Ancient gathering place reborn as Sonoma County’s largest regional park

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Brought to life again by winter rains, Tolay Lake’s sparkling waters reflected the clear blue sky Saturday in southern Sonoma County, as hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the history and future of a new 3,400-acre park.

Generations of indigenous people have shared stories about the healing properties of Tolay Lake, which covers about 200 acres during wet winters and springs, said Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

Speaking to the throng of park supporters and families that convened Saturday for a special dedication ceremony, Sarris described how his ancestors believed the lake spoke to healers and he believes the lake called together the conservationists, politicians and tribal leaders to protect the land again.

“It’s still speaking. It has never stopped speaking to anyone with ears,” Sarris said.

Open to the public since October, Tolay Lake Regional Park is the largest in the county system. Its diverse terrain includes sprawling grasslands with coast and live oaks, stands of willow trees, serpentine geology, the seasonal lake and Tolay Creek. The park has 11 miles of trails, a network the county plans to expand.

The park is off Lakeville Highway at the end of Canyon Road, which winds eastward up through vineyards. At the top of the hill, a sweeping eastward view of Tolay Valley, its seasonal lake and old ranch buildings opens up.

“When you crest the hill, for me it’s emotional,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said during the dedication ceremony.

Rabbitt said an estimated 1.2 million people live within 60 minutes of the park, which years before its general public opening has served as a popular community gathering place during the annual two-week Tolay Fall Festival and pumpkin patch.

The creation of Tolay Lake Regional Park was set in motion more than 15 years ago when the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District purchased the 1,737-acre Cordoza Ranch in 2005 for $18 million. Then in 2007, the Sonoma Land Trust, with support from the district and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, purchased the adjacent 1,665-acre Tolay Creek Ranch for $13 million.

The properties were transferred to the county’s parks department, which is co-managing the land with the Graton Rancheria. The tribe has taken a lead role in guiding the park’s development and cultural stewardship.

Saturday’s event drew scores of park supporters including early champions of its preservation. It also featured organized hikes and educational stations to learn about the history of the region’s indigenous people, native birds and ecosystem.

Some on hand Saturday were new to the park and its history.

Elisabeth Coleman, 76, of Sonoma brought her daughter and two grandchildren who were visiting from Los Angeles. They strolled the park’s causeway, which leads visitors on a raised trail alongside the lake’s waters. Coleman gasped at the sweeping vista of the valley.

“I find it spectacular,” she said.

Nearby, bird expert and park volunteer George Eade guided onlookers to a pair of redtail hawks circling above. Eade has kept close watch on the raptors that reside in the area, including a pair of golden eagles that he said have nested here for more than 10 years.

“This pair has bred almost every year,” Eade said.

Up the hill, near the old ranch buildings, 87-year-old Joanne Campbell talked about her family’s history near a display of photographs: her father fly-fishing in the Russian River near Hopland; her grandmother seated with a traditional woven basket. Campbell is a Coast Miwok tribal elder who was born in Sebastopol, grew up in Lake County and whose family has deep roots in Sonoma County.

“The most magnificent thing to see is water in the lake again,” Campbell said.

During the ceremony, 14-year-old Sky Elgin of Santa Rosa read passages from writings by tribal leaders, including a creation story recounted by Maria Copa, a Miwok elder and spiritual leader, in 1932.

“The water dried and land appeared. Coyote came from the west where the sun sets,” Elgin read. “The old people think that the dead go to the West because coyote went back there.”

As Elgin read, a bird made its long, splashy landing on the lake behind her.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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