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Great Russian River Race a hit with kayakers, canoeists

  • Participants in the Great Russian River Race approach the finish line Saturday at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach. (KENT PORTER / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT)

The kayak sliced though the green river like a waterborne arrow, then darted beneath Healdsburg's Memorial Bridge.

And so Dave Jensen wrapped up in about 90 minutes Saturday a 15-mile race that drew competitive paddlers from around the country to the Russian River.

“Really a scenic river,” said Jensen, the second-place finisher, catching his breath in the shade.

But hardly a simple one, stocked as it is with strong eddies, shallow spots of gravelly bottom, some large rocks and branches known as strainers that dip down into the water.

“I had to think the whole way,” said Jensen of Menlo Park. “It's not just paddling hard and fast; it's being in the right spot.”

The race was one of two held as part of the second annual Great Russian River Race, an event meant to highlight one of the North Coast's most valuable and defining features.

“The whole goal is really to open the season for fun on the river,” said Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group.

“The more people are engaged with the river, the more people are going to care about it and take care of it,” McEnhill said.

Soon, his amplified voice was echoing off the old bridge's piers: “Congratulations, well under an hour!” And, “He is cooking, look at that speed!”

A brunette wearing a striking blond wig and a frilly pink skirt, Beth Ripins of Napa, was the first finisher in the more easygoing, 5-mile race to pass beneath the bridge, with a time of 44 minutes.

“I heard it was a dress-up race and not that many people were dressed up,” she said. “And it was harder than I thought to pick off the people in front of me.”

Close to 400 people took part in the races, organizers said, about 75 of them in the competition for professionals.

“I wouldn't be able to do it,” said Jessica Harper of Healdsburg, waiting with a camera for her sister to show up on the horizon.

The event raised money for the Riverkeeper organization and for Sonoma County Regional Parks.

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