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Tales From the Hood

Carried on the wind, an Oregon river town is reborn as a playground for grown-ups who love the sporting life.

July 01, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Travel Writer

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — Why would a man holler "I love Hood River!" in a crowded movie theater?

The answer begins 25 years ago, when this town was in trouble deeper than the river that flows past it.

To visualize those bad old days, you need to look beyond the brightly colored grown-up toys bobbing in the water, ignore the escalating home prices, pay no mind to those funky business nameplates--Shred Threads, for instance, or Hypnotherapy of Hood River--along Oak Street.

By the mid-1970s, state and federal agencies had begun to tighten limits on logging in the forests of the Northwest. This was good for the animals, the trees and all who embrace them, but after decades of dominating life along the Columbia River, the timber trade began to decline, hobbling local economies along the river and beyond. For Hood River, about 60 miles east of Portland, this bad news was coupled with the decline of the local fruit industry.

When the Diamond Fruit Cannery closed in 1982, taking with it more than 140 jobs, Hood River was left with an empty hulk of a building in the heart of its downtown. That was just a few blocks from the boarded-up Hood River Hotel on Oak Street, formerly the second-fanciest lodging in town. Meanwhile, the former fanciest lodging in town was limping along as a retirement home.

Los Angeles Times Saturday July 7, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Hood River--In a July 1 Travel section article about Hood River, Ore., the innkeeper of the Panorama Lodge was incorrectly identified. His name is Lee Jenkins.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 15, 2001 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Hood River--In an article about Hood River, Ore. ("Tales From the Hood," July 1), the innkeeper of the Panorama Lodge was incorrectly identified. His name is Lee Jenkins.

What, people wondered, would keep Hood River alive?

The answer blew in on a gust from the Columbia Gorge. In the early 1980s, a handful of pioneers imported windsurfing, a sport that thrives on the 50 mph winds that routinely rake the dam-tamed waters of the gorge. These winds, devotees say, make Hood River the most exciting place in the continental U.S. to sail a board on inland waters. From Portland and far beyond, thrill-seekers came for the big fun of dancing on the Columbia in these winds.

Soon, in the same sort of ideology-free revolution that transformed Moab, Utah, from a dwindling uranium mining town to a mountain-biking mecca around the same time, Hood River reinvented itself.

The populations of Hood River city and county are still a modest 5,000 and 20,000, respectively. But the summer tourist season hums, several equipment manufacturers have set up shop, and the average home price--$174,384--has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

"We came here for one summer and never left," Karl Mikkelson, the store manager for Mountain View Cycles, told me. He and his wife, Carol, have been here 10 years.

The new Hood Riverites, not always admired by the old Hood Riverites, are easy enough to spot: Their cars are laden with roof racks, and they wear fleece sweaters the way lumberjacks wear stubble.

So on a morning in the spring of this year, as I came rolling off Interstate 84 onto Hood River's tiny main drag, a local might presume I was here to hitch up a board and join all those damp daredevils out there in the 50-degree water.

But no, not me, not this trip. I was here because there's more than one way to play in Hood River. In recent years, locals and visitors have awakened to a variety of outdoor options.

In the wildflower-strewn hills that loom over the gorge, there's enough mountain-biking on forest trails and country roads to keep three bicycle shops busy, peddling bikes at prices that can top $5,000.

Along the Hood, White Salmon, Klickitat and Deschutes rivers, all of which flow into or out of the Columbia within 30 miles of here, you'll find kayaking, canoeing and rafting. At least four outfitters run daily trips in the summer through waters that range from placid to Class IV rapids. There's fishing too.

Less than an hour away on 11,235-foot Mt. Hood, the Timberline Lodge's lift facilities were upgraded in 1996 to improve virtually year-round skiing and snow-boarding slopes. The slopes, part of the 8,500-foot Palmer Snowfield, usually close for maintenance the first two weeks of September but otherwise remain open through the seasons.

Automobiles have been banned on a 4.6-mile stretch of the historic Columbia River Highway that reopened last fall between Hood River and Mosier to the east, leaving a spectacular car-free path for runners, hikers and road-bikers, complete with twin tunnels.

And down on the Columbia itself, the barge pilots who still work this river now have more to worry about than miscreant windsurfers. These days kite boarders share the whitecaps.

Like the windsurfers, the kite boarders carve through river waters on boards with fins. The new rigs, which started showing up on the river about three years ago, catch wind in "kites" that are really more like parachutes. With wind power so efficiently harnessed, kite boarders can leap 10 or 20 feet out of the water, even on days when relatively dead air leaves windsurfers river-bound.

Several kite boarders told me that learning kite boarding is a matter of weeks or months, not the months or years that it can take to master windsurfing. I spent more than an hour one afternoon just watching them.

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