LYLE, Wash. - In the wind, Al Brown believes, he has found his best metaphor for God - invisible, powerful and it doesn't care whether you live or die.
"And then, some days you get to fly across the water," the 54-year-old windsurfer says, smiling broadly.
Mr. Brown and his wife, Nancy, Bostonians who teach at Harvard University, are spending their sixth summer in nature's wind tunnel - the Columbia River Gorge, a wide and ancient geologic cut in the Cascade Range.
This is extreme windsurfing country, attracting hordes of enthusiasts who spend each day in search of "huge air," challenging swells and a radical experience.
It's Santa Cruz cool meets Mount Hood hardiness in very cold water.
Just off Washington Highway 14, some 50 cars line the roadside at Doug's Beach, a popular takeoff point three miles east of Lyle. Dozens of windsurfers haul their gear down to the sandy beach, raise their brightly colored sails and nimbly twist, flip and skim across the water.
"This is the high-wind center of the world," says Brian Hinde, 49, a commercial and custom sailboard designer who owns Open Ocean here.
Sustained winds of 20 mph are not uncommon in the Gorge, drawing skilled technicians who often use smaller boards and sails than windsurfers in other parts of the world.
"It's a bit more extreme style of windsurfing," says Christine Brooks, director of U.S. Windsurfing, a national organization promoting the sport.
On the Oregon side, the town of Hood River has developed in recent years into an outdoor sports center, much of it focused on windsurfing. The U.S. Windsurfing national championships are scheduled there Aug. 20-25.
Mario Simpson, 39, and his dog, Tosh, will spend the summer car camping in the Gorge before returning to western Montana to spend the winter snowboarding. He's got a goal for the season.
"It's a personal mission - to jibe (a type of turn) by the end of summer," he says.
One of the things that makes the gorge special is the constancy of the wind - from May through September at least, there's usually enough for a good ride somewhere between Rooster Rock and Arlington, about 100 miles apart.
"You can come to the Columbia River and find wind somewhere," says Diane Barkhimer, director of the bistate Columbia Gorge Windsurfing Association.
That's why the Browns summer on the river. They first found the wind when they lived in Minnesota, taking lessons on one of those frigid 10,000 lakes.
"It literally had chunks of ice floating in the lake. We had no idea what we were doing," Mr. Brown says. But it was the perfect thing for a married couple that wanted to do something crazy, he recalls.
There was no motor involved, and it took a lot of skill and an intellectual capacity to figure out the angles, all of which appealed to the couple, he says.
Windsurfing really took off in the Gorge about 20 years ago, but there are upstarts on the water now - kiteboarders, equipped with boards similar to water skis on their feet and handlebar-controlled parasails that let them fly high above the water.
In some ways, windsurfers have become old-school traditionalists on the river, and kiteboarders the young, new wave, risk-taking acrobats.
"It's going to be a bigger sport than windsurfing," Mr. Hinde predicts. "It's easier to learn, and in a lot of ways, more dangerous - people like adrenaline."
Windsurfing has struggled in the mainstream, Ms. Brooks says.
"It's like most sports right now - what we're trying to do from our organization's standpoint is bring the sport back to the average person. It did get a bit extreme in its image," Ms. Brooks says.
With new wider boards for better buoyancy and balance, plus a very fast ride, windsurfing will be easier for beginners, she says.
"Most of us with sports to market have got something that can actually be interesting, but it can be difficult to learn," she says. "A lot of people don't have that kind of patience."
The national windsurfing organization is moving its headquarters this summer from Oregon to Florida, a place where windsurfing is practiced in a way that's more common than the style in the Gorge.
"Most of the world chooses bigger boards and bigger sails," Ms. Brooks says. "They're not sailing in the same kinds of winds."
Mr. Hinde, a professional surfer, moved his sailboard-making operations from Hawaii to Lyle in 1990.
"The windsurfing business is a lot bigger business here than in the islands," he says.
Using simple designs, high-tech materials and bold colors, Mr. Hinde's Open Ocean makes sturdy boards for windsurfers and kiteboarders. One $1,500 sailboard takes 12 to 15 hours to make, spread out over 10 days.
He makes about 250 boards a year.
While windsurfing dollars have been good for the Lyle and Hood River economies, a lot of visitors aren't certain they're popular here.
But fisherman Mike Smith, 36, of Hood River, says amiably that other types of sportsmen have just as much right to the river as he does.
"They don't really bother me - as long as they don't try to muscle in on my fishing territory," he says.
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