Russian River, May 5th, 2012

This time of year I am overwhelmed by a powerful rush of longing to sit by a river and worship the movement, the smells, the sound of rushing water over rocks. To skip the drama, blow the suspense, ruin the punchline: Charlie and I didn’t swim on this trip but we did a stupid portage. A stupid portage is any portage you have to make because you’re lost and can’t find the water.

Trip leaders, Chuck and Jan with their kids Jake and Ruth had been up at the River since Wednesday. They had rented a cabin in Gurnewood Park at the last minute because the weather was threatening and camping and cooking in the rain gets old. So they sat out a huge thunderstorm in a cozy little cabin and got to boat together for one day in the wind. We left our house in Berkeley at 7 AM with Dan and Martha following behind in their car.

When we pulled off the fwy at Healdsburg Avenue, they were on the left filling up at the Chevron. No one was in desperate need of pastry so we decided to go straight to the put-in. I missed the fwy return, I swear there were no signs with arrows anywhere near the access and we ended up taking the main drag all the way through town and out to Alexander Valley Road where we took a right to go the Alexander Valley Campground. The road runs parallel to the freeway so I only felt lost for 30 seconds right before the turn off to Alexander Valley Road appeared. We were a little early at the campground. We drove around the empty campground and found the trail/road down to the river. Then we got out of the cars and wandered around, paid our access fees and waited for about 10 minutes before Chuck and Jan showed up.

Oh, frabjous day! To be fidgeting at the put-in on a day radiating goodwill and sunshine! To see plenty of current and no wind! Life is good! It’s a short shuttle of approximately 7 miles from the campground to Healdsburg Memorial Beach County Park. The river takes two wide goose-necks to arrive at the park so it is a 14 mile paddle. While we waited, Yukon, Jan’s white Lab, a water dog to her cheerful core, chased sticks into the water and frolicked around greeting everyone and joyfully spraying water when she shook off. Kuda, not a water dog, stood close to Dan looking worried. Later in the boats the two dogs went to sleep. Jan, deferring to Charlie and I in our elder statesman roles asked us to be Lead boat. Russian River in this section is a class I, a river that you can usually get down safely with a minimum of difficulty. Charlie and I have been the sweep boat for so many years that being out front was a strange experience, but we agreed. We were flattered. It was really hubris. The water was high and posed a set of problems for us that we didn’t solve very well. It started at the first “rapid”. When the river is low for a year or two, the shore grows a thick line of willows, impenetrable by any living creature except minnows. When the water is high, as it would most likely be in the spring after a big rain, the river carves out the sand and gravel from around this line of shrubbery and leaves most of it standing, a hedge-like picket fence in mid-current. Its not too bad if the current is flowing parallel to the hedge but this isn’t always the case. This day the swift current was running at a diagonal or in places at 90° to the fence. This is very dangerous. It is very difficult to avoid the brush and if you get tangled in it your boat is far too likely to flip (counter-intuitively you have to be sticking your head into the brush to protect the boat) and if you flip, a swimmer is at great risk of being overwhelmed by the current that will shove them into the strainer and under water. Its called a strainer and is very ugly. Within minutes of the put-in the bulk of the current plunged left into a deep undercut bank and disappeared around the beginning of a 100 yd long picket fence of willows that marched into the vague distance where it vanished. River right was covered with a long wide gravel bar and a shallow pool. We didn’t like the looks of the left channel because we could not see through the willows and the undercut looked recent enough that there could easily be a stump, tree, or for that matter a school bus hiding from our sight. Our other choice was to see if there was a break in the willows at the bottom end of the fence. There was enough current to make the second choice look safer than the speeding unknown into the dark of the first so Charlie and I paddled into the wide area above the picket fence looking for a break. Well, so much for plans; the current rushing out of the pool was a lot faster than we expected and there didn’t appear to be any breaks in the picket fence and there was a hidden gravel bar upon which we grounded the bow of the boat and spun around facing upstream paddling furiously in three inches of water to avoid being swept into the fence. The water was so shallow I thought about hopping out and grabbing the gunwale but knew that if I did that there was a pretty good chance that the lightened boat would float off the gravel before I could get a grip on it and Charlie would be swept into the sweeper without any help from me. In our one expert move of the day, we pushed off the gravel bar, pivoted neatly in place so we could see where we were going and darted quickly through a slot in the willows that only reveled itself at the last second. Whew. Not a big deal, but not an auspicious start either.

We looked back to see Jan, who was paddling with her daughter, Ruth, in the bow. She was standing on the shore scouting her next move and the rest of the group was scattered out in the pool above the mess of willows. Everyone safe. Yay.

As we drifted downstream below the willow fence, a nice wide slot appeared in the willows and we pointed it out to our followers and everyone made it down OK. We made another similar half baked decision at the next challenging spot, whereupon I asked Jan, “Are you sure you want us to be Lead?” “No, no, you go ahead.”

The nice thing about being Lead boat is that you get to see all the critters before they get scared off by the boats. We saw an otter on the shore as it scampered into the water. I was reminded of a salamander as the otter’s black form slipped out of sight. After lunch the river messed us up again. Chuck was concerned about the wind and he and Jake in their solo canoes, took off ahead of the group, leaving Jan and Ruth, Dan and Martha, Alice in her kayak and Charlie and I in the lead again. This time the scary undercut channel was on the right; a big fat current flowing into brush and then the unknown but the left was a smaller channel but still with a lot of moving water in it. We thought we could get out of it if it turned out to be a downer but we shot down a steep chute through some willows so that we were committed to this route. We signaled Alice, Jan and Ruth to wait before coming down. Dan and Martha were far enough upstream that they took the right chute. The river got thinner and thinner until it narrowed down into a swift channel racing diagonally through three or four rows of willows at such a speed I wasn’t willing to risk it. There didn’t appear to be a safe zone and failure could be a big problem. That left us committed to a stupid portage. We were on an island and there was no place to go on the left and the right hand channel was protected by a six foot thick barrier of willows. We stomped randomly around looking for a short stupid portage and eventually found a break in the willows that allowed us to put one boat at a time into the water. Jan and Ruth portaged a little bit upstream of us. We caught up with Chuck and Jake who had taken the better channel and ended up waiting for us for a half hour while we sorted ourselves out. Chuck’s comment was, “Yeah, there were some spots that were a little ambiguous.” Charlie and I sheepishly surrendered the Lead to Chuck and he led us quietly downstream.

On Thursday, Ruth, on one of her first solo canoe adventures, had been buffeted by the wind to the point of flipping. Jan said she was side-surfing a wave in the middle of a pool with no current; the wind had whipped the water into a Class II. Today, while there were a few sections where we were bullied by upstream winds, most of the time it, if it blew, it blew downstream.

We drifted into the more residential area of Healdsburg and took a stretch break on a beach lined with small cottages. We arrived at the take-out in Healdsburg and carried the boats up the hill and then got the cars and loaded them. Alice went swimming and picked some lupine from a patch that grew between the pedestrian bridge and the auto bridge. This patch is mentionable because it was a huge, thick mass of intense purple that was clearly cultivated, its edges square and nothing else was growing within its border. It stood out like a flag laying on the shore.

We took Dan and Martha back to their car at the put-in and then Charlie, Alice and I followed Jan to Guernewood Park. We sat around catching up and chatting until dinner. Charlie and I went home and Alice spent the night. On Sunday we all joined up again at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to watch Joann O. running her dogs in the Dog Agility Contest. But that is another story.

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