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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.

Larry Wyckoff of the state Department of Fish and Game, which also owns property in the marsh, said the presence of Yearsley and others isn't a problem.

"As long as they're not sitting on our property ... we don't have issues with them," Wyckoff said.

Yearsley jokingly calls his retreat on San Antonio Creek, which is the county line, his "million-dollar Marin County waterfront."

But don't be fooled. It is rustic living.

The low-ceilinged cabin is sparsely furnished. A swallow nests on the outside sill of a window. Kerosene lanterns and a cribbage board sit on a small table. A portable propane gas burner is on a kitchen counter for cooking. A small woodstove keeps the house warm, even without insulation.

There are no phones. No TV. No radio. No obligations. Time is often spent maintaining the structures.

Debbi Poiani, a Marin County code enforcement specialist, said no one has ever complained about the homes.

"In fact, I didn't even know about them until right now," she said.

After checking, she said several of the river homes show up on a 1920 survey map, which means they were there before any zoning laws and would be considered legal structures even though they don't meet current building codes.

But if they are to be occupied overnight, she said, they must have a means of sewage disposal. Right now, the residents haul it out, along with any trash.

Yearsley said the homes and their history represent a bit of local lore that should be preserved.

There were only a handful of people - maybe a half-dozen - living sporadically at the marsh at any time over the decades, former residents said.

But the houses often filled on weekends with people who enjoyed the river retreat, sometimes fishing for stripers in the creeks or hunting ducks in the marsh.

They gave the cabins names like "Aloha," "Marsh Hawk," "Marsh Mellow," "Meander Minder" and "Sluevue."

Annelies Atchley, 70, bought one of the homes in 1967 from a friend for $1,000.

After a divorce, the Tiburon kindergarten teacher and self-described hippie moved into the home in 1972 and commuted for a year, renting out her San Anselmo home for cash.

"It was a cheap way to live," Atchley said. "I loved the quietness and closeness to nature. The birds in the morning sat on the roof and woke you up. I loved it there even though it was on the mud. The mud just swallowed everything."

She said neighbors would come to the house and they would sit around the warm stove. Sometimes they would make soup to share.

"We had nature and each other," she said. "That's all we had, but that was enough."

She moved away, remarried and eventually sold her river home to Yearsley. But she still misses it.

Finney and his wife moved to the marsh in 1977. Five years later, when she was pregnant for a third time, they moved to Bolinas with two children who were born on the houseboat.

They needed a bigger home for their growing family, and the danger of the storm was still fresh in their minds.

Finney had built the two-bedroom structure from scratch using salvaged lumber. He floated it with dock foam.

"It was one of the most vital times of my life," said Finney, an artist and carpenter. "We supplied our own water from a spring, cut our own firewood and generated our own electricity for a while."

Finney's home broke from its mooring and deteriorated after the family moved.

As the aging homes needed more upkeep, some were abandoned or taken over by squatters. When access by land was cut off in 1980, it signaled the end of an era.

The closest neighbors are the Cordas, whose 1,100-acre dairy is adjacent to the marsh. In fact, some of the homes may sit on their land.

"It's hard to exactly nail down," said matriarch Stella Corda, who thinks at least two are on her land.

Corda, 78, and her late husband, Lester, bought the ranch in 1949. She said most of the river dwellings already were on the marsh.

The family had good relations with several people who lived or vacationed on the marsh, she said. Some came for dinner or visited on a regular basis. Finney said he did work for the Cordas.

"They were down there all those years and never a problem," Corda said.

Some people would move away and never be heard from again. Others, like one of the original owners, Charlotte Roseen of San Francisco, frequently visited her river house into her 90s, Corda said. Roseen's two sons carried on the tradition into their 70s. One stopped by to look at the remains of the house six months ago.

By 1980, strangers and squatters were starting to move into the homes, occasionally leaving cattle gates open when using the ranch property, or hiding from the law.

"That's when we got nervous about who and what was living down there," said Corda's son, Tom, 55.

Today, Yearsley is one of the last homeowners on the marsh.

He and three others separately maintain five cabins. Jonathan Toste, a remodeling contractor in San Rafael and a founder of Coast Walk, has owned one of the old homes for six years.

Toste, 53, considers himself and the others on the marsh ecological watchdogs. He brings in biologists, bird watchers, teachers and writers to give them a new appreciation of nature.

"We're caretakers of the marsh," he said. "Having someone on the marsh is important."

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