It's a muddy, tough existence when you live on the Petaluma marsh.
Just ask Scott Finney, who fled his houseboat in 1982 during a raging storm that threatened to send his house, with his family inside, hurtling down the Petaluma River.
"We evacuated at the height of the storm because we didn't want to go crashing down the river," he said.
Finney, 58, lived with his wife and two children in a houseboat he built in the marsh 2 miles south of Petaluma, where about 30 rustic cabins once stood on the banks.
Today, many of the buildings have been reclaimed by the tides that create the marsh, one of the largest undisturbed tidal lands in the Bay Area. But five are still used as retreats.
The legal status of the buildings, which are without running water, electricity or septic systems, is as murky as the water that surrounds them.
Ownership also is unclear. No deeds or property tax bills ever came with the homes, just a bill of sale for those that weren't homesteaded.
The cabins that still stand offer a glimpse of a little-known community that started roughly a century ago when well-to-do professionals from San Francisco and Petaluma set up weekend retreats for hunting, fishing or relaxing.
Some homes, like Finney's, were built later. Still others were World War II military surplus buildings, floated up the river from boatyards in Richmond and Sausalito.
The homes are accessible only by boat from the Petaluma River during high tide.
Once, some could be reached by walking a quarter-mile from a neighboring dairy ranch across fields and railroad tracks. That access was cut off a quarter-century ago.
The flavor of the community shifted over the decades as the buildings were inherited, sold, or simply taken over by new generations of river dwellers.
The hunters and fishermen of the 1940s and '50s gave way to the alternative lifestyles of the 1960s and '70s.
Now, most of the houses are being swallowed into the brackish mud, victims of age and weather, leaving what some describe as a ghost town.
David Yearsley, the founder and executive director of Friends of the Petaluma River, is one of the few people who still spends time there.
To get to the cabin he's owned for 35 years, he takes the back way to San Antonio Creek, navigating a maze of narrow, shallow sloughs in his 14-foot, flat-bottomed boat, pointing out red-legged stilts, osprey, pickle weed and cord grass along the way.
Yearsley, 62, whose main home is in Petaluma, has taken ownership of two other homes in the marsh and wants to restore them into "Club Mud" - overnight paddle-in accommodations for science, research and educational tours.
"Spending 24 hours in a tidal marsh environment is a very dramatic experience," Yearsley said. "The tide goes in, the tide goes out. The stars are brilliant and the sky is very wide because the tidal marsh has a low horizon."
While it's not clear who owns the land beneath Yearsley's homes - or any of the others - much of the surrounding property belongs to two state agencies. Neither raises strong objections to Yearsley's vision of ecotourism.
"If you were going to use some of these buildings for overnight stays, that would be very consistent with the public trust doctrine," said Paul Thayer, executive director of the state Lands Commission, one of the agencies with marsh land.