While Hood River, Oregon may hog the Columbia River Gorge spotlight as the destination for wine-sipping weekenders or Fruit Loop families, there are a number of smaller communities tucked among the surrounding craggy cliffs and rain-touched hills. It’s here in Underwood, Washington—a stone’s throw across the river but seemingly a world away—that we find Gary Paasch, owner of School of Send.
It’s not yet dawn as our tires crunch down the gravel driveway through a wall of trees, our headlights briefly illuminating a wooden bike jump and a massive dirt landing in the front yard. A small clearing reveals a nestled-into-the-hillside house. On the far end, the garage door is open and a warm beam of light pours out.
Gary knows we’re coming but we have a feeling he’d be up, aproned, and wrenching before dawn even if there was no one around to document it.
One considered look and a smooth deployment of the LCK + later, and it’s woven itself seamlessly into Gary’s tangle of tools, emerging every few minutes to snap a zip tie or slice a baggie then sinking back in among the calculated chaos.
Work for What You Got
Gary grew up in Parkdale, Oregon a small town on the Northern shoulder of Mt. Hood. 11 miles from the summit as the crow flies. His parents—local high school sweethearts—married young and bought an old bread truck. Together they turned it into a mobile slaughterhouse and helped ranchers all over the Hood River Valley process thousands of pounds of meat every season. They raised a few head themselves, too. “They were the kind of people that made me earn every penny I saw,” remembers Gary. And he did, bucking hay, moving firewood, picking up odd jobs around the neighborhood, raising and auctioning sheep, rabbits, even rats through 4H.
It didn’t take long for young Gary to earn himself enough to buy his first dirtbike. The rolling hills, expansive logging-company-owned acreage, and neighboring orchards were soon to see many more tire tracks. And that was only just the beginning.
“All of the ditches on my bike route to school had little jumps and berms that I built. Sometimes I’d even bring a shovel to school so I could fix things up on my way home.”
No Dig, No Ride
Gary’s love affair with two wheels intensified exponentially into his middle and high school years. “All of the ditches on my bike route to school had little jumps and berms that I built,” he remembers. “Sometimes I’d even bring a shovel to school so I could fix things up on my way home.”
“As often as I could convince her, my mom would shuttle me to the top of Post Canyon or Syncline, two of our local trail systems,” he says. “She’d drop me off and meet me at the bottom after I’d rip down. She knew—maybe even before I did—what mountain biking meant to me. And she supported me in every way,” he remembers.
“One time,” he says as his eyes light up, “I was at the bottom of Syncline waiting for her. She was taking longer than usual and I had just started to pedal back up towards her when she came around the corner in her tiny Toyota Camry with a turkey in the backseat. ‘Mom!’ I said, lost for words, ‘…what?!’ She casually told me she had pulled over on her way down and shot it with her crossbow. She was just like that.”
It wasn’t long before Gary fell in with the local crew of trailbuilders. “The Post Canyon I grew up in was full of massive jumps and built features,” Gary says. “Those guys would send it then build it bigger then send again.” By far the youngest member of the crew, they took Gary under their wing and together, Post Canyon began to transform and attract more attention from big-air freeriders all over the country.
If You Build it, They Will Come
For years after high school, Gary worked at the local bike shop, built trail, and raced professionally, rinse and repeat (punctuated by three outrageously snowy ski bum winters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming). “But it just wasn’t quite doing it for me,” he reflects. He started teaching mountain biking to the kids he was ski race coaching on Mt. Hood in the winters.
Later in the morning, we leave the garage and walk across the driveway where a 15 passenger van and a short school bus, both painted matte black and emblazoned with SCHOOL OF SEND stickers are parked behind some evergreens. “The mountain bike camps I was coaching kind of felt like an afterthought to ski racing; something to keep the kids engaged in the summer,” he says as he balances his coffee mug on the hand-welded ladder that accesses the mountain bike rack on the top of the bus. “After a few seasons of coaching, a handful of parents approached me and told me I could build it better; that I had their support.”
“That’s how School of Send was born.”
“Even though I technically could have run my camps, I just knew we couldn’t do it right. Our camps are all about high-fives and fist bumps. Sharing lunches and having fun on the shuttle ride up. And, when someone hits the dirt—as we all do when we’re working to progress—I want to be there to pick them back up and get them stoked to try it again."
This year was year three for School of Send. After two immensely successful years of teaching kids ages 4 to 16 everything from rolling over a small root to safely assessing and clearing a 14’ gap jump, Gary was poised to double the size of his business this year. But then COVID-19 came along.
“Even though I technically could have run my camps, I just knew we couldn’t do it right,” Gary says about the tough decision he made. “Our camps are all about high-fives and fist bumps. Sharing lunches and having fun on the shuttle ride up. And, when someone hits the dirt—as we all do when we’re working to progress—I want to be there to pick them back up and get them stoked to try it again,” he says. “So this year, I cancelled all of my camps, ran a few private lessons, and invested my energy somewhere else.”
Always Look for the Open Door
We drive down the road to the soon-to-be White Salmon Bike Park and roll up on a few excavators and some huge piles of dirt. “I’m pretty good on an excavator,” Gary says, which soon proves to be an incredible understatement.
“When I was young, my dad owned an excavation company and I was always excited to learn and be around the heavy machines,” he says. “I’ve been building trails up in Post Canyon with an excavator for years now and when School of Send took a turn this year, I looked back to machines.” His timing couldn’t have been better with a late Spring, Summer, and early Fall calendar stacked with projects.
“Many people want to put private bike jumps and features in their own backyards,” he explains, “it’s an awesome way to progress. And keep kids busy,” he adds with a smirk. “But the coolest projects have been the two community projects I’ve worked on this year. We put a small bike park in at Golden Eagle Park—adjacent to my old high school. And now we’re giving a much-needed total update to the White Salmon Bike Park. It’s really cool to be able to give back to my community in this way.”
After seeing his community project, we of course head up into the Post Canyon Mountain Bike Trail System. He takes us to a jump line called FMX, one he built when he was in high school and has been featured in prominent national mountain biking magazines and a destination for some of the country’s best riders.
“Gary! Hey!” we hear as we pull up and see a few young boys pulling shovels out of a weathered Subaru. They crowd around him explaining that they have a few hours to come up and dig before homework. “We think we might build up the berm and smooth out that roller,” they say. Their adoration is downright palpable. “Awesome guys, I’m stoked,” Gary responds before turning back to us. “Those guys are going way bigger than I could have imagined at that age,” he says as they walk out of earshot. “I get to coach them and help them progress on some of the biggest jumps in the area. Without a doubt they’ll soon be the ones pushing the sport to new places.”
The Right Tool for the Right Job
An hour or so later after watching Gary session impossibly big jumps, we’re hanging out on the tailgate having a beer. “The more time you spend out here, the more you learn. And the more you realize you’ll never learn,” he reflects. “Bikes have been a way for me to be creative. To give back. To build community. Even to get to know my wife,” he laughs as he explains there’s no purer human emotion than the excitement of someone getting spit out at the bottom of a fun trail.
“The right tool can connect us to the world and help us see it in cool new ways,” he says. “And I never underestimate the power of a new perspective.”