News + Events: Look at Us
By Joe Fitzgibbon
August 24, 2006
Ride the waves behind a kite
It's easy to learn the latest outdoor craze
HOOD RIVER -- Laura Maher studies her pocket-sized weather pager while she waits for her kiteboarding partner, Karen Barker, to grab her gear and join her on the tiny Columbia River beach.
"I'm reading gusts of 22," the 40-year-old Hood River hairdresser shouts over the wind to her friend. "Awesome day for a ride."
Within minutes, the two women are dancing across the river, towed by large butterfly colored kites that billow wildly in the wind.
In fact, when Maher isn't smoothing out split ends or straightening tight curls, she's cutting her own waves through the white-capped river or teaching kiteboarding land-side for women new to the sport.
"I'll admit that I've talked many of the women who come to my shop into trying it out and, by the same token, lots of kiteboarders ask me to do their hair," she said. "It's the reason I moved to Hood River and I'm having the time of my life."
Many of the women Maher meets say they are awe-struck when they drive along the Columbia River Gorge and see the river dazzle with riders, their flashy kites skipping effortlessly across the water.
"They tell me the same thing, 'It looks like fun but I don't think I'm strong enough to do it'," Maher said. "That's where I like to step in and show them that it's all about balance and control."
With an economic impact of about $50 million annually, the Columbia Gorge is fast becoming one of the country's most popular venues for kiteboarding. From May through September, winds 10 to 25 miles an hour sweep through the towering canyon walls between Stevenson, Wash., and Hood River, prompting caravans of wind enthusiasts from California to Maine to fill motels, restaurants and shops.
"It's the engine that drives our summer economy," Genevieve Scholl-Erdmann, marketing director with Hood River Chamber of Commerce, said about kiteboarding and other outdoor activities. "For several years, we've been named one of the top 20 dream towns in the U.S. for those who love outdoor adventures."
Kiteboarding was popularized in Europe in the mid-1990s, but it took a handful of daredevils like Jeff Roberts, who were willing to attach themselves to inflatable kites and learn how to zigzag across the choppy Columbia River to bring the sport to Hood River. There was no shortage of mishaps or "crashes and burns," Roberts says, laughing.
"I was living in Portland and saw a picture of boarders and basically came out to the gorge and taught myself the hard way," he said. "Now, you've got professionals with the latest in equipment making it pretty easy for anyone to catch on in a few hours."
The sport transcends nearly all ages and abilities teenagers and senior citizens are taking to the wind-swept waters in record numbers and includes converts from wakeboarding, windsurfing, skateboarding and snowboarding.
The secret of a good, safe ride, Maher said, is controlling the angle of the kite in the wind.
"People find out really quickly that it's not really about how strong you are but how well you can handle your kite," she said. "I've worked with women from 13 to 50, and I make sure that every one of them is confident and secure before sending them out on the waves."
After one to two hours of land instruction, riders are strapped into a harness, with four or five guide lines attached -- standard length is about 25 yards -- and shown how to guide their kites out over the river with a lightweight control bar, akin to ones used by waterskiers.
With the dacron and polyester kite directly overhead, the skier remains stable, long enough to slip into the footstraps of the kiteboard. A flick of the wrist directs the kite toward the horizon. Wind power kicks in and the boarder is propelled across the water.
For comfort and safety, most riders don Neoprene wetsuits or vests, lightweight helmets and breakaway bungee cords. But, as their numbers increase, newcomers are also discovering that they have to share the waterways with ships, speed boats, recreation watercraft and even other kiteboarders.
"The unwritten rule is that you give way to everyone else," said Greg Kish, an avid boarder and manager of Slingshot, a Hood River-based distributor of kiteboards and equipment. "It's such a new sport that people pretty much have to police themselves."
Local shop owners compare the costs of kiteboarding with skiing.
Christine Parker, who runs the Gorge Surf Shop, said that purchasing a full outfit, including board, kite, life vest and gear can run upwards of $2,000. Her advice?
"Take lessons and rent the equipment until you know what you're doing," Parker said. "Then, if you have a good experience and get hooked, start looking for quality stuff."
Popular places to learn
Brian's Windsurfing and Kiteboarding 100 Marina Way, Hood River Two-hour lesson: $170 Guaranteed to Fly: $599, includes equipment When: Daily through Sept. 30 Age: 15 and older Information: 541-386-1423 or www.brianswindsurfing.com
Gorge Kiteboard School 1000 Kite Point Road, Hood River Three-hour lesson: $285, with buddy $450, includes equipment When: Daily through Nov. 15 Age: Late teens and older Information: 541-490-4401 or www.gorgekite.com
Hood River Water Play 100 Port Marine Way, Hood River Two-hour lesson: $179, includes equipment When: Daily through late September Age: 12 and older Information: 541-386-9463 or www.hoodriverwaterplay.com
Kite The Gorge Sandbar, Ore. Two-hour lesson: $164-$180, includes equipment When: Daily through Sept. 9 Age: Late teens and older Information: 541-490-9426 or www.kitethegorge.com
Newind Kite School 13 Oak Street, Hood River 11/2-hour lesson: $219 Full day: $329, includes equipment When: Daily through Sept. 12 Age: 12 and older Information: 541-387-2440 or www.newindkiteboarding.com