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LAKE MENDOCINO — A large deer bolted from hiding in the dense brush along the Russian River, where tall cottonwoods offered summer shade, their leaves fluttering in the afternoon breeze. Blue and green herons took flight overhead.

Close by were rural homes, vineyards and industrial yards just east of Ukiah, but all were hidden behind nature’s unbroken green wall, affording a band of 15 kayakers a sense of seclusion on slow-moving water the color of pea soup.

This collection of paddlers — public officials, farming representatives, environmentalists — are accustomed to conducting business in sterile meeting rooms. But starting here near the base of Coyote Dam holding back Mendocino County’s largest reservoir, the group was exploring the notion that the best way to begin forging the river’s future is to don shorts, T-shirts and life jackets and spend a day — three in all actually — descending the water way.

“It’s a rolling conference on the water,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths, a Santa Rosa-based conservation nonprofit, leaning back in his blue kayak, drifting in the current. “You feel like you’re really in the place, really stepping back in time.”

Wednesday’s trip from the foot of Lake Mendocino to a ranch south of Ukiah marked the start of the “Headwaters to Ocean Descent,” organized by LandPaths and Russian Riverkeeper and led by Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, with the first three-day float this week and two more segments planned in September and October.

On Saturday, kayakers are scheduled to float from Hopland to the Cloverdale River Park, concluding the first segment.

The public is invited to participate in the final two days of the river trek from Monte Rio to Jenner from Oct. 8 to 9, with a mass campout at Casini Ranch the night of Oct. 8.

“The whole idea is to create awareness, a camaraderie,” Gore said. “Let’s get out of the stinkin’ conference room and talk about the river. We all have a connection to it.”

The float trips are intended as a buildup to a river stakeholders’ summit, billed as the Russian River Confluence, in May.

Since the voyage couldn’t start in the river’s summer-dry headwaters farther north, about two dozen people gathered Wednesday morning in a grassy field above Forsythe Creek, which traverses Ridgewood Ranch off Highway 101 near Willits.

River stakeholders — including public officials from Sonoma and Mendocino counties, tribal members, conservationists, Sonoma County Water Agency and Farm Bureau representatives and landowners — gathered in a circle to introduce themselves and offer thoughts on the importance of the 110-mile river that spans and sustains two counties.

“Water is life. We’re made of water,” said Martina Morgan, vice chairwoman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, wearing a necklace of abalone shells from the coast. “We are completely connected to the water. The river gives life.”

Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, which taps the river to supply drinking water to 600,000 North Bay customers, called the gathering “a watershed moment.”

Many who oversee the river’s management, regulation and health hardly ever visit, said Sean White, Ukiah’s water and sewer director, recalling meetings he has had in Sacramento. Some were with “people who’ve never seen the Russian River.”

White, who has swum, fished and floated the entire river, said “you see something different every time.”

But he had never seen, he said, the river’s East Fork as it emerges from Lake Mendocino for a short run down to The Forks, where it merges with the West Fork, forming the river’s main stem.

The reason is simple, White said. There is no public access to the Russian River below the dam until it reaches the bridges at East Perkins Street and then Talmadge Road in Ukiah. Before that, riverfront land is all privately owned, and without consent from a landowner access would be unwise, he said.

On navigable stretches of the river, the streambed within the high-water watermarks is considered public property, with rights to portage around obstacles.

Wednesday’s boating party launched from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property at the dam and ended nearly 8 miles downstream at a ranch owned by grape growers David and Amy Koball, with no other access point available for miles.

Water flowing into Lake Mendocino is clear, most of it diverted from the Eel River at Potter Valley during the summer, but it emerges from the reservoir murky, clouded by suspended clay, White said.

It still hosts a significant steelhead population, though it is bolstered by hatchery stock and only a shadow of its once bountiful run. White pointed to a concrete block at the river’s edge and said the first angler to get there in the morning when fish are spawning always hooks a steelhead. That person has been him many times, White said.

It didn’t take long for the day’s highest drama to unfold at a rocky rapid, where several paddlers, including Gore, Mike Dillabough, district operations and readiness chief with the Army Corps, and a reporter were separated from their boats.

Don McEnhill, executive director of the Russian Riverkeeper and the day’s river guide, had hollered for boaters to pull out for a land portage around the rapid, but some folks didn’t hear him over the rumbling whitewater.

“Worst part of the river,” White said, offering some consolation to the soaked paddlers.

“I really enjoyed the swimming part,” said Julian Cohen with the Story of Place Institute, who is working with the descent and inadvertently went in twice.

The more common obstacles were constrictions of the channel and fallen trees, but most of the route was calm and easy. There was another portage at a partial dam, shoddily built decades ago to impound water, Dillabough said.

Off the water at the Koballs’ ranch, Gore pronounced the day a success.

“I’m fired up,” he said. “This is only the beginning.”

Dillabough said he knew of “no other river system in the United States that’s being looked at by a whole group of people.”

Steve Knudsen, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s communications and development coordinator and an experienced Russian River kayaker, said the float had “really shifted my paradigm. I looked at every tree, every wild animal in a new way.”

Officially, Knudsen said he was on a “fact-finding mission” for bureau’s leaders to determine their role in Gore’s venture.

“Today was a special day,” said Bert Whitaker, Sonoma County parks manager. His agency is intent on establishing more public access to the river in the Cloverdale area, where there are trails to the water but no established parking or restroom facilities.

“It could be the gateway to the Russian River,” he said.

Lt. Col. John Morrow, the Army Corps’ San Francisco District commander, said it was great to see bureaucrats, environmentalists and tribal members appreciating “the one thing they have in common: the love of the river.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.