Shift from commerce to preservation and recreation puts spotlight on waterway's beauty, wildlife

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In addition to typical boat traffic along the Petaluma River this summer, you might see a group of fit-looking adults doing "downward dog" and other yoga poses on stand-up paddleboards in the downtown Turning Basin.

The Petaluma River's function is continually evolving. Boats have shipped goods, including liquor, lumber and produce, down to San Pablo Bay since Petaluma was founded in the mid-1800s.

The river is still used for commerce, but the waterway, which is actually a tidal slough, is an increasingly valuable recreational asset. In recent years environmentalists, tourism boosters and boating enthusiasts have worked to promote and protect the river's ecology — and encourage visitors to get out on the water.

While there are more majestic rivers in California, Petaluma River's proximity to North Bay residents makes it an affordable, easy magnet for boaters who want to paddle or row without emptying the gas tank or enduring stressful traffic jams heading out of town.

It's hard to savor the river's subtle beauty and abundance of wildlife and birds from the shoreline or in a car whizzing by on the freeway. But there's an intimacy when you're in a kayak, rowboat, outrigger canoe, pedal boat, sailboat, rowing scull or pontoon barge.

The river is the site of children's sailing and small-craft summer camps, as well as year-round kayak lessons for adults. It is also home to the North Bay Rowing Club, Petaluma Paddlers and the Lokahi Outrigger Canoe Club, which offer instruction and recreational and competitive events.

Individuals with their own human-powered watercraft have access points along the river where they can put their boats in the water for no cost and little hassle. But it's a good idea to check the river's tides and wind conditions before leaving shore, since changes can make it grueling to paddle or row against the wind and tide.

Stand-up paddleboards (known as SUPs) are rapidly becoming popular for ocean and flat-water recreation.

This summer, exercise physiologist Leigh Claxton is expanding her Sausalito-based yoga and Pilates lessons on stand-up paddleboards to Petaluma, and she'll be offering three classes weekly.

"A lot of people who can't do yoga on the floor can do it on a board," she said. "You have an ability to feel your center much more defined while floating on the water.

"It's fun, different, you're out in the air and it's restorative. Part of what we want to do is educate people about the body of water," said Claxton, who encourages her instructors to talk with students about the environmental significance of the river.

Clavey Paddlesports, a Petaluma-based boat and supply store, offers introductory classes and stocks a variety of boards for prospective customers.

When Clavey co-owners Jeff Kellogg, who lives in Inverness, and Tom Meckfessel, who lives in Point Reyes, opened their business at Foundry Wharf in 1994, they selected Petaluma because of its central location to potential customers. But at first they didn't consider the river's recreational possibilities.

"It's amazing how many people don't think about it. We weren't thinking about the river," Meckfessel said. "One of the issues is people's impression of the river. It's perceived as dirty, but it's a tidal slough and it's not dirty."

Several organizations focus on conservation and recreation along the river. Petaluma Waterways has been part of a multigroup partnership working to increase access to the river as part of the San Francisco Bay Water Trail. The city has a river access and enhancement plan, and the Waterways group has a goal of getting the plan enacted, said river enthusiast Susan Starbird, who will teach a kayak-racing class in July.

The Petaluma Small Craft Center Coalition (known as PSC3) sponsors an annual "Day on the River" to give the public opportunities to try a variety of human-powered watercraft. The event held earlier this month also featured instruction about the boats and a chance for boating organizations using the Petaluma River to share information with prospective boat owners. Part of PSC3's mission is development of a boathouse and rental center along the river.

On July 30, the river will be the focus of the second Rivertown Revival, a free one-day festival celebrating the river's diversity.

The event will feature kids' activities, entertainment, a boat parade and a drag race of whimsical and artsy boats.

Last year's Revival at the River surprised organizers by drawing a crowd of 4,500, and volunteer organizers are preparing for a bigger turnout this time.

Janet Parmer is a Bay Area feature writer. She can be reached at

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