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.”
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.