Leaving the Gorge

... thoughts on Hood River

This story is featured in C&K’s 2011 Whitewater issue, available on newsstands now. Stay tuned to CanoeKayak.com for next week’s exclusive Currents TV episode from Five 2 Nine Productions, which dissects the rivers and the paddlers that make Hood River, plus the lowdown on the scheduled Condit Dam removal on the White Salmon River.

By Christian Knight

photo Charlie Munsey

Leaving Hood River is my biggest regret. I can’t stop analyzing the cost-benefit of taking a job that moved my wife, then 3-month-old daughter and me away from the Northwest whitewater hotbed. And whenever I hear of someone moving to Hood River, the news makes me jealous and a little sad.

Boaters are always moving there. Very few of the prominent kayakers “from” Hood River are from Hood River. Todd Anderson might be the only one. Sam Drevo was from D.C., Tao Berman is from Monroe, Wash., John Hart (owner of the Kayak Shed) is from Montana. HR is more like graduate school for kayakers. For Berman, the move has been more like a career transition. For Nate and Heather Herbeck, the move elevated their skills from a shaky Class IV to solid Class V.

Paddlers go to Hood River to push themselves and to be pushed by others. Living there is living a paddler’s dream, though it does have its drawbacks—such as a cliquish culture that embodies many of the things we hate about Class V kayakers (like pretending to never, ever be nervous). Hood River’s vibe and instant access to world-class creeking didn’t necessarily make me a braver paddler, but it definitely made me a more complete one.

Almost any day of the year, I could rally from this quiet Oregon town of 6,000 to the takeout of the Little White and catch someone on a first, second or third lap. I could clock in a morning run and still check into the newsroom before tardiness roused my boss’s suspicions. Many of the paddling friends I had developed in my previous decade of whitewater lived three to four hours away. But the creeks were so seductive, I could convince even the least spontaneous of them to drop everything and make the trek, just by telling them the water levels were good.

I left it all behind for a chance at other dreams. Since then, I’ve had a hard time shaking that subtle feeling of being lost, as though I’m walking the wrong way through the woods. If I’d stayed, I wonder if I still would have become a homeowner with two more kids and an actual master’s degree in something other than boating? Mostly, though, I wonder if I’d be happier than I am now. There’s a part of me that will never grow up and leave Hood River.

Gotta go. Children are crying.

VOICES FROM THE GORGE:

Todd Anderson, 26: My parents moved here to be involved in the windsurfing industry. Adults here are progressive and want to teach kids how to get out and enjoy the recreation opportunities that surround us. I had a class in middle school that taught me how to roll—the mindset breeds outdoor athletes at a young age. I’ve gotten the opportunity to paddle the best rivers with most of the best paddlers alive. I don’t have to drive hours to mediocre rivers. I have all the best in my backyard. I have never had an issue finding people to paddle with.

It’s easy to get sucked in deep to the kayaking scene because so many people here are so into it. Kayaking has been the focus of my life from age 12 to age 26. My first job was at the Kayak Shed and now I own the Columbia Gorge Kayak School. Hood River is one of the few towns in the world that supports this lifestyle.

Heather Herbeck, 34: Hood River has a tight community of boaters. We challenge, push and support each other more so than I’ve seen anywhere else. We’ve even been known to dress up in costume and boat our local runs or celebrate a holiday with a paddle, followed by a traditional meal together. The HR boating community is a family that just happens to live their lives around whitewater. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Sam Drevo: If there’s such a thing, Hood River was the origin of professional kayaking. The Gorge Games extreme race in 1995 was the first official prize money whitewater kayak race in the country. Since the late ‘90s, Hood River has seen a huge increase in summer visitors. While I like the hustle and bustle, I now spend more time in Mosier (about 10 minutes down the road). The geography of Hood River is spectacular; from the mountains (both Adams and Hood can be seen from town), to its surrounding rivers and gorges—Hood River is an outdoorsman’s Mecca.

Christie Glissmeyer, 32 (pictured left at Celestial Falls): This area’s been great for my paddling progression because there are a huge variety of runs at all levels of difficulty. I never get bored here because I can challenge myself as much as I want. Living here has made me a better person in general because if I don’t get out on the river regularly, I can get cranky.

Tao Berman, 32: I’ve traveled the world extensively, searching the earth for the most impressive locations and whitewater, so I can say with confidence that Hood River is one of the most special places on the seven continents. It also doesn’t hurt that there are about seven other sports that can be done at a world-class level within 30 minutes of town.

Cody Howard, 28: Hood pumps out world-class kayakers because it has world-class play and the perfect stepping grounds of Class III to V, and the tallest runnable drops in the world. It’s just epic and breeds a different type of paddler. All you need is 30 bucks a month for gas.

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