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Shrinking Kenwood Marsh protects a beauty

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The annual Checkerbloom gala starts at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at Deerfield Ranch Winery, 10200 Highway 12, Kenwood. $125. (707) 833-5215, deerfieldranch.com.

When conditions are right, ghosts form at night over Kenwood, linger until dawn, then melt away in the morning sun. On rare occasions during midwinter storms, they become more substantial. You can recognize them if you know what you’re looking for.

Many residents of Kenwood have heard of the Kenwood Marsh and may have noticed small pockets of willows and tules here and there. Yet today, what remains of the marsh is pretty well hidden.

What was the marsh like before the town of Kenwood was founded in 1888? While hard to come by, there are clues in early maps and descriptions, in the patterns of soils and heritage oaks, in the memories of elders who grew up here.

The picture that emerges is complicated. Conditions in the marsh must have changed dramatically from season to season, as well as from year to year. But cobbling the clues together does give an idea of what it was like.

An early observer remarked “Sonoma Creek spreads out and loses itself… forming a kind of willow thicket and marsh or lagoon.”

Even toward the end of the summer, there were wet places on the valley floor. Winter rains on the hills ran down the creeks and into the marsh, which acted like a giant sponge. That sponge slowed the flow of water downstream, lessening winter floods and increasing summer flows in Sonoma Creek.

The earliest maps show not one big marsh but a string of wetlands covering hundreds of acres and stretching between modern-day Oakmont and Dunbar School. These wetlands were part of a mosaic that included drier areas supporting grasslands and oaks.

Within the marsh were tules, willows and ponds of open water. These and other resources seem to have made it an attractive place for the area’s First Peoples.

Milo Shepard, who grew up nearby and was Jack London’s grand-nephew, recalled the great number of “bird points” (arrowheads) he found along the edge of the old marsh and surmised that it “must have been a great place for waterfowl.”

As Kenwood was settled by newer arrivals in the 19th century, ditches were dug to drain residential areas, agricultural land and roads. Water was run off more quickly, and the marsh began to shrink.

Yet even though the marsh is mostly gone, the streets of Kenwood hold its echo. The outline of the town is irregular because it fits like a puzzle piece along the edge of the former marsh. People built on the drier ground first. For the most part, only recently have houses been constructed within the marsh’s old border.

Kenwood Marsh is now only a tenth of its original size. Much of what remains is on Deerfield Ranch Winery property at the south edge of town. It contains tules, open water, willows, and one rare and endangered plant — the Kenwood Marsh Checkerbloom (Sidalcea oregana ssp. valida). The checkerbloom is found here and in Knights Valley, and nowhere else in the world. It grows up to four feet tall and has deep pink flowers that bloom in the summer.

P.J. Rex, co-owner of Deerfield Ranch, recalls that when they bought the property in 2000, there were “only a handful of checkerblooms left.” Cattle grazing and the spread of non-native blackberries had seriously impacted the rare plant.

The annual Checkerbloom gala starts at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 23, at Deerfield Ranch Winery, 10200 Highway 12, Kenwood. $125. (707) 833-5215, deerfieldranch.com.

Working closely with the state and federal Fish and Wildlife Services as well as the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service, Deerfield developed a program to protect and expand the population of the endangered checkerbloom.

Beginning in 2007, Kate Symonds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service visited the marsh regularly to assess the flower’s progress and help adjust the conservation program. Now retired, she still leads a yearly work party to maintain the habitat.

As further protection, Deerfield Ranch granted Sonoma County a conservation easement and raises additional money for restoration through the Kenwood Marsh Checkerbloom Society. Still rare and endangered, the population of this unique plant appears to be stable.

While the marsh is usually referred to in the past tense, long-forgotten parts of it briefly reappeared during the flood of December 2005. A resident of Lawndale Road said her whole neighborhood “turned into a lake.” This is exactly where a lake is shown on 19th century maps. Even in late summer, the ditch that drains this area has plenty of running water.

If you’re driving Highway 12 through Kenwood on a cold winter morning under a clear blue sky, you may see several puffy clouds hanging low over the land, each one precisely over a piece of the old marsh.

These places still hold more water than anywhere else, though it’s now usually underground. Some of it evaporates and condenses in the chill of night, making the pattern of the marsh briefly visible again. Sometimes ghosts really do appear out of thin air.

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