We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

FORESTVILLE — On the hottest days of summer, beaches along the Russian River beckon the most. A dunk in the refreshing drink promises cooling to the core.

And unlike many forms of recreation these days, there's no cost, except for parking in some cases.

But for each degree the mercury rises, the anxiety of nearby residents swells.

Use of Sonoma County's river beaches has surged in the past two or three years, park and public safety officials say, and experience tells the locals that heat means crowds — and, often, trouble. Weekends and, especially, holidays are the worst.

"There's lot of us that used to look forward to summer," said David Herr, a resident of Forestville's River Drive near Mom's Beach, the biggest party spot so far this year. "But now it's not our favorite season, because of the chaos."

Forestville has three public beaches and a handful of private ones strung along a stretch of River Road less than two and a half miles long. On hot weekends, hundreds of vehicles jam the narrow, curving side streets in neighborhoods that overlook the river.

People park in whatever nooks and crannies they can find, sometimes obstructing driveways and the lane of travel. Streams of people armed with beach paraphernalia walk along the shoulder or on River Road itself.

The parade features all kinds of beach-goers, including responsible, peaceful folks who pack out what they bring in and recreate respectfully.

But there are others who apparently think nothing of dumping their trash in people's yards, or even using lawns and driveways as restrooms, according to residents. Beer, a staple beach beverage, and other types of alcohol is consumed in abundance, fueling problems and misadventures the likes of which nearby residents are all too familiar.

Memorial Day this year exemplified some of the worst problems, some river residents said, leaving them to brace for what they fear could be their most challenging summer yet.

"We had people barfing, pooping, peeing," said David Emery, a neighbor of Herr's near Mom's Beach, just upstream of the Hacienda Bridge.

He voiced a level of frustration common among many beach neighbors.

"I'm about ready to either move or get a gun, or I don't know what," Emery said, throwing his hands in the air.

Bad behavior by beach-goers is a chronic issue this time of the year for Russian River communities stretching from Healdsburg to Monte Rio. Increased visitor numbers in recent years have compounded the problems.

Fees collected from the five county-run river beaches that charge for parking show visitorship increasing roughly 20 percent over each of the past two years, not counting those who use county park passes or leave their cars outside paid parking areas, said county Regional Parks Manager Bert Whitaker.

The five beaches include Sunset and Steelhead in Forestville, Riverfront Park and Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Park in Healdsburg, and Cloverdale River Park.

Public safety personnel have observed the burgeoning popularity of all the lower river's beaches, both with Sonoma County residents and visitors from the larger Bay Area. Other public and private beaches, including Monte Rio Public Beach and Johnson's Beach and Resort in Guerneville, are also doing blockbuster business, officials say.

"Our beaches were the busiest they've been in 20 years on Memorial Day weekend," said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman. "We are getting more crowds, and we're getting more families coming in."

Some suggest the affordability of such day-use destinations and rising inland temperatures may be factors, theories confirmed by beach visitors interviewed last week.

The cost of pool memberships or even day-use fees for pools adds up, several parents said last week.

It's also nice for children to make new friends at the river, said Stephanie Johnson of Santa Rosa, who was among about 80 people at Mom's Beach Wednesday afternoon.

"We kind of live in a vacation spot," said her friend, Janelle LaCumsky.

The county's Regional Parks Department has sought to capitalize on the beauty and recreational potential of the river, investing millions of dollars in recent years to improve access and parking at river beaches.

Nearly all the river beaches run by county parks opened to the public within the past 20 years — including Steelhead, Sunset, Mom's, Riverfront and Cloverdale River Park.

That ever-more residents are exploring the river is good news to Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, who said the goal is to continue expanding river access and facilities as the county finds funding to do so.

Getting to know the river as a wildlife habitat, a water source and a recreational amenity connects people to the watershed, she said. The county is hoping particularly to draw more people out to Riverfront and Cloverdale River parks in the next few years with the addition of trails and restrooms, she said.

"There are problems, but it's a really a positive thing," Hart said of the beaches' popularity. "And that's why we are going to continue emphasizing the river and it's importance."

But for all the people who have discovered the beauty and joy of the river — joining generations who have sought out the Russian for summer fun — there are many who seem to show little regard for the resource or its residents.

Those affected offer numerous complaints of trespassing, littering, illegal parking, intoxication and rowdy parties. There are fights, yelling and otherwise aggressive behavior.

Rick Blanc, whose home sits above Sunset Beach, said he'll sometimes be outside working and have people walk up the hill and right through his garage to reach the street.

"I've had tents in the back yard," he said.

A Mom's Beach neighbor recalled the time a man carried a kayak up from the beach, through the trees and into his back yard, breaking a side fence on his way to the road.

The same resident said he stumbled on a couple having sex in his back yard last year. On Memorial Day, he flushed two pairs of women off neighbors' properties, where they were urinating, he said.

"That's the kind of behavior we see," he said. "It's the garbage, the drinking, the fighting, the vomiting."

The stories are familiar to law enforcement officers, who have increased enforcement around popular beaches in recent years in an effort to cut down on disruptions and unsafe behavior.

And it appears to work to an extent, though sometimes it seems the problems just move farther downstream.

Two years ago, for instance, it was the area of Old River Road near Martinelli Road that was inundated with beach-goers. They parked in abundance, sometimes with little care, along a quarter-mile stretch of Old River Road parallel to River Road.

Many were headed to a private beach that required they run across busy River Road loaded down with ice chests, beach toys, dogs and other belongings that added to their risk of being hit, residents and law enforcement officers said.

Unhappy neighbors met with county Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who helped push through approvals for No Parking signs installed along the roadway last spring. Strict enforcement over last summer has largely driven the crowds way, neighbors say.

"It was terrible," Old River Road resident Constance Glenn said of the situation before the signs. "There were people doing all kinds of fighting, public defecation, relieving themselves ... All kinds of garbage."

A year earlier, in Healdsburg, disruptive parties reached a crescendo on several beaches off Fitch Mountain Road, raising the usual concerns, sheriff's officials said.

A multi-agency enforcement effort that continues on high-profile weekends seems to have had an effect, with the result that Memorial Day weekend proved relatively problem-free, sheriff's Lt. Mark Essick said.

"In the Healdsburg area, it went very well. Far fewer people turned out than we had anticipated," Essick said. "The people that were up there were enjoying the river."

But resources remain limited for all agencies. Only five county park rangers are assigned to the river division and, with their staggered schedules, at most there are three on duty at any given time, said David Robinson, an aquatics specialist and supervisor with the parks department.

A safety patrol launched last year includes three additional personnel, who rotate through the river beaches distributing life vests and promoting safe behavior, said Robinson, who leads the group.

The patrol members made six rescues over Memorial Day, and though not engaged specifically in enforcement, the program appears to have dampened some of the enthusiasm for mischief, Robinson said.

Additional funding would permit the department to put more staffing on the beach, but "there isn't additional funding to be had," said Hart, the county parks director.

Carrillo, among others, has likened the interplay between problematic hotspots on the river and law enforcement activity to a balloon that, squeezed in one place, expands somewhere else.

"Some of the concerns are now being squeezed farther west," Carrillo said.

Head counts conducted over Memorial Day weekend by the county beach patrol show Mom's Beach is bearing the brunt of the visitor growth.

The beach patrol counted at least 2,373 visitors at Mom's over the three-day weekend, including 1,366 on Monday alone, said Robinson.

The crowd at Sunset Beach reached 1,347 visitors for the full three days, by comparison. At Steelhead, the weekend count was 1,419 visitors, and 698 on Monday.

Mom's Beach has just 17 designated parking spaces and is the only county beach in the area that does not have paid parking. Many who converge there may simply want to avoid paying the $7 charged elsewhere, residents said.

The beach is equipped with just two portable toilets, and the tiny, one-lane road where the access trail departs can't begin to accommodate even 100 vehicles. Residents have posted No Parking and No Trespassing signs on every gate and fence in their yards.

The CHP towed a half dozen vehicles on Memorial Day that were parked too far into the roadway<NO1><NO> for emergency vehicles to pass. Many more were ticketed, Officer Jon Sloat said.

But even with enhanced patrols, the River Drive neighborhood was simply overwhelmed with people during the holiday. Some lingered in the neighborhood for hours after leaving the beach, talking loudly, shouting profanity and arguing at times, neighbors said.

"I don't fault anyone for wanting to come here," said one resident, who like several others refused to give her name citing fear of retribution by beach-goers. "But you have to behave. It can't just be taken over by that element."

Show Comment