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.
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.)
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.
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”).
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.
Heritage apple trees at the fort
Apples ready for the cider press
Old-school apple peeler and slicer
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.
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.
Looking back on Fort Ross from the fort’s cemetery.
The short hike to the fort cemetery.
Sandy Cove beach.
The ruins of a (much newer than early 19th-century) barn stand near the fort.