The lazy days of summer are prime season for one of Sonoma County's favorite family adventures — a Huck Finn type of getaway that is neither expensive nor difficult to get to. For decades people of all ages have made their annual pilgrimage to the Russian River to get a river-level view of some of the best scenery and wildlife California has to offer.
The Russian River flows through such famous Wine Country destinations as Geyserville and Healdsburg before it makes its way out to the sea through gentle hills covered with thick redwood forests and teaming with rare birds and other wildlife. About a 10-mile stretch of the river from Forestville to Guerneville is ideal for calm-water canoeing or kayaking and a local company called Burke's Canoe Trips helps make it even easier by providing canoes, kayaks and a shuttle service that will return you to your car near Forestville.
The Russian River, in this case, is not exactly the "rushin'" river. If you're looking for a lot of fast water and river rapids, there are other California rivers that will fill that bill, but not this one. In fact, the water here is so tame that it's really not all that good for inner-tubing because in some parts you can't keep enough forward motion without a lot of paddling. For that reason, canoes and kayaks -- which seem to glide over the water with little effort -- are ideal.
It's not that you won't get a few thrills. As the people from Burkes' Canoes told us, there is just enough fast water to make things interesting. There are a few points in the river where channels of current can carry you into tree branches along the shore, or get your canoe turned around in a whirlpool if you don't guide your canoe to the right area. But the good news is that, even if you flip, the water's relatively warm, not very deep and you'll be carried forward to a calm area in literally just seconds.
We opted for a canoe on our trip down the river and were advised to keep all of our cameras or anything that could be water-damaged in a safe water-tight plastic bag. We also had been told to wear our swim suits, and were required to wear lightweight life-preservers. Looking at the calm water near the launch area, it almost seemed silly to worry about flipping over and we were wondering why there was so much emphasis on preparing to get wet.
Once our canoe was packed with a few minimum provisions such as sunscreen and a cooler full of drinks and sandwiches, we set out tentatively from the launch point. Canoes are inherently unstable — at least if you haven't been around them for awhile — and it took us a few minutes to get comfortable with our balance and to get some confidence we could maneuver properly. But alas, our Boy Scout training soon kicked in just fine even though it had been decades — and probably a 20 percent weight gain -- since we had last put paddle to water.
Within about two minutes we faced our first challenge — avoiding a fairly fast river current pushing everything toward the wooded right shore. We aimed our canoe to the left bank, paddled quickly and managed to coordinate our front and rear paddles just enough to avoid the hazard. It wasn't a perfect approach, but it was a confidence builder. We looked forward to honing our paddling skills as we faced new challenges further down the river.
Soon we were into a calm stretch of water, barely moving but only requiring a gentle paddle to keep making good forward progress. This was when we really started to take in the natural beauty of the river — the thick forests of giant trees and the continuous ballet performed by the birds of the Russian River such as the Great Blue Heron and osprey. Along the way we would see turtles and deer as well. We also enjoyed paddling by the charming vacation cabins that are perched above the river in many strategic locations along this stretch of the Russian. Spectacular bridges span the river at various points although most of this float was away from the highway, making it feel even more remote than it actually is.
We spent the next four hours or so alternating between negotiating some of the stronger currents— or what you might call very small rapids -- and quietly paddling on a beautiful blue-sky spring day. We stopped only for a few minutes to have a sandwich on a spectacular sandy beach — although we're told most people linger at these beaches to swim, sunbathe and just hang out with their fellow travelers for hours on end.
After mastering maybe a dozen fast-current bottlenecks and with less than a few hundred yards to go to our finish, we were feeling supremely confident that we had regained the canoeing prowess of our youth. And then the unthinkable happened: we flipped. We had run aground in some shallow water and momentarily forgot that you don't dislodge a canoe by shifting your weight. We were wet, but not really cold — and we did immediately retrieve everything except a wayward paddle that we followed downstream a hundred yards to pick up.
Our pride was wounded. But we did feel better later when the Burke's Canoe people told us that fully one half of their customers flip at some point along this seemingly calm and idyllic stretch of river.
Back in our car, we now drove the 10 miles back down to Guerneville where we would spend the night. With parks and trails and redwood scenery all just minutes from downtown, Guerneville is a popular destination for outdoors enthusiasts as well as those who love the charm of colorful small towns. Guerneville has a quiet Main Street — much busier on weekends — that offers a number of crafts shops and hometown restaurants. We enjoyed taking a couple of drives outside of town to places likeArmstrong Woods with its trails through deep redwood forests. Many visitors drive just a few miles down to Jenner where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean.
We spent the night at the West Sonoma Inn and Spa, a stylish group of buildings at the edge of Guerneville where the resort takes advantage of the natural redwood scenery and nearby vineyard views. The innkeepers here have gone the extra mile in providing a lot of extras for guests that often are not found in small-town lodging facilities — plush beds, fireplaces, granite counter tops, wet bars, private decks and mini-kitchens. Our unit was unusually spacious and, because of a more spread-out configuration, each unit seemed quite private and very quiet. Grounds were richly landscaped and maintained.
A light European breakfast is offered at the West Sonoma Coast Inn that includes gourmet organic coffee, juice, fresh fruit and pastries. Prices at the inn start at less than $100 which, today, is a bargain in a highly desirable tourist area. That's especially true when you realize that the inn is considered by many to among the best and most luxurious lodging options in Guerneville.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Russian River is in Sonoma County and the put-in point for Burke's Canoe Trips is about 70 miles northwest of San Francisco.
WHAT: Burke's Canoe Trips have been popular with couples and groups of all sizes for decades and are self-guided trips down a 10-mile stretch of the Russian River. The company furnishes the canoe and safety gear and then picks you up in their shuttle bus at the end of your trip, near Guerneville.
WHEN: The trips start each year at the end of May and continue throughout the summer. Weather is generally sunny and in the 80's.
WHY: Russian River canoe trips are a great way to see river scenery in a spectacular part of California where you'll enjoy both redwood forests and abundant wildlife. It's also a social experience since many people do the trip in groups.
HOW: For more information on Russian River canoe trips, phone 707-887-1222 or visit www.burkescanoetrips.com. Burke's Canoes charges $60 per canoe for use of the canoe, safety gear and pick up on the company shuttle. For more information on the West Sonoma Coast Inn, phone 1-800-551-1881 or visit www.westsonomainn.com.
Photos, from top: plenty of natural views await down the river; stopping for lunch at sandy beach; Guerneville still has a five-and-dime store; nicely landscaped grounds at West Sonoma Inn