The Columbia River Gorge is full of magic. The roughly 80-mile canyon — stretching east from the mouth of the Sandy River in Troutdale to the confluence of the Deschutes River just east of The Dalles — forms the boundary between Oregon and Washington. The scenery — with the mile-wide river, multiple waterfalls, towering Mount Hood and a landscape that transforms from lush forests to dry grasslands as you travel east — can take your breath away, even if you’re just driving through. Lewis and Clark passed through on their transcontinental journey in 1805, and today the gorge attracts visitors from around the world, including wind surfers and kite boarders who take advantage of its strong, steady winds. Agriculture was — and is — a cornerstone of the economy, with hundreds of family-owned apple, pear and cherry orchards, plus a burgeoning wine industry and craft-brewing community. But the gorge is also fast becoming a center of industry, including aerospace, high tech and energy.
Tourists by the thousands come to the Columbia River Gorge for fun and adventure. And for some, it’s a unique learning experience, too.
Josh Norris directs the Adventure Leadership Institute at Oregon State University. Among the adventures he leads for students and other participants are canyoneering trips to Metlako Falls, below the better-known Punchbowl Falls. The falls are roughly a mile and a half down the Eagle Creek Trail, the trailhead for which is about 45 miles east of Portland.
Josh believes adventure can be a transformative learning experience. Through activities like canyoneering, hiking and climbing, students learn to work together, stay calm under pressure and succeed no matter what life – or nature – throws at them.
“We’re not just facilitating fun adventures for these students,” Josh says. “We want to make them better people, and better at whatever they end up doing in life.”
Hood River has changed through the years. The decline of agriculture in the 1980s brought an increase in tourism and recreation, especially wind surfing and kite boarding. But determined and innovative orchardists like Randy Kiyokawa helped revive agriculture by making their orchards and farms into tourist destinations along 35 miles of scenic highway that’s become known as the Hood River Fruit Loop.
With about 300 fruit growers selling apples, pears, cherries, berries and more throughout the Hood River Valley, Randy says there are plenty of options for tourists.
“People come to the region and have a great time, and when they leave, they want to bring something back with the Hood River Valley brand,” Randy says. “The tourists bring a lot of life and energy along with the traditional values that the valley holds.”
The Kiyokawa family has been farming in the Hood River Valley since 1911. A third-generation orchardist, Randy took over the orchard from his father in 1988.
“I kind of knew in the back of my mind this was what I would do, but as a kid I wanted to be a policeman or a DJ,” Randy says.
Instead, he studied agricultural engineering at Oregon State University, and worked in Portland for several years before it was time for him to come back home and take over the farm.
Under Randy’s leadership, the orchard has focused on direct marketing to customers through fruit stands, farmers markets and U-pick orchards. He says that direct marketing saved the orchard when the apple market collapsed and his business was struggling.
“The farm-direct side has really taken off. I love dealing with the customers,” he says. “The local and sustainable movement has been a big plus.”
Geologists refer to Mount Hood as a boring volcano.
“And it’s not just because the town of Boring, Oregon sits right next to it,” Adam Kent jokes.
The volcano last erupted more than 200 years ago, and historically, when Mount Hood erupts, it’s not a spectacular explosion like Mount St. Helens in 1980. Instead of exploding, magma tends to ooze out the top of the peak, like toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube, Adam explains.
Adam is a professor and researcher in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. He has been studying Mount Hood and other Oregon volcanoes for more than 10 years.
He enjoys studying Oregon’s highest peak because previously, not much was known about the timeline between magma formation and the mountain’s historic volcano eruptions.
Now, Adam knows it would take 60 days of magma mixing — hot magma rising from deep within the Earth’s crust mixing with cooler, almost-solid magma — to cause Mount Hood to erupt.
Adam notes Mount Hood is also extremely convenient for research.
“One time we were able to take the ski lift up to collect samples, and that’s pretty handy,” he says.
While with his team in the popular recreation area on Mount Hood’s south side, Adam says he runs into many interested visitors. He enjoys interacting with the public and answering their questions while carrying out his research.
“The most common question I get is, ‘Is this thing going to blow up?’ I say, ‘Yes, almost certainly at some point in the future, but I don't think you need to worry about it today.”
Double Mountain owner and brewmaster Matt Swihart says that if he’s ever fighting for space in a grocery store, something has gone wrong. His hope for his brewery is to stay small, local and experimental.
In 2007, when Double Mountain opened in Hood River, Matt could often be found behind the bar because he was the only brewing employee. These days, he’s more often behind a desk, but he doesn’t mind that either.
An aerospace engineer by training, Matt later attended brewing school in Chicago and landed his first brewing gig at Full Sail Brewery, down the street from where he opened Double Mountain.
He says he is eternally thankful to Full Sail for giving him his start.
“All of the brewers in Hood River are interested in doing whatever we can to make the gorge a beer destination.”
Matt thinks they are succeeding, and it’s a story of success found in many microbrewing hotspots across Oregon thanks in large part to Oregon State University’s fermentation science program. Matt says he has known and respected Tom Shellhammer, an Oregon State professor and internationally recognized expert in hops chemistry, for many years. Tom’s program at Oregon State prepares students for work in breweries large and small and fosters deep industry connections. Tom’s hands-on approach is something Matt says he wished he’d had in brewing school.
“Tom has raised the bar of brewing education for the U.S., whereas, when I was a student, I didn’t have many options,” Matt says.
Now Matt consistently meets people who come to Hood River specifically to investigate the beer scene. More commonly, wind surfers, kite boarders, hikers and mountain bikers stop into the brewery before heading home.
Many tourists appreciate Double Mountain’s experimental style.
“Northwesterners have a regional identity with their beer, coffee, bread, fruit and lots of other things,” Matt says. “I can push beer styles pretty far and have people be interested and give it a try.”
However, much like his former employer, Full Sail, Matt says his goal is to continue brewing beers that people want to drink. “I want to have a pub that makes me comfortable, and that would encourage people to talk, and not watch TV, and have a conversation.”
When Irene Firmat started Full Sail Brewing in 1987, Indiana brewer Jamie Emmerson was her first choice for the brewmaster position. Jamie’s résumé communicated a passion for brewing and for beer itself, so she brought him to Oregon, and the two fell in love. They’ve been partners ever since.
“I think working that many hours together is a great way to get to know somebody and understand them,” Irene reasons.
These days, Jamie is in charge of Full Sail’s beer production, while Irene sticks to the business end. The couple, who live in Portland and commute to Hood River, did their best to keep the work talk to a minimum at home.
“Our kids would probably say we were really bad about that,” Irene says.
However, the couple believes their mutual respect for one another has gone a long way to influence the company for the better.
“We don’t have a lot of walls,” Irene says. “You want to work in an environment where people respect you. Treating people with kindness goes a long way.”
The company also gives back. Every year since 2008, Full Sail has released Brewer’s Share, a series of small-batch beers created by individual brewers. In 2012, Chris Haveman, a 2007 Oregon State alumnus, developed Chris’s Summer Delight Berliner Weiss. Full Sail donates a portion of Brewer’s Share sales to an organization of the brewer’s choice, and Chris chose the fermentation science program at Oregon State.
Much of Jamie’s brewing inspiration comes from his favorite European beers.
“If you could put a moniker on Full Sail, it would be, ‘classic beer styles brewed with Northwest ingredients,’” he says.
Jamie is proud that all of the brewery’s ingredients are sourced from within 100 miles of the company’s headquarters in Hood River.
Full Sail’s goal is to simply create better beer and make it accessible for the masses.
“We want to remove the pretension from craft beer,” Irene says. “We want people to be comfortable and to enjoy what they’re drinking.”
Mechanical engineer Kevin Perletti believes that nothing brings people together like an emergency.
He remembers a time a few years ago while working at the Bonneville Lock and Dam when several of the dam’s gates were damaged.
“I played a part in repairing that,” he says. “And it gives you a sense of accomplishment when that repair happens and the system is back working as normal.”
Kevin shouldn’t need any more emergencies to make him feel accomplished, however. The basic statistics about the dam itself are impressive enough. The dam’s 20 turbines can generate more than 1,100 megawatts – enough to power both Portland and Seattle. However, most of the energy the dam produces is sold to cities in California.
Kevin graduated from Oregon State in 1983 and has worked at the Bonneville Lock and Dam ever since. He says being a public servant is important to him.
“I have a sense of pride in what I do with my life,” he says. “You have to have pride in what you’re doing. I feel good about working for the public, and I do take that seriously.”
With 500,000 visitors a year, the dam is also important to the tourism of the area.
“That’s pretty significant,” Kevin says. “It helps that we are located in one of the most beautiful places in the Columbia River Gorge.”