront Park area, load boards, drive up to Viento State Park. I prefer leaving cars at the Waterfront Park as parking is free and this is where all of the downwind paddle races end.
2.) Securing Stand Up Paddle Boards, Surf Ski’s and Outrigger Canoes
Watching your boards fly through the air in your rearview mirror is not a feeling you want to experience. For you, the drivers around you and your boards, add a safety line through the car. I’ve seen a handful of incidents, and experienced a few myself over the years, on the the 8-mile drive to Viento.
60+ mph vehicle speed combined with 30+ mph winds funneling through the Gorge can create an incredible amount of force against your roof racks. A safety line around the front of all paddle crafts, near the front roof racks, and then through your front two doors will secure everything against the vehicle.
Racks can fail or rip out of the roof and straps can become loose. Don’t risk it! Play it safe and run a safety line through the vehicle so you don’t start your downwind adventure with a disaster!
3.) Pay the Viento State Park Fee
It’s $5, payable by cash or credit card, to park your vehicle at the launch point at Viento State Park. An Oregon State Park pass can be purchased for $30 and is good for annual parking here. Passes can most easily be purchased at the Old Columbia River Highway Park Office just outside of downtown Hood River.
4.) Unloading and Walking Down to Water
Eating the plump raspberries from the bushes along the trail might seem tempting but be sure to avoid the one’s on the bottom. Dogs and humans tend to relieve themselves below knee level so reach high to avoid yellow berries!
There are a few rocks to stub toes but the trail is relatively sandy. Beware of poison oak all along the trail! I had a bad experience with poison oak here a few years back and it nearly ruined my trip. Poison oak has three leaf stems but my advise is to simply stay on the trail and avoid walking through the bushes.
5. ) Water Entry at Viento
As you approach the end of the trees you’ll hopefully be greeted by 25+mph winds from the left side of the Gorge. Be sure to hold your paddle craft and paddle securely as the wind can be incredibly strong in the Gorge (that’s why you’re there!).
Bend your knees and take your time walking to the water if needed. You can proceed straight into the water where the path ends or the easier option is to take the path to the right to the small and protected beach.
I personally do not like the feel of water shoes but the rocks can be rough to sensitive feet. Most paddlers will be fine without booties but if you have sensitive feet it might be worth bringing a pair just in case.
Be aware of the rock piles as you enter the water at Viento. There are a few piles of rocks that can be submerged around 10 ft. from the shore where you will hit your fin. Take your time and don’t start your run with a banged up fin or rudder.
Do not paddle without a leash and PFD!!!
It’s very easy to get separated from your vessel in the strong winds and current of the Columbia River. Please set yourself up for a safe downwind run by using the appropriate equipment.
If you do fall into the water, no big deal. Be sure to come up with your hands in front of your face. The powerful Gorge wind can send your stand up paddle board, surf ski or outrigger flying through the air. Hands in front of the face can help prevent head injuries. A very experienced paddler suffered a concussion last year when coming up from a fall only to be greeted by a board to the face.
6.) Heading Downwind and Upriver
One of the confusing aspects of downwind paddling in the Gorge is that you will be paddling downwind from Viento to Hood River, but up the Columbia River. Watch this video overview about choosing a line through the Gorge for more details on the Viento downwinder current.
As you start to paddle downwind, look upwind to your left to see if there are any barges making their way downwind toward you. They may not be close but it’s good to know if there are any coming as you will be paddling in the boat channels for portions of the Viento downwinder.
Mitchell Rock is the first major landmark you will encounter on your Viento downwinder. This rock outcropping is approximately 2.8 miles downwind from the start. The wind and current tend to pick up a bit at this point and can make for fun bumps through the narrowing of the Gorge here.
The next major point of interest is a red channel marker approximately a half-mile downwind of Mitchell Point. For the Gorge Paddle Challenge in August, competitors will need to leave this channel marker on their left shoulder. The marker is an important indication of your river location and a good reminder to look over your shoulder to see if there are any approaching barges.
Once past this marker, I tend to surf bumps across the river toward Swell City and the Hatchery. “How far over for the fastest line?” is always to questions of the day. I’ve been experimenting with different lines and, in short, it seems it is highly variable based on wind and current speed.
Beginner paddlers should stick to the right side of the river for most of the downwind run to avoid the bigger swells, added current, shipping channels and hoards of kiters and windsurfers.
For any paddler going toward the middle or left side of the river, it’s important to keep your head on a swivel and be very aware of your surroundings. Consider wearing bright orange, red or yellow colors to become more visible on the river.
7.) Viento Downwinder Obstacles
After passing the red channel marker, the next land mark will be Split Rock on river right. Tucking in behind split rock, there is a great beach to rest, grab a snack and take in the scenery before the final stretch of the Viento downwinder.
When you depart Split Rock, or if simply paddling by, be aware of a large metal pipe just at the surface approximately 100 yards directly downwind of Split Rock.
This pipe, and the tree stumps scattered along the shoreline here and for much of the remainder of the run, will ruin your downwinder. Most paddlers will not find themselves this far over to the right side of the river. However, beginners tend to end up toward the right shore and should be very aware of these obstacles during this stretch of the Viento downwinder.
8. ) Wells Island and the Gorge Hotel
After Split Rock you will see a large white hotel a few hundred yards downwind on the right. This is the Gorge Hotel and an important landmark to indicate the minefield of submerged tree trunks in this area. Stay all least 100 yards away from shore to avoid the sharp trunks. Look up at the cliffside as you pass the hotel to catch a glimpse of Wah Gwin Gwin Falls.
After passing the hotel you’ll be fast approaching the sandbar of Wells Island. The sandbar extends a few thousand feet upwind of the island and is usually 2-5 feet deep. There are a few small sections that are quite shallow so be sure to pay attention to where the waves are breaking and avoid these areas.
If you are on a SUP, please bend your knees and don’t land straight-legged if you fall in this area. Knees and ankles can easily be twisted in this manner.
Passing Wells Island to the right or left is completely possible. However, paddlers who are racing are required to pass to the left of the island. There are generally better bumps by taking a line to the left anyway.
Midway through Wells Island and just off of the downwind end, there are tree stumps just above the water. Be aware and steer clear of these obstacles.
9.) Finishing at Waterfront Park or Event Site
Paddlers racing in any of the Gorge events will be finishing their courses at the waterfront park. There is a nice beach with a semi-rocky shoreline to exit the water. Once you get off the beach and into the park you can put your paddle craft on the grass (pointed directly into the wind of course!).
Rinse off at the showers, grab a beer from Pfriem Brewery or a pizza from Woodstock Pizza. Next, enjoy the fact that you just completed what was hopefully one of the most epic downwinder’s you’ve ever done!
Paddlers can also finish at the Hood River event site where there is another take out area with a large lawn. Parking at the event site is $8 while parking at the Waterfront Park is free. There are two great places to grab a bite to eat at the far downwind end of the event site for those who have worked up an appetite.
10.) Repeat 1-9 and do a double downwinder!