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Camping Accommodations

Mirabel Park: 8400 River Road, Forestville. 15 grassy campsites with picnic tables and fire pits along Mark West Creek. Firewood $7 a bundle. Free hot-water showers. Crazy Dave’s jerky for sale at camp store. $31 night. No two-night minimum after Labor Day weekend. Make reservations several weeks ahead. Cash only, no credit cards. 887-2383. mirabelpark.com.

Casini Ranch: 22855 Moscow Road, Duncans Mills. Look for camp sites 46B, 47, 45A and 46A along river at south end of ranch for easy entry and exit. You still have to beach boats on river rock and lug bags up to camp.

General store stocked w/beer, wine, ice, tchotchkes galore and plenty of firewood that will be delivered to your camp site. Tent sites starting at $60.86. 800-451-8400. casiniranch.com.

Burke’s Canoe Trips: 8600 River Road, Forestville. Burke’s also offers camping, but their main focus is on canoe and kayak rentals and providing camping for those renting customers. Kayakers passing through with their own boats should call well ahead. $12 night. 887-1222. burkescanoetrips.com.

Willow Creek Environmental Campground: 25381 Steelhead Blvd., Duncans Mills. The drawback is it’s first-come, first-serve with no reservations. The bonus is you’re much more secluded than at the bigger private campgrounds. Of the 11 sites, #8, #9 and #11 have best access to the river. No running water, pit toilets. No dogs allowed. $25 night. Cash/check only. Search for “sonoma coast state park” at www.parks.ca.gov.

TIPS IF YOU GO

-Keeping dry: Make sure you invest in waterproof dry bags for all storage AND you attach to your boat in case you tip over.

-Food storage: Bring a well-insulated soft cooler, like a Bison, that keeps ice and food chilled for days.

-Not for the novice: Be sure you’re a proficient paddler. “If you haven’t spent years paddling on rivers, don’t even think about camping,” says Russian Riverkeeper director Don McEnhill.

-Portage possibilities: River dams at Johnson’s Beach and south of Wohler Bridge are usually taken down after Labor Day, says McEnhill. If not, be prepared to portage — that’s where a tiny portable dolly comes in handy.

-Stay hydrated, happy: “Drink lots of water and bring a change of dry clothes and a great attitude,” says Mirabel camp’s Lora Meeks.

-Timing is everything: After kids go back to school, “September is really a heavenly time of year to be on the river,” says Linda Burke, owner of Burke’s Canoe Trips.

The Southern Pomos called it Ashokawna. The Russians called it Slavyanka. And, standing on the muddy banks of the Russian River in April, we were calling it the perfect excuse for an epic camping trip from Healdsburg to Jenner.

It didn’t matter that the river was blown out with fallen trees and rafts of debris after record winter rains.

It didn’t matter that the water level was over 12 feet high, running at 6,700 cubic feet per second.

It didn’t matter that Linda Burke, owner of Burke’s Canoe Trips, begged us to postpone our trip. “It’s cold. It’s muddy. It’s no fun,” she said in a voice message several days before. “We don’t even see expert locals who are in paddling clubs out kayaking now.”

My buddy Cali and I had been talking about this trip for years. We had carved out Easter weekend and we were dead set on paddling to Jenner, even if it rained the entire way.

By the time we arrived at the mouth three days later (in the rain), it was more than obvious why we hadn’t seen another kayaker for 47 miles. And it was worth every stroke and every bend in the river.

But that was then and this is now. Before winter rains return, September and October are beautiful months for a river camping run down the Russian. At Hacienda Bridge, just a few weeks ago, the river was just under 3 feet high and running 145 cubic feet per second.

So if you’re an experienced paddler and you’re looking for an excuse to throw your tent and sleeping bag in the boat, this story is for you. There’s always been something primal and alluring about a river narrative that stirs the adventurous soul, from “Heart of Darkness” to Mark Twain’s tales of Huck and Tom on the Mississippi and on to “A River Runs Through It.”

On the other hand, if you’re a novice looking to up your game, you might think about a guided trip or a few full-day runs as practice.

Leg 1: Healdsburg Memorial Beach Park to Mirabel Park in Forestville

Hardcore paddlers can definitely make the river run from Healdsburg to Jenner in two days, but for the sake of camping and making plenty of pit stops along the way, we broke it up into three days, leaving on Friday and rolling into Jenner on Sunday.

You can portage boats (a small two-wheel kayak dolly is highly recommended) through a gate at the south end of Veterans Memorial Beach Park to reach the launch spot. No overnight parking is allowed in the park, so we left our car along Front Street across the bridge.

Taking off just south of the dam, we hardly had any warm-up strokes before hitting a set of Class II rapids right before passing under the Highway 101 bridge. After that, a few nasty strainers spun our boats around and we paddled backwards for about 30 yards before we spun back around and began to read the river. The rapids will still be there now in September and October, but with less strainers and a much mellower flow.

The first leg is by far the most secluded stretch of the trip. Russian Riverkeeper director Don McEnhill, who gave us a few tips beforehand, describes it this way: “You’re in a very low channel and you look up and all you see are trees and you don’t realize you’re surrounded by vineyards. There are no houses and very few traces of man.”

If you open up the Google Maps app on your phone while drifting, you can see which vineyards you’re passing by: J Vineyards, Rodney Strong, Foppiano, William Selyem.

We’d originally thought we could Huck Finn it and sleep on sand bars in the river, but “that’s not really something you can get away with these days,” said McEnhill, who first canoe camped the river when he was 14 years old. “That was a different era back then.”

We rolled into Mirabel Park about four hours later, stopping off along the way for a picnic on a sandbar, entertained by an osprey fishing with no success. Make sure to keep an eye out for an old, weathered log jutting out from the east bank just before the confluence of Mark West Creek. You want to hang a quick left and paddle about a hundred yards up the overgrown creek to the grassy campsite. Hurtling down the swollen river in April, we missed the turn and barely veered off in time to beach it at Burke’s Canoes, which wasn’t open yet. Then we had to fight the current and paddle upriver enough to reach the opening of Mark West.

“Since you guys came down in April, I’ve only seen three other kayakers come through camping,” Mirabel camp host Lora Meeks said recently.

It shows how rare overnight kayak camping can be today. On a river filled with summer day trips, most people don’t make the effort to camp their way down.

Once the site of Cooper’s Sawmill, the first water-powered mill in the region in the 1830s, Mirabel Park lies in the shadow of a towering redwood grove. It’s a no-frills park, with mostly RVs up top along River Road and 15 camp sites with picnic tables and grills along the creek. A super friendly host, Meeks stocks plenty of ice and locally cured Crazy Dave’s jerky “which are perfect for kayakers in need of a protein boost.”

She even volunteered to drive us into Guerneville to score a few bundles of dry firewood. Cali had packed marinated steaks that we grilled at dusk while watching egrets fish for minnows along the shore. With the most narrow stretch of the river behind us, we were looking forward to watching the river open up the next day.

___

Leg 2: Mirabel Park to Casini Ranch in Duncans Mills

We set out early and soon the call of birds gave way to the rush of cars and trucks running along River Road. Windows reflecting the morning sun gave away vacation homes hidden in the hills.

As the river widened, we spent a lot of time coasting, marveling at steep granite canyon walls topped with cascading layers of redwoods. Sometimes it was enough to just kick back and watch an osprey fail and fail again, before finally flying away with a fish wriggling in its talons.

We stopped off at a beach near Guerneville and talked to a longtime homeowner who shared how previous floods would leave the trees and brush littered with white plastic Safeway bags. Now, thanks to the plastic bag ban, they were gone. On the flipside, he was dreading the upcoming summer Airbnb invasion of his neighborhood.

By the time we reached Monte Rio, it was time to stock up on a few supplies at Fern’s Grocery and head for camp. As you approach the wide bend of Casini Ranch beach on your left, don’t miss the beautiful blue-green mineral waters of Austin Creek pouring into the muddy Russian on the right — a tale of two rivers in simple brush strokes.

Compared to Mirabel, Casini is a sprawling recreational theme park with an arcade, a general store, a daily schedule that includes bonfires and marshmallow roasts and firewood delivered by 4-wheelers.

We had thought about staying at Willow Creek Environmental Campground, a state park not far from Casini on the west bank, but it hadn’t opened for the season yet. If you take that option, remember it’s first-come, first-served camping with no reservations.

The best spots at Casini Ranch for kayakers are at the south end along the river (46B and 47), away from the interior RV city. Our campsite at 46A was tucked away in a secluded, wooded pocket, one spot removed from the water. With another round of storms approaching, we made sure to layer our tents with rain flies.

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Leg 3: Casini Ranch to Jenner

We set off in a light drizzle that thinned our camp coffee. By the time we passed under the Highway 1 bridge and turned to face headlong into fierce westerly winds, a steady rain was coming down in blankets.

We tried hugging the shoreline for shelter the last half-mile, but it didn’t seem to help.

At the boat launch next to the Sonoma Coast Visitor Center in Jenner, a tourist who had driven down from Healdsburg that morning, took our photo — two hooded faces peeking out from soaking rain gear, grinning with the mouth of the river behind us.

“Wait, how many days did it take you?” she asked.

Leaving our dry bags sitting in the kayaks, too tired to worry about theft, we stumbled on one of the best surprises of the trip — Nicky Otis (son of late R&B hall of famer Johnny Otis) on drums and Matt Silva on guitar in the toasty, wood-paneled Aquatic Café.

A sympathetic barista gave us coffees on the house while we waited for Cali’s girlfriend to pick us up. I bought a bowl of clam chowder. Looking back, it might have been an average bowl of soup. But while thawing out to Otis and Silva, as they eased from Thelonious Monk into a Beatles cover, I devoured the best clam chowder I’d ever tasted

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