Hood River’s economy has had its share of ups and downs over the years, the most notable during the 1980s as it tried to emerge from the declining lumber sales, factory closures, and near 20 percent unemployment rate. Hood River County slowly started to fade into a depressed state due to the hardships, which was a strong contrast to the beautiful bounty that was the mighty Columbia River. Locals silently wondered how the economy would ever bounce back as there seemed to be no end in sight.

Hood River Windsurfers
Locals learning windsurfing during the late 80s in the area. Photo courtesy: Big Winds

Relief would eventually come in the form of windsurfing and kitesurfing for the area — a sport few locals had ever even heard of. Windsurfing and kitesurfing had risen from the surf culture of California in the late 1960s, and by the 1980s, the sport had achieved significant global popularity. In 1980 during the height of this popularity, 13 windsurfers from the West Coast came to Hood River to attempt to sail from Cascade Locks to Hood River. This became the first windsurfing event in the Columbia River Gorge, and it most certainly wasn’t the last. In fact, not even one of those windsurfers made it as it turned out their rigging was far too primitive and their boards too long to handle the strong winds of the Columbia River. As a new challenge for these athletes, they were more than excited to try and conquer the Gorge.

As a result of this desire to do the impossible with those early windsurfers, the Columbia River Gorge is now one of the world’s premier windsurfing and kitesurfing destinations. Hood River has easily become the center of the action. The area has developed a growing industrial base around the sport focused on providing equipment to all those who dare to take on the Gorge. During the early years of this newfound economic boost for the area, it is estimated that 150,000 windsurfers visited the Gorge from around the world in 1990.

Hood River Windsurfers
Local windsurfing shop Big Winds has been surfing windsurfers since its opening in 1987. Photo courtesy: Big Winds

This cultural shift in the region was a massive boost to the town’s economy. It allowed Hood River County to blossom into the vibrant, bustling premier tourist destination that it is today. It even created a real-estate boom for the community as aficionados of the sport began to relocate to Hood River so that they could have access to the winds whenever they felt like hitting the waves. Some events built new businesses specializing in all things related to the sport and created new job opportunities for the locals.

In fact, by 1984, there were already four windsurfing shops opened in Hood River, and these shops went on to serve the 200 competitors that showed up for the second annual Gorge Pro-Am. That same year, there was an estimated 1.2 million windsurfers in the United States, with half of those being athletes who had just taken up the sport.

Hood River Windsurfers
A look at early windsurfers from the 1980s. Photo courtesy: Big Winds

With all the publicity and media attention the sport was receiving, it wasn’t long before rumors spread throughout the community about the complex winds of the Columbia River Gorge. Boardsailors from around the world all wanted to test their luck and take on the challenge it presented. These sailors had already outgrown the waters that they learned the sport in and now wanted to learn high wind tricks. The Columbia River provided the perfect environment for these tricks, and windsurfers who visited found the conditions they had always dreamed about. Typically, high winds meant cold, stormy weather for these athletes, but in the Gorge, the wind blows when the sun shines, providing the surfers with ideal temperatures. The Gorge also proved safer for these athletes, as there were other windsurfers nearby for possible rescues, and the shore was never more than a half-mile away.

Hood River Windsurfers
Windsurfing and kitesurfing are still just as popular today as they were back in 1980 when the sport became big. Photo courtesy: Big Winds

It is amazing to think that annoying winds that used to be a nuisance to local fishermen, boaters, water skiers, and orchardists, preventing them from spraying their crops efficiently are now the same winds that thousands of tourists enjoy every year in the Hood River area. Year after year, these “nukin winds,” as they used to be called, keep blowing back in the windsurfers and kite surfers who want to take on the challenge of the Gorge. Beautiful Hood River has taken its place as the premiere stop on the international professional windsurfing circuit, and as long as the winds blow, the surfers will be ready and wanting.

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