A la mode in Guerneville

When we first started spending a lot of time in the lower Russian River area a few years ago, we always wondered about the boarded-up but fancy-looking building on a corner right in the middle of downtown Guerneville.

In the summer of 2015, we had to wonder no more. The building was renovated and reopened to the public as the Guerneville Bank Club.

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We immediately loved this airy, welcoming space, with its tall ceilings and big windows that let the sunlight stream in and offered views of Guerneville’s downtown and the forest beyond. The building’s beautiful vintage architecture has been lovingly preserved, right down to the vaults of what was, as the name suggests, a former bank.

The unique spot houses shops and eateries: the Jam Jar boutique, the Bank Club Wine Collective and the Chile Pies Baking Co. and Nimble & Finn’s ice cream. You can even catch up on local history with a small exhibit of photos from the Russian River Historical Society.  It’s a special space indeed that has wine, pie and ice cream, plus shopping and history all under one roof.

If you visit, don’t forget to drop by the vault. Banks usually aren’t too keen on people photographing their vaults, but now the main vault of this former financial institution is the spot to take selfies—camera provided. Just pop into the vault, hit a button and say cheese. Then go find your shot online. It’s fun seeing photos of other visitors while we’re looking for ours. Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun.

We haven’t had a chance yet to check out some of the Bank Club’s latest additions, like the Wine Collective—we definitely will be there on our next visit! But two tenants with which we are very familiar are Chile Pies Baking Co. and Nimble & Finn’s. The purveyors of gorgeous, rustic pies and the purveyors of wonderfully creamy, creative ice cream flavors share space at one magical counter at the Bank Club.

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This is where the magic happens: You can order pie and ice cream at the big counter in the middle of the Bank Club.

The signature dessert that gives the pie company its distinctive name is an apple pie that does indeed have chile in it, but the pie isn’t spicy. Mild green chile adds some complexity to the apple and complements a not-too-sweet walnut streusel topping. The specialty of the house is a slice of green chile apple pie á la mode with a red chile honey drizzle—so good!

A slice and a scoop

Dessert served á la mode can seem like gilding the lily. Ice cream is great and cake or pie or tart is great, too, but served with a scoop, could seem like almost too much of a great thing.

That said, even though of course, you can order pie or ice cream separately—and the portions of each are generous—we rarely stick to just one treat when we visit the Bank Club.

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Pictured above is a slice of creamy, rich lemon-blueberry buttermilk pie, paired with one of our Nimble & Finn’s favorites, lavender honeycomb ice cream. The lavender ice cream, just slightly floral, cut the sweetness of crunchy honeycomb candy—and paired with the tangy pie, it was bliss.

As for other offerings we like, well … that would be pretty much everything we’ve tried. And these clever bakers and ice cream makers keep coming up with new ways to tempt us. The pie and ice cream menus vary by season, so there’s always something new to try.

But there is one item on the menu that we just can’t bring ourselves to try: the pie shake. It blends up pie and ice cream into what we’re sure is a wonderful milkshake. All we that really have it against it is that we would just be too sad to grind up that beautiful pie and perfect ice cream.

Dessert … for lunch?

Sometimes we’ve indulged and gotten our own slice of pie and scoop of ice cream because one of us just had to try this berry nectarine pie or the other had to have that chocolate stout ice cream, and since those might not really go together…

And yes, once, we even had Chile Pie Co. and Nimble & Finn’s for lunch.

But we do restrain ourselves—a little. Especially if we drop by the Bank Club after dinner, we usually split a slice of pie and a scoop of ice cream for dessert. Besides, splitting a serving means we just have to come back more often to make sure we don’t miss out.

But if it’s lunchtime and we’re hungry … well, all bets just might be off.

 

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Can’t take a selfie in this one, but the Bank Club also preserved the night-drop vault by the front door.

The Guerneville Bank Club celebrated its second anniversary in May 2017.

If you go:

The Guerneville Bank Club is located at the corner of River Road (Guerneville’s main street) and Church Street in downtown Guerneville. Parking can be a bit of a challenge during the summer months, so you may have to park a few blocks away.

 

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The whole summer is ahead

We spent last Memorial Day weekend in Monte Rio with a good friend and his little dog.

The weekend was just hot enough that the slightly chilly river water felt good—a nice little shock to the system after a long winter out of the water. We took our friend to many of our favorite outdoor spots, including, of course, Monte Rio Beach. We loved watching his dog run around as she enjoyed the beach and greeting other dogs there.

This is a favorite moment that we happened to capture that weekend. It was late afternoon after a nice long day of relaxing at the beach. We had packed up our towels and chairs, heading to the car, and looked back at the beach as we walked away.

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Weekend and vacation days always seem to go so fast, and although we didn’t want to see the day end, this was also a wonderful moment of looking ahead. This particular day might be coming to a close, but there was a feeling of potential, knowing that the whole wonderful, warm summer was yet to come.

 

Part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge—Evanescent

Can’t wait to get on the water

Spring is speeding towards summer here in the Bay Area, which inspires us to start dreaming about how we might spend some of those lazy summer days … when we get a chance to be lazy!

Beaches along the Russian River officially open on Memorial Day weekend. We really don’t have much time left to wait, but on a cool, cloudy day like today (definitely chilly for May!), we do feel anxious for the return of those hot days last summer when we cooled off with a nice, leisurely kayak trip on the river.

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Kayaking with friends last August along the Russian River near Guerneville.

Of course, springtime in the North Bay has its own beauty, too, that we wouldn’t want to wish away. So for now, we’ll happily revisit last summer in photos and enjoy the late spring blooms and the feeling of possibility in the air.

 

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Looks like someone stopped for a riverbank picnic or a hike in the nearby woods.

A cafe at the water’s edge

Every good independent cafe has something special that distinguishes it: the cafe adjoins a bookstore, it boasts a collection of cool local art, or it just has exceptional atmosphere—and great coffee, of course.

At first glance, it would be easy to think that the “something special” at Cafe Aquatica is simply about location, location, location. And of course, that’s certainly part of its allure. The cafe occupies a plum spot along Highway 1, welcoming visitors to the hamlet of Jenner by the Sea, with a patio that overlooks the mouth of Russian River, where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Foggy and sunny days alike, the dramatic views are hard to beat.

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Lots of cafes have patios, but not many cafe patios have views like this. Cafe Aquatica’s patio overlooks the Russian River, where it flows into the Pacific Ocean.

But it’s not just the prime river- and sea-side vistas that keep bringing us back to the cafe. Sure, the views are amazing, but that only goes so far. It’s the friendliness of the staff—and the pretty important fact that we simply like the food and drink, too—that draws us back. It’s a perfect package.

We made our first visit to Cafe Aquatica back in February, dropping by for a bite on our way back from a bracing walk on the beach, and it was just warm enough to enjoy the patio. That day, we had originally planned to pick up some sandwiches at Cafe Aquatica to bring for a picnic to Russian Gulch Beach, but the day was windy enough, we decided against it.

It was a wise move all around: though it was a sunny day, it was still February, and we avoided wind-blown al fresco dining at the beach—plus we ended up giving ourselves a chance to really sit down and get a good introduction to a cafe that’s become one of our go-to spots.

 

The  cozy, welcoming interior of Cafe Aquatica has many essential ingredients you might expect at an independent cafe: the community bulletin board, the stacks of flyers for local events, the mismatched armchairs for lingering over a good read—and cool local photos and postcards for sale. But like all the best independent cafes, it has its own character. This place is definitely not resting on its location laurels, even though it could.

Once you start to look around, there are little quirky, fun details everywhere: inspiring words playfully sprinkled here and there on the walls: “community” “thrive” “wisdom” (on every visit we spot a new one) and painted shapes peeking out from the woodwork—the outline of a junk ship decorates the counter (the ship also seems to serve as the cafe’s logo). A compass rose adorns the worn floorboards near the entrance.

 

The whole package—interior, patio, general atmosphere—is so appealing that it took us several visits to Cafe Aquatica to decide to finally have that beach picnic we had been planning on. We ordered some sandwiches to go and brought them to nearby Blind Beach for a Memorial Day picnic.

The cafe’s menu is small—about a half-dozen sandwiches or less at any given time—but we’ve loved everything we’ve tried. Probably our favorite is the Veggie Fantastico: its heaps of greens, shredded carrots, crunchy cucumbers, tomatoes and hummus offer a fresh, healthy complement to the fluffy, rich housemade foccacia, which is loaded with herbs.

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Veggie Fantastico sandwich—with a side of “view fantastico.”

We’ve also enjoyed breakfast at Cafe Aquatica: poached eggs with veggies on that same beautiful foccacia. And the cafe’s assortment of freshly baked goods—muffins, cookies and pastries goes well with their coffee, which they roast themselves—there’s a roaster tucked in the corner behind the counter. You may catch it in action some morning.

Their spicy chai also really warms us up on those days when we *have* to sit on the patio, when maybe we should really sit inside … but we’re not going to.

The cafe also offers live music sometimes. A couple months ago, we enjoyed a sunny autumn breakfast out on the patio, accompanied by the music of a solo Flamenco guitarist.

So although it is true that pretty much everything goes well with the view at Cafe Aquatica, as we learned on our first visit, that beautiful view is just one of many reasons this place keeps us coming back.

 

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If you go:

Cafe Aquatica is located on Highway 1 in the town of Jenner.  The cafe is cash-only, but does have an ATM inside.

Mist and mirrors at dawn

As beautiful as the mornings are around here, we have to admit: it’s rare for us to get up at the crack of dawn (when we don’t have to), and rarer still for us to be in Guerneville, the neighboring town (four miles upriver from Monte Rio) as the sun is just coming up.

But we’re so glad we woke up early one recent morning and decided to go out. We ended up riverside just as the sun was rising.

A light mist swirled atop the water’s surface and the trees slowly began to glow brighter and brighter green as the sun’s rays hit their leaves.

We were still a little sleepy, but the slight chill in the air was bracing. The river seemed to be just waking up as well.

Although we were near the main highway, the morning was almost silent, except for some birdsong and the splashes of fish in the river, marked by slowly spreading concentric rings on the otherwise glassy surface. And occasionally, small caravans of ducks swam or flew by, but with little quacking.

The river is always full of life, and with all this wildlife keeping us company for the sunrise, we were surprised, and a little amazed, at the morning’s perfect stillness.

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A fall morning on the Russian River: as mist swirls atop the river, the reflections of nearby trees are mirrored in its glassy surface.

 

 

Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—H2O

We grow ’em big out here

As one of the (blessedly) least developed regions in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma County remains, in some places, more than half-wild, with redwood-forested mountains, grassy valleys and open meadows. We’ve certainly seen plenty of local fauna around: fish in the river, beautiful birds soaring above, mischievous raccoons and coyotes prowling the neighborhood and so many lovely deer roaming the hillsides.

But one day, along the roadside, we spotted a truly unusual specimen that we know to be a one-of-a-kind local native: a giant bee that’s about the size of a small deer. This fun, friendly creature, perched along the highway in downtown Sebastopol greets passersby and visitors alike to the Ceres Project.

(The Ceres Project is a nonprofit providing healthy meals to people in need in an innovative way—an organization which offers another reason to love this area.)

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This huge bee must have bulked up on nectar from all those apple blossoms around in the spring. Or maybe it really likes wine?

Artists Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent created this huge, colorful bee from scrap metal and recycled items like car parts.

Their upcycled “junk art” pops up in many spots around the area, offering glimpses of a whimsical world populated by angular, comically proportioned humans, fantastic creatures like mermaids, and all manner of animals.

One of the most obvious Amiot-Laurent landmarks—and another rare, native creature—is a teardrop camper transformed into a massive yellow duck that sits along the Gravenstein Highway. The oversized avian marks the spot of the artists’ sculpture garden, which you can visit. The quirky character of these artists’ joyful works, which pop up at local restaurants and in residential front gardens alike, strikes us as a perfect example of an only-in-Sonoma-County thing that just makes us love the area even more.

To enjoy more local art, check out this article, which includes links to a map of other Amiot-Laurent works around the area, as well as a link to a sculpture trail featuring outdoor works of art created by other local artists.

Part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge—Rare

A harvest and folk festival by the sea

One of us grew up in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and as is so often the case, it’s the places closer to home that you don’t really think about—until it comes time to show around out-of-town friends or family, or maybe a day trip reveals a different side that was just never on the radar before. And then, it’s fun to discover a new side of your home turf.

As to what made the Russian River …  “Russian”? Never thought about it for so many years—beyond the fact that it’s not the pun some folks think it is (at least in our neck of the woods, this river could rarely be classified as “rushing”).

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Clearly this river is way more lazy than “rushing.”

So “Russian” just happened to be the name of a river in the area.

We didn’t know why it had that name until we visited Fort Ross on a day trip from Ananda, making the trek up the coast last summer with a beloved aunt who loves history and photography. On that trip, we listened to docents at Fort Ross describe life at this historic coastal fort, where the Russian fur trade aimed to establish a foothold in the early 19th century. A community of Russian fur traders and Native Americans used to exist all around the fort.

The beautiful but stark seaside location and the restored fort buildings offered a sense of what life must’ve been like at this remote outpost. So we were excited to come back and learn more at the Fort Ross Harvest Festival held a couple months later, in mid-October. The 2016 edition of the festival takes place Oct. 15.

Along the Bay Area’s coastal areas, fall brings the best, sunniest, most gorgeous weather you’ll get all year, no question. So revisiting Fort Ross in October was a no-brainer.

Once we arrived at the festival, we saw that it had rained earlier in the morning and little wisps of fog hovered a foot or so above the fort grounds. The weather, at least in the morning, was a little gloomier than we had expected, but the festival still offered plenty to enjoy—a taste of what life might have been like for some of those who lived at the fort in its heyday.

A big, colorful mound of apples stood ready for visitors to try pressing them into cider using an old-fashioned press. In front of a building that re-creates the fort’s living quarters, volunteers in Russian period dress tended a cooking fire and labored over preparations for a meal, using traditional methods (the original “slow food”).

Various booths around the perimeter of the fort offered displays of contraptions like Victorian apple peelers, more hands-on old-timey activities like twisting lengths of hemp into rope (not so easy, actually!) as well as vendors selling handicrafts like felted wool trinkets.

Beneath the fort’s beautifully gnarled old apple trees, we watched a reenactment of a Russian wedding ceremony from the time. Even though we didn’t understand the words—the demonstration was in Russian—it was still clear how playful the pre-ceremony antics were. Plenty of trickery ensued, including several pranks meant to conceal the true identity of the bride from her groom.

After the ceremony, the wedding party and other volunteers in Russian dress took part in a folk dance, and invited visitors to join in. We learned later that we missed a performance of Native American dancing in the afternoon—a good reason to revisit the festival.

 

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Russian folk dancing at Fort Ross.

By this time, the weather had cleared, in a big way, and we checked out the food and drink vendors set up on an oceanside bluff outside the fort. The live music from local bands, the fresh-pressed juice, the borscht from Russian House all made for a relaxing meal in the warm October sunshine.

After our satisfying lunch, we took a walk to Sandy Cove beach below the fort and hiked to the fort’s cemetery on a nearby hill, which offered beautiful views looking back at Fort Ross—and more fascinating history to explore.

 

 

 

Come on in …

The unofficial end of summer may be upon us, but we still have a few weeks until it’s officially fall—and about a month before rentals at Russian River beaches close for the season. We’re going to make the most of that time whenever we get a chance.

But when we can’t get to the river, we’re going to reminisce about a trip earlier this summer to Monte Rio Beach with friends that found us lazing around the beach, swimming and tubing in the Russian River.

We brought a picnic (splitting a couple big sandwiches from Big Bottom Market) and made a day of it, swimming, lounging in our beach chairs and taking turns going for a float in the large, colorful inner tube we bought last summer at the Guerneville 5 & 10.

Wading into the river, inner tube in tow, and unceremoniously plopping down into the middle of the inner tube, the brisk river water immediately cooling but not chilly … it was the perfect summer day’s combination of silliness and relaxation.

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Straight from a relaxing float in the river.

What we all enjoyed perhaps as much as the actual floating was the big, clumsy production when one of us tried to get out of the tube. There doesn’t seem to be a graceful way to get out of a floating inner tube, and that can be pretty entertaining for friends to watch. There’s a lot of splashing, maybe a little bit of struggling … maybe once there was even a flipped-over inner tube … but always a lot of laughter.

It’s those somewhat less-than-expert moments that are sometimes the very best at the river. It’s why the river is so special, because everyone can participate—and be a little silly.

That same day at the beach, we saw a canoe with three elementary school-aged girls seated in the middle and two beleaguered—but amused—dads repeatedly trying to launch the canoe. Every time the fathers tried to push the canoe off from the shore, as the craft would hit the water, it would list a little, threatening, just ever so slightly, to tip, and the girls would giggle and joyfully shriek like mad. They’d shriek so much, in fact, that the dads would bring the canoe back to shore, wait a couple minutes and try again. Same result.

We don’t know how far they did eventually get from shore—or if they did ever launch that canoe—but it was obvious that the whole party was having fun trying.

Another day, while we were out kayaking, we paddled past a couple on an inflatable raft laughing loudly as they paddled in a circle and jovially bickered about what side they should paddle on in order to make their raft go to the left.

There are plenty of those expertly piloting their watercraft—that’s not really us, though we do love it—but something we especially appreciate about Monte Rio Beach and other Russian River beaches like it is that, in these areas, the river is wide and gentle enough to accommodate both the knowledgeable and the first timers.

We know that both our artless tubing and our semi-decent kayaking skills fit right in. Even if we look a little silly—and sometimes get a little soaked—doing it.

Because whether they are giggling and splashing and not getting very far, or gliding through the water on a peaceful kayak journey, everyone we see is having a good time. They are making memories at the beach and out on the water—as we are, too—and it’s fun to be part of that.

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Kayakers at Monte Rio Beach.

 

Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—Fun!

An afternoon in downtown Santa Rosa

 

We love to go exploring all around the Russian River area, but sometimes we end up going farther afield. And sometimes it’s especially fun to just go somewhere on a whim. One weekend earlier this summer, we spent the morning in Sonoma visiting with relatives and then, on an impulse, decided to swing through Santa Rosa and wander around the downtown.

Even though it’s only a little more than half an hour away from Ananda—just about 20 miles—we don’t get to Santa Rosa very often, and this visit reminded us why we should head east more.

After meandering around the tree-lined streets of the cute older neighborhoods, we parked on the outskirts of Santa Rosa’s downtown and decided to do the rest of our self-guided tour (actually more of a self-guided wander) on foot.

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Stone church in downtown Santa Rosa.
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One of several Victorian mansions next door to the stone church.

In need of some mid-afternoon fuel to keep the energy going, first we dropped by Brew, an independent café serving some really great coffee—and also some really great-looking beer. And we’ll be honest, those taps were so tempting, but the rich aroma of the coffee won out. In addition to a bright, colorful interior with natural light streaming in from plenty of windows, Brew also offers a shaded front patio that looks like a good low-key beer garden to us, both right in the center of things, but also a little removed. So we’ll definitely be back.

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We enjoyed a nice cup of coffee at Brew, but we’ll be back to sample the beer—and enjoy the front patio.

 

From Brew, we wandered through a neighborhood full of beautiful Victorian houses, crossed under Highway 101 and into Railroad Square, which is probably the best known of Santa Rosa’s many historic districts. There’s an abundance of cool old brick or stone buildings in Railroad Square, including the train depot for which the area is named. A small park in front of the depot (it’s named “Depot Park,” go figure) features a variety of sculptures, including a bronze statue of Charlie Brown (Peanuts creator Charles Schulz lived in the North Bay, chiefly Santa Rosa, for many years.)

Restaurants, cafes and a hotel line the area around Depot Park. Since we had recently caffeinated, we didn’t visit either one of the coffee places that flank the train station, but on several occasions we’ve gotten beans roasted by one of these cafes—Flying Goat Coffee—and really liked them.

 

For about an hour, we walked around, looking at buildings, popping into shops and just taking in the atmosphere.

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A closer look at the beautiful old stone building that houses Flying Goat Coffee.

We wanted to grab dinner before we left Santa Rosa, and a friend had recommended Jackson’s Bar and Oven, on the edge of the Railroad Square neighborhood. So we dropped by for an early bite. The space is modern and spacious but still cozy thanks to dark, warm woods, indirect lighting and an interior that makes the most of the restaurant’s location in a vintage building: high windows along most of the space, with light filtering in from the larger windows at the corner storefront.

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Jackson’s Bar and Oven is modern but still very cozy.

 

Jackson’s serves a thoughtful selection of local and regional beers, local wines and a small selection of artisan cocktails.

Because it was early still—and the family fed us a little too well earlier in the day—we wanted something light, so we split a salad of farro, pea shoots, fresh peas, arugula and toasted almonds. It was very fresh and just what we wanted (and about those fresh peas—we made this visit earlier this summer. Jackson’s menu does follow the seasons.)

We followed that wonderful farro and pea salad with a summer vegetable pizza, which we also split. Some might say it’s heresy to put so many vegetables on a dish more often used as a vehicle for pepperoni, but we loved the crisp, clean flavors of this white pizza. Delicate, creamy ricotta made a perfect base for zucchini, tomato and roasted corn, allowing them to truly complement each other. A light hand with the cilantro pesto (full disclosure: we love cilantro) meant that this love-it-or-hate-it herb helped round out the flavors, rather than dominating them.

We were a little too full from the day’s family gathering to get dessert, but we would definitely give it a try on a return visit to Jackson’s.

After dinner, we wanted to enjoy more of Santa Rosa’s downtown and took a little time to walk around before heading to the car. Crossing back under Highway 101, we did some more exploring.

 

As we began to see more and more folks within just a few blocks carrying away their hoards of Pliny the Elder, we knew we were close to the Russian River Brewing Co. We dropped by but didn’t really expect to get in quickly, and sure enough: the line was long enough outside that we decided to save it for our next visit.

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Maybe next visit?!

But for those who are making a beer pilgrimage, we know there’s enough to enjoy in downtown Santa Rosa even beyond the beloved Pliny that it’s well worth making a day of it.

Until next time, Santa Rosa.

In good company

Every time we’ve gone kayaking on the Russian River has offered a different adventure—always fun, but always its very own special kind of experience.

Sometimes the river is full of other happy vacationers splashing and floating around, and there are plenty of cheery waves and hellos to other folks paddling by, and we can hear the laughter and conversation of picnickers enjoying a leisurely lunch on a beach or a sandbar. Sometimes it’s a serene paddle on a stretch of river so quiet that the water’s surface almost looks like glass.

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Kayaking on the Russian River near Northwood Golf Course in Monte Rio.

But even during the area’s busiest times, there are peaceful moments at some quiet bend in the river where it seems like we have the whole place to ourselves.

Whether the river is bustling or calm, the scent of the surrounding redwoods always seems to drift down to the water, and the hotter the day, the more refreshing the light splashes from the paddles dipping into the water.

It was a quieter time at the end of last September when we went out for one last kayak trip of the summer, before Monte Rio Parks and Recreation’s beach rentals closed up shop for the season.

We rented a double kayak, left Monte Rio Beach and headed upriver towards Guerneville—the current isn’t very strong in the summers, especially the past couple years when the river has been so low.

Not long after we left, we realized we had some company on the river. We were so excited to see a beautiful blue heron just hanging out on a dock along the river, watching us in the kayak. It was a thrill to see this big, beautiful bird. We stopped paddling, and after a few minutes of observing the heron, and the heron observing us, we zoomed in the cameraphone as far as it would go—we didn’t want to disturb this beautiful bird (and so this shot is not as close to the heron as it might seem. We’d never want to get too close: it’s important to us to admire, but not to disrupt the local wildlife in any way).

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A very zoomed-in shot of a beautiful blue heron enjoying a moment on a dock.

We passed the heron and continued our trip upriver for a couple miles before we turned around and brought the kayak back to Monte Rio Beach. We were a little sore the next day (and a little sunburned—sunblock works better if you don’t just forget it in your bag!), but so glad we went for one last paddle of the season. It’s always worth it, and now we’re looking forward to another amazing summer of kayaking on the Russian River.

 

To plan your own kayak trip:

 

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Look for this sign at Monte Rio Beach to rent kayaks/canoes.

Monte Rio Parks & Rec’s rentals will reopen on Memorial Day weekend—simply head to the building at Monte Rio Beach to rent canoes, double or single kayaks, as well as inner-tubes and beach chairs.

 

There are also a number of other rental companies and kayak/canoe tour operators in the Russian River area, including King’s Sport & Tackle in Guerneville and Burke’s Canoes near Forestville.

 

 

 

 

Part of WordPress’ Weekly Photo Challenge—Jubilant