There's a moment of calm before it takes me. I stand stagnant on the deck of the board as it gradually coasts atop the water and my body gently trembles from a sense of eagerness. I'm not quite prepared when the wave finally hits me from behind and propels me forward, but I manage to carve left and right regardless, a euphoric feeling washing over me as I do. It strikes me as surreal—as if man weren't meant to harness this force—and I wonder if this was what it was like for my childhood friends.
Having grown up in Southern California, I can't recall how many times I've been asked if I surf in the mere seven months I've lived in Portland. My high-school friends were bleached-blond surf bums, their cars filled with the overbearing smell of saltwater and their rooms adorned with iconic surfer images of Andy Irons and Kelly Slater hitting the big swells outside Mavericks. Whereas I tended to nonchalantly sleep through first-period chemistry, they were up at the crack of dawn, shamelessly blasting Jack Johnson's In Between Dreams while waxing their shortboards near the water's edge.
My first surfing experience instead comes in the Columbia Gorge. The 80-mile stretch of canyon has been a staple of the rugged Pacific Northwest landscape since the last ice age ended more than 10,000 years ago. Ancient floods made the Gorge a natural wind tunnel with steep basalt cliffs and stark differences in atmospheric pressure between the humid east and arid west ends. The Gorge is every bit the surfing mecca my hometown was, with big winds instead of big waves, and this time I'm going to try to enjoy it.
So despite the torrential downpour in Portland, I make the hourlong trek to Hood River for my first windsurfing lesson in mid-May, barrelling down the adjacent interstate that runs east and west alongside the Columbia River. I meet my instructor at the "Hook," a small sailing spot west of Hood River Waterfront Park at what proves to be the perfect training ground for a novice like me. We wait several minutes to no avail for the rest of my amateur cohorts to show up.
The enclave's murky-green water is separated from the rest of the river by a natural jetty, sheltering the spot from the harsh winds that lie beyond and coddling beginners who would surely beat themselves to a pulp on the open water. Wind speeds in the Gorge fluctuate between 15 and 35 mph, depending on the location, but the Hook is relatively mild. I throw on a skintight wetsuit before wading into the water at my instructor's beckoning. The water in the Gorge is not as cold as I feared.
First, we learn the anatomy of the windsurf board and rig comes: the nose, tail, daggerboard, uphaul line, mast, boom, clew and other components that are integral to the sport. They sound familiar, but I learn almost instantly that I have trouble keeping them straight as I mount the blue-and-white wide board. It's both daunting and exciting when I finally stand up, my feet centered and abutting either side of the base of the mast. I teeter for a moment, my feet performing a quick jig before regaining their balance. My instructor, a lean woman far more athletic than myself, shows me how to use the uphaul line to pull the sail out of the water. She executes the task with painless fluidity. I don't.
I soon learn how to jibe and tack—the two turning maneuvers I will use if there's any hope of me reaching dry land again—and how to "power up" by orienting my body with the sail. I tug the rose-red rig close to my body, a brawny gust of wind finally catching hold of my sail for a moment before the inevitable happens. I lose my balance, shifting the rig awry as the mast comes cannoning into my forehead and I do the premier backflop of the day. I shoulder the pain and scramble back on the board.
The next time I power up is different. My board planes effortlessly across the top of the water, a gentle spray splashing my feet as I watch the kiteboarders and the tops of what look like commercial sand barges jetting above the embankment opposite me. I feel the pull of the wind, the natural element feeding my momentum, and I again wonder if this is anything like tube-riding the hollow curl of a wave back home.
I dry off, thank my instructor and begin driving toward the ominous clouds looming over Portland's skyline. For a moment it feels like I'm driving home from the beach of my youth. Instead of Jack Johnson, I listen to an old Modest Mouse record.
It's ironic that Portlanders spend nine months of the year being pelted with rain only to crave another dousing when the sun finally shines. Fortunately, a Portland summer offers a fruitful salmagundi of activities for splishing and splashing.
You can float the Clackamas or Sandy any weekend. At Portland's third annual Big Float, you get to tube the Willamette through downtown with 2,000 other people before partying on a barge. Willamette River, Sunday, July 28. Register online. $7. All ages.
Portland's always-under-threat pool features aquaerobics, swim lessons and the Blue Makos—which is actually just a kids swim team. Having a high-school-aged lifeguard yell at you for a cannonball never gets old. Buckman Arts Focus School, 320 SE 16 Ave., 823-3668. Open Monday-Saturday. Check schedule at portlandoregon.gov. $4 adults, $3 youth, free for tots under 2.
Washougal River Swimming Holes
The Washougal River is lined with 12 or so blue pools less than an hour's drive from Portland. Dougan Falls is the most popular, but other secluded spots hide amid the trees. Take Washington State Route 14E, turn on Salmon Falls Road, then Washougal River Road. Free. All ages.
Wave pools and water slides are hard to come by in Oregon, but Clackamas' only indoor water park contains both. You can even hit the 29-foot rock wall before channeling your inner Michael Phelps in the lap pool. North Clackamas Water Park, 7300 SE Harmony Road, Milwaukie, 557-7873. Open daily. Prices vary based on activity. All ages.
Jet boats! Willamette Jet Boat Excursions, 1945 SE Water Ave., 231-1532. 10:45 am-4:15 pm daily. $39 for adults, $25 for children.