Nearly 500,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) is flowing between The Dalles and Bonneville dams this week, which translates to a very fast-flowing river. Around Hood River, strong currents, cold water (54 degrees on Friday morning) and limited access will mean increased challenges for recreation for the next several weeks.
"As far as beach access for windsurfers, the high water doesn't really make much of a difference," said Katie Crafts, Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association executive director. "But the strong current and the large amount of floating debris in the water are causes for concern. Early season conditions can be very challenging in the Columbia River, and this year that is especially true."
For kiteboarding, the high water has created an access issue around the Hood River waterfront. Pre-season launching and landing at the Event Site expired at the end of April, meaning kiteboarding access to the river is mainly designated to the Hood River delta via the Spit. But the delta is three feet under water, and looks to remain submerged for the near future.
"The situation definitely poses challenges," said Pepi Gerald, president of the Columbia Gorge Kiteboarding Association. "For experienced kiters, launching and landing from the parking lot of the spit isn't a big deal. But for people who are from out of town, are not familiar with the local conditions or are beginners, access is going to be an issue with the water this high."
Michael McElwee, Port of Hood River executive director, said he and other port board members were out this week assessing the situation and looking for temporary alternatives for kitebaording access.
"We really don't have a lot of options," McElwee said. "The option I'm going to recommend to the board is to open the Marina swim beach, temporarily, for kiteboarding access."
As of last season, kiteboarders are allowed to set up at the eastern end of the swim beach, near the bathroom, and walk kites out into the water to launch. But even that end of the beach is mostly underwater. Until the water goes down, McElwee said he feels the best option is to allow kiteboarders to use the higher ground of the western beach and grass area.
"It's not a beginner launch, but at this time I think it's the best option for temporarily expanding access," McElwee said.
Another option, which was presented to McElwee by the CGWA, is to re-open the Event Site to kiteboarding for the next couple of weeks as long as the water remains high.
"The CGWA had a board meeting this week, and from that we received a recommendation that I'll present to the board at our next meeting. I think it's a very constructive idea worth considering."
McElwee will present ideas and recommendations to the board at the next meeting (May 24), and it will ultimately make a decision.
For Gerald, a longtime local windsurfer and kiteboarder, this isn't the first time he's seen high water create access issues.
"As long as people keep level heads and make smart decisions, things will be fine," he said. "The high water and strong current actually create some pretty fun conditions on the water. But it can be challenging out there, especially for people with less experience and who are not aware of the challenges of the local conditions."
For the dozen or so kiteboarding and windsurfing schools that are gearing up for the season, the conditions will pose mixed challenges.
Windsurfing schools have the safety of the hook, which will be deeper than normal but still perfectly safe for teaching.
"The Hook is one of the best beginner windsurfing places in the country," Crafts said. "The high water means a little less room around the edges, but it really doesn't make much of a difference."
Again, for kiteboarding, it's a different story.
Kite schools utilize the sandbar and the shallows around its edges for teaching new students. With no sandbar and very strong currents, instructors will have to change their methods until the water goes down.
"I've been teaching here since 1999, so I've worked with high water before," said Mark Worth, Gorge Kiteboarding School owner and instructor. "With the high water, there's quite a bit of waist deep water out there now, which is really good for teaching in. But the current is very fast right now, and that makes things much more challenging."
Worth said that over the years he has developed a strategy tuned to local conditions, but that other schools, especially those with instructors who aren't as experienced in the Gorge, will likely have difficulty teaching until the water is at least a little lower.
"I think schools will probably reduce lessons, rely on jet-ski lessons if they can, or perhaps even cancel lessons until water goes down a bit," Worth said.