The Columbia River has again been a hotbed of activity this summer, and in case the frenzy of wind and wave junkies along the Hood River Waterfront wasn’t hot enough, next weekend’s Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge is going to kick it up to a whole new level.
In its four-year history, the standup paddling event has gained global acclaim and is now considered one of the top competitions in the world for the sport.
After three years of outstanding organization, steadily increasing numbers, positive press and attendance by many of the top male and female paddlers in the world, this year’s event was added to the list of just eight elite worldwide events on the SUP Champions Tour.
That distinction, along with $20,000 in prize money, hotly contested rivalries among male and female paddlers, an exciting change to the downwind race format, a variety of extracurricular activities and the exploding reputation the Gorge has garnered as one of the best downwind SUP sites on the planet, means this year’s Paddle Challenge will be one of the biggest sporting events held in Hood River since the Gorge Games. Event headquarters will be at the Hood River Waterfront Park, where Saturday’s downwind races will finish and Sunday’s course racing (days may be switched due to wind/weather conditions) will be based in front of. In addition to racing action, spectators will have the opportunity to demo boards, attend clinics by pro paddlers and enjoy the festival atmosphere with food, drinks, music, vendor displays and more.
For more specific event information and schedules, visit gorgepaddlechallenge. com. Although a draw for elite-division pro men and women who travel the world to compete, the Paddle Challenge is also a wildly popular event for amateurs and everyday paddlers who want to test their strength and conditioning against a field of friendly competition. Registration will remain open until Aug. 22 on the event’s website, with separate categories for elite, open, junior and grom male and female paddlers.
Last year’s elite field saw 16-yearold Gorge waterwoman and paddling protégé Finoa Wylde claim top overall honors (and prize money) over seasoned veteran paddlers like Andrea Moller, Candice Appleby and Jenny Kalmbach by finishing second in the downwind race and third in the course race. In the elite men’s field, 19-year-old Hawaiian star Kody Kerbox took first in the downwind race and second in the course race to claim the overall title. With Kai Lenny back in the lineup this year (he was in Germany for the Hamburg SUP World Cup last year), the elite men’s competitors are going to have their hands full keeping one of the most promising all-around watermen in the world in check. But with Kerbox, 2011 winner Connor Baxter and a dozen or so more top paddlers on their way, maybe it’s Lenny who will have his hands full.
Same goes with the women’s field, where the pressure will be on Wylde to defend her title against what is being anticipated as one of the most competitive women’s fields this year. Saturday’s distance race is an 8- mile downwind, upriver run from Viento State Park to the Hood River Waterfront Park. New this year is the “Double Down” format, which puts elite-division paddlers to the test with back-to-back runs down he same course, with both runs combined for a final time. If conditions line up, classic Gorge winds help push paddlers upriver as they glide on waist-highwaves that propel them even faster toward the finish.
Last year’s fastest run came from Kerbox, who completed the run in 1:03:56. The first run is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and will end with the elite men’s second run at about 2:30 p.m. Sunday’s course racing is best in calmer water, so the course utilizes the protection of the Hook and Wells Island which, conveniently, is also directly in front of event headquarters at the Waterfront Park. Racers must complete a set number of laps around a diamond-shaped course of six buoys while battling a headwind as they head out and utilizing a tailwind as they paddle back in. Although subject to chance, course racing is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. with the groms and end with the elite women at 1 p.m., the elite men at 2 p.m. and a friendly relay race at 3:30 p.m.
Positively Kai Kai Lenny, along with living legends Gerry Lopez and Chuck Patterson, are hosting a free kids introductory SUP class on Friday, Aug. 22, at the Hood River Waterfront Park. Paddling clinics run from 3-4 p.m., racing from 4-5 p.m., dinner from 5:30-6 p.m. and awards from 6-7 p.m. Boards will be provided fee of charge by Big Winds and Naish, jet skis will be on hand for support, all participants will get goodie bags and prizes will be awarded for the top three race finishers for both boys and girls. A limit of 200 participants is set, so register for this ASAP to ensure a place. To register, go to gorgepaddlechallenge. com, click on the Event Info link, then on the Positively Kai link. Shop Talk with Dave Kalama Surfing legend Dave Kalama will be in town early for the weekend’s contest and is hosting a free meetand- greet at Big Winds on Aug. 19, from 5-6 p.m. Kalama will be on hand to talk surfing and paddling, answer questions and share a bit about Imagine SUP boards. Refreshments provided.