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From Sonoma Magazine: Russian River reflections

  • At The Races: Entrants in a 200-yard wine-barrel race on the Russian River raise their paddles as a few admirers look on from Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Bridge. The race was part of the 1947 Healdsburg Harvest Festival, attended by thousands. (Courtesy Sonoma County Wine Library)

Standing on the dusty banks of the Russian River, Don McEnhill surveys the mostly dry gulch that is Del Rio Woods Beach near Healdsburg in a record drought year.

Almost forgotten in the wide expanse of rocks, the speckled ribbon of current, maybe 15 yards across and a foot deep, resembles a creek more than a river. A rusty skeleton of a dam, hunkered down like an abandoned flatbed truck, sits in the middle of the water. Young willows bob for balance in a sandbar as the wind rattles through cottonwoods across the river. A handful of teenagers in bathing suits have spread out towels a few feet from the water.

“This was where you could be Huck Finn for the summer,” McEnhill says, looking back on his childhood. “If you didn’t have a canoe, you’d find a log and roll down the river or you’d spend hours just playing with green tree frogs that showed up on the river that morning. You were only limited by your imagination.”

Every summer, just before the dam went up on Memorial Day weekend, a neighbor would drive his tractor along the river bed, knocking on cabin doors and asking owners if they wanted their “beach” bulldozed. For a nominal fee, he’d push gravel and sand to the edge of their properties so that when the water rose from the Del Rio dam, a sandy beach would be waiting at the bottom of the paths that led down from cabins, which had names such as “Jim’s Folly” and “Laf-a-Lot Lodge.”

Now 51, McEnhill was only 7 days old when he first heard the rolling waters of the Russian River, lulling him to sleep in a playpen on a beach six lots up from where he’s standing now. Back then, in the early 1960s, the river was the epicenter of town life in Healdsburg. It’s where kids learned to swim, row a boat and later chase after girls (or boys).

“That’s where you saw everybody — down at either Memorial Beach or Del Rio,” remembers McEnhill, who now does everything he can to preserve the river as executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to the health of the watershed. “If it got up in the 90s or over 100 degrees, everybody would literally give up whatever they were doing and show up at the river.”

Summer wine and cocktail hour was on the river. Just in case anyone ever forgot, McEnhill’s Aunt Mary scrawled the “McInerney’s Gin Fizz” recipe on a kitchen wall in the family cabin (nicknamed “End-O-Care”) more than 50 years ago. The drink includes a lemon, “a little sugar,” “1 egg to 2 shots gin” and a kicker at the end: “Then shake like hell.”

Today, the river is hardly the main attraction in town. People flock from all over the world for the tasting rooms and farm-to-table restaurants around the Healdsburg plaza, most only catching a glimpse of the river when their vehicle crosses a bridge. There are locals who have lived their entire lives only miles from its banks and have never soaked their feet, much less splashed, in its waters.

Coho salmon and steelhead trout don’t return in large numbers anymore, but river otters are making a comeback. Old-timers will tell you the water is not as clear as it once was. The last documented freshwater shrimp were caught in 1970 and the last green sturgeon was hooked under Hacienda Bridge near Forestville in the late 1980s.

Yet the Russian River is still a lively summer draw for more than 1 million visitors a year and an adventure getaway for many families. It’s also the last common bond that connects disparate communities like Healdsburg, Forestville, Guerneville and Jenner.

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