Saturday on the Russian River with Chuck and Jan (and others)

April 30, 2011

Spring run on the Russian River

The first time I paddled a canoe was on the Russian River from Asti to Alexander Valley Road. We had no clue what we were doing and in our ignorance we caught every eddy between the put in and take out despite all our efforts to just go straight down the river. Oddly enough this trip, done in August at less than 100 cfs, was the beginning of our 23 year love affair with rivers. Not necessarily the Russian, but rivers all over the West.
In the summer, the Russian is all the things we try to avoid on rivers. It is very hot and the river is filled, bank to bank, with ratty old aluminum canoes, people in all levels of dress and undress, ripe, red, beer bellies punched into inflated inner tubes and no escape from the teeming masses because the shores are steep and lined with barbed wire fences to protect the vineyards. The last time we paddled the Russian we avoided the summer crush and did a run in December. Then, it was bitterly cold and while Charlie and I were able to take care of ourselves, we were unable to keep Alice, our five year old, from getting wet at the put in. Big mistake! This lead to a long miserable day for all three of us.
So when Jan suggested we join her for the weekend on April 30th, we weren’t very interested, but the weather was promising and eventually we caved in and decided that for one day it would be OK. It is an easy drive from our home in Berkeley and it is always fun to visit with our friends from Arcata.
I have to say right off that the automobile gods were on a rampage that weekend and while there were no accidents there was more than the usual amount of confusion.
When you paddle down a river there are many moods and contrasts. The Russian was in a mood I had never seen. This was partly due to the fact we were on a section I had never paddled. We put in just below the dam at Healdsburg and took out at Steelhead Beach Regional Park. Its a Class I and 11 miles. Oddly the shuttle was miles longer than the river run because there is a shortage of bridges (and we went right instead of left at an intersection).
Once we were on the river there was one section, neatly framed by giant cottonwoods that were standing very still, you could almost hear an occasional leaf pop free of the branches and drift to the water. An oriole was either following us or there was a mile long colony of them so that as we floated along there was always a strong, melodic voice right next to us, singing loud and lovely and yet invisible.
In these places we try to paddle quietly and gently and we catch glimpses of movement out of the corners of our eyes.
At the same time we are surrounded by this idyllic scene, we are also passing through a place where the huge destructive power of the river makes you think constantly of what 30,000 cfs really means. During the rainy season the sandy bank had been pounded upon – cut and washed away, leaving uprooted trees and bushes tangled in piles on the shore. Bits and pieces and whole trees collect in eddies at high water and when the water recedes huge clots of sticks and branches are suspended high up in bent trees looking like giant nests for Dumbo the Flying Elephant. There are even some laughing black ravens flapping from tree to tree.
Bank swallows were building their tiny caves in the sandy cliffs. They darted around knobby black roots under partially up-rooted trees or flew overhead peeping at us aggressively.
Fences and barbed wire and rip-rap intrude on the scene in places; vineyards owners are in constant battle with the river to keep their land from being dragged away by the river and they shove huge piles of rock off the eroding banks of the river, hoping to stabilize the shore. Fence posts dangling from the barbed wire tell of their failures.
But the vineyards give the river a nice cultivated wildness; there are no houses leaning over the riverbanks until we get down towards Mirabell. It is like the river is a lion in the circus that is allowed to rampage through the countryside for six months of the year and sometimes it is incredibly destructive. But during the summer it does its job of filling the reservoirs and wells of the nearby towns as well as carrying thousands of boaters downstream to cool off.
When we drifted along in the spring the wildness hadn’t worn off yet, the lion has left its claw marks.