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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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
One of our favorite things about Monte Rio Beach that makes it unique is that it’s spanned by a historic bridge. The Russian River runs through the middle of Monte Rio and this truss bridge, built in 1934, connects the two sides of town. It also connects Highway 116 and the Bohemian Highway, two of the main roads in Western Sonoma County.
The bridge, along with other historic architecture nearby, gives the town a sort of vintage vibe and a timeless quality all at the same time, so a black & white filter for these pictures seemed like a fun way to play up the bridge’s historic character.
Right now, the river is still running fairly high, but in the summer, when the shot below was taken, the river recedes, exposing the wide flat banks that make up Monte Rio Beach. Hanging out under the bridge can offer a little bit of a shady respite on a really hot day.
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.
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.
Monte Rio Beach isn’t just one of our favorite spots on the Russian River because it’s the beach closest to home (though we’re not gonna lie—that’s great), but we love it because it’s a big, wide beach on a bend in the Russian River; it’s right in the middle of town, with a view of it all: whether it’s the beautiful trees on the hills surrounding Monte Rio or the cool retro movie theater and other vintage architecture in town, the beach is central. There’s a big family of mallard ducks always hanging around—we see them on every visit and they make the beach even homier. It’s also one of the less-busy beaches in the summer and has been our go-to place for wading, swimming, tubing and kayaking.
In the warmer months, and really, year-round in the past couple drought years, the river has been especially shallow at Monte Rio Beach. It wasn’t hard to wade out to the middle before the water would even come up to our hips. But now, with the winter rains, this is a different river: it appears much deeper and wider and has a noticeable current (in the summer, it has been just as easy to paddle a kayak upstream as it has to go downstream).
The beach was almost empty on this evening except for a couple people fishing. It was a different place than we’d seen it before—just as beautiful as always, but with an added peacefulness. Definitely, we’ll need to make more winter visits to this beach.