The world’s best paddlers have returned to the United States’ downwind paradise of Hood River, setting the scene for the most fiercely contested international race since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The Gorge Downwind Championships were held last year, but with travel restrictions still in place, only American paddlers were able to take part.

But now, for the first time since 2019, paddlers from around the globe have journeyed to Portland, Oregon.

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

“Oh man, it feels amazing. It’s just so good to have everyone back,” race director Carter Johnson tells The Paddler from the bustling Stevenson Fairground.

“Obviously with COVID and deferrals it was a bummer, it was a real bummer and it sucked for everybody. The world, the vendors, the paddlers.

“But now with 750 plus people all here, it’s just so good to see everybody. A lot of smiles.” 

The Gorge runs for a week, with bus shuttles running throughout the day to allow paddlers as many downwind runs as they can handle. 

The Fairground is a hive of activity, with vendors showcasing surfskis, clothes and accessories, while the beer tent offers the best drops from across the region – something Portland is renowned for. Hundreds of paddlers opt to camp on-site.

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler

The festival culminates in The Gorge Downwind Championships, which in its six-year history, has become of the most prized titles in the world.

The quality of the 2022 field is a testament to that.

“I think it’s going to be tight, it’s going to be a very sharp end of the sword,” Johnson says.

“There’s three or four or five guys that can easily take it this year. In fact, every previous winner of The Gorge is here.”

Those four winners are Jasper Mocke, Sean Rice, American Austin Kieffer and Kenny Rice – the latter is the only person to have won multiple titles, boasting three.

ICF World Champion Nick Notten, canoe marathon World Champion Andy Birkett, Australian representatives Mackenzie Hynard and Sam Djodan, along with Tyron Maher, Davey Brand and Spencer Richards will all line up.

Austin Kieffer breaking through for his first win at The Gorge in 2021. PHOTOGRAPH: © Gorge Downwind Champs.​

The international depth may not run as deep in women’s field, but the quality is just as high.

The headline match-up, former World Champion Danielle McKenzie taking on American prodigy Ana Swetish.

“The coolest part of this whole story is that we didn’t know which international women were coming.

“Ana was training pretty hard, but when she found out D-Mac was coming, her face just went pure elation.

“Ana likes to throw down more than she likes winning. She doesn’t care how good she might be locally, she wants to toss it up with the best in the world.”

“She wants to send it, so we’ll see how she goes.”

Rising star Ana Swetish will lead America’s hopes in the women’s field come race day. PHOTOGRAPH: © Gorge Downwind Champs.​

The race is the crowning moment of the week – but it doesn’t define it.

“One anomaly we have here is that there’s 750 people, but 400 of them won’t bother racing. They just come for the cheap beer, the buddies, the vendors… it’s like a week of downwind partying.”

“I hope other events will look to follow this model, to get everyone here for the week and build a real carnival atmosphere. 

“It’s spectacular… it’s a playground out here”

The Perfect Boat for any Paddler