Floating the Russian River
We had a recipe for disaster. A 3-night/4-day canoeing trip in a boat we had never used; Trish was completely new to canoeing and it had been ages since I had last paddled; tbe camping equipment hadn’t been unpacked in years; and the directions we were following were posted on-line in 1997. But everything miraculously came together to become one of my most memorable weekends ever.
Less than a week prior to our launch, I asked teammates a post race dinner if anyone knew of a canoe we could borrow. Josh led us to Rich who led us to a canoe that was not just available to use, but to keep. THANKS! Three days later we were driving home from Tiberon with an aluminum canoe hanging several feet over the front and back of my Honda. Wednesday we went to Wilderness Exchange and REI to get the remaining items on our camping checklist. And Friday morning we were packed and off. We drove two cars to Jenner; dropped Trish’s off at the mouth of the Russian River; and took mine to Cloverdale (stopping for a couple wine tastings, of course!)
Our out-of-date directions led us to a road that was closed over a mile from the river. So we drove around until we found the tiny Cloverdale Airport, whose clandestine runway seemed custom designed for drug running. We talked to a haggard German skydive instructor who tipped us off to a 2-track path, barely drivable with the Honda, that got us within 50 meters of the river. Thank god that post-911 airport security hasn’t caught on in Cloverdale yet.
With our canoe and gear finally riverside, we launched into a series of Class I-II rapids. Immediately we felt free, carried swiftly downstream, and relieved, noting that our canoe actually floated. Due to the late start, we paddled for less than two hours before finding a desolate beach where we set up the first of several idyllic camps. Trish proved to be a master fire builder (pyromaniac?) while I worked my magic over the camp stove.
Prior to the trip, I imagined that we would spend much of our time bouncing off of an armada of canoes unleashed upon the river by throngs of Memorial Day Weekend yahoos. But by noon on day two we had not seen a single person. This stretch of the river is completely undeveloped. Inhabited by every kind of bird imaginable, but no people. In the evening hundreds of swallows would sail from their riverbank nests, just above the surface of the water, coming directly at us before a dramatic last minute swerve. We regularly saw blue herons, osprey, red tail hawks, even bald eagles.
Day Two saw our only near catastrophe. A sudden bend in the river and a fast rapids, sent us right into a strainer (a tree down in the river). We paddled furiously for the bank, but had no choice but to go right into the tree. I was picked out of the canoe by a branch while Trish ducked and rode it out. For a second I was pushed under the canoe and tree but resurfaced at the front of the canoe and somehow managed to grab the bow and swim the canoe out of the strainer and to shore. We took in a lot of water, but miraculously didn’t tip. We learned a lesson and took all blind corners much more carefully, sometimes even pulling over to walk ahead to survey the river. In the next couple days we saw several canoes that never made it out of such snags, some severely bent and twisted by the current.
After a full day on the river, we found an even more impressive campsite, this time at the confluence of the Russian river and a babbling stream.
Day Three was our longest day on the river. As we neared Healdsburg we saw our first signs of development and river traffic. We passed a canoe livery, but were just ahead of their holiday throngs. By early afternoon we reached a crowded beach at Healdsburg where all day-paddlers end their trip. We had to portage the dam. Unfortunately, the gate to the portage path was locked and the lifeguards at the beach, although trying their hardest to be helpful, could not locate anyone with a key. There was actually an easier way to portage than the official route, but it required passing threatening signs and walking beside a fish ladder in an area that was strictly off limits. We were told that we could not do it. When I asked what other options there were, the only one the lifeguard could think of was to portage our canoe and gear over the bridge and about five blocks away to a beach downstream. This seemed nearly impossible and completely unreasonable compared to the 50-meter illegal portage ahead. So, of course, we went for it. Just as we finished reloading the canoe, Trish said in a panicked whisper, “Here comes a park ranger.” We pushed off and made a narrow escape. An hour later we were again far from any sign of humanity. We stopped for a late lunch and a skinny dip. First we heard, then saw, a helicopter flying low, tracing the river. Assuming it was a sightseeing tour, I mooned them. The helicopter did a 360 immediately above us, and as it banked into its turn, I could read “Sonoma County Sheriff” on the side. I’ve never put a pair of shorts on so fast. After a moment of panic, Trish and I spent the next several minutes laughing so hard we could barely breath.
Back on the river, we paddled until within an hour of dark, moving from a remote stretch of the river to one that had many more homes on the bank. We found another deserted beach, and except for the fact that we could hear cars on a nearby road, we enjoyed another idyllic riverside campsite, a crescent moon, and a sky full of stars.
On our final day we were on the river by 9:00 AM. There was a canoe livery with hundreds of stacked canoes just up-stream from where we camped, but we beat them all to the river and had another peaceful morning of paddling. The scenery had become more dramatic. Rather than distant hills, we now looked up at steeper slopes that rose from the river shores, covered by towering redwoods.
Our plan had been to make it to Jenner this day, where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. But the wiser choice seemed to bail earlier. By 1:00 PM we passed Guerneville and were nearing the homes of our friends Skeeter and Alex and Janice and Bill. With the pressure off, we made the final hour of hour journey the most relaxing. We made a cheese plate, opened a bottle of wine, and sat in the center of our canoe atop all our gear.
Janice and Bill not only saved the day, they made it even sweeter. From their place, we pulled the canoe out and brought it across the street to its new home at Skeeter’s. While I drove with Bill to retrieve Trish’s car from 15 miles down the road, Trish and Janice stocked up for a steak dinner to celebrate Trish’s birthday. There was plenty of wine, great food and wonderful company. The perfect end to a perfect journey. Here are the rest of the photos.