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Shift from commerce to preservation and recreation puts spotlight on waterway's beauty, wildlife

  • Instructor Leigh Claxton and Nicole Canon, both of Clavey Paddlesports, run a yoga paddleboard demonstration during the annual Day on the River event at Foundry Wharf in downtown Petaluma, California, on Sunday, June 5, 2011. Ramin Rahimian/The Press Democrat

In addition to typical boat traffic along the Petaluma River this summer, you might see a group of fit-looking adults doing "downward dog" and other yoga poses on stand-up paddleboards in the downtown Turning Basin.

The Petaluma River's function is continually evolving. Boats have shipped goods, including liquor, lumber and produce, down to San Pablo Bay since Petaluma was founded in the mid-1800s.

The river is still used for commerce, but the waterway, which is actually a tidal slough, is an increasingly valuable recreational asset. In recent years environmentalists, tourism boosters and boating enthusiasts have worked to promote and protect the river's ecology — and encourage visitors to get out on the water.

Petaluma River cleanup


While there are more majestic rivers in California, Petaluma River's proximity to North Bay residents makes it an affordable, easy magnet for boaters who want to paddle or row without emptying the gas tank or enduring stressful traffic jams heading out of town.

It's hard to savor the river's subtle beauty and abundance of wildlife and birds from the shoreline or in a car whizzing by on the freeway. But there's an intimacy when you're in a kayak, rowboat, outrigger canoe, pedal boat, sailboat, rowing scull or pontoon barge.

The river is the site of children's sailing and small-craft summer camps, as well as year-round kayak lessons for adults. It is also home to the North Bay Rowing Club, Petaluma Paddlers and the Lokahi Outrigger Canoe Club, which offer instruction and recreational and competitive events.

Individuals with their own human-powered watercraft have access points along the river where they can put their boats in the water for no cost and little hassle. But it's a good idea to check the river's tides and wind conditions before leaving shore, since changes can make it grueling to paddle or row against the wind and tide.

Stand-up paddleboards (known as SUPs) are rapidly becoming popular for ocean and flat-water recreation.

This summer, exercise physiologist Leigh Claxton is expanding her Sausalito-based yoga and Pilates lessons on stand-up paddleboards to Petaluma, and she'll be offering three classes weekly.

"A lot of people who can't do yoga on the floor can do it on a board," she said. "You have an ability to feel your center much more defined while floating on the water.

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