It was 27 years ago that Rich and Colleen Draffin met Bea Brunn for the first time. The couple, on a trip to the Sonoma County coast from the Sacramento area, were camping at Salt Point State Park, and Brunn was doing a shift at the visitor’s center. The trio got to talking, and soon they learned of a whale-watching program Brunn started in 1986 with the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods at Bodega Head, where state parks volunteers act as docents during the Pacific gray whales’ annual migration period.
The Draffins, near retirement at that point, figured getting involved sounded like a pretty good way to get them to the coast more frequently, and decided to sign on as volunteers.
This year’s whale-watching season, which began this month and wraps up at the end of May, will mark their 26th year with the program.
“The ability to sit there and talk to people who come literally from all over the world, who show up there and are interested in seeing this phenomenon of the whales migrating so close to the shoreline, ” Rich Draffin said. “As we have said amongst ourselves, we could do the whale watch without whales, but not without people.”
Every year close to 20,000 gray whales make the round-trip voyage from their summer feeding grounds in the waters of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas of Alaska to their winter calving lagoons in Baja California. January typically marks the start of the massive creatures’ southern migration, drawing keen observers to Bodega Head from near and far. New whale mothers’ northern journeys, with calves in tow, don’t start until a few months later, Rich Draffin said, giving them time to mature enough to make the trip to the Arctic waters, which can run between 10,000 and 14,000 miles.
All season long, docents for the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods program operate on the bluffs each weekend, eager to talk with visitors about the whales and provide them with tools and reading materials about the population.
Rich Draffin, 74, and 73-year-old Colleen Draffin now co-organize the program with longtime volunteer Norma Jellison, and make the trip from their Sacramento suburb to Bodega Bay every other weekend during whale-watching season, staying in their RV at the Bodega Dunes Campground.
This year, Jellison said, more than 30 people have agreed to act as weekend docents out at the headlands, showing up at noon on weekend days not significantly marred by weather. Many of those volunteers have at some point made the same pilgrimage as the whales, spending time floating in boats amid the waters of their birthing lagoons, as the Draffins did many times during their early years as docents with the program.
“We go out into the middle of these large bays, and they just turn off the engine and we sit and float there with the whales all around,” Rich Draffin said. “What’s even more special is when we’ll have a mother actually bring a calf up close to the boat, close enough that people in the boat can actually touch the calf. That just does not happen in the wild. You can’t imagine that, of course, with a bear or a mountain lion or any other wild animal, but there is a curiosity and an affinity there that really makes it quite special.”
Amos Clifford's 5 favorite forest bathing spots
Finding settings to apply the principles of forest bathing isn’t hard to do in Sonoma County, nor does it necessarily require an actual forest. Amos Clifford said one of his favorite “sit spots” is near an oak tree at his Sonoma Mountain home. There he’ll decamp for 20 minutes or so and let nature take over. “It’s nothing more complicated than that,” he said. “You sit and hang out with the critters.”
Some of Clifford’s other favorite forest bathing locations:
Laguna de Santa Rosa — Clifford parks at the main lot on Highway 12 and heads out on the 1.8-mile multi-use trail, which is open to hikers and equestrians. The trail runs on the east side of the laguna channel between Highway 12 and Occidental Road. “If you’re working in downtown Santa Rosa and want to get out, it’s only a 10 minute drive (to the laguna),” Clifford said.
Ragle Ranch Regional Park — This 157-acre park includes a grove of oak trees and a nature trail that leads to Atascadero Creek, both ideal settings to connect with nature.
Red Hill Trail at Sonoma Coast State Beach — The 5.8-mile trail is accessed across from Shell Beach on Highway 1, south of Jenner. Clifford said he enjoys walking to a redwood grove at the top of the ridge.
Quarry Hill Botantical Garden — “It’s near my office,” he said.
Luther Burbank Gardens in Santa Rosa — “Take some food and enjoy the spaciousness of being outside. Turn off your cellphone.”