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”).

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.


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.





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.

Stone church in downtown Santa Rosa.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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:


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

A drive through the seasons

This shot was taken on a day that ultimately turned out to be sunny, with temps in the high 70s. That day seemed like it went through all the seasons in 12 hours, from rainy winter in the morning, warming up to spring by noon, and hot, sunny summer in the afternoon. By evening, a little chill in the air returned and it felt like fall—which it actually was. Dressing in layers (or just bringing extra layers) is the best way to hedge all bets if you’re headed to the Sonoma Coast.

We were out for a drive north of Jenner on Highway 1, just to see the sights. It had rained most of the morning and a heavy mist settled on the coast, which made for quite an atmospheric drive, if not exactly the scenic one we were after. Fog swirled across the highway, which did limit visibility a little. It was the kind of weather that made us long to be back at the house, sitting  by the fireplace with a nice steaming mug of tea, but at the same time, we really enjoyed the beauty of the mist, and it was a fun drive, even if it wasn’t the one we had planned on.

An ongoing highway construction project has created a one-lane stretch of road for about a mile along Highway 1, not far from Fort Ross, with temporary traffic lights set up on either end of the construction zone. It’s usually about a five-minute wait at these traffic lights—and on a clear day, the view makes for a great distraction during the wait. We got this shot when we stopped at the southern end of the construction area.

Stopped at a construction zone on Highway 1, looking northwest toward the ocean and enjoying the raindrops on the windshield.


The glow of the red light through the fog seemed a little dramatic, highlighting the starkness of the misty landscape, and making the warm car seem that much cozier. Visibility wasn’t great, but nowhere near as bad as this suggests—it’s just that the camera focused on the raindrops on the windshield, and we liked the way that looked.

When we stopped at this spot, we could have probably turned around, headed back to the fireplace and hot tea, but we decided to keep driving. And we’re glad we did. The rain cleared around noon and the day turned out sunny, clear and beautiful.


Part of WordPress’ weekly photo challenge—Abstract

Going Old-School in Duncans Mills


One of the things that makes exploring the North Bay and Sonoma so much fun is how many unique small towns we’ve discovered just in driving around. Each town has something that makes it special—beyond location, that is, which is always pretty scenic.
On one of our first visits to the area, driving to Goat Rock Beach, we happened upon the town of Duncans Mills, and now we stop there often on trips to the coast—it’s pretty close to home and a fun place to stop (just through the woods and over the river we go).

Crossing the Russian River and heading into Duncans Mills from Monte Rio.

Even though Duncans Mills is small—the population is 175—there’s still enough to do there that we haven’t seen it all yet. Next on our list to check out: the Depot Museum, which hearkens back to the hamlet’s origins as a lumber town.

The museum features a restored depot and train cars, including a passenger car and caboose. Across the street from the museum are rodeo grounds. Duncans Mills also hosts the Russian River Rodeo each summer—the 50th anniversary rodeo will be held June 25-26, 2016.

It’s not just the rail museum and the rodeo—the town has an Old West vibe through and through, thanks to a shopping district that combines historic buildings and newer structures built in an old style. Adding an extra vintage touch are wooden boardwalks in place of sidewalks.

And it only makes sense that many of the shops sell antiques. One of our favorites specializes in a combination of American midcentury housewares, as well as much older furnishings from Europe and Asia, but the store also sells handmade soaps. Other merchants in Duncans Mills include restaurants, jewelry and clothing shops, stores that offer multicultural goods, a tea shop, a kitchen store and a wine tasting shop.

Solitary in time

Everything about Fort Ross seems a little solitary. This redwood fort was built on a rugged spot along the Sonoma Coast in 1812 by Russian fur-traders.

It’s only 16 miles (about a 45-minute drive) from Monte Rio, and is easily accessed by Highway 1, but still seems a remote spot, like we’ve really arrived at a faraway place—maybe far-off in time more so than distance.

The fort regularly comes alive with events: docent talks and tours, and seasonal festivals. And there’s a visitor center a short walk away that has steady attendance at its gift shop and exhibits about the Russians and Native Americans who used to make their lives here.


One of Fort Ross’ two blockhouses is seen from Sandy Cove beach below the fort.

Imagining what life must have been like at this outpost in its heyday, it has always seemed like it must have been full of challenges—and certainly isolated. But maybe that’s just how it strikes us now. A village used to adjoin the fort, but today Fort Ross stands alone, perched atop a windswept hill, facing the ocean. The fort overlooks Sandy Cove beach, where we went for a walk after visiting the Fall Harvest Festival and took this shot looking back up at the solitary fort.


Russian Gulch Beach


In the northern hemisphere, few would think a late February day would have anything in common with “beach weather,” and on the day we visited Russian Gulch Beach, the inhospitable ocean certainly bore that out. High waves pounded the rocks and shore, warning visitors away from approaching the surf. In fact, the rip current at this beach makes it unsafe for swimming year-round.

But sunshine, few clouds in the sky, temperatures in the low 70s and a light breeze made for a wonderful walk on the beach. We enjoyed a perfect warm winter day at the ocean.

Not to be confused with a larger state park by the same name farther north in Mendocino, this Russian Gulch lies about 2 miles north of the town of Jenner along Highway 1. This hidden-away spot offers a short, peaceful stroll to the beach and stark, dramatic scenery at the beach itself.  It’s a perfect place for “beach exploring,” as it’s described here.

Russian Gulch is easy to find, and it’s not a long drive from the house—just about 12 miles (a roughly 20-minute drive) from Monte Rio.

As we drove north on Highway 1, away from Jenner, we easily spotted the access point for the beach—it’s located near the bottom of hill, at a wide, sweeping turn in the road. Parking areas, right off both shoulders of Highway 1, clearly delineate the area.

Highway 1, looking back towards Jenner

The main parking lot is a spacious dirt and gravel turnout that will probably accommodate about ten cars; it’s just adjacent to the trailhead. A smaller, narrow dirt patch across the highway will probably hold an additional four or five more cars. Parking on this sunny, late February day didn’t prove difficult to find, though it seems likely to be scarcer during the summer months.

Russian Gulch trailhead

From trailhead to beach, an easy, flat trail meanders about a quarter of a mile through a patch of mossy, gnarled trees that grow at extreme angles, slowly bent over the years to accommodate the wind.

It’s a short, tranquil stroll to the beach.

Since it’s still the rainy season and an El Niño year, we encountered not only a few muddy spots on the trail, but also marshy areas with ferns, and even a small bog off to one side of the path—something we haven’t seen in the past couple years of drought.

The trail follows Russian Gulch Creek at least part of the way. We could glimpse the creek from some spots along the trail.

A peek through the trees at a bend in Russian Gulch Creek.

The trail leads to a rocky spit of land cut off from the main beach by the wide, slow-moving Russian Gulch Creek.

In order to reach the main beach, we had to wade across the creek. It’s a bit too far across and potentially too deep in the middle, so we decided that the best way to ford the creek was make two crossings at narrower points, wading first from the bank where the trail lets out, to a large rock-covered sandbar in the middle of the creek, then another crossing from there over to the beach proper.

Russian Gulch Creek

This is where what had been a peaceful afternoon walk gave way to some shrieking and slightly frantic scrambling across the creek. We took off our shoes and socks and waded into creek water that shocked with a deep chill. The rocky creekbed proved somewhat slippery, prolonging the walk through the icy water as we tried to keep our balance.

Rather than sand, this beach is made up of smooth stones of all sizes, and there are were a couple small patches littered with sharp shards of broken mussel shells best avoided by bare feet. We found ourselves wishing for the Tevas, which, the day before, it had seemed too optimistic to pack. Water shoes aren’t strictly necessary here—we saw no litter or broken glass—but having something on our feet would have made the walk around the beach more comfortable.

Looking across the creek to the main beach, which is obscured by a gravelly slope.

Arriving at the main part of the beach, we could hear the waves, but couldn’t see them, due to a large, gently sloping hill in the center of the main part of the beach, almost like a fortification between the ocean and the land. This rise in the middle of the beach obscured all but the tallest waves until we neared the crest of the hill.

We crossed the top of the hill, where the ocean had washed away the larger rocks and pebbles and smoothed the beach into an expanse of coarse sand.

The scenery quickly distracted us from the brief chilly creek walk and the pebbly surface of the beach. Waves pounded the rocky edges of the cove, kicking up so much spray that they often left a lingering mist in their wake. Little waterfalls appeared, running off the rocks after each wave broke.

This is very, very, very zoomed-in.

The largest waves crashed on the shore but then kept spreading across the beach, reaching long fingers up the hill in the middle, and then back down the other side. As most of the water seeped into the gravel, the leading edge of the wave left behind its outline, traced by long lines of sea foam stranded many feet from where most of the waves were breaking.

Sea foam making its way up the hill in the middle of the beach …
… and getting stranded as it heads down the hill towards the creek (camera tilted just for fun—the hill isn’t *that* steep!)

We walked to one end of the beach, where Russian Gulch Creek flows into the sea. And we saw that the bigger waves were up to their usual tricks, taking off into places across the beach where waves don’t usually go—in this case, wrapping around a large rock near the shore.

The edge of a wave begins to sneak around a rock and up the beach at the spot where Russian Gulch Creek (right) flows into the ocean.

We had considered bringing a picnic to the beach, but thought it might be too windy or cold. But we’d pack a picnic for a return visit some time, because Russian Gulch looks like a great place for it—especially suited for a beach picnic because there’s no fine sand to blow into the food. Camp chairs or a blanket would offer a more comfortable spot to sit.

Walking back to the car, we noticed many wildflowers growing along the trail, along with moss and ferns, and even a mossy log festooned with mushrooms. It made this day trip feel like we were seeing the best of both worlds: a visit to the ocean and with two quick side trips through peaceful woodlands.

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Whether for beach exploring or a picnic—maybe both?—we’re looking forward to our next trip to Russian Gulch.


To visit:

Russian Gulch, about 2 miles north of Jenner, along Highway 1

-Limited parking in turnout areas along the Highway

-Free admission

-You might want to pack: sunscreen; a light jacket or hoodie (even in the summer); water shoes; camp chairs or a blanket; a picnic; a frisbee

-This beach is unsafe for swimming, even in warmer months. It’s great for walks, picnics and exploring.