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.





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

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.

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

Connection temporarily lost


The mouth of the Russian River, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean.

The Russian River flows through Mendocino and Sonoma counties, running through towns and countryside, connecting it all along a 110-mile path. But here, at the mouth, is where the Russian River makes its ultimate connection: flowing into the Pacific Ocean.

Low water sometimes breaks this key connection by causing a sandbar to build up and stop the river from reaching the sea, turning the Russian River Estuary into a lagoon. Even though the connection is temporarily lost, there’s a benefit. The lagoon attracts seals and sea lions, who raise their pups on the nearby beach, protected from the wide-open ocean.

The mouth of the Russian River gets blocked by a sandbar created by low water depositing silt and mud.

Sometimes seals even swim up the river, in search of fish, and show up in the river a dozen miles or more from the ocean, near Monte Rio or Guerneville.

The overlook off Highway 1, near Jenner, where these shots were taken, is one of our favorite spots in the area to visit. It’s always fun to think about all the miles and all the places that this river has passed on its way to this spot.







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.