Aloha Bend

With its mountains, rivers and surfing wave in the middle of town, Bend, Oregon, is home to a community of Island transplants
Story by Derek Ferrar. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

It’s mid-April, and I’m riding a chairlift over powder-laden Oregon mountain-pines with a stone-cold surfing legend. Wiping the falling snow off his goggles, Gerry Lopez, a.k.a. “Mr. Pipeline,” is telling me why he ditched Hawai‘i’s beaches for the slopes, lakes and rivers of Bend, Oregon, about twenty-five years ago. “It was just this sense of space,” he says.

At a certain point, he says, his famous surf chalet overlooking the North Shore’s star attraction had become so overrun by mobs of surf-world elite that he began to think of it as “Gerry Lopez State Park.” “If it was a good day for surf, you’d wake up in the morning and there’d be twenty-five people in the yard already,” says Lopez, who turns 70 this year. “And a lot of them I didn’t even know.”

First he sought refuge on Maui. Then in the early 1990s he took a trip to Bend with surfboard-foam king Grubby Clark and their wives. “We came here to Mount Bachelor, and we just really liked the vibe,” he remembers. On the third day of the trip, the wives found a house they liked, “and Grubby said, ‘Let’s go sign the papers as soon as we can, or else they’ll go find something that costs more.’ So, we had a house, and I started coming here more and more.” The more time he spent in Bend, the more he liked it. “That whole mentality of learning about the mountain life was a real transition for me,” says Lopez, long known as the Zen master of surfing mystic cool. “Where everything in the ocean is constantly moving, on the mountain is where you find stillness.”

Surfing sage Gerry Lopez holds his annual Big Wave Challenge snowboard competition at Bend’s Mt. Bachelor. The competition features wave-like ramps named after his favorite surf spots, from Pipeline to Uluwatu.

Lopez might be the most famous Hawai‘i transplant to Bend, but he certainly isn’t the only one. In fact, sometimes it seems like every other person you meet here is from Hawai‘i or has some kind of connection to the Islands.

“I can’t think of a better place to be,” says Corinn Perry, who grew up on the North Shore and moved to Bend with her boyfriend a little over a year ago after going to college in the Northwest and bouncing around the Mainland for a few years. She works online as a nonprofit administrator, allowing her to “grab a couple laps up at Bachelor” before a mid-morning meeting and even take work calls on the chairlift thanks to the Bluetooth headphones in her ski helmet. “We’re into everything outdoors: camping, skiing, paddling, what-ever,” she says. And in Bend—which is perched between the edge of the high Oregon desert and the snowcapped Cascades, with the picturesque Deschutes River winding through the middle of town—“you have all of that right here.”

As it turns out, people from Hawai‘i have been coming to Bend longer than, well, just about anyone. Not many people realize that in the early 1800s Hawaiian laborers working in the fur-trapping trade played a central role in the exploration and settlement of the entire Pacific Northwest. In those pre-Panama Canal days, the trading routes to the newly opened coast passed through Hawai‘i, where ships took on supplies and—by arrangement with King Kamehameha I and other chiefs—contract workers for the beaver fur trade, which provided the pelts for men’s top hats in London and New York. The Hawaiian workers, or “Kanakas,” were employed primarily as laborers and carpenters, but they were especially valued for their paddling and swimming skills in an industry that was built around river travel in canoes.

According to Bend’s official city history, the first person known to have come to the area, other than the Sahaptin and Northern Paiute tribes indigenous to the region, was a somewhat star-crossed would-be fur baron named Nathaniel Wyeth, who came through with a party in 1834 and wrote about it in his journal. But the history books usually neglect to mention just what it was Wyeth was doing there: tracking a dozen Hawaiian workers who found the Oregon winter too harsh for their liking and bolted from his employ with a few horses. (When he eventually located them at the main trading post, they just went back to work, and all was forgiven.) There’s no way to prove it, because the Kanaka party left no written record, but it stands to reason that if Wyatt were chasing them through the Bend area, there’s a good chance the Hawaiians got there first.

It’s a story that virtually none of the Hawai‘i people in Bend seem to know, and it’s interesting to see their reactions when I tell them. “That’s fascinating, and it makes me feel even more connected here,” says Perry, who’s part Hawaiian. “You hear the stories of a town’s founding—insert white male here, puts his stake in the ground, etcetera—but there’s always that untold real story of the other people behind it.”

After Wyeth’s visit there’s not much in the annals about the Bend area until the 1870s, when a series of ranchers came in to stake grazing claims, then sold them off. In 1877 a spread that occupied much of what is now the town sold for $60 and two saddle horses. It was the ranchers who first started calling the spot Farewell Bend as they took their leave of the meandering Deschutes at the base of the Cascades. In 1886 the name was officially shortened to Bend.

Things remained pretty quiet until the early 1900s, when the railroad came to town, bringing along a development boom. But what really put Bend on the map was the 1916 arrival of a pair of big lumber companies from the Midwest. For the better part of a century, their timber mills were among the busiest in the country, felling vast forests to produce as much as five hundred million board feet of lumber a year at their peak. Bend was a company town through and through, not unlike the plantation villages of Hawai‘i’s sugar era. Shift whistles pierced the desert air at regular intervals each day, and black soot from the mill’s sawdust-fueled power plant rained down on the town continuously.

The pull of Bend continues to draw new generations of Islanders. Ian Smith, who grew up in Lanikai, opened a progressive arborist service after studying forestry at Oregon State and moving to Bend eight years ago.

In the 1960s and ’70s things began to change, and finally the mill sawed its last log in 1993. Bit by bit, Bend was transformed into the nature lovers’ mecca it’s become today. Nothing epitomizes the area’s change more than the three towering smokestacks from the old mill that can be seen from all over town—except instead of a sooty power plant at the base of the stacks, there’s now a swanky REI store peddling high-end outdoor goods as part of the gentrified Old Mill shopping complex.

Just down the row of shops, next to the movie multiplex built on the site of the town’s original post office, sits the popular Big Island Kona Mix Plate restaurant, a culinary manifestation of Bend’s Hawai‘i ties. Surfboards, hula photos, Kona coffee bags and other such Hawaiiana line the walls, and Jawaiian hits emanate from the stereo. The Island fare is pleasingly authentic, from the chicken katsu to the kalua pork, and the young woman behind the counter tells me the owners had a restaurant in Kona for years until they moved to Bend about a decade ago. It seems strange to see a room of Mainland people grinding on our treasured comfort cuisine until I remember that the world comes to Hawai‘i. “Mmm,” I overhear a woman at a nearby table tell her husband, “this loco moco reminds me of that place we love in Hilo.”

In the last few years, Bend has seen an incredible influx of people—many of them refugees from the tech world—that has pushed the population to around a hundred thousand, and real estate prices are starting to approach Hawai‘i-level insanity. According to US Census figures, Bend has ranked among the top five fastest-growing cities in the country for the last several years running.

“Bend still has that tight community feel where people know their neighbors and look out for each other,” says Ian Smith, an arborist who grew up in Lanikai but moved to Bend eight years ago after studying forestry at Oregon State. “But now more and more people are coming in from California, looking to ‘pull the plug’ on the Bay life. It’s becoming more of a city, but at least there’s still nature all around.”

In reality there are two Bends: East Side and West Side. The West Side is the Bend people romanticize—winding parks along the river; quaint old mill houses; a compact downtown district with a cool, updated Main Street feel; and more brew pubs per capita than pretty much anywhere else in the country. The East Side, on the other hand, is more given to strip malls, big-box stores, industrial buildings and blue-collar neighborhoods.

“It seems like the divide has been getting worse as the West Side gets more gentrified,” Smith says. “Before, it was more mixed, with lots of dirtbag boarder types living in the old craftsman bungalows that are getting snapped up now. It happened so fast that it’s kind of pushed certain groups out. At a certain point you need to start worrying if the people who are running the ski lifts for you can afford to live here.”

By the bar of a nouveau-Western bistro in the artsy nearby town of Sisters—named for the Three Sisters peaks that tower above the landscape—Bill Keale is running through a hit parade of Hawaiian favorites in his rich, warm baritone. With his long hair pulled back and his guitar cradled in his powerful arms, he sings of the rains and winds of the Island home he left behind close to thirty years ago.

“Growing up back home in Hawai‘i, my folks would drop me off at Grandpa’s house in Pālolo—that’s where I first met my cousin Iz,” he tells the regular Sunday crowd salted with aloha-draped Island expats as he strums the first notes of Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s worldwide hit cover of “Over the Rainbow” on an ‘ukulele. “This is one of his favorite songs.” The crowd is loving it as a hula dancer in a flowing red dress and haku lei glides among the tables. “Bill brings Hawai‘i to us here,” says an effusive woman named Glenda, who tells me she’s been a flight attendant with Hawaiian Airlines for more than forty years.“His singing has so much feeling, such a big heart.”

“Bend people aren’t happy unless they do like seven sports a day,” one local quips, only half-joking. The latest craze is river surfing, ever since the city built a whitewater park in the frigid Deschutes. River ripper Kea Eubank, from West Maui, calls riding the standing wave “an obsession.”

A beefy bruddah with a “Positive Island Vibrations” t-shirt and a big smile tells me he’s known all over simply as “Hawaiian Mike.” After growing up in Mililani, he moved here in 1994 right out of high school to live with family. “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss home,” he confides in the thick pidgin lilt he’s retained despite having spent more than half his life in Bend. “I miss that feeling of really knowing where you come from, knowing you’re home. But even living over here, I am from Hawai‘i, and no matter where I go in the state of Oregon, everybody always tells me,‘Howzit, Hawaiian Mike!’ Some people laugh because I always wear slippers, even in winter.”

During a set break, Bill tells me that he came to Bend from Kailua in 1991 after a friend told him what a great place it is. “I had reached a point where I was questioning what my purpose is,” he reflects. “I was used to Island life, so I thought I would try give the Mainland a try.” He wanted to find some kind of work helping people, and an opportunity came up at Bend’s St. Charles hospital. “I just took any job I could get there,” he says. “I started in shipping and receiving until I was finally able to get into housekeeping.” From the beginning, he says, he found the connection he had been searching for in helping patients.

Although he comes from an illustrious ‘ohana of Hawaiian musicians, he played guitar only a little growing up. “I never had lessons or training,” he says, but just used to watch his uncles and aunties playing.“I had a little group with some friends, and we played sometimes at the Mongolian barbecue place.” But in Bend he started playing more as a way to help people at the hospital. If he saw a patient in dire straits, he began asking if they wanted him to play some music for them. “Music is a way to share aloha,” he says. “It can help anyone be happy, and when I would go into the room, the patients would just open up.”

After a while the doctors and administrators began to take notice and encouraged him to do more. “I believe Ke Akua [God] has a purpose for all of us, and I started to realize that this was maybe my purpose—using my music to help people, and it was helping me at the same time.” Bill’s work at the hospital grew into a big annual charity lū‘au that he hosted for a number of years with his wife, Tiffany, a self-confessed “blond chick” who is a high-end interior designer. These days he focuses mainly on his music career, although he still works two twelve-hour shifts a week at the hospital operating the electroenceph-alogram machine, often under emergency conditions. “It’s life or death,” he says. “You better be on your game, and every-body has to help each other. It helps to be from Hawai‘i, where we were raised to get each other’s back. Over here it’s different; you’re more on your own.”

Bill says one thing about Bend that reminds him of home is its volcanic geology. “We’re surrounded by lava here,” Bill says. “There are little patches everywhere, even right in the middle of town.” But there’s one thing Bend’s beauty can’t replicate, he maintains: “Hawai‘i sunsets—nothing can beat ’em.”

It might seem hard to believe because it’s more than a hundred miles inland, but there’s surfing in Bend. A couple of years ago, the municipal authorities constructed a whitewater park on the Deschutes right in the heart of town, channeling the river into man-made rapids for kayakers and tubers, plus a steeper standing wave for surfers.

I decide it’s my journalistic duty to give it a go. Google directs me to the River Surf Co., which turns out to be the garage of a guy named Dave Jaber, who—you guessed it—was born in Hawai‘i, a fourth-generation scion of a local Portuguese family. Dave rents me one of the short, soft-top boards that are the weapon of choice on the river and the thick wetsuit required to brave the forty-degree water. Then he hooks me up with one of the wave’s top rippers, Maui boy Kea Eubank.

Tall and mellow, Kea tells me he grew up on Maui’s west side, where “we were raised in the water every day—paddling, stand up, diving, surfing, everything you can think of.” Then he met Bend girl Miranda Campbell and started coming over for regular visits until one day about seven years ago they decided just to make the move. “It’s a lot like Maui,” Kea says. “There’s so much nature around and the people were so welcoming. And being in a place where you get to experience the seasons was also a huge factor.”

He says river surfing is “just so addicting somehow. We used to hike, bike and do all kinds of things, but lately the river has taken over more and more.” In contrast to the localism that often infects the ocean surfing scene, Kea says that at the river wave “we try to encourage a community of smiles and happy people. The other way just kills the fun.”

We suit up and wade out through the frigid flow to the spot where the water is forced through a narrow channel to create the wave. Kea shows me how to brace against the low concrete wall at the takeoff point and get up on my board before launching into the current. It’s a totally different sensation from ocean surfing because you’re essentially standing still while the water rushes under you. In the blink of an eye, I’m swept over the back and have to sprint to the eddy along the side that carries you back to the takeoff to wait in line for another ride.

Meanwhile, Kea and several other rippers take their turns slashing effortlessly back and forth across the thirty-seven-foot opening. There’s an informal courtesy rule that no matter how good you are, you should stop riding after about a minute and let the next person go—which is a good thing, because these guys look like they could go at it forever. After eight or ten tries, I manage one ride of a few seconds, just enough to get the feel of the tricky sweet spot where you’re perfectly balanced against the pull of the current. Then the chill starts to seep in through the neoprene and I call it quits. With a couple more sessions I feel like I could probably get the hang of it, but being a short-timer in Bend, I decide to let it go. As it is, I’ve got plenty of surfing obsession to cope with back home.

In a commercial warehouse on the East Side, paddle maker Dave Chun is tracing the evolution of the prototype designs hanging on the wall of his Kialoa Paddles workshop. In the corner lie several duffel bags pre-packed with gear for various outdoor pursuits: biking, climbing, river surfing. Chun says he first started making paddles years ago when a Kailua Canoe Club friend was getting married, and “I had the brilliant idea that I would build them a paddle, even though my only previous experience was in sixth-grade shop class.” The paddle went over well, and the next thing he knew, other people began asking where they could get hold of one.

One paddle led to another, and today Kialoa is widely regarded as the blade of choice for the discriminating outrigger canoe enthusiast, stand up paddler and even dragon boat racer. “What makes us different is that we constantly go out and talk to paddlers, trying to find out what they’re looking for, and bring that into a paddle,” Chun says. The perfect paddle “just disappears in your hands. You don’t even know it’s there.”

Chun first visited Bend in the 1980s on a family ski trip, then he and wife Meg decided to move over in 1992 because they simply couldn’t afford to own a home in Hawai‘i. Back then Bend had only a little more than twenty-five thousand residents. “It reminded me of Kailua as a child,” he says. “Two of the most beautiful places I know are Kailua and Bend, but of course the problem with being most beautiful is that everyone wants to be there.”

With his shiny bolo head and crazy level of lean rippedness that shows every muscle twitch, Chun is a walking advertisement for the active Bend lifestyle. One of the big things that drew him here, he says, “were all the outdoorsy people—climbers, skiers, kayakers, whatever—who were sort of living on the fringe. That was the vibe of the town.” Chun is no different. “On any given summer day, when the sun comes up I’m on the trail with my mountain bike, then off to the gym. And if the day is right, off we go paddling. Then I gotta work at some point, but that’s what Bend guys do. We are on the move.”

Chun travels back to the Islands to work at canoe races and other paddling events so often that “I have kind of a different perspective on ‘moving to the Mainland,’” he says. “My address has changed, but I actually haven’t changed that much. I hang with Hawai‘i guys, do Hawai‘i stuff. A lot of people think I still live there, and they’re surprised when they find out I don’t.”

As it happens, Gerry Lopez’s surfboard shaping bay is right next door to Kialoa, and Chun says he’s become “kind of like a little brother” to the surfing celebrity over the years. Besides the mutual Hawai‘i connection, he says, “I think one reason why Lopez and I relate is that we’re both basically builders. I know him as a surf-board builder more than as a surfer.”

“Two of the most beautiful places I know are Kailua and Bend,” says Chun, who describes himself as a “flat water guy.” “But of course the problem with being most beautiful is that everyone wants to be there.” Above, an Island-style outrigger paddling practice on the Deschutes.

During the last boom in Bend before the Great Recession, Chun says, “it got really crazy—there were people out on the trails with high heels and stuff. I remember I asked Gerry, ‘Do we still like living here?’ And he said, ‘We must, because we could be anywhere and we choose to be here.’”

It’s competition day at Lopez’s annual Big Wave Challenge benefit snow-board contest up at Bachelor, and spring sunshine is bathing the course after a straight week of snow. Based on surfing moves, the contest features wave-like ramps named after some of Lopez’s favorite surf spots around the world: Pipeline, Uluwatu, G-land and others. With divisions for kāne, wāhine, keiki and even visiting pro surfers, the whole idea is for everyone to have a good time. “Keep in mind something that the old beach boys of Waikīkī used to say,” Lopez wrote in his message to this year’s competitors, “the best surfer is the one having the most fun.”

The whole mountain seems to have gone Hawaiian, and many of the boarders are decked out in aloha shirts or beach hats. There’s a party vibe up at the starting gate as the hundred or so participants wait their turn to take on the course. “Hey!” says a teenage shredder as the makule (a.k.a. “old dudes”) division runs. “There goes my math teacher!”

With Bill Keale providing the musical backdrop, everyone gathers at the lodge at the end of the day for the awards, which include a slew of novelty categories like Most Soulful, Best Wave Selection and Best Hula Hands. Hoots and whistles erupt as the main division winners are announced. Later their names will be inscribed on permanent plaques hanging in the lodge bar, right underneath one of Lopez’s signature custom surfboards.

Wrapping up the festivities, Lopez recites verbatim legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku’s “Creed of Aloha,” as he’s often wont to do. Adding a few parting thoughts of his own, the surfing sage bridges the distance between Hawai‘i and Bend. “Wear your aloha spirit right up front,” he tells the mountain crowd. “Give aloha and it will be returned to you double. And when you ride, always remember to ride with aloha.” HH