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.

 

 

 

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Bright pebbles at the beach

It must all be a matter of ocean currents shaping the landscape: some of the beaches on the Sonoma Coast are covered in soft, fine sand, while other beaches are made up of rocks, big and small. And some, like Sandy Cove—despite its name—have a mix of gravel and sand. At the rockier beaches, most of the stones and pebbles are in shades of grey, white or brown.

But this smooth, red pebble stood out among them for its brighter color. On the day we visited Sandy Cove, we saw about a dozen or so of these red rocks scattered among the other stones around the beach. When we picked one of them up, it was much lighter than expected, and slightly porous in texture—and it had faint traces of a man-made pattern on it.

We realized that these “rocks” were pieces of bricks. In the same way that the ocean, over time, shapes sharp pieces of broken glass into smooth, translucent stones, it had transformed what had been a rough chunk of red clay into a small, colorful pebble that’s now just another a beautiful part of the beach.

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A brick-red pebble at Sandy Cove turned out to be part of an actual brick.

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.

 

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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.