The Dalles, Oregon: The man who rode the wind

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The Dalles, Oregon:  The man who rode the wind

We had been at Chuck's bed and breakfast fewer than five minutes -- through the front door into the enormous lounge, into the kitchen and then out past the pool to the back gate -- when I asked him if he wind-surfed competitively.

It seemed a fair question.

We were standing by his van which had a board strapped to the top, there was another on his deck, the lounge had been lined with photos of people soaring over waves propelled by sails, and his place was called the Columbia Windrider Inn.

It turned out Chuck didn't anymore, but it had been the rare wind and water conditions that had brought him to the oddly named town The Dalles on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.

Here, he said, the winds blow against the current of the river so it is ideal for wind-surfing. People come from all over the States and Canada to wind-surf The Dalles -- pronounced to rhyme with "the bells" as he said it -- and because the river was so narrow you couldn't get into too much trouble.

"I've been places where you can get pulled out to sea or into the middle of some lake, but here it's about a mile or so across so you are hardly going to get into difficulty."

The Dalles was named by French-Canadian trappers after the stones on gutters because here the high rocky bluffs channelled the river in much the same way. It was the end of the Oregon Trail which was the overland route west from Iowa and Mississippi. From here pilgrims and settlers would take the Columbia to the Pacific coast or head to the fertile Willamette Valley about 150 kilometres west.

Today The Dalles is still a crossroads city -- it is the intersection of a major route north into Washington state and is on the east-west Highway 30 -- and in the original part of the town near the railyards and river are murals of historic events on many of the old brick walls. What brought Chuck here to open the Columbia Windrider in 87 wasn't the rich history -- there is an impressive museum just outside of town which celebrates the Lewis and Clark expedition which passed through -- but the weather.

"I grew up in Seattle, my dad worked for Boeing," he said over coffee in his warm kitchen, "and one time I came over here and couldn't believe how good the weather was. You cross those mountains and the rains just stop."

And there was the wind-surfing. Chuck was passionate about it and his two-storey b'n'b -- built in 1921 and with birds-eye maple floors -- has been converted into a second home for various returning windsurfers. In fact he had so many guests who wanted to return he'd started taking photos of everyone.

"It just got embarrassing because people would call and say they were coming and could I pick them up from the airport. They assumed I'd remember them but I had no way to identify them. So I started taking pictures of every guest -- I'm occupied maybe 200 nights a year, and there are the longstay people -- so now I have these huge books of photos. Got some Kiwis in there too."

He pulled out one of his fat books of pictures and flicked the pages -- a couple from the South Island, another from the Hokianga -- and then took our photo too. We took his advice on a good place to eat that night, wandered around the old town the following day, went to the museum, and watched the river flow. There were no windsurfers.

When it came time to leave I asked Chuck if he was going windsurfing that day.

"Hmmm, maybe not. I got a lot to do today," he said. "I think I'll go play golf instead."

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