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A look back at 20 years of windsurfing in Hood River

Twenty years ago, few Hood River locals had ever heard of a "boardhead."

Some may have believed it to be an inside joke among the region’s timber producers instead of drawing a parallel between this sleepy town and the world’s fastest-growing water sport in the 1980s, windsurfing.

In the early ‘80s, the Hood River economy needed a boost as it tried to emerge from the declining lumber sales, factory closures and near 20 percent unemployment rate. Downtown storefronts were vacant, roads chewed up, and hillside properties run down.

While Hood River County slowly faded into a

depressed state, there sat the Mighty Columbia, eager to share her beautiful bounty with the ailing economy. But how?

By itself, the river was magnificent to look at. It provided recreational opportunities to boaters and anglers from British Columbia to the Pacific, as well as thoroughfare for all kinds of marine traffic.

But combine the Columbia with winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour and holding steady at 20-30 mph during the summer months, and you’ve discovered boardhead heaven.

“We kind of blew in with the wind,” said Windance owner, former competitor and Seattle native Brian Carlstrom. “Eventually, we just blended into the community.”

Over time, this cultural shift didn’t only benefit the windsurfers. Along with the boardheads came dollars, which contributed to the economic revitalization. That contributed to a real-estate boom, which convinced more and more people each year to move here, and eventually led to the genesis of an

entire windsurfing subculture.

That culture is still very much alive today, with many of its originators still contributing to its

evolution. But many of those who started all the hoopla are quick to point out the differences after 20 years, both in the windsurfing community and in the town of Hood River.

“It used to be our little secret,” said Sailworks owner Bruce Peterson, a Victoria, B.C., native who started sailing the Gorge in the summer of 1982. “If we had 30 sails on the water in a given day, that was a huge turnout.”

Like Peterson, many recall a small group of devoted wind junkies that would travel to the Gorge on weekends and set up camp every summer with one common goal — to sail as much as possible while having the most fun possible.

Others recall working around the clock to grow their businesses, while trying to fit in a few jibes at sunrise and sunset.

“Lots of people in the early days were here for two things: to windsurf and to party,” Carlstrom said. “I was having fun, too, but I had a shop to run. I was up until midnight repairing everyone else’s boards.”

Local windsurfing pioneers such as Carlstrom and his wife Lorraine, along with Peterson, Doug Campbell, Will Griffith, Bob Dill, Gary Gorman, Pat Dougherty, Mike Kitts, Ross Gardner, Rhonda Smith, Bob Reuter, Carl Steubing, Les Crichton, Brian Dalbey, Dave Russell, Jim Case, Kerri Kent, Jeff and Barb Hughes, Jane Parker, Bill Kline and many more share fond recollections of the glory days, and continue to reside in the Gorge year round.

Nearly every member of the original crew

remembers exactly what it was that made the Mid Columbia their home. Some talk about the spectacular natural beauty and wealth of outdoor activities. Others talk of the safety and serenity of small-town life. But despite some variation, everyone stands united on one front: “It’s all about the wind.”

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Years ago, the now world-renowned Gorge winds were viewed as a nuisance by fisherman, boaters, waterskiers, and orchardists, who couldn’t spray their crops efficiently.

However, as relentless as the winds could be at times, it was these “nukin’ winds” that kept bringing the windsurfers back year after year. People would share the legend of the Gorge winds with friends from Canada, Maui, Brazil and Europe, and before the townspeople knew it, Hood River was a stop on the international professional windsurfing circuit.

“The Gorge became infamous in Europe,” said Les Crichton, one of the original wind wizards and current owner of Gorge Animal. “People were scared by all the video they had seen.”

Crichton, a native of Vancouver, B.C., started coming to the Gorge in 1983 along with sailing buddies from B.C. and Seattle. He moved to Hood River full-time in 1986 and opened a board-construction business with Kerri Kent, who now owns Kerrits Activewear Inc.

Before settling here, Crichton, Kent, Peterson, Jeff Hughes, Jane Parker and other native Canadians would load up their cars and vans every weekend and drive to Hood River, praying for “killer swells.” If the wind didn’t cooperate, they would kick back at the beach and cross their fingers for tomorrow.

After a couple years of all-night road trips and all-day parties, the members of the “Canadian Embassy” decided to move to Hood River for the summers. Before long, they were buying houses, opening businesses and having kids.

“It was a lifestyle that revolved around windsurfing and having fun without limits,” said Hughes, a part owner of Big Winds who is still known today as “Coach” for his avid participation in the Roach Cup in 1984.

“I didn’t realize back then that this would be my home 20 years down the road. Before I knew it, I had packed in my stock-broker job and started a new lifestyle.”

For many, the new lifestyle resembled that of a ski resort town like Aspen, Whistler or Sun Valley. People played hard and sailed hard. Some, like Carlstrom, Doug Campbell and Dave Russell also worked hard. But the bottom line for everyone was enjoying life.

“It was just innocent fun,” said Parker, who used to sew sails for Rushwind and is now a real estate agent for Don Nunamaker Realtors. “I remember camping out for two months at a time and sailing every single day. So many fun memories. It was just a wonderful time in my life.”

During the initial pilgrimages to Hood River, Parker and up to 20 other Northwest sailors would rent a single house and sleep on rooftops, front lawns, in cars and even on hardwood floors — “with bubble pack,” recalls Hughes.

“This place was happening,” Peterson said. “Everybody sailed the same spots and everyone hung out in the same places. We were like one big family.”

For two summers, a group of Peterson’s Canadian buddies (Hughes, Crichton, et al), rented a house on 7th and Cascade that became known as the “Roach Motel.”

They would also hold speed competitions at the Hood River and Bingen marinas, as well as weekly “BlowOut” races from Cascade Locks to Hood River, which later evolved into a major event that is still held today.

“Sometimes we would train for the BlowOut three times a day,” Parker said. “That’s 60-plus miles in one day! We’d have people crawling out of the river with broken equipment doing anything they could to get it repaired so they could start up again.”

By 1989, the BlowOut attracted more than 200 competitors from all over the world, and gained corporate sponsorship from companies like Budweiser.

Another major event on the Hood River tour stop was the High Wind Classic, which Campbell organized in 1982 as a way to make windsurfing more of a social endeavor. Later came the Gorge Pro-Am (1984-91) — the premier windsurfing event on the pro tour at one time — the Windance Cup, Chinook Challenge and much later, the Gorge Games in 1996.

Popularity was growing and the word was out. Hood River was it for windsurfers. The Vancouver Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian, The Seattle Times, Time Magazine, and even 60 Minutes caught wind of the latest craze on the Columbia River. The legend of the Gorge was no longer sacred.

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With the influx of world-class windsurfers and the onset of professional events, a new multi-million-dollar industry was born in Hood River. Around the time of the Canadian infusion, windsurfing shops and other businesses owned by windsurfers started springing up all over town, as well as in Bingen and White Salmon, Wash., and The Dalles.

Wind Synergy (founded in 1983 by Will Griffith) and Hood River Windsurfing (1984, Campbell) were first to open their doors, while Windance Sailboards (1984, Carlstrom) and Rushwind Sails (1984, Russell) followed shortly thereafter.

“After those four came everyone else,” said Crichton, who opened Gorge Animal in 1986. “The market became a little glutted, but those who chose to stay in have benefitted greatly.”

During windsurfing’s peak in 1992, there were approximately 400 windsurfing shops in the United States. Today there are 112 retail shops — 13 of which call Hood River home.

“It’s not the same business today as it was in the ‘80s,” Carlstrom said. “It was a lot harder to plan when the growth was so rapid. It’s a lot nicer now. Every shop has a specialty. I’m just glad we got in on the ground level.”

But although the windsurfing industry has proven to be a tremendous boon to the local economy over the years, it wasn’t always met with open arms.

“In the early days, there was some antagonism toward us,” Crichton said. “We weren’t welcome in a lot of places. Nowadays there’s a rumble, but it’s not nearly what it used to be.”

“I can understand why people were resistant to the changes,” added Carlstrom. “Windsurfing brought a lot of people to the town that weren’t here before. But it also brought a lot of business — not just to the windsurfing industry, but to local restaurants, hardware stores, hotels and so on.

“Most downtown businesses have benefitted directly or indirectly from windsurfing. Not only that, but the windsurfing community has done a lot to improve the town,” he said.

Along came restaurants like the Oak Street Deli, Andrew’s Pizza, Pasquale’s and Mike’s Ice Cream that directly contributed to reviving Hood River’s economy. Windsurfers have also played an active role in city government and the schools, while helping to promote bond levies and improvements along the Port of Hood River.

Over time, the revitalized landscape helped build the tourism industry, and later helped spawn the Gorge Games, founded by long-time Hood River resident Peggy Lalor.

“I wanted to broaden the image of the Gorge to be more than just windsurfing,” she said. “There are so many other cool things to do here, and I didn’t want to have to rely on Mother Nature to hold an event.

“So we incorporated kayaking, climbing and mountain biking into the Games and our marketing plan became to sell the outdoor, healthy lifestyle,” she said.

The Gorge Games will embark on their sixth year July 13-21 and Lalor hopes to see the community rally behind it this year so that the Gorge Games can continue to build a legacy similar to the Gorge Pro-Am and BlowOut events that preceded them.

One Gorge Games feature event that is enjoying worldwide growth and popularity right now is kiteboarding. Some of the world’s best kiteboarders reside in Hood River, including Gorge Games BlowOut record holder Cory Roeseler.

“Back in the mid-90s, kiteboarding was always piggybacking off windsurfing,” he said. “But once they started holding separate competitions, it really took off.”

Whether the Gorge Games live on remains to be seen, but according to Les Crichton, one thing will remain constant.

“Hood River is here to stay as a windsurfing and kiteboarding destination,” he said. “The town has grown with it and will continue to grow around it.”

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