Last weekend, elite athletes from across the U.S. and members of the Hood River, Ore. community came out for the first Naish Columbia Gorge Paddle Challenge. The two-day festival boasted 250 entrants in four events, including a distance downwinder, a buoy course race, a team relay race and a non-competitive Paddle for the Park fundraiser. The festival also had an SUP expo with demos and clinics running in-between races as well as nightly entertainment.

Saturday's participants experienced perfect weather for the technical buoy course race and Paddle for the Park fundraiser. "It was the first windless day in 3 weeks, so we were really lucky with the conditions," said Steve Gates, Paddle Challenge co-founder, competitor and owner of Big Winds shop in Hood River. The buoy course race featured an open class and elite class.

Photo by John R. Goodman/Goodman Graphic

"We had an exciting battle between five racers for the Men's Elite race," said Dan Gavere, a Hood River local. "Connor Baxter, Kai Lenny, Chase Kosterlitz, Anthony Vela and Jay Wild all battled it out for an hour and finished really tight. It was a great race for spectators." Hawaiians Connor Baxter and Kai Lenny snagged the top two spots in the Men's Elite race with Chase Kosterlitz finishing close behind in third. The Women's Elite race saw Candice Appleby, Annabel Anderson and Brandi Baksic take the top three spots.

The Paddle for the Park fundraiser was a success in itself as athletes, spectators and members of the Hood River community raised over $1,400 for Hood's Waterfront Park. Supporters of the Waterfront Park had the opportunity to make donations and in return were given an SUP board and paddle to take for a spin on the river. "We had 45 participants in the Paddle for the Park fundraiser and are grateful for the donations," Gavere said.

On the final day of the festival, conditions changed drastically, meeting the standards for the Distance Downwind Race. Competitors saw howling winds throughout the 8-miles. "Dave Kalama told me he had experienced his longest and fastest glide on an SUP during the downwind race," Gates said. Connor Baxter and Kai Lenny took the top two spots ahead of Kalama in the 14-foot class, finishing first and second for the second day in a row. The first three women to finish were Candice Appleby, Jenny Kalmbach, and Annabel Anderson.

Photo by John R. Goodman/Goodman Graphic

Sixteen-year-old Connor Baxter was named "Overall Waterman" and Candice Appleby was named "Overall Waterwoman" for their wins over the weekend. They were also awarded extra cash prizes for their  titles.

Photo by John R. Goodman/Goodman Graphic

"Overall, the event went off the charts well," said Gates. "I think it was one of the most competitive fields outside the Rainbow Sandals' Battle of the Paddle and I'm excited for next year."  – Shari Coble