- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

HOOD RIVER, Ore. — They are returning now, the wind worshippers who swarm into this scenic Columbia River town every year from all corners of the world to squirm into their wet suits, hop onto their windsurfing boards and go tearing across the whitecaps.

Some will stay the weekend. Some will stay the summer. Others may stay forever. Plenty do.

Sitting on a bench in front of a popular downtown coffee shop is local windsurfer Bart Vervloet, a 43-year-old who came here nearly two decades ago in search of the perfect wind, found it, and made Hood River his home.

Mr. Vervloet is fond of pointing out that the first three digits of Hood River phone numbers — 386 — spell FUN on telephone keypads.

“This is a play zone,” says Mr. Vervloet, the voice of “Bart’s Best Bet,” a local radio program that broadcasts the day’s expected wind speed, weather forecast and other data crucial in a town known as the windsurfing capital of the world.

“You do whatever it takes to stay here,” Mr. Vervloet says.

Everyone knows Mr. Vervloet, who also manages Windwing, a downtown shop that sells sails of its own design and other gear. Mr. Vervloet is a strapping man with a puckish smile.

Windsurfers stopping at the coffee shop give him a hearty “Hey Bart” as they wander by. One of them asks Mr. Vervloet, who got hitched last year, how he likes married life. “She’s still there,” he replies triumphantly.

Among the windsurfers who pull up in front of the coffee shop are a businessman from Michigan who spends summers here chasing the wind, a twentysomething who sells Toyotas at a Bend, Ore., car dealership, and a man who tends bar at night and windsurfs during the day.

More are coming — many, many more. By the height of summer, this town of fewer than 6,000 will be swelling with throngs of athletic visitors.

Ensconced in a majestic cleft of the North American continent called the Columbia River Gorge, Hood River has an embarrassment of recreational riches.

Windsurfers began coming here about 20 years ago, drawn by winds of 25 mph and higher that persistently blast down a natural wind tunnel created by towering basalt bluffs framing both sides of the Columbia River Gorge.

The windsurfers have been followed by legions of outdoors enthusiasts pursuing other sports: kayakers and rafters who plummet down tributaries feeding into the mighty Columbia, mountain bikers who race through foothills of the Cascade mountain range, road cyclists who speed along backroads that wind past pear and apple orchards. There’s also salmon fishing and golf.

During the winter and part of spring, local resorts, hotels and inns cater to skiers and snowboarders who hit the slopes of 11,240-foot Mount Hood, which looms in the near distance.

“On a perfect day, you can ski in the morning, squeeze in a kayak run and finish your day with a bike ride,” Mr. Vervloet says.

The latest craze in Hood River is “kiteboarding,” which is similar to windsurfing. The whole point of kiteboarding is not so much speed as becoming airborne. A large kite captures the wind, propels the surfer across the water and plucks him as much as 40 feet into the air, depending on wind gusts.

You don’t have to be an outdoors enthusiast to appreciate Hood River. Downtown buildings, some more than a century old, have been renovated. New restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts have opened in the past several years, catering not just to the sports set, but also to tourists who are traveling through the Columbia River Gorge.

Leaving from a 1911 train station, the Mount Hood Railroad takes visitors on a four-hour journey along the bosky Hood River Valley and over hills lying in the shadow of Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest summit.

Scattered along the Hood River Valley are more than 300 fruit farms. Motorists follow what’s called the Fruit Loop — a tour of fruit orchards, country markets, wineries and roadside stands.

Windsurfing and recreation have totally changed Hood River, which in the 1980s was struggling because of the decline of the timber industry. Now lining Hood River’s streets are businesses with names like Big Winds, Windance, Kayak Shed, Storm Warning and Renegade River Rafters, as well as boutiques and galleries. Many of the largest designers of windsurfing gear are located here, making Hood River a hub of innovation for windsurfing technology.

“There are other small towns around America that are shriveling. Hood River isn’t,” says Peter Jubitz, who was born and raised here and owns Franz Hardware store.

“It’s gone way beyond windsurfing. Cars go by with a canoe on the top and golf clubs in the trunk,” says the 61-year-old Mr. Jubitz.

A 1990 study by community planning specialist David Povey found that windsurfers infused about $16.4 million into Hood River during the summer and projected that would grow to $30 million in 1995.

Hood River’s attraction as a place for all kinds of outdoor activities has grown over the past decade, and Mr. Povey figures the summer economic impact from visitors may have reached about $50 million.

“More people are coming, staying longer and engaging in more activities,” says Mr. Povey, who taught community and regional planning at the University of Oregon.

Some locals get annoyed with downtown traffic jams during the summer, he says. Some avoid downtown altogether during summer because parking places are hard to find.

You also can hear grumbling about housing becoming far less affordable.

Yet barriers are falling between locals and the sports-minded newcomers, Mr. Jubitz says. Many of the newcomers have become locals themselves, buying homes and starting businesses related to the windsurfing industry. Also among the permanent residents are some of the nation’s top competitive windsurfers.

Peg Lalor, a Canadian, started coming to Hood River for windsurfing in 1982 and moved here 10 years later.

She is the founder of the Gorge Games, an annual summer sports extravaganza with events that have included windsurfing, kiteboarding, kayaking, climbing, mountain biking and sailing.

The games, which started in 1996, have attracted top athletes from all over the world.

The games have been canceled this summer because of problems arranging sponsors. It’s a loss for Hood River. Miss Lalor is determined to get them back.

“We have something nobody has in the rest of the country. We have the best venues for all of these sports in a very short circumference of the river,” says Miss Lalor, who is putting together a coalition to coordinate and organize athletic events in Hood River.

It’s too early to say how much of a financial impact the absence of the Gorge Games will have on Hood River.

There’s still a full schedule of events over the next three months — a windsurfing race series called the Gorge Cup, a marathon, an annual equestrian competition, golf tournaments, sailboat races and a cycling road race.

The town also can rely on the thousands who come here each year not to compete, but to pursue windsurfing and other sports on a recreational level — and to soak up the natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge.

It’s as Mr. Vervloet says. This is a play zone.

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